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Why Is South Australia So Reluctant to Decriminalise Sex Work?

The Festival State has some of the most outdated sex worker laws in the country. We examine why they're so averse to change.

by Royce Kurmelovs
Jun 11 2015, 12:57am

Last week's protest at Adelaide's Parliament House

When it comes to sex work, South Australia has some of the most antiquated laws in the country. Under the Criminal Law Consolidation Act of 1935 and the Summary Offences Act of 1953, activities such as "keeping a common bawdy house" and "living on the earnings of prostitution" are crimes, which is why the state's 1000-odd sex workers are liable to prosecution, if a plaintiff so decides.

And all of this is why South Australia's sex industry has been fighting to comprehensibly decriminalise sex work for thirty years, with the latest push starting last week.

On June 2 the South Australian Sex Industry Network (SIN) and the Scarlet Alliance marked the 40th anniversary of International Sex Workers Day with a rally outside Adelaide's parliament house. There it was announced that state Labor backbencher, Steph Key, would introduce a reform bill in the coming weeks. And sure this is exciting, but it's also essentially the same bill that was stalled into parliamentary oblivion last year, and not for the first time either.

Ari Reid talking to media

"There have been many, many attempts over the last few years," Ari Reid, from the Scarlet Alliance, told VICE. "In the last 20 years there's been 12 [reform bills] and seven of them have gone to vote. The other five, including the one Steph Key introduced last year, and the year before, never got voted on."

As frustrating as that sounds, sex worker law reform has been a slow process everywhere. While New South Wales and Victoria legalised prostitution in brothels around three decades ago, the ACT only reformed their laws in 1992, followed by Queensland in 1999. All other states, including the Northern Territory, continue to criminalise sex workers to varying degrees, but South Australian law is still the most punitive.

So all of this begs the question, why is South Australia so squeamish about sex work?

'Joel' is an Adelaide sex worker. He says that legal scrutiny isn't as bad for men, but it's a "daily stress of the job".

At a first glance it might seem a religious thing. Adelaide, after all, is known as the City of Churches, but a look at the numbers show this isn't the case. The 2011 Census reported that 28 percent of South Australians consider themselves non-religious, which is six percent above the national average and 10 percent above NSW. In fact, South Australia was nearly the least religious state in the country, which is an honour garnered by Tasmania at 29 percent.

With these numbers it's hard to imagine that Catholicism is undermining law reform. In which case, it might be a simple case of politics.

Right now, few state electorates are twitchier than South Australia's. The state largely missed out on the mining boom and its biggest industries are shutting down. Meanwhile the current Labor government barely won the last election, which is a triumph attributed more to political maneuvering than actual support. So what it comes down to is a balance of fears.

The Hon. Dennis Hood MLC from Family First

In South Australia left-leaning voters tend to agree with the right that decriminalisation is risky, although this often stems from fears about exploitation or people trafficking. The right however, argue that decriminalisation amounts to encouragement. This is a belief espoused by such MLCs as Dennis Hood from SA's Family First Party. As he summarised for VICE, "The simple fact is that everywhere prostitution has been decriminalised, it has resulted in proliferation." For this reason he promised to fight any reform bill introduced by Steph Key.

The fact that the left and right have aligned on the issue is unusual, but hardly surprising in the wilds of South Australia. For the Festival State, possibly more so than any other, is a swinger. It was the first state to decriminalise marijuana, as well as the first to try unilaterally legalising same-sex marriage, but then it's also got a reputation for treating bikies like terrorists. When considering any collective political idiom, it's worth remembering that both the Liberal Party's Cory Bernardi and the Greens' Sarah Hanson-Young were made in South Australia.

This swinging electorate scares politicians from both sides that God-fearing votes will go to the other party, or to Family First, as early attempts at reform in South Australia have shown. And for most that means it's easier to vote no, or to avoid the conversation altogether.

On the ground this means condoms are still being used as prosecution evidence, which means sex workers don't call the police, which in their industry can be lethal. On New Years' Day the body of murdered 25-year-old sex worker Ting Fang was found on the 12th floor of an Adelaide hotel. As another sex worker summed it up, "in the hours or minutes before it happened, that woman may have wanted to call the police. Had she felt that she could, she might have lived."

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