Stop selling women

Suppose a terminally ill woman wanted to do something nice for her husband. So she hires a prostitute for his pleasure. Do you think the terminally ill woman should be put in jail for this? That was the hypothetical (I believe) question posed to me this week by Independent MP, Mr Alex Greenwich, at the NSW Inquiry into Brothels where I was a witness. No, Mr Greenwich, I don’t want a terminally ill woman put in jail because she bought a woman for her husband for a sexual encounter. But I believe the more pertinent question should be, is it right to be able to buy a woman for a man’s use? Having sex is not a human right. The perceived needs of one subset, in this case a terminally ill woman paying for her husband to have sex, should not trump the rights of another subset, and by that I refer to the human right of all women to equality and not to be a commodity to be bought and sold for another’s pleasure.

The NSW government’s aim from the inquiry includes examining possible reforms that address social, health and planning challenges that are associated with legal and illegal brothels. NSW’s Deputy Police Commissioner, Nick Kaldas, gave evidence at the inquiry. His concern is that the lack of regulation is allowing criminal activity in the industry. “Where standards are not enforced in this industry, the cost to human beings could be horrendous,” he said. He told the inquiry there had been a recent increase in the reporting of sexual servitude in brothels, alleging “large scale networks using Asian students as sex slaves”. NSW councils also registered concern in regard to workplace injuries, violence, sexual servitude, organised crime, sex trafficking, and public health and safety.

Prostitution is a form of violence particularly against women and girls. Prostitution is both a cause and consequence of gender inequality. As a society we should reject the notion that women are a commodity to be bought and sold. Men’s demand for sex and willingness to pay for it means prostitution exists and flourishes, and yet prostitution is inherently harmful as shown by multiple studies which reveal between 60 and 75% of prostitutes have been raped, between 70 and 95% physically assaulted, and 68% meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder in the same range as combat veterans. 85–95% of the women in the study by American clinical psychologist, researcher and feminist, Dr Melissa Farley, said that they wanted to escape prostitution.

Some maintain that prostitution is a choice and therefore a person’s right. Let’s examine this “choice”.

The majority of the world’s prostitutes are women. Gender inequality is the single most powerful determinant of being sold for sex. Nobody can choose what sex they are born with.

Disproportionately, women around the world in prostitution are members of socially disadvantaged racial or ethnic groups. You don’t choose to be born into a disadvantaged racial group or lower caste. The majority of prostituted women worldwide are there because of poverty. Prostituted women tend to come from disadvantaged backgrounds and from families with high rates of interpersonal difficulties. They are more likely to have suffered physical abuse, to have left home and school early, have lower qualifications and fewer work opportunities. Being born into poverty is not a choice.

It is common for a prostitute to have been sexually or physically abused prior to entering prostitution. A Stockholm University report says between 55 and 90% of prostituted women have been subjected to sexual abuse as children. An Adelaide study by the Australian Institute of Family Studies of young people aged 12 to 23 living on the streets indicated that 80% of young women and 27% of young men, involved in sex work, had a history of child abuse. 75% of sex workers in Sydney’s Kings Cross reported some form of child sexual abuse. A research project with 30 Melbourne young people working in the sex industry discovered that 16 of them had been in the state care system, while 13 had left home because of physical or sexual abuse or neglect. No one chooses to be abused as a child.

Can we continue to turn a blind eye to the vast majority of those caught up in prostitution who are not there by choice, but because they had no other choice?

The US State Department in the 2015 Trafficking in Persons Report states that Australia is a destination country for girls and women subjected to sex trafficking, predominantly from South East Asia. This exploitation, and the involvement of organised crime, is found in NSW. Sex trafficking would not exist without the demand for commercial sex. This is a violation against human rights in every sense.

The Australian Christian Lobby and other groups such as Coalition Against Trafficked Women Australia and Collective Shout support the Swedish approach to prostitution legislation which has also been adopted by many progressive countries including Norway, Iceland, Northern Ireland and Canada. It is also being considered in France, Israel, Ireland, Scotland and Lithuania. This approach recognises prostitution as undermining women’s equality and a form of violence against women. The Swedish approach directly addresses demand for prostitution by criminalising sex buyers and third parties who profit from prostitution, while simultaneously supporting victims and survivors.

Prostitution is harmful to women. It is overwhelmingly purchased by men, from women, and is founded on inherent inequality between the sexes. This inquiry is an opportunity for NSW to lead the way with important, progressive reform.

Wendy Francis is QLD State Director of Australian Christian Lobby.