Thursday, 9 August 2012

Supporting the Human Rights of Sex Workers: Sex Party Policy- And Damn Proud of It!

By Christian Vega, Sex Worker, Secretary of Victorian branch of the Australian Sex Party
Aristotle wrote, “To avoid criticism, say nothing, do nothing, be nothing.” Conversely, when one has much to say one must be prepared for an onslaught. 

Such has been the fate of the Australian Sex Party in the aftermath of the 2012 Melbourne by-election.  Having been denied a win that was thought to be in the bag, the Victorian Greens have been indignant and rather than take time for some critical self reflection, the party and its supporters has sought to blame everyone else for their loss, targeting the younger and much smaller Sex Party in particular. 

 Megan Tyler, anti-sex industry colleague of senior Greens member, Kathleen Maltzahn, has joined the tirade (Political party or lobby group? The dark side of the Australian Sex Party, 31/07/2012). 

From the headline it’s clear her position, she doesn’t much like the Australian Sex Party. It’s a strange question to ask: Political Party or Lobby Group? Could this question not be asked of any political party? To support the interests of a part of the community- isn’t that what all political parties do? Perhaps she thinks we are somehow different...

One of the Sex Party Campaign pamphlets
Tyler writes, “The carefully selected policies that appear in Sex Party pamphlets, however, fail to mention what is at the centre of the party’s very being; a push for the full decriminalisation of prostitution.”

Well that’s sort of true.  Identified as best practice for human rights throughout the world by international public health bodies as well as Australian sex workers themselves, decriminalisation of the sex industry is a worthy enough goal that the Sex Party would, of course, adopt it as policy. Supported by evidence, upholding human rights, promoting civil liberties, good health outcomes and social justice, I am proud to be a member of a party that would make such a stand.  The centre of the Sex Party’s very being though?  Now that is a stretch.  The decriminalisation of sex work is no doubt an important policy, but to call it the centre? Hmm.   Perhaps if one is obsessed with the sex industry one may fail to notice the range of other policy areas that have shaped the Sex Party’s identity- Anti-Censorship, Equality and Anti-discrimination, Drug Law Reform- hall marks of our civil liberty platform that were around much earlier than our sex work policy.
Tyler portrays decriminalisation of sex work as “basically end the criminalisation of all forms of prostitution and make them free from any special government intervention,” and “legalisation means regulation and the sex industry would rather have free rein to boost its profits.”

This is a fallacy anti-sex work lobbyists often use: to equate decriminalisation with deregulation when the two are entirely different.  To clarify- decriminalisation is the removal of criminal codes related to sex work.  This does not mean that all activities under the label of sex work are allowed to happen; advocates for decriminalisation are not asking for the sex industry to operate “free rein.”  Decriminalisation is not an attempt to legitimise crime; child sexual exploitation and rape would remain illegal under the current criminal code.  It is an approach that seeks to clarify the distinction between acts that are clearly unacceptable and those that are legitimate. It is a system that has been introduced into New Zealand and more recently in Canada; the outcomes of adopting such an approach are clearly outlined in research: greater enablement of sex workers to exercise choices that make them less vulnerable, greater empowerment of sex workers to seek justice in instances of violence and other crimes , the number of sex workers remained stable and in the case of some street sex working sectors- had actually reduced.  Tyler and her ilk (those that have built a career that hinges on the perception that all sex workers are victims) must ignore this legitimacy in order for their position to hold. 
UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
has called for the decriminalisation
 of sex work since 2008 
The fundamentals of decriminalisation are these: Sex Work is Work.  Therefore, Sex work should be regulated in the same way that every other occupation is regulated. When additional laws are in place (the current legislative situation in most states throughout Australia) they prevent the standards and conditions that can be expected in any other workplace (industrial relations, occupational health and safety and equal opportunity) from being applied to the sex industry. In short, we just want to be treated the same as everyone else.  This is the position of sex worker activists, this is the policy of the Australian Sex Party. 

Tyler claims, “Patten helped make the real aims of the party quite clear in the lead-up to the election when she claimed that the ASP didn’t attempt a preference deal with the Greens because of concerns about an “anti-sex feminist element” in the party.”

That is an interpretation built on an inaccuracy.  Firstly, the Sex Party did attempt to contact the Greens to talk preferences, as written in the Herald Sun and acknowledged by at least one Greens volunteer, “maybe [it’s] the Greens fault for not picking up the phone.” While it’s our concern that the anti-sex feminist compulsions may have prevented the Greens from engaging with us- and ultimately contributing to their defeat- it hardly defines the “aims of the party.”

Again, Tyler’s attempt to be coy is rather feeble “The “anti-sex” slur was most likely just a veiled reference to Kathleen Maltzahn, who served as a Greens local councillor in Yarra and stood as a Greens candidate in the 2010 Victorian state election.”

