Each week in Victoria, more than 60,000 men buy women in prostitution. Thanks to investigations like those carried out recently by The Age and Four Corners, we know that some of the women they buy have been trafficked.
Sex trafficking in Australia should not come as a surprise. Sex industry businesses find a burgeoning market here. According to the business research company IBISWorld, the Australian sex industry has ballooned over the past decade. High growth has forced pimps to forge international supply routes to source their “product”, which, in the case of the sex industry, is mostly women and children. Asian women in particular are a consumer favourite.
“Customer review” websites set up for buyers of women in prostitution reveal just how popular Asian women are in the Victorian sex industry. One forum dedicated to reviews of women in legal brothels contains hundreds of comments about Asian “working ladies”, or WLs. Users complain that these women speak “barely intelligible English”. One contributor notes that “Korean WLs never look happy”, and another encourages readers to check out the “Korean chicks” at one particular brothel because they are “very young”, and “work for a matter of months before disappearing”.
Website participants are mostly unconcerned about the possibility the women they use might be trafficked. The token measure taken by Consumer Affairs Victoria last year to get these men to report trafficking – by putting up warning signs in brothel waiting rooms – doesn’t seem to be working.
Consumer Affairs licenses brothel and escort agency businesses. Prostitution was legalised in Victoria in 1984 to tackle three problems: illegal prostitution and police corruption, harm to women and street prostitution. More than 15 years later, these problems have grown worse, not better.
Estimates from police and the legal brothel industry put the number of illegal brothels at 400 in Victoria, four times the number of legal ones, and legal brothels are being used as fronts for illegal operators and criminal activity. Brothel owners have been caught bribing local government officials to warn them of licence checks.
Legalisation has not made women safer. A 1998 study found 40 per cent of clients do not use condoms. A woman in a Blackburn brothel this year was threatened by a client with a gun after she refused sex acts without a condom. Three academics who interviewed women in legal brothels in 2011 found that “physical safety” was one of their biggest concerns.
Violence in street prostitution is just as bad, and the author of a 2011 report commissioned by Inner South Health wrote that he collected “25 pages of short excerpts from interviews” where 89 people in prostitution in St Kilda described their experiences of “violence and rape”. The Attorney-General’s Street Prostitution Advisory Group in 2002 estimated 300-350 people were engaged in prostitution in St Kilda over the 12-month period. At least two have been murdered – one in 2003 and one in 2004.