Inside the Race To Decriminalise Sex Work in Queensland and South Australia

Sex workers in both states face excessively high rates of police hostility and discrimination. They’ve been trying to change that for decades.

For sex workers in South Australia, “keeping a common bawdy house” and “living on the earnings of prostitution” are criminal offences liable to prosecution. 

Up in Queensland, the state of play isn’t all too different – and the result is often one of police targeting, exceedingly high levels of discrimination, and even higher levels of vulnerability.

But this year, they’re hoping that could all change. 

As a result of a national sex work decriminalisation campaign, sex work advocacy groups from both states are confident they could soon join the Northern Territory, New South Wales, and Victoria in decriminalising sex work. Public sentiment towards sex work is changing – along with that of politicians.

Campaigners reckon Queensland will be first. The state’s attorney general, Shannon Fentiman, made a formal referral to the Queensland Law Reform Commission (QLRC) in August last year, which will deliver a framework for the decriminalisation of sex work by November.

It was a move that reignited a flurry of decriminalisation efforts across the country. 

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For Janelle Fawkes, a campaign manager at Queensland sex work advocacy group Respect Inc. and a member of the sex work peer support network Decrim QLD, it’s important the bill that comes as a result addresses three major concerns. 

The first is that the Criminal Code as applied to sex workers is repealed. The second is that the Prostitution Act, which puts anyone offering sex work services outside of a licensed brothel afoul of the law, is also repealed. The third is that police powers, which are often reported to result in racial profiling and general overreach across the state, are drastically hemmed in. 

“Most sex work workplaces in Queensland are criminalised under the current laws,” Fawkes told VICE. “So even safety strategies, as we call them, are illegal.”

“So is having a driver transport you between bookings, or even being in the same hotel as another sex worker offering sex work services to a client. So if you’re a touring sex worker – and in many cases, even if you’re a local – you’re not necessarily going to know how many laws you might be breaking,” she said.

“There’s lots of aspects of the laws that just don’t make sense – police have extraordinary powers in relation to sex work.”

But Fawkes, along with a number of her colleagues, is hopeful this could be their year. 

With a cautious optimism, she said it would be an undeniable win but might as well not happen if it doesn’t go “all the way” and repeal all harmful legislation. The attitude is likely linked to a bill that passed in Victoria last month that still criminalises some forms of street-based sex work.

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The same sentiment is shared by her counterparts in South Australia. 

One of them is Kat Morrison, the general manager of South Australian Sex Industry Network (SIN), who told VICE she is seeing momentum gather at a similar pace in her home state. There, the battle has been a hard-fought, slow grind.

“The plan at this point, obviously, is to garner as much support for decriminalisation as we possibly can, so we don’t need to go ahead and introduce yet another select committee – we’ve already had three select committees, and the last one was split right down the middle,” Morrison said. 

“Half of them recommended decrim, and the other half didn’t.”

South Australia saw its first modern sex work reform bill around 2011, before it was eventually tabled by the former Labor MP, Stephanie Key, in 2013. At the time, Key was uncompromising – she wanted an out-and-out decriminalisation bill that didn’t pull any punches.

But, in a state that was overwhelmingly united by the view that the decriminalisation of sex work was “risky”, it was swatted away. 

The second attempt came in 2019, when South Australian Greens leader, Tammy Franks, tabled another bill in the Upper House. This time around, sex workers – along with the parliamentarians who threw their support behind it – were confident the bill would get the green light.

But, again, it was defeated – even if only by a narrow margin. For the festival state, it was a surprising loss. This is a state that was the first in Australia to decriminalise marijuana, and the first to try and unilaterally legalise same-sex marriage.  

Sex workers across South Australia are hopful this could be their year. But the arrival of newly-elected Labor premier, Peter Malinauskas, may bring with it a whole new set of challenges. Malinauskas has been vocal in the past about his distaste for sex work decrininalisation. 

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“He may sway, obviously,” said Morrison. “But we’re looking to meet with him and discuss these issues personally.”

“We want to get an understanding of the lay of the land, and where he stands now, in 2022. We are always open to the fact and concept that people can change; people can learn and people can grow.”

It was only in 2019 that Malnauskas said sex work was due for reform but that he struggled with “conscience issues”. 

“Recently, I have spent a fair bit of time engaging with residents in the suburbs of Athol Park, Woodville Gardens, Mansfield Park and Ferryden Park who, on a day-to-day basis, have to live the experience of street prostitution and what it does to their community and the impact it has on their everyday lives,” he said.

“I also believe that a law reform could potentially result in the proliferation of streetwalking or street prostitution.”

Even still, sex workers and legislators across the state remain hopeful. Among them is South Australian Greens leader Tammy Franks, who told VICE she’s got yet another bill in the works that she hopes will come closer to ticking all the right boxes to get enough votes to write it into law – with or without Malinauskas’s support.

“Decriminalisation isn’t that radical, and it has been done by Labor governments around the country. There is indeed a recognition that sex work is a worker’s rights issue, and I would hope that the Labor government will ensure that even if it doesn’t have a party vote, that it allows for this workers rights issue to be addressed this year,” Franks said. 

“It’s something that was the subject of debate during the recent election, and newly elected members and returning members have approached me to talk about it. People raise [it] with me as an issue that should be one of urgency for the new parliament.”

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Read more from VICE Australia.

Tagged:

sex work, Australia, NEW ZEALAND, decriminalisation of sex work

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