Review of Sex Trafficking The Dark Side of the Australian Sex Industry? by Dianne McInnes & Paul Wilson, New Holland Publishers 2012.

The book begins “In Australia today, young women—sometimes those who are just children or adolescents—are being exploited physically, emotionally and financially by criminal elements, people who are determined that they will grow rich over the bodies of those they coerce or cleverly trap into entering the sex industry.”

But the book isn’t an overview of sex trafficking or prostitution more generally. Rather it looks at a number of cases which have come before the courts. The authors do not attempt to suggest the size of the problem, not least because as they point out “Currently Victoria has around 100 licensed brothels and escort agencies, and an estimated 300 illegal brothels”. If we can only estimate the number of illegal brothels equally we can only guess at whether any of those illegal brothels are using trafficked women. Although they mention Asian women trafficked into a legal brothel in Sydney the traffic is predominantly an aspect of the growth in illegal brothels, and brothels which are neither licensed nor inspected raise unanswerable issues as to how many trafficked women are working in the sex industry at any one time.

Recent figures I’ve come across from Victorian Police are of just over 400 cases currently under investigation in that state. But as the authors point out there are three different crimes which the media tend to bundle together and so confuse the issue. These are:

1. Slavery. Although the media comes out with lurid headlines at times such as ‘Sex Slaves Held in Dungeon’ slavery is hard to prosecute. It may involve physical control, such as women without access to passports and other documents or women prevented from leaving their work premises or denied any remuneration for their work, but the authors point out that the slavery can also be psychological. This can involve threats and intimidation, drug addiction, fear for family members, fear of deportation, or women given wrong information.

2. Trafficking. They quote Nina Vallins of Project Respect for her definition of trafficking: “1) a person is moved from place A to place B; 2) the person has either been kidnapped or has agreed to go but been deceived about the circumstances that await them at point B; and 3) the purpose of moving the person is to exploit them.” The legal definition of trafficking is “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation.” So it does not have to involve the crossing of borders but often does involve false information, false documents, and false backgrounds. The authors include the cases of several children, including a 12-year-old in Tasmania, who were prostituted hundreds of times before the authorities stepped in. Although these cases did not necessarily involve borders in all of them false information was being peddled.

3. Debt Bondage. This is where women may, or may not, be aware that the jobs being offered involve sex. But they are not told that they will be deprived of their liberty or be unable to change places of employment until huge debts are deemed to have been repaid. The largest debt mentioned in the book is $200,000 though most were around $45,000. I have heard that debts of up to $150,000 are now common. Given that a return fare from Bangkok is less than a thousand dollars it is not hard to see why criminal operators see this as a lucrative way to make money. They mention a legal brothel in NSW where “When the police and immigration officials raided the premises the following day, they found four scantily-dressed Thai women cowering under furniture in a locked room with no door handles below a spa and sauna centre in Fairfield. This room was connected to the brothel premises by a hidden stairway.”

They go on to say, “Each woman told a similar story about her ordeal. They were required to pay back debts of between $35,000 and $45,000 by working 16 hours per day, six days a week. They were forced to use crystallised methamphetamine (commonly known as ‘ice’), perform unsafe sexual practices, including not using a condom, and work while they were menstruating and while they were suffering vaginal infections.”

Wilson and McInnes also point to the sheer practical difficulties of getting convictions in the cases they highlight. Lack of English, lack of understanding of the law, lack of documentation (so that it may become the trafficked woman’s word against that of the brothel owner), lack of family support, fear of deportation, and so on. They write, “Tragically, and precisely because the women often come to this country under false pretences, many prosecutions of traffickers that may have merit are unsuccessful. They are seen as only prostitutes, and their evidence and testimony are disregarded or downplayed by the authorities, or they really do not have information about their traffickers that can be used by the prosecution. It is also true that both the legal system and the police rely on testimonies of the women who have experienced trafficking, and often, because resources are limited, they do not collect corroborating evidence, including phone and supporting records, statements from clients and co-workers and other material that would support the allegations.”

And by focusing on the end rather than the beginning, by which time the woman or girl may be infected with chlamydia, herpes, HIV etc, and may suffer long term from Post Traumatic Stress, I found myself wondering how we might prevent the exploitation in the first place.

The authors only really have one suggestion. “Lack of access to legal visas creates a market for sex trafficking. If people applied through legitimate immigration procedures to work in the sex industry, then many of the trafficking problems connected to debt bondage would be alleviated.”

