A series of media reports done jointly by the ABC and Fairfax newspapers last week described links between legal brothels in Victoria and small numbers of trafficked women.
Legislation was proposed at state Parliament seeking to overhaul the regulation of the sex industry and give the police the oversight role, rather than the government department of Consumer Affairs.
But the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women in Australia says the proposed law represents merely "cosmetic" changes.
Presenter: Liam Cochrane
Speaker: Professor Sheila Jeffreys, founder of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women in Australia
JEFFREYS: We would like to see legislation that would move towards ending the abuse of women that is prostitution. What we would ideally like to see is what's called the Nordic model, which penalises male buyers. This is very successful in Sweden, it's been adopted by Norway and Iceland and what it does is it reduces trafficking to almost nothing, because traffickers don't want to take women into a situation where it's impossible to operate. It really very seriously reduces prostitution, street prostitution pretty much disappears, so it's very effective and it also enables the building up of a public opinion against that activity by men, which will eventually lead to the ending of that industry altogether.
COCHRANE: Is there the risk though that making the purchase of sex illegal might drive prostitution underground and further away from any kind of regulation?
JEFFREYS: This is a bit of a laugh really, because wherever prostitution is legalised, the illegal industry is much larger than the legal industry, so there's always a much bigger so-called underground industry. Also any of harms of prostitution, particularly the traffic in women operates through the legal brothels, so really that argument simply doesn't comply with the facts.
COCHRANE: There's been some debate about the extent of trafficking within Australia's sex industry, whether it's legal or illegal. How widespread do you think human trafficking for sexual exploitation is in Australia?
JEFFREYS: Some agencies, like Scarlet Alliance, say that there's very little trafficking, because they have an extremely narrow definition, which is that the women have to be obviously forced and obvious violence has to be done against them and they downplay the significance of what's going on. There is considerable force and violence, but there's also women being trafficked into debt bondage, who know where they're going and for instance, Scarlet Alliance says that if the women know they're going to end up in prostitution, it's not trafficking. Simply not true. If you look at web sites that advertise this its Melbourne brothels, you will see the buyers talking about the Asian women they use. They say they don't have good English, that they look very reluctant and they talk about the Korean pimp shouting at some women in the brothel. We know those women didn't get here of their own accord. They may have known they were going into prostitution, but somebody trafficked them here and then put them in debt bondage, in other words having paid a small amount for their air fare, then tells them that they owe $40,000 or $50,000 and they have to pay that by being sexually used. That is according to the United Nations, a modern form of slavery, so they're held in slavery in these brothels. It's nothing to do with choice, it's nothing to do with whether they know they'll be in prostitution at this end, but it's in the interests of sex work organisations and governments of pimp states who want to keep offering prostitution to men to downplay the existence of trafficking. In fact, trafficking is hidden in plain sight, lots of web sites, lots of places where buyers talk to each. It's very obvious that trafficking is going on.
COCHRANE: Sheila Jeffreys, you mentioned the Scarlet Alliance and we had them on the show last week. We spoke to Elena Jeffreys, the President of Scarlet Alliance, speaking about the moves before the state parliament in Victoria, to increase police powers and to tighten regulation in the sex industry. Let's just hear a little bit of what she had to say to us last week.
ELENA JEFFREYS: We think it's an absolute abomination that groups that call themselves feminist groups in Victoria have been supporting this move. We think it's terrible that the committee in Victoria made this conclusion and recommendation and it's just playing straight into the hands of corruption.
COCHRANE: Your organisation describes itself as a feminist organisation. It's an all women organisation. How do you respond to that claim that it's an abomination for feminist groups?
SHEILA JEFFREYS: There's very serious problems with the sex work amendment bill. For a start, it gives police oversight only of the illegal industry. We know that trafficking is mainly into the legal brothels. We do also know that one reason for legalisation in this state was that there was a history of police corruption in relation to prostitution. Unfortunately, you can't tidy up prostitution. Everywhere in the world, prostitution is associated overwhelmingly with trafficking, because that's a main supply route into the industry with organised crime, with forms of violence, with very serious harms in the community to the status of women and so on. So you can't tidy the industry up and this amendment bill is just one of tens of amendment bills that have happened to try and deal with little bits of the industry, like they find prostitution happening in strip clubs, so they change the registration, then they find it's difficult to deal with illegal brothels, so they change the legislation and so on. None of this deals with the very serious arms of the industry. Unfortunately, organised crime can make a huge amount of profit from very vulnerable women. They will continue to do that until something like the Swedish model is established.
COCHRANE: Your saying that trafficking is the main supply route for women going into the sex industry in Australia. Do you believe that some women do choose to work in the sex industry by their own accord?
JEFFREYS: When people talk about women choosing to be in the industry, which is extremely abusive to women both physically and mentally, what they're doing is they're blaming women. They're saying that somehow prostitution has always been there, because women somehow have this urge to go out and be prostituted. That is not the case. Men are the demands, they demand the supply, that's the simple rule of economics. So women are got into the industry by various means, by serious poverty and debt, by drug use, by the fact that they've already been in prostitution often in child prostitution in Asian countries and can be easily led and coerced and actually deluded into going to Australia thinking they'll be in a better situation and, of course, it's a much worse situation. So by various means, women will be got into this industry for men's use. Talking about women's choice, actually is a way of saying that the industry's find and should continue and somehow the buyers and those who make serious profits out of it which is never, never, never the women are somehow not to blame and can be discounted. The industry can be ended like all other forms of violence against women. This should be our aim, so we should be talking about what is the best way and the most effective way to bring an end to the practice, not blaming women who are the victims and the most powerless in this situation for the fact that it continues.
COCHRANE: I do take your point that men are overwhelmingly the buyers of sexual services.
In your proposal to make the purchase of sex illegal, what about women who might purchase sexual services, should that also be illegal?
JEFFREYS: Yes, in such legislation, everybody who purchased sexual services would be committing an offence. The women who are prostituted, whoever they're prostituted by would be decriminalised and offered services for exiting the industry. For instance in Korea, women who are being got out of trafficking and out of the industry have 18 months of state support to be able to have all of the services of education and job training and counselling that they need to get out and in fact organisations there are saying it should be three years. Well, there are no such schemes within Australia, because the government which is a....the pimp governments of Australia have this understanding that women need to be provided to men and it's the role of government to supply these women in regulated premises to the men who will abuse them.
COCHRANE: Did I hear you correctly in you referring to the pimp government of Australia?
JEFFREYS: There are pimp governments in the states, presently the Federal government is not responsible for prostitution laws, but I understand that governments that legalise prostitution are pimps in as much as they're arranging the supply of women to men and indeed the European Union, the women's group in the parliament have made this argument that legalising states that do that are pimp governments in pimp states. So it's not my language. It's being used by feminists internationally on this issue.