Laws on Sex Work Must be Framed to Protect Women’s Choice

Sex work is back in the news. Having hardly been broached in polite conversation since the state government’s “tolerance zone” policy for street sex work went down in flames five years ago, the West Australian government’s decision to descriminalise and regulate indoor prostitution has refocused minds around the country on the best way to manage the world’s oldest profession.

As a feminist academic and long-time St Kilda resident, I’ve been thinking about these issues for a long time. Only recently, however, have I arrived at what I think is a fair and sensible approach to the issue, one that recognises women as moral agents capable of accepting both the rights and responsibilities associated with selling sex.

It looks like this.

Advocates and opponents of decriminalisation adopt extreme characterisations of women to justify their positions. On one side are the decriminalisation advocates – self-proclaimed unions or advocacy groups for prostitutes – who contend that sex work is a job like any other, that women have a right to perform this “work” whenever and wherever they like, and that society is obliged to regulate to protect sell-sellers from the inherent risks associated with having serial sex with unknown men.

In the opposing corner are the radical feminists and members of the religious right. For this unholy alliance, prostitution is always a violent and exploitative encounter that, by definition, no competent woman would ever choose to participate in. As two Norwegian scientists put it, “no-one wants to rent out her vagina as a garbage can for hordes of anonymous men’s ejaculations”. Dismissing with an imperious hand-wave the claims of some prostitutes that they freely choose to sell their bodies, real and pseudo radical feminists and religious wowsers persist in describing all sex-sellers as victims whom they must protect by promulgating and enforcing no- tolerance policies.

The victim-approach to managing street prostitution is objectionable on a number of grounds. These include its obnoxious paternalism, and the disingenuous way in which political agitation designed to impose the agitator’s view of what is best on everyone else is dressed up as selfless “feminist” advocacy on behalf of women. But most offensive is the way in which the argument itself victimises sex-sellers by denying their experience and stripping them of their agency. Such objectification allows the no-tolerance posse to dismiss everything sex-sellers say about their experience – when they don’t say things that support the no-tolerance position – as false consciousness or further evidence of victimhood. For instance, Gunilla Ekberg, the co-executive director of the International Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, explains the support some prostitutes give to decriminalization as evidence of their desire to “defend their own dignity” in a violent context that “they can’t change”.

Abandoning the all or nothing approach, and recognizing the indisputable fact that some women do choose to sell sex, while others don’t, incarnates a realistic and fair approach for the management of indoor and outdoor sex in liberal democracies. A position where sex sellers are moral agents worthy of respect – instead of pitiable victims in need of paternalistic protection – that have both rights and responsibilities with regard to how they ply their trade. Insofar as the consequences of their choice to sell sex remains with them, competent adult women (and men) should be free to sell their bodies, however strongly some in the community object. However, like other choosers, when the consequences of the selling choice restricts the capacity of fellow citizens to exercise their freedoms, the state is obligated to restrict their activity.

A focus on autonomous choice also justifies state intervention where sex workers lack the capacity – because they are too young, mentally ill, sexually or physically abused or drug addicted – to make choices about selling sex that are worthy of the name.

What this cashes out to are policies that decriminalize and constructively regulate indoor prostitution, and prohibit street solicitation and sex. Behind this approach is a rebuttable presumption that adult women who sell sex are autonomous, and that communities affected by street sex suffer an unjustified loss of amenity and security. Such policies address the very real potential for exploitation and coercion in the sex trade by offering sex-sellers real opportunities to exit like income support, places in drug rehabilitation programs and police intervention in violent relationships at regular intervals at their “workplaces” and each time they have contact with the law. The availability of such programs to women working indoors should give us confidence that sellers are choosing this way of life, while offering street prostitutes – when combined with fines and jail terms for punters – a real opportunity to either move inside or to exit the trade.

Women who are truly moral agents must accept both the rights and responsibilities that accompany their choices. I think it vital that public language and policy concerning women – particularly as sexual and reproductive beings – validate us as citizens capable of both making choices, and living with their consequences. Autonomous adult women have a right to sell sex providing they go about it in ways that don’t unfairly burden the community of which they are a part, though as a community we have a positive obligation to ensure that at every stage of what is potentially a violent, exploitative and coercive game a woman’s freedom to say “no” is protected.

This is why allowing brothels to operate in a regulated fashion is a good idea, but street sex work can never be tolerated. Not just because a disproportionate number of street prostitutes are too young, too drug-addicted, too psychologically scarred or cowed by violence or abuse to make an autonomous choice to sell themselves, but because the cost to the community of their behaviour, even if theirs is a choice worthy of the name, is far too high.

Publication history

Laws on Sex Work Must be Framed to Protect Women's Choice  The Age