But as the key aspect of trafficking is that it makes big money for the traffickers it isn’t clear how visas would stop trafficking. Equally it isn’t clear how visas would better police the industry. Given that there is resistance to bringing in foreign workers to do jobs that Australians are qualified to do (and none of the trafficked women had skills not available in Australia) this suggestion also raises but doesn’t answer the question of why women are being trafficked from Asia to do work Australian women are quite capable of doing. Again it comes back to the bigger profits to be made from trafficked women.

Implicit in the book is another issue, the ‘Asianisation’ of sex work in Australia. Almost all the trafficked cases were of Asian women or girls, including several underage cases, and more than half the traffickers were also Asian. It raises, in my mind, the concern that we may be underplaying the seriousness of the problem because most trafficking victims are ‘them’ rather than ‘us’. If the criminals are ‘them’ and the victims are ‘them’ then somehow trafficking isn’t really ‘our’ problem. It is a complex issue because it plays out against that widespread Australian belief that Asian women are sexier (and like sex more), they are more biddable and compliant, and they may have access to exciting and esoteric practices to attract jaded male palates. The authors note in passing that trafficking victims at times turn into traffickers—which also raises the question of whether people with an intimate knowledge of trafficking are going to prefer to operate transparently and legally.

The authors say, “The murders of sex workers are often unreported or the women are not recorded as missing persons. According to Helen Pringle from the University of New South Wales this occurs because the victims’ work stigmatises them as dirty and worthless. To those who loved them, these sex workers were mothers, daughters, sisters and friends. To the people who murdered and dumped their bodies, they were disposable. And their sex-worker colleagues are often afraid to go to the authorities because they may be working illegally or have fears for their own safety.”

Fiddling around with the visa system is not really the answer. Rather, we need to be asking tough questions of a culture which makes trafficking a lucrative option. Why do we as a society believe that we have a right to buy sex, no questions asked, and why do we believe that one person’s body should be for sale to another person, usually a stranger. Equally questions about the numbers of trafficking victims aren’t really the issue. One trafficked woman in an Australian brothel is one too many. One Australian male taking advantage of that trafficked woman is one too many.

Sex Trafficking is a horrifying book and, more so, given Australia’s much-vaunted belief in freedom, openness, fair play, and respect for human rights. It is also a useful place to start looking into this important issue. But because of its limited brief, the attempt to prosecute traffickers in Australian courts, don’t treat it as the only book you need to read about trafficking.

Nordic Model Australia Coalition (NORMAC) is an organization launched on the 23rd of August this year to campaign for an overhaul of prostitution laws in Australia.

We welcome the rejection of the sex work reform bill before the South Australian House of Assembly. NORMAC views this bill as an attempt to legitimise the sex industry, and favour those who seek to profit from the prostitution of others.

This bill has little to do with helping sex workers, the majority of whom are prostituted women who, according to national and international research, do not want to be in the sex industry.

We are concerned at statements made by the state MP for Ashford, Stephanie Key. Ms Key claims there is no evidence to support the assertion that there will be more trafficking if sex work is decriminalised.

This statement does not reflect the Australian experience, which has proven that trafficking of women has flourished in states where the sex industry has been legalised.

Trafficking is no bogeyman.  It is a significant, growing problem, and it has prospered in NSW under the ‘decriminalisation’ approach.  It is questionable why Ms Key would want to move South Australia in this direction when NSW is now attempting to address the entrenched corruption and escalating levels of trafficking brought about by the liberalised sex industry laws of 20 years ago.

Besides the trafficking of women for prostitution, NORMAC is concerned about the overt sexualisation of women in the media, the limited educational and employment options for women in low socio-economic areas and the heightened instances of sexual abuse amongst sex workers.

NORMAC also questions Australia’s commitment to human rights in following pro sex industry legislation, given the fact that recent reports from Scotland and Germany have criticised Australia as a high trafficking nation.

‘Many progressive governments internationally including France, Ireland and Scotland are moving towards Nordic style legislation which decriminalises the sale of sex by prostituted persons, but makes the purchase of sexual services a criminal offence. It is about equality, human rights and putting an end to those who seek to profit from the sexual exploitation of others.  This is the direction we would like to see Australia move in,’ said spokesperson Matthew Holloway. 

MATTHEW HOLLOWAY - Matthew has worked as a social worker and counsellor with prostitutes in Victoria.  He is an award-winning writer and social commentator currently based in Hobart.