GREENS BILL: Decriminalisation of Sex Work

In speaking to the Greens' Private Members Bill to decriminalise sex work in South Australia today, Mark noted that decriminalisation of sex work is not the same as deregulation as is often claimed by opponents and, having been at the forefront of criminalising sex work in our State, it would be symbolic if the Legislative Council led the move to finally decriminalise sex work in South Australia.


Statutes Amendment (Decriminalisation of Sex Work) Bill 2018

The Hon. M.C. PARNELL: Two years ago when we last debated a bill to decriminalise sex work, I spoke very briefly—in fact, I counted them and there were only 200 words. The main point that I wanted to make back then was to acknowledge the overwhelming support of women's groups for law reform. There was the Zonta Club, the Working Women's Centre, the YWCA, Soroptimist International, and many others. I acknowledge that that support is ongoing. Over dinner, I checked out the Twitter feed and saw that the YWCA has been live tweeting from parliament. It is excellent to know the community is paying so much attention to our debate tonight.

But this time I want to add a few extra points. At the risk of stating the obvious, I want to point out that the issue of the criminalisation of sex work has been around forever, just as sex work itself has been around forever. At this stage, I want to give a language warning that I will be using the P word—prostitution—because I will be referring to some historical material and that, of course, was the word that was always used, even though today we refer, in the main, to sex work.

The State Library of South Australia has some wonderful resources available online that track the political, legal and social response to the sex industry since the foundation of the colony of South Australia. The Legislative Council has been instrumental throughout our history, and I hope that tonight the Legislative Council can remedy some of the harm that it has done over the years. Within the first 10 years of the colony, the local newspaper, the Register, included the following letter to the editor:

"Dear Sir,

Can you inform me how long the neighbourhood of Weymouth Street and Light Square are to be infested with brothels, and when the inhabitants are to be rid of the music, dancing, revelry and the mob of drunken blacklegs who idle about there all day and live on plunder and prostitution at night?"

In response to this and to similar sentiments, the Legislative Council passed an ordinance in 1844, and that ordinance stated in section XX:

"…every common prostitute wandering in the public streets or highways, or in any place of public resort, and behaving in a riotous or indecent manner…shall be deemed an idle and disorderly person."

The penalty for that crime was not more than one month in the house of correction with hard labour. For a subsequent offence, the offender was deemed to be a rogue and a vagabond and the penalty was not more than three months with hard labour.

Two decades later, the Legislative Council added a third tier to the offences of being idle and disorderly and being a rogue and a vagabond. It provided that any person committing any offence that shall subject him to be dealt with as a rogue and a vagabond, such person having been previously convicted as a rogue and a vagabond, shall be deemed an incorrigible rogue and liable to imprisonment for any term not exceeding one year with hard labour. Again, at the risk of stating the obvious, I would point out that, with the legal drafting of the day, the law said 'him' but it almost always meant 'her'.

According to the State Library, these kinds of provisions were the structure of the law under which most women working as prostitutes were convicted in South Australia during the 19th century. Just to make sure that the law was upheld, the Legislative Council, in its wisdom, sought to punish any police officer who failed to root out this moral evil. Again, to quote from the law of the 1860s as passed by the Legislative Council:

"Any member of the Police Force, or any person whosoever, with or without a warrant may apprehend any reputed common prostitute…or incorrigible rogues who, within view of such member of the Force or person apprehending, shall offend against this Act…any constable who shall refuse or wilfully neglect to take such offender into custody, or to take and convey him—"

meaning her—

"before a Justice of the Peace…shall be deemed guilty of a neglect of duty."

So the Legislative Council has been at the forefront of criminalising sex work and we will see tonight whether it will be at the forefront of undoing that century and a half of work. As tempting as it might be to journey further down memory lane, I am not going to go too much more into the history, but I do want to make the point that it would be very symbolic if it was to be the Legislative Council that led the move to finally decriminalise sex work in South Australia.

I say that noting that the Legislative Council has not been idle in this respect. Since the 1970s, many MLCs have attempted to decriminalise sex work. One of the most prominent was Carolyn Pickles' 1986 bill. Sadly, MLCs were spooked by religious opposition and the prospect of electoral backlash and the bill was dropped. When Australian Democrat Ian Gilfillan tried to revive it, only two MLCs voted in favour.

