A young woman (I’ve seen her photo) called Andrea Tokaji had a piece in one of our local newspapers, which I read quickly and then read more slowly and carefully. She is ‘a PhD candidate on gender-based violence’ and the Founding Director of Fighting for Justice Foundation. It’s an interesting website, and is largely about bringing and end to ‘human trafficking’, which includes sexual slavery, forced marriage, organ removal and forced labour. The International Labour Organization puts the current numbers at about 21 million, about two thirds in forced labour and a quarter in sexual exploitation of one kind or another. In the essay I read, Ms Tokaji was mostly on about prostitution in Australia.
She has established a campaign whose key message is ‘Prostitution, I Don’t Buy it’, used by Tom Meagher, the husband of Jill Meagher, a journalist (NOT a prostitute) who was raped and then murdered in Melbourne by Adrian Bailey in 2012. It calls on all men and boys to take a pledge declaring that they no longer want to see ‘the commodification or exploitation of women in their communities’. She wants to take this conversation into the public arena, and eventually ‘change the laws that make exploitation and trafficking a possibility in our nation’, along the lines of ‘the Nordic Model’.
I didn’t know much about the Nordic Model, so I looked that up too, and you can read about a version of it here. Essentially, the criminal is the person who pays the prostitute for sex; she (or he) is deemed not to have engaged in a criminal activity. Julian Assange was wanted in Sweden for trial over such a charge. The more I read the more worried I became. I don’t want to see the Nordic Model here, though I am prepared to listen to arguments for it. Any form of criminalisation drives such activity underground, and tends to corrupt the law enforcement agencies.
A personal statement is plainly necessary. I have never used the services of a prostitute, and on the one occasion such a service was offered to me, when a young national serviceman, my fellow soldier and I scurried away in horror. You need to know also that we had been shown, not long before, a most awful film about the GREAT DANGERS of sex, an experience neither of us had enjoyed at that point. The young lady who had suggested an encounter must plainly be riddled with diseases of all kinds, we thought, and our vital parts would turn black and drop off — though she seemed quite healthy at the time. There can be little doubt that some prostitutes endure violence, or threats of it, from some of their customers. But all of us, men, women and children, can be subject to physical violence, as I have been, once in the past. Recriminalising prostitution will not end violence.
In New South Wales, about which I know the most in this area, the Wran Government decriminalised prostitution in 1979. The reasons were various, but among the most important were the growing public detestation of the corruption in the NSW Police Force, especially with respect to prostitution and gambling, combined with a view that perhaps regulation was better than banning. The problem with banning something that people want to do is that you have to provide a powerful and plausible reason for doing so. While we were a nominally Christian country prostitution simply didn’t fit the Christian notion that sex was only permissible inside a marriage. That was hard lines on young people who were not married and couldn’t afford to be, and brought about marriage at the earliest possible age, in practical terms 21 at that time, which was the case for me and most of my cohort. That sense of the ‘Christian’ relationship seems to have slowly died during the second half of the 20th century, and as it did, other options became more easily talked about, and employed.
Prostitution exists, has existed, and seems always to have existed, whatever you want to call it. It has claims to be ‘the oldest profession’, politics being the second oldest, though Ronald Reagan thought there was little difference between the two. And of course there are those (I am not one) who would regard a lot of marriages in the past as not much better than prostitution, in that the husband traded money and what it could provide, the women offering sex and other kinds of service. What was the difference? I don’t want to go down that path in this essay, though it would be an entertaining one.
The Wran Government’s decriminalisation of prostitution was followed by the appointment of John Avery as NSW Police Commissioner, who changed the name from ‘Force’ to ‘Service’ and made the ending of corruption in the police one of his top priorities. He was in that job for seven years, was greatly admired, and did a fine job. John Avery was one of my graduate students, and rang me up on the occasion of his appointment (he had written a thesis on the need to change the Force to Service). Why was the illegalisation of prostitution such a problem? Well, it gave the police vast discretion, since the laws about public order (under which brothels were deemed illegal) were vaguely drafted. The community’s attitudes were all over the place. There was a strong market, especially at the time of R&R leave for servicemen in Vietnam. And it was easy for individual policemen, and squads of them, to receive kickbacks, both in kind and in cash (what was termed ‘weighing in’). Indeed, I was shown a motel which, I was told, the Vice Squad had used for its own parties. It was an astonishing place.
Corruption of that kind is infectious, which is why Avery did his best to stamp it out. You will get it in any area where the formal rules of the society are at cross purposes with its practices. We had it in gambling, where there were well-known illegal casinos in Sydney which flourished long before casinos were legal. One of the premiers of New South Wales was said to be a frequent visitor. From the police side you would get arguments that these activities existed, and had to be policed for the good of society. Somebody had to do it, and that was part of their job. Again, kickbacks were part of it, and the infection spread. To the best of my knowledge, corruption in the force is much less pronounced now than was once the case. It is almost certainly there in the area of illegal drugs. I strongly support all efforts to decriminalise ‘substance abuse’, and a lot of my friends think I’m quite wrong in doing so. It won’t be at all easy.
A woman public servant whom I know was given the job of trying to find some method to regularise, rather than regulate, the activity in Sydney. She went off to find out who was who, and suggested that the girls organise themselves into an industrial organisation, since everyone talked about prostitution as an industry. Pimps, the males who had battened themselves onto the women and acted as ‘protectors’, were now illegal, since it is still illegal to live off the proceeds of prostitution if you are not yourself a sex worker. All these possibilities were news to most of the sex workers, but the public servant showed them how to organise, and they followed her suggestions. The problem came over the election of the Treasurer, and for a time the public servant found herself the Treasurer of the organisation, since those who were to lead the new organisation did not trust one another enough where money was concerned. Some years have passed since then, and the industrial organisation is now called The Scarlet Alliance, and you can read about it here.
Two other matters are of interest in this domain. There are said to be brothels which cater to a largely Asian clientele, and employ mostly Asian sex workers who charge about half the fee sought by ‘Caucasian’ sex workers. It is said also that these women are exploited, some barely paid, and returned to their country of origin under the impression that they owe large sums of money. It seems to me that if such a situation exists, the police and local councils can deal with it under a number of heads of authority, and should do so. There is no clear picture here, and organised sex workers themselves say it is not so, and is not an outcome of human trafficking. You can read their take on it here.
The second is that there are some distinctly unpleasant jobs about (gutting an endless line of freshly killed chooks, for example), and it may seem better to to a young woman to earn her living as a sex worker. $500 a night (which seems to equate to two hours’ work) might seem quite attractive to a young woman whose options hover around the minimum wage, at perhaps $630 a week. That contrast was certainly one of the reasons prostitution flourished in 19th century London. I think it is always important to consider what the alternatives are. Yes, I recognise that having sex for money may affect the woman’s sense of self, but that is true of a lot of things we do.
So, back to Ms Tokaji. I am sure she is well-meaning, and I admire her industry. The pledge is fine, and if people want to sign it, good for them. But to bring back laws that make sex activity for money criminal seems to me utterly the wrong way to go. We’ve seen that in the past, with respect to alcohol, gambling and sex. It doesn’t work, and it corrupts our social system, especially our police force. Yes, this is an imperfect society, and I have written about that before, for example here. The laws that Ms Tokaji seems to want will make things generally worse, not better.