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Opinion

All sex workers want for Christmas is decriminalisation

It has been a long wait for sex workers in Queensland, and now it’s time to call ‘time’.

It’s been 120 years since the dastardly Criminal Code made huge chunks of sex worker activity in Queensland illegal; 30 years since the Fitzgerald Inquiry recommended removing the police as regulators of the sex industry; over 400 days since it was reported that “the possible decriminalisation of sex work was currently under discussion between the Attorney-General and the Police Minister”. Still waiting.

In Queensland, decriminalisation would finally bring closure to the surveillance of sex workers by police, permit sex workers to use basic safety strategies such as texting one another before and after a booking, let us work in co-ops or pairs, drive for one another, and many other basic work activities that most people in Queensland take for granted.

Decriminalisation of sex work won’t be the end of history, but it would be a start to sex work being fully recognised as work, in line with UNAIDS and Kirby Institute recommendations in 2012, confirmed in The Lancet in 2014.

The evidence is overwhelming. Yet, as noted by UNAIDS Executive Director and UN Under-Secretary-General Winnie Byanyima, “This is no longer about a need for evidence – it’s about leadership, political courage, and action”.

Last month, the Northern Territory parliament passed legislation to fully decriminalise sex work within that jurisdiction. The move removed criminal penalties, bringing sex workers into industrial relations, health, and human rights processes in a way that a criminal framework could never deliver.

The change was welcomed by UNAIDS and is described as bringing relief to sex workers who had previously been governed by criminal laws and police. SWOP NT thanked Attorney-General Natasha Fyles “for listening to us and hearing our issues and concerns”, and Scarlet Alliance noted that “the process of the Bill from development to its passing has been a demonstration of best practice collaboration and consultation by the NT Labor Government with sex workers [and] our organisations.”

South Australia spent much of 2019 debating decriminalisation of sex work. The decriminalisation bill originated with Steph Key (Labor) was jointly sponsored by Tammy Franks (Greens) and Vickie Chapman (Attorney-General).

The debate lost sight of the evidence, with knee-jerk reinforcement of exceptional powers for police. The bill was eventually killed in the lower house before amendments.

It is not the last South Australia will see of the campaign for decriminalisation. Sex workers and their organisation, SIN, are committed to keeping up their demands to remove police wholesale from the industry. They are now focused on the next round of lobbying.

Victoria has announced a 2020 inquiry into sex work laws, with a view to developing a model of decriminalisation in that state. It’s something sex workers in Victoria have been calling for, and they are keeping a keen eye on the various political players within Victorian parliament.

Much of the success of the inquiry will depend on government willingness to work in collaboration with Vixen Collective, the Victorian sex worker organisation. It’s also going to be a test of Labor’s commitment to its own platform, which in May 2018 noted that human rights organisations recommend the decriminalisation of all forms of sex work.

In October 2019, police in Queensland tried and failed to increase their powers over sex workers. The government instead committed to a Law Reform Commission process.

Since that announcement, more than 30 sex workers have been arrested in the South East Queensland. In response, the community is holding a vigil this Tuesday 17 December, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

It’s tough times for our community when we face the fear of prosecution on a daily basis, criminalisation of our most simple safety strategies, and a combative police force if we dare to report violence. Still, the campaign continues.

Stephanie, a Queensland sex worker from DecrimQLD, has this to say: “Sex workers are putting the government on notice. We will not stand by while policymakers leave sex workers with no choice but to put ourselves in danger to avoid arrest.”

The laws in Queensland have been around for a long time. Winnie Byanyima points out, and politicians should take note: “But, in a stroke of the pen we could reverse this.”

Right now, sex workers are in our busiest work period of the year, but all we really want is full decriminalisation. If these laws could hurry up and be delivered, perhaps we could all get back to doing what we do best: working, paying the bills, caring for family, even taking a day or two off.

The criminal landscape is a constant source of stress for sex workers. We are left without a safety net, and must choose between working safely or legally.

I don’t even believe in Christmas, but still would love it if decriminalisation was stuffed into my stocking on the day.

Lulu Holliday from DecrimQLD describes it best when she says, “The right to work safely should not be a gift from policymakers.” It should be a given.

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