On Thursday 28 March, SIN and the Sex Industry Decriminalisation Action Committee are holding an evening of discussion around why South Australia must decriminalise sex work.

SA’s sex work laws haven’t changed in 50 years and there is a renewed push to make the industry more regulated and safer for workers.

Featuring the ‘Dames of Decriminalisation’ Julie Bates AO and Dame Catherine Healy, the discussion will revolve around the best approach to changing existing laws and attitudes towards sex work.

Founding member of the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) and recipient of a damehood for her activism in sex worker rights Dame Catherine Healy says decriminalisation will make a positive difference to the industry and the workers.

“We know from our experience here in New Zealand and also the experience of sex workers in New South Wales that it makes lives so much easier and safer. If you go to work as I did when I was a sex worker when it was criminalised, you always have this stress on you and of course the police loomed large, but not as allies as they do when it’s decriminalised,” she says. “That shouldn’t be the case. Everyone should feel able to reach out for support if they need it at times when times go bad. Decriminalisation is really important to protect lives and health and safety of all sex workers.”

With sex work decriminalised in 2003 in New Zealand, Dame Catherine has seen positive changes that have improved conditions for people in the industry.

“Certainly the relationship with the police has become much, much stronger. We’ve just co-branded a resource with them. We couldn’t ever have imagined sitting down around a table of equal partners talking about ways which we can improve the way we report crimes around sexual violence for sex workers. Just couldn’t have happened when it was criminalised in the same way. We wouldn’t have trusted them,” she says.

“That’s the tangible example of a situation that works well when sex worker feel able to come forward and report crimes committed against them. But inevitably, sex workers have had a lot more choice. So instead of just having a choice to work in really, really tight-zoned areas, the choice has been wide for those sex workers, not all because some city councils have drawn up quite restrictive zoning and by-laws, but in the main, most of the big cities and small cities in New Zealand have allowed for sex work to occur in a variety of different cities. Managed brothels and street basic work is permitted and as well as home based sex work in most parts of New Zealand.”

And while it has many, many merits, the model also has some improvements to be made.

“We also have problems in the sense that you can’t come to New Zealand with the intention of becoming a sex worker. If you need a work visa, you can’t work here for sex work,” Dame Catherine says.

“I think that will change I think it’s untenable to have that level of discrimination and I also think probably in this bill they’re considering in Adelaide, the idea of having anti-discrimination legislation embedded in it is really important and I think it needs to happen in this country. So we’re all hoping this legislation will go through and will have a global impact.

The South Australian 2018 Franks Sex Work Decriminalisation bill is the same as the Lensink/Key Bill introduced by Michelle Lensink MLC in 2015, which passed the Upper House in 2017 with a clear majority, but lapsed before ever reaching a vote in the Lower House when Parliament was prorogued for the 2018 state election.

“It is timely as we celebrate 125 years of women’s suffrage to look to some of our sisters in NSW and NZ for inspiration on how to reform our sex work laws. Decrim laws will impact on women’s lives the most. Both NZ and NSW have had decriminalisation for well over a decade and the Dames’ stories can teach us so much. Sex workers are part of the sisterhood and deserve some solidarity as we celebrate our suffrage this year,” Tammy Franks MLC says.

“South Australia has the oldest sex work laws in the country and we desperately need reform to protect the rights of people in the industry. Like it or not, sex work has always been and always will be around. It’s time our laws matched the reality of what happens, not reflected the wishes of those who would rather it didn’t.”

Tammy Franks will take the bill to a vote in coming months.

Workers in every industry deserve protection and the Dames are here to help us change the conversation and put in place measures to keep people safe.

Let’s hope for change very soon so all people can go to work and enjoy the highest levels of safety and protection.

By Libby Parker