Even Maltzahn’s Wikipedia page doesn’t beat around the bush: “The Australian Sex Party have accused her of being an "anti-sex campaigner” and preferenced Labor ahead of the Greens in the election for the seat of Melbourne on July 21 2012 which caused The Greens narrow loss." The tensions between the Sex Party and Kathleen Maltzahn first began to influence the political relationship between the two parties during the state election in 2010.  During a radio interview on Joy 94.9, Maltzahn declared her preferences- even though they had yet to be finalised.  Perhaps it should have been expected but the supposed feminist had preferenced the only other female candidate last- perhaps it was because of that candidate’s status as a sex worker, perhaps it was because she was the Sex Party’s candidate.  Either way, Maltzahn- and by extension, the Greens- had sent a signal that they were not interested in working with us. 

Tyler continues to sing her colleague’s praises, “Maltzahn is also a prominent anti-trafficking campaigner and founder of Project Respect... Part of its vision is given as “a world where there is no longer demand for prostitution.” Now, why wouldn’t a sex industry lobby group be happy with that?”
Supporters of sex workers protest against Maltzahn, 2011

What Tyler fails to mention is that sex workers themselves reject the position of Project Respect.  To quote the Scarlet Alliance, the Australian Sex Workers Association, “It was reported in a May 2004 Lateline interview that Project Respect, a Victorian NGO, had called for the re-criminalisation of the sex industry as a way of addressing what the Government refers to as the trafficking of women for the purpose of sexual servitude. These and other anti-sex work views have had a harmful impact on sex workers in Australia. However the anti-sex work lobby has been increasingly using the issue of trafficking to hide their broader agenda of making all sex work illegal.” Organisations such as Project Respect and Tyler’s CATWA are part of the ‘Rescue Industry’, a whole sector of NGOs who gain their funding through the portrayal of sex work as victimising and exploitative. Their positions often hijack supportive and harm reduction based responses for moralistic/abolitionist ones.  The Australian Sex Party believes that front line workers in the industry must be listened to in order to implement policy that is both informed and would support their human rights.  It’s clear that Tyler does not agree.

The Sex Party's Robbie Swan
Tyler, “Many of my colleagues are quite shocked to hear about the intimate relationship between the Sex Party and the sex industry” Uh, really? This may be the first accusation the political party has received that our name is too subtle.  But by establishing ambiguity, Tyler has created an opportunity to make yet another inaccurate interpretation: that when one says “sex industry” one must be talking about brothels, right? Actually, no.  As Robbie Swann explains in an this response to Guy Rundle’s attack on the Sex Party, “The Eros Association stopped taking brothel owners as members over a decade ago when it became the adult ‘retail’ association. As a result we now only have one brothel in Victoria as an associate member on a fee of $590 per year. The only other brothel to have supported the Sex Party with a donation of $500 was The Boardroom of Melbourne, a couple of years ago. Mr. Rundle’s [And Dr. Tyler’s] suggestion that the Victorian brothel owners are big supporters of the Eros Association is demonstrably untrue. Rundle [and Tyler] appear ignorant of the fact that the legal Victorian brothels have their own industry association anyway. The annual returns of both the Eros Association (an incorporated not for profit adult industry association) and The Sex Party (a registered political party) are on the public record.”

“That the commercial interests of the sex industry might occasionally clash with the pursuit of civil liberties, or other important things – like say, gender equality – is apparently unthinkable.” Yet another tired strategy used by anti-sex work moralists, positioning civil liberties against gender equality- as if the two are somehow incompatible.  Tyler fails to recognise the efforts made by the Sex Party regarding gender equality, it is party policy to promote greater inclusion of women in government, to strengthen current equal opportunity legislation and fight discrimination where it currently exists. 

Tyler Claims, “The Australian discussion around the sex industry exists largely in a bubble where liberal notions of choice reign supreme.” If only this were true.  Unfortunately, in the state of Victoria, the law is pretty clear (Sex Work Act 1994, Section 17 subsection 3): “A person must not publish or cause to be published a statement which is intended or likely to induce a person to seek employment as a sex worker; or in a brothel or with an escort agency or any other business that provides sex work services” In addition to prohibiting businesses from advertising for workers, this law also prohibits the distribution of information about working in the sex industry.  This means that the information that would help people make an informed choice about working (or even not working) in the sex industry is not currently available. For many of us, sex work is a choice but clearly it is not the dominant ideal, to claim that this notion “reigns supreme” is more than just a little exaggerated. 

