Prostitution legislation is currently being discussed in the Northern Territory and just about everyone has an opinion on how this controversial issue should be addressed.

Prostitution affects everyone because, whether voluntarily entered into or not, it is a form of violence against women and an affront to gender equality.

Australia’s acceptance of prostitution is becoming embarrassing internationally, as progressive countries move towards legislation that takes into consideration the equality and safety of all women. When it is acceptable for women to be bought and sold, every woman is devalued. The availability of women’s bodies to be bought creates a sense of entitlement in too many men which inevitably plays out in their day to day interactions with women. True equality requires all women to be free of sexual exploitation. This is not possible in a society where prostitution is accepted.

There is no doubt that the illegal prostitution occurring in the Territory needs to be addressed, but to simply decriminalise prostitution does nothing to protect those selling their bodies for sex. Rather, decriminalisation benefits the punters and brothel owners, so naturally, they and those who represent them, are advocating for this.

NT Parliamentarians would be wise not to legalise prostitution simply because the current system is not working. Instead, they have a great opportunity to lead the way in Australia adopting global best practice.

I have had many people tell me that legalisation or decriminalisation of prostitution affords dignity and safety for those in prostitution. But dignifying prostitution as work doesn't dignify the women, it simply tries to dignify the sex industry. Pimps become legitimate sex entrepreneurs or third-party businesses, and men who buy women for sex are merely consumers.

But no one can escape the harsh reality that the product these ‘entrepreneurs’ trade in is a human being.

When any society reframes prostitution as a straightforward commercial transaction, it only serves to hide the truth about the harm and abuse that occurs when we enshrine men’s right to buy women. Having sex is not a human right, but the right to live free from violence and discrimination is. The former UN special rapporteur on trafficking, Sigma Huda, said, "It is rare that one finds a case in which the path to prostitution and/or a person's experience does not involve, at the very least, an abuse of power and/or an abuse of vulnerability”.

As some Australian states have taken the road of decriminalising prostitution, legal has attracted illegal.

In Victoria, decriminalisation led to a massive expansion of the sex industry. In Queensland, the University of Queensland’s Human Trafficking Working Group, led by a law academic, found that most of the state’s prostitution industry remains unregulated or illegal after so-called regulations and legislation occurred in that State.

In New South Wales, brothels were decriminalised in 1995. Just four years later, numbers of brothels had increased exponentially. Responding to a 2015 NSW Government inquiry into brothel regulation NSW deputy Police Commissioner Nick Kaldas, stated that, “it seems counter-intuitive and it has not been good public policy for NSW laws to regulate tattoo parlours and restaurants and cafes substantially more than brothels”.

He went on to say, “the absence of regulation is particularly surprising when reliable evidence has shown that sex workers are often vulnerable by reason of sex trafficking and workplace exploitation, or have diminished life control because of drug addiction and/or mental health issues, and that the industry is attractive to criminal elements including sex slavery and outlaw motorcycle gangs”.

The Australian Christian Lobby’s Centre for Human Dignity joins feminists and human rights advocates around the world in campaigning for an end to the criminalisation of prostituted people, and for the onus to be shifted onto the consumers. While not a perfect solution, international evidence shows that no other method comes close to having the desired affect at reducing the number of women who are being exploited. No-one should be punished for being exploited, but neither should we decriminalise pimps, buyers, procurers, brothels or other sex establishments.

The Territory is well placed to consider the innovative feminist approach to prostitution legislation which is gaining traction globally. The Nordic Model has been endorsed by the European Parliament as best practice for preventing sexual exploitation. Originating in Sweden in 1999, it has since been adopted in Norway, Iceland, Canada, France, Ireland and Northern Ireland (with variations in Finland and South Korea), and is under consideration in Italy, Israel and Luxembourg. This legislative model rejects the thought that prostitution is ‘just another job’, and that booming markets for prostitution and sex trafficking are desirable. Instead, it advocates for social and cultural change and has been highly effective in reducing the markets for prostitution and sex trafficking. It provides exit strategies which include drug and alcohol rehabilitation, housing, and basic skills training for those wishing to leave prostitution.  

Prostitution and sex trafficking are harmful, as well as barriers to social justice. In the countries that have adopted the Nordic legislation, culture is changing, violence against women is decreasing and gender equality is being advanced. Surely, this is what we desire for women in the Territory.

Recently published in the NT News on Sunday 8 July 2018