The response of the local paper—no longer the Register; it is now The Advertiser—was interesting. In 1987, The Advertiser editorial said that the abandonment of this law reform marked:

"The sad end of another attempt to deal sensibly with the question, and amounts to another lost opportunity…Unfortunately, emotion and prejudice appear to have overruled reason again."

It is quite remarkable that that was the response of the Adelaide Advertiser: bemoaning the failure yet again, way back in 1987, to pass laws to decriminalise sex work. In fact, even the growing AIDS epidemic of the 1980s could not sway the Legislative Council. In 1986, the minister of health, Dr Cornwall, told the Legislative Council that:

"Health authorities could not prevent prostitutes from spreading AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases while prostitution was illegal."

He was drawing that point very early on about the connection between public health and the criminalisation of sex work.

Throughout the eighties, the nineties and the 2000s, there were many reports and many inquiries and bills, but law reform has proved elusive. I would acknowledge the effort of the Hon. Steph Key, who is with us in the chamber today, and many other MPs, of whom my colleague the Hon. Irene Pnevmatikos named some. My friend the Hon. Tammy Franks has named others as well.

Interestingly, I had only been in this parliament for six months before sex work hit my agenda in parliament back in 2006. It came up for the first time when certain conservative MPs discovered a list of disability-friendly sex workers that had been handed out by a sexual health organisation that received government funding. The whole furore was a storm in a teacup, but it did remind people of the wide range of both clients and service providers.

I think the furore actually backfired on those who sought to criminalise or to further criminalise sex work because it got people thinking about the needs of people living with disabilities. It raised the question of whether having a disability should sentence a person to a life of celibacy and, if not, what other choices did many of these people have? It was a really interesting debate. Talkback radio loved it; it was a live issue for a few days.

I do not think I have ever said in parliament, but I certainly said on the radio that my experience as a live-in carer for a man with cerebral palsy in London in the 1980s was that that was his way of achieving sexual services. He needed to use paid sex workers; he really had no alternative. He was one of the smartest people I had met. He had a Master of International Relations, but also cerebral palsy and a fairly poorly-functioning body. He could not walk, he could not speak, but his desires were the same as anyone else and the services of sex workers were the services that he sought. That opened my eye to the world of people living with disabilities and the role that sex work plays in the lives of many of those people.

One other issue that I want to touch on briefly is—and others have said it—the decriminalisation of sex work is not the same as deregulation. Opponents of decriminalisation often make this claim and it is clearly wrong. We already have a range of laws that deal with advertising, they deal with town planning, for example, and there is no credible argument to suggest that removing sex work from the criminal code will result in an open slather with brothels being set up everywhere or large outdoor advertising signs proliferating from billboards or the back of buses. We have regulation.

Similarly, other legal products, tobacco and alcohol, are not unregulated: they are heavily regulated. The Hon. Irene Pnevmatikos pointed out we have laws that relate to worker health and safety and that is one of the driving factors behind the decriminalisation move, that this industry can be brought within the reach of those laws.

In conclusion, I want to thank all the people and the organisations that have contacted me over recent months in relation to this bill. Some people have urged me strongly to vote against the bill and they have done so on the basis of their genuinely held beliefs. Usually, but not always, they were religiously based. Others I think have been hoodwinked by misinformation, and with others I am still not sure what their concerns were. I got one this morning and I am still scratching my head. It tells me that 'decriminalisation of sex work will result in rampant sex addiction in the community' and, whilst no evidence was provided, it is an interesting idea and we will have to look more into that. It struck me that they were grasping at straws—not plastic straws; we are trying to ban those, but they were grasping at straws nonetheless.

But I have also received many messages of support for the bill, and to those people I say, yes, I am fully supportive of the bill. I congratulate my colleague the Hon. Tammy Franks for bringing it forward. She herself has acknowledged it is on the back of those who have gone before. I acknowledge their work and their commitment. When this bill finally passes, as I am sure it will eventually, it will indeed be a multimember, multiparty and multigenerational effort that we can all be proud of. I am also pleased that I can see the Legislative Council redeeming itself 175 years after the first laws to criminalise sex work in South Australia.

I support the second reading of the bill.