Tyler writes: “This creates an unusual climate where it is thought that, to be progressive, you must be sympathetic to an industry that principally relies on the buying and selling of women.” Placing aside the rancid and disparaging characterisation that sex work is the “selling of women” (as opposed to the consensual trade of services provided by workers of all genders sexes and sexualities), what’s so unusually progressive about supporting people whose rights are being trounced every day? This is another attempt to conflate supporters of sex worker rights with proponents of exploitation, if you want to see similar examples of this one only needs to look back to a time when support for gay rights was touted as promoting paedophilia. 

“Elsewhere in the world, however, socialists, social democrats and other social progressives are moving towards understanding prostitution as a form of violence and as a barrier to women’s equality. In terms of legislation, this is epitomised by the Nordic Model, which criminalises the buying of sexual services, but decriminalises selling” Tyler is speaking about legislation that was adopted in Sweden.  By saying “social progressives” I’m wondering if she is referring to writers of not only this policy, but the policy of sterilisation of transgender people seeking gender reassignment surgery, the forced sterilisation of people with a disability and the zero tolerance approach to drug use.  Yeah, real progressive...

Swedish academic, Petra Ostregren
opposes the Swedish Model
“Despite mounting evidence that the Nordic Model is effective in curtailing prostitution and sex trafficking, it continues to be derided and dismissed in Australia.” Rebranding the ‘Swedish Model’ (perhaps she feels the brand has been too damaged), Tyler ignores the mountain of evidence produced by academics around the world as well as within Sweden itself, that demonstrates how ineffective and harmful the legislative framework is.

“Earlier this year, for instance, the Kirby Institute at UNSW released a report on the sex industry in New South Wales, which claimed that the difference between the Nordic Model and full criminalisation (often favoured by conservative political regimes) may be “largely illusory”.” At this point of her piece, Tyler reveals much about the approach one must take in order to stand in a tenuous position as she does.  Clearly, one has to ignore a highly respected academic body has conducted evidence based peer reviewed research in order to commit to a position that oppresses sex workers.  This “pre-scientific” approach is often adopted by sex work prohibitionist and is well documented.  

“It also trotted out the tired claim that criminalising the buying of sexual services automatically positions “sex workers as victims”.” Actually, the most significant portrayers of “sex workers as victims” were the policy writers to first put together Tyler’s beloved ‘Nordic Model’.  This re-emerges the Swedish government’s evaluation of the abolition of sex work: “[Sex workers] describe themselves as having chosen to prostitute themselves and don’t see themselves as being involuntarily exposed to anything.  Even if it’s not forbidden to sell sex, they feel hunted by the police.  They feel as if they’ve been declared incapable of managing their own affairs in that their actions are tolerated, but their will and choices are not respected.  Further, they believe it is possible to distinguish between voluntary and forced prostitution… (These) negative effects of the ban that they describe can almost be regarded as positive when viewed from the perspective that the aim of the law is to combat prostitution.”  So basically the Swedish model says that sex workers’ sense of stigma, being hunted down and lack of respect are good things, a means to an end.  And Tyler wonders why such a framework is derided in Australia. 

“Assertions such as these continue to fuel an odd situation in Australia. If, when talking about prostitution, you raise issues of exploitation or structural inequality – traditionally hallmarks of Marxist analyses – you get accused of being a right-wing moralist.” No Tyler, no one is calling you a moralist because of your views on equality and human rights, we call you a moralist because you are not willing to apply these to sex workers.  The policies she advocates for are demonstrably harmful towards women, she would rather see us without rights, without protection in an ineffective effort to stamp us out, regardless of the cost. 

“But perhaps this constant bias shouldn’t be surprising in a country where the sex industry not only has its own political party but has also managed to con a bunch of academics, among others, into voting for it.”

Let’s look at what is clear- there are two sides of the debate- pro-sex work and anti-sex work.

Fiona Patten, Speaking at a rally for
sex worker rights earlier this year
 Whatever you believe, the Australian Sex Party -with its sex work supportive policies, it’s consultation with sex workers, it inclusion of sex workers with in its membership and its pre-selection of sex workers as candidates- is very clear about where it stands in this debate- we are not trying to con anyone.  I think The Sex Party has done a great job in promoting discussion of the issue and if people listen to sex workers and happen to agree with them- I don’t think that’s a con. Tyler seems to be labouring under the delusion that people couldn’t possibly make up their own minds to agree with us or not; just as she believes that I could not possibly freely choose to do sex work. 

 On the other hand, the Victorian Greens have not been as transparent.  When Kathleen Maltzahn was pressed on radio during the 2010 state election campaign about her party’s stance on sex work she denied her party had any, despite her party’s website clearly stating it will “end the criminalisation of consensual adult sex work.” Perhaps this omission was an innocent oversight or perhaps it indicates an awareness of the tension within the Greens, that such moralistic conservatism is best covered up- after all it did just cost them valuable support that could have secured them a win in the Melbourne by-election.  So what’s it going to be Victorian Greens- Are you pro- or anti- sex workers?

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