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Women’s advocates slam brothel push

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Melinda Tankard-Reist
Melinda Tankard-Reist on stage at the 2017 Australian Catholic Youth Festival in Sydney. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

Women’s advocates have condemned a Northern Territory discussion paper that could lead to the radical decriminalisation of brothels.

Prostitution is currently not illegal in the territory but brothels are outlawed and there are calls for reform to address a proliferation of illegal brothels operating as massage parlours. However, the changes under discussion could lead to brothels opening up alongside homes, schools and day care centres and they include allowing sex workers to operate their business from their homes.

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The paper indicates a push to bring prostitution under the same regulatory framework as other businesses.

Co-founder of Collective Shout, Melinda Tankard-Reist, said that the NT government had been captured by sex industry interests at the expense of women’s health and that government-sanctioned brothels send a signal that “the supply of women for men’s use is lawful”.

“Where the sex industry enjoys deregulation and protection of government, violence, degradation, abuse and trauma are common experiences,” she said, adding that it was “deeply concerning” that sex industry de-regulation would be put forward in a Territory with a significant population of at-risk Indigenous women.

“Rather than sending a strong signal that the prostituting of vulnerable women is degrading and inconsistent with fundamental human rights, if this report is adopted in practice, more women and girls will fall prey to this predatory industry,” she said.

Former high-profile WA madam and founder of Linda’s House of Hope, Linda Watson, said that any future legislation based on the discussion paper would fail in its objectives because it reveals a flawed understanding of the sex industry. “Decriminalising prostitution will not stop it from proliferating and no occupational health and safety laws can prevent people from being damaged [by the sex trade],” she told The Catholic Weekly.

“Mothers will especially not want their children exposed to this type of lifestyle. They do not want strange men loitering around the neighbourhood or near schools where their children attend. Going down this path will be detrimental to the whole community.”

NT Attorney-General Natasha Fyles said the government was working to provide a safe and sustainable framework for sex workers. “Being a sex worker is a recognised profession in the NT, but workers have no protection and minimal rights,” she said. “All Territorians deserve to be safe at work.”

However, Ms Watson said that decriminalisation of the sex trade would entrench sexual harassment in the workplace. “Women have fought hard for years to keep sex out of the workplace,” she said.

Both advocates recommended the ‘Nordic Model’ of regulation successfully implemented in Sweden and several other countries which criminalises the buyer of sexual services but decriminalises and offers exit strategies to sellers, who are usually women.

Members of the public are invited to comment on the issues in the discussion paper with submissions closing on 6 May, after which legislative changes to decriminalise brothels could proceed.

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