Sitting in front of the select committee in South Australian parliament to testify against the decriminalisation of sex-buyers, pimps and profiteers in 2016 I could have been forgiven for thinking the sex-trade was comprised of women with disabilities buying sex from men. My experience of being bought by men along with that of currently and formerly prostituted women seemed to disappear in a puff of smoke.
Two women and a representative of a disability care organisation testified at the loneliness and lack of physical intimacy suffered by disabled women and their heart-wrenching stories moved the committee to exceptional patience and compassion as they stumbled through, with much courage, lengths of personal testimony on their suffering due to lack of access to sex. I was moved too- so much so that when it was my turn to testify, I forgot that it wasn’t illegal for two parties to buy or sell sex in South Australia, and therefore query what on earth they were talking about. Hadn’t they just told the committee that they used male ‘sex workers’ legally? Why, for example, did anyone else have to profit from the experience of paying and being bought for sex? Why were they insisting that pimps be legitimised? Did the fact that the prostituted incur disability matter?
My testimony immediately followed theirs and was met with about as much patience and compassion as a chain-smoker in a room full of asthmatics. Apart from speaking about my time in legal prostitution I spoke of women I had met who had been sex-trafficked in New South Wales. But that was prior to decriminalisation, insisted Tammy Franks of the Greens Party exchanging conspirational smiles with committee chair Michelle Lensink- (We got her now!)
I was so surprised that any one could smile during my testimony I forgot to correct that assumption and remind them that decriminalisation in NSW had happened nearly a decade before I met these women, and it was the decriminalisation of pimps and sex-buyers that came after my time there.
These women meant business and that was to push the bill through at any cost. An effective tactic was to sit glaring into my eyes while I stumbled, with much courage, through my personal testimony (now shortened due to time constraints) of suffering at the hands of men who bought me for sex.
Since 1979, various bodies have been trying to push through further deregulation of prostitution in South Australia to extend decriminalisation to brothel owners and other third party profiteers. Now, in 2017 Michelle Lensink is telling us to get with the times and expresses confidence that this bill will pass. Others are not so sure but one would hope that the lessons learned from such legislation in NSW and New Zealand would pose a warning to those who believe that the expansion of the sex-trade is a positive move.
Not all of the bill is problematic. On paper it has some healthy rhetoric around removing restrictions on the prostituted on the basis of stigmatisation and discrimination. It is ‘fluffy’ language and meaningless in terms of efficacy but at least it looks like they tried. Scrolling through the proposed bill nothing seems untoward until one finds the clause protecting pimps,sex-buyers, advertisers and procurers. That they are added under such protections is a dangerous and unnecessary inclusion in an otherwise harmless kind of document. And while front groups for pimps and sex-buyers are referred to as sex workers, I am referred to as a “self described prostitution survivor”.
Apparently rhetoric goes a long way. ‘Sex worker rights are human rights’ is one such slogan designed to jibe the general public into complicity with pimps and extend funding to front groups who call themselves ‘sex workers’. While the proposed bill makes some tentative inclusion of exit programs, most references used are from the Scarlet Alliance, (cohorts with the Sex Industry Network (SIN) in South Australia) who along with the Vixen Collective were upset at ongoing funding being given to the only entity offering exit programs for those who want to leave the sex-trade – Project Respect. They were ‘outraged’ in fact: http://www.starobserver.com.au/news/national-news/victoria-news/victoria-sex-worker-outrage/154708
The Scarlet Alliance and Vixen use the language of ‘peer-support’ as the best method of supporting ‘sex-workers’ . Peer support from a class analysis and indeed a psychological therapeutic frame work makes sense to me, and would make for an important debate around issues of state control, paternalism and crusades formulated and endorsed by those who consider the prostituted as mainly ‘bad women’ who are tempters of men. They would make sense if peer support was actually grounded in the abuses of the rights of the underclass, but in this case they are not. Given these groups are not representative of the prostituted, the very idea that they are referring to such peer support for that majority is an indefensible breach of , and disconnect from, the most marginalised in the sex trade.
While ‘sex worker rights’ groups such as the Scarlet Alliance claim federal funding to disseminate propaganda aimed at ‘lifting’ up an underclass, the majority in prostitution are swept up in the neo-liberalism of identity politics and pushed to the wayside-with the use of mainly females for male sexual gratification being framed as a ‘choice’ for women,and any harm suffered reducible to ‘stigma’ rather than male violence. Socialists unite and let men have at us in the name of liberation for the masses? Criminalising sex-buyers and pimps ‘pushes prostitution underground and makes it dangerous’? Is it some underpass or side street that jumps out and murders women? I’m sure the men who rape and murder the women they buy are pleased at their complete lack of responsibility here. Where are the Scarlet Alliance when a woman is raped and tortured in legal prostitution and the law deems it a theft of service? The silence is deafening.
For my part, if I must be stigmatised I would rather that stigmatisation be based on the reality of being prostituted than be heralded in the future as someone who fought to normalise the expansion of the sex-trade and the male sexual entitlement that put me there. Shame on Lensink and Franks for being on the side of pathological commercialisation and an abstract ideology that refuses to locate the human toll within that. Their almost gleeful push for decriminalising sex-buyers, pimps and profiteers reminds me of the school yard mentality of back-slapping the one who dealt the latest blow to the underdog. It is something to be truly ashamed of.