Tuesday 1 February 2011

Scared and misguided: the crackdown on “illegal brothels” is not what it seems

I wrote this media release after the Victorian Government cracked down on a number of illegal operators.  Of course all of the media at the time wanted to push this image of dingy run down houses with young Asian women chained to beds.  The truth is not so simple; the definition of "illegal brothels" in Victoria actually includes a diverse range of businesses and I wanted to write about that.


Attention focussed on what is commonly termed “illegal sex work” has been high in recent months.  At the end of last year, a blitz on “illegal brothels” resulted in the shutting down of eight establishments. “But what are these establishments?” asks Christian Vega, a sex worker, activist and candidate for the Australian Sex Party in the 2010 elections. “There is a perception that an illegal brothel is easy thing to define.  The general community may think it’s a sub-standard building full of young women being held against their will and exploited.  The truth is not so simple.”

“The law only allows for a small number of opportunities to do sex work.” Mr Vega explains, “If it doesn’t occur in a licensed brothel, escort agency or as a registered private worker going to a client’s premises, then sex work is considered illegal.  Private workers can register a premise but current planning regulations make it impossible to do so. This doesn’t reflect the diverse reality of sex work or the experience of the workers involved. And more police is not the answer.”

Mr Vega goes on to explain illegal brothels, “They are hard to define- the term actually refers to a broad number of practices, not one specific concept.” He extrapolates, “There are many circumstances that would be considered an illegal brothel: a registered exempt escort seeing a client in a hotel room booked by the escort; a massage parlour where a worker negotiates ‘extra services’ without the awareness of management; a street sex worker who discretely takes clients back to their home. In this way, one can see the limitations of taking a ‘more police’ approach.”

“When the government gloats about shutting down illegal brothels one has to ask: what are they doing?” Mr Vega asks, “Are they evicting vulnerable women from their own home? Raiding massage parlours because someone may have given a customer a hand-job? It then leads one to ask: who are these efforts helping? The police should be there to protect us in case something goes wrong.  Casting police as enforcers against ‘illegal sex’ has the potential to stop sex workers reporting rapes because they fear the police will turn around and charge them.”

Mr Vega is suspicious about the drivers of this issue, “There are many interest groups who have an agenda against sex workers.  There are those who want to shut down the entire sex industry- conflating our work with the issue of human trafficking and exploitation.  There are also those within our industry who have an interest in shutting down the private sector.” He reflects on their efforts, “Their strategies are the same: take advantage of the confusion and lack of understanding of the sex industry to spread fear and block progressive policy.”
“Sex work is hard work and the government seem completely out of touch with what workers are going through.” Mr Vega shares his own experience as a part-time private escort, “As an exempt escort it’s illegal for me to organise a premises to see clients.  However, client demand for ‘in-calls’ combined with how quiet our industry is at the moment creates immense pressure for sex workers to break the law.  In the past two months I’ve earned less than a thousand dollars but I’ve turned down over $10,000 worth of work because I won’t see clients illegally. Speaking to other private workers, I know my experience is not uncommon.”

Despite the challenges of this issue, Mr Vega is optimistic looking at solutions to the issues, “I invite the government to engage in dialogue with sex workers. It needs to implement policies that will protect the health, safety and rights of workers. Currently, there is no funded organisation of sex workers in Victoria, as there is in other states, to provide a voice for sex workers on these issues.” With regards to illegal brothels, “The government has the power of eliminate the problem with simple amendments to legislation and planning regulations to allow private workers to operate from a premise.  It seems ridiculous that it is perfectly legal for a private escort to see a client in a hotel room, but if that same hotel room is booked in the name of the escort, it is suddenly considered an illegal brothel.”

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