Sex policy fraught with pitfalls

by Chris Griffith
Published 1 November 1992 in The Sun-Herald


my face


Get ready! Queensland is set to become the capital of suburbia prostitution solo operations and escort agencies.

This is the unavoidable conclusion following State Cabinet's decision last Monday to endorse Premier Wayne Goss's so-called "practical response" to prostitution.

If anything rivals the world's oldest profession, it's the world's oldest debate on controlling it.

Last week, Cabinet formalised proposed tougher laws to be considered by State Parliament and enacted before year's end.

It again rejected a Criminal Justice Commission's (CJC) suggestion to allow prostitute collectives of two to 10 persons regulated and monitored by a proposed registration board, a suggestion consistent with the Fitzgerald Report.

In his report, Tony Fitzgerald QC said: "It is safe to assume that prostitution will continue to exist, whether or not it is illegal, so long as people are willing to buy and sell sex."

"It may be better to control and regulate prostitution, not just prohibit it, for the overall benefit of the community."

However the Government will outlaw brothels and (sexually oriented) escort agencies. It will only allow single operators to work from home.

The Government says the police's priority will be to target the "criminals and parasites" in the industry, although police will be empowered to arrest without warrant sex workers and clients alike.

On the surface, this sounds strong stuff, measures designed to reduce both demand and supply for commercial sex and a priority committment to tackling organised crime, drugs, and the money laundering associated with prostitution.

The reality is the measures will only make the problems less visible, but not necessarily less significant.

Sex workers will face a choice of operating legally in a solo situation, or working illegally for escort agencies and in illegal brothels.

Last week, there was much debate about the safety problems solo operators would face in increased numbers when legislation is enacted, especially physical violence and rape.

Not so much was made of the potential problem of prostitutes currently in brothels being organised into chains of solo operations in the suburbs, dispersed invisible networks rendered virtually impossible to detect without massive police and local government resources.

Premier Goss and Police Minister Paul Braddy claim, correctly, that to enforce the law against solo operators would be to regulate people's sexual activities in their homes. Mr Goss last week pointed out the CJC, too, had agreed that solo workers could operate legally.

However in its report the CJC said solo operations provided little advantage to the sex worker who wished to be legally managed by a collective, but only provided there were alternatives.

"If they wish to be managed they have the option of joining a legitimate organisation such as a brothel, escort agency, co- operative, etc," the report said.

Without a legal alternative, sex workers will have little choice other than to work alone, a situation that will render them vulnerable to the 'Mr Bigs' who will move to control solo operations.

Further, these prostitutes will face the increased physical danger of working alone, especially those housed in rented high-rise apartments invisible to authorities and far from help.

Indeed sex workers' only other option would be escort agencies, again dangerous and illegal networks rendered difficult to detect. They can be operated from a car with a mobile telephone.

It is therefore likely that brothel owners are currently discussing with their sex workers the alternatives, and that the sex workers, keen to escape the prospect of raids and arrests, are agreeing readily.

Meanwhile the Government says its critics have got it wrong. It says the decriminalisation and regulation of commercial sex in Victoria has led to an increase in illegal prostitution, rather than a decrease.

It says the Victorian situation has shown that local authorities "will not compliantly cooperate in being the regulator of brothels", and that translated to Queensland, local authorities would not approve small-scale brothels.

However, the regulation of prostitution in Victoria has been undermined by its Upper House, and by a refusal to proclaim many regulations. As a result prostitution is governed by four disparate pieces of legislation - the comparison with Queensland is hardly justified.

Further Victorian councils have been lumbered with not only approving the location of brothels, but also a licensing function they are ill- equipped to perform that includes monitoring health and other provisions.

The CJC's model would not impose such burdens on Queensland local authorities; some councils may prefer that sex workers are regulated and confined to industrial areas rather than face the prospect of numerous sole operators in residential areas.

Certainly large local authorities such as Brisbane and the Gold Coast would be in a position to do this.

Queensland is therefore left with a conundrum of a prostitution policy that, irrespective of one's moral view, appears self-defeating.

The planned health initiatives, for example, are unlikely to be embraced by the sex workers who need it most - those who operate illegally.

Condoms, however inadmissable as court evidence, are unlikely to be carried around by sex workers who are part of an illegal escort service. They are clues for police to look for other evidence.

It is therefore incumbent on the Government to think carefully about its policy, and if it proceeds, to consider these potential new victims of prostitution, the solo operators - in particular what can be done to protect physical safety.

Perhaps the last word on this subject should go to CJC chairman Sir Max Bingham, who at an address on ethics at Parliament House quoted Thurman Arnold on the issue of double standards.

"Most unenforced criminal laws survive in order to satisfy moral objections to establish codes of conduct. They are unenforced because we want to continue our conduct, and unrepealed because we want to preserve our morals."

Certainly the Government is changing the old prostitution laws whose selective enforcement began the Fitzgerald Inquiry; the question is whether new lives will be endangered simply to satisfy the old moral objections.

If so, some new moral objections are in order.