|he distinction between the sex
industry and the mainstream entertainment industry
is blurred, as erotic imagery is becoming integrated
in the mainstream industry, in the form of fashion,
films and music videos. This blurred line has shifted
over time, especially during the twentieth century – that
is, activities that used to be viewed as part of
the underworld are now an integral part of the
mainstream industry and actually enjoy high status
and respectability (e.g. theatre, musicals, modelling
for artists). Thus, it is possible that sectors
that are now seen as belonging within the sex industry
may acquire higher respectability in the future
and therefore come to be incorporated within the
mainstream entertainment industry.
The sex industry is a widespread industry and
its size and visibility differ from country to
country. Its largely underground and clandestine
nature makes it extremely difficult, if not impossible,
to gain accurate figures and a reliable picture
of its size. Most figures available are mere estimates.
It has been argued that in structure and size,
Australia’s sex industry is very similar
to the religious industry – both employ approximately
20, 000 people and both sell intangibles like ‘fantasy’, ‘desire’ and ‘hope’ along
with an extensive ‘spin-off’ range
The term ‘sex industry’ is often conflated
with ‘prostitution’. In reality, the
sex industry includes a wide range of practices
involving the exchange of sex (and/or sexually
related goods or services) for money. Prostitution
is only a small part of the global sex industry.
And street prostitution is only a tiny part of
the prostitution market, which includes different
types of indoor premises and settings. However,
street prostitution is the most ‘visible’ part
of the industry, the one that is more connected
with criminal elements and the one that causes
the most uproar in society.
The Home Office started a review of legislation
around prostitution in the year 2004. The resulting ‘prostitution
strategy’ was published last month and it
mainly aims to reduce street prostitution. Sex
worker activists and sex workers’ rights
advocates are unanimous in their disapproval of
this new strategy. Once again, sex work is treated
as a social behaviour problem, rather than as a
labour issue. The way to tackle vulnerability and
exploitation is to focus on health and human rights,
and this is what the strategy fails to do.
The recent changes, the so-called zero tolerance
approach towards street prostitution, will bring
nefarious consequences to sex workers and sex workers’ safety.
Repressive measures against sex workers or their
clients result in further vulnerability. The market
is forced further underground, workers are forced
to work in more isolated areas where they are more
vulnerable to violence.
This strategy also reduces sex workers’ negotiating
powers. If the clients are at risk of persecution,
they will be nervous and will try to cut down on
the negotiation time. That will result in less
time for sex workers to access whether a client
is genuine or violent, and less time to negotiate
safe sex practices and condom use.
Repressive measures discourage consenting adult
sex workers and clients from reporting abuses to
the police, fearing they will be persecuted for
their own involvement in sex work.
As research carried out in other countries, such
as Sweden, show, repressive measures and the criminalisation
of clients do not result in the reduction (let
alone elimination) of street prostitution. They
merely shift the market from one area to another.
Sex workers have less autonomy and control in
their work than many other workers. The main argument
put forward against the regulation of the sex industry
in a way that ensures that sex workers have occupational
conditions enjoyed by workers in other industries
is that sex work is inherently exploitative. The
fact that laws are responsible for the creation
of exploitative conditions within the sex industry
is usually ignored.
Sex work is legitimate work and problems within
the industry are not inherent in the work itself.
It is vulnerability, not sex work, which creates
victims. Sex workers should enjoy the same labour
rights as other workers and the same human rights
as other people. Sex workers can only gain the
same rights as other workers when the debate is
moved from a moral framework and placed in the
framework of labour rights.
Dr Ana Lopes works for the International
Union of Sex Workers.