News

A woman's murder has renewed debate in South Australia over the lack of protections for sex workers and decriminalisation of the industry. By Max Opray.

Legalising sex work in SA

The court heard that on New Year’s Day, Ting Fang had her throat slashed open with the blade of a windscreen wiper. In a year that has since seen women violently killed in Australia at a rate of almost two a week, the 25-year-old sex worker was the first victim of 2015. Unlike the other 48 names tallied up so far in the grim ledger of Destroy the Joint’s “Counting Dead Women” project, Fang’s fate has not just fuelled a debate about gendered violence but also on how best to regulate the profession so famously regarded as the world’s oldest.

Fang was accustomed to working in the relaxed regulatory environment of New South Wales, but on her end-of-year business trip to Adelaide the Chinese national found things very different. To dance around South Australia’s tight regulations on sex work – unchanged since 1953 – Fang quietly met her client alone at the Hotel Grand Chancellor. The client, 27-year-old Chunguang Piao, is currently on trial in South Australia for Fang’s murder, but beyond the interrogation of one man, the case has just as much become about the laws that lead women into such vulnerable situations in the first place.

Australia is covered by a complicated patchwork of sex work regulations. Broadly speaking, South Australia, Western Australia, Tasmania and the Northern Territory criminalise most aspects of sex work, although not the sale of sex itself. Victoria, Queensland and the ACT allow brothel work under special licensing requirements. NSW permits both brothel-based and street-based sex work, although the Baird government is currently conducting a parliamentary inquiry into brothel regulation.

South Australia maintains the strictest approach, and while, since Fang’s murder, the push for reform is gaining momentum, exactly what kind of reform is required remains a point of contention. On one side of the fence, South Australian state Liberal MLC Michelle Lensink last week introduced a bill to decriminalise sex work, an updated version of the same legislation Labor backbencher Steph Key put to the lower house in 2013 before it lapsed last year. An earlier version of Key’s bill had made it to a lower house ballot in 2012, falling short by one vote.

Lensink told me her effort to tackle the issue was about “pragmatism, not morality”, and that Fang’s case highlighted why reform was needed. With most of the parliamentary sitting days before the August break to be taken up by estimates hearings, debate around the bill will have to wait until the back end of the year.

Key said she’ll be working to try to ensure Lensink’s upper house bill doesn’t meet the same fate as her own previous attempts, and has organised a briefing session on the subject with new members of parliament for the first week of September. Premier Jay Weatherill is understood to support reform.

Lensink and Key hope that with a conscience vote permitted on both sides, and the support of the Greens, it will have the numbers to carry the day.

But on the other side of the debate an even more unlikely alliance is forming. Those in the major parties opposed to decriminalisation have tended to avoid the issue, allowing Family First to take centre stage. The party’s state parliamentary leader, Dennis Hood, is turning not to his party’s religious base for a solution, but to a plan devised by Scandinavian feminists. 

Hood said his party is currently investigating the “Nordic Model”. Implemented in Sweden in 1999, the system makes the buying of sexual services a criminal act, but leaves the selling of it legal – targeting the clients not the sex workers. The philosophy behind the approach is that sex work is inherently degrading and promotes the commodification of women, who make up the majority of the world’s sex workers.

According to Hood, women in the industry are more likely to be drug addicts, suffer health problems, and be victims of violence. He points to what he characterised as an increased prevalence in sex work in New Zealand following decriminalisation in 2003 as a cautionary tale for South Australia.

Dr Meagan Tyler of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia (CATWA) said that sex work itself is a form of violence against women, although she was less than enthusiastic about the allies backing her preferred approach.

“Support [for the Nordic Model] is always welcome, but I would question the motive of people who co-opt the language of feminism but don’t really mean what they are saying,” she said.

Tyler argued that the criminalising of buyers had successfully curbed demand in Sweden and substantially reduced human trafficking there. Similar models look set to be implemented in France and Canada, although she cautioned that the latter’s legislation is missing some important elements.

“In Sweden they made sure to set out exit programs – proper pathways for women out into other employment,” she said.

On New Zealand’s experiences with full decriminalisation, Tyler said a five-year review of the new laws in 2008 reported there had been an increase in sex work across the board, particularly in areas of socio-economic disadvantage, and there was no indication the reforms had led to a reduction in violence against women in the industry.

The New Zealand prostitution law review committee Tyler referred to did in fact determine that sex workers remained vulnerable to exploitative employment conditions, such as being forced to take clients against their will. However, the committee concluded that, overall, sex workers were safer as a result of decriminalisation and – in contrast to Hood and Tyler’s claims – the size of the industry had not grown since the reforms were introduced.

Back in Adelaide, Lensink described the idea that decriminalisation would encourage the trafficking of women as a “furphy” and said that Australia had other laws to control such forms of exploitation.

“When you have sex work criminalised in any form, whether that is the so-called Nordic Model or the system we currently have, which criminalises the supply side, it affects the [sex workers’] relationship with police,” she said.

“They can’t take assaults to the police, as they don’t have that trust, given the police will be trying to get evidence on them.”

On June 4, several dozen sex workers and their supporters gathered on the steps of South Australian parliament for the annual International Whores’ Day rally. Lensink spoke, as did Key, as well as sex industry representatives, who characterised their work as a service to the community. Dominique Kohoron, of the South Australian Sex Industry Network and Sex Worker Action Group: Gaining Empowerment, Rights & Recognition (SWAGGERR), said decriminalising the industry was about much more than just protection against violence.

“Sex workers who are assaulted are less likely to go to the police – they may have condoms used as evidence against them,” she said. “But even without the police and a criminal record to consider, basic protections afforded to other workers in South Australia are not afforded to us.

“As sex workers we have no work health and safety laws to protect us, we have no workers’ compensation to insure us, no sick pay, no unions, and no superannuation. For anyone who spends their working life as a sex worker in SA, they are completely alone.”

As pointed out by Greens MLC Tammy Franks, another speaker at the rally, the case of Ting Fang is an example of just how serious the consequences can be when sex workers are left to fend for themselves.

“[Fang] was silenced by her death, but she was silenced even more by her profession, cloaked in secrecy,” she said. “She deserves justice, she deserves South Australia to take that step forward and decriminalise sex work this year.”

Whether South Australian authorities move towards treating sex work like any other industry, or attempt to curtail demand by targeting clients instead of the providers, there is a palpable sense that after decades of rejected proposals, something is going to change. Whatever happens, though, it will happen too late for Fang.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 11, 2015 as "Legalising sex work ". Subscribe here.

Max Opray
is an Adelaide-based freelance journalist.