Politicians from the ACT, Western Australia and Victoria will spend three weeks in France, Sweden and South Korea studying prostitution law reform.
ACT Liberal MLAs Giulia Jones and Vicki Dunne will be joined by West Australian state Liberal backbencher Peter Abetz and Victorian Labor state member Christine Campbell on the taxpayer-funded tour.
Academics and representatives from charity groups are also part of the delegation, which intends to study the so-called Nordic model.
Mrs Jones says the model places criminal responsibility on those who pay for sex and decriminalises soliciting.
“So it changes the mode of prosecution where we actually look at putting the onus for the harm back onto the predominantly men who buy sex,” she said.
For Mrs Jones, the tour was prompted by a 2008 incident in which an ACT sex worker died from a drug overdose.
She says it is impossible to make prostitution a safe industry and exit strategies for sex workers are needed.
“It is very, very difficult to legalise something which is so inherently dangerous,” she said.
“There aren’t many jobs where you go to work and get exposed to STIs (sexually transmissible infections), get told not to wear jewellery because you may get strangled, and basically you’re in a less powerful position because of the vast bulk of people selling sex are women and the vast bulk of buyers are men.
“It’s inherently wearing on a woman’s body. Women are servicing seven, eight, nine, 10 clients a day sometimes more and in many cases in order to cope by having to wear numbing gel.
“So I think it’s really important for us to face the reality of this industry and not just say well, we could legalise it and then it will be fine.”
Mrs Jones says the aim is to minimise prostitution and improve the lives of women who work in the sex industry.
“We’re looking at a new way, an emerging way, to deal with the sex industry to try to see if there’s a way of making it smaller because of the grave dangers to the women in the industry,” she said.
“This is about structural inequality between men and women and we need to take very seriously the outcomes for women.”
Prostitution is legal in the ACT but Mrs Jones says changes like the Nordic model would not bring about the end of the industry.
“In the countries where this reform has taken place, the industry does not disappear, but it has been reported to reduce by up to 40 per cent,” she said.
‘Nordic model would drive prostitution underground’
But sex worker advocate and Sex Party convenor Fiona Patten says such a model would be a backward step for Australia and drive prostitution underground.
“Effectively you are making the industry illegal again,” she said.
“How does that help people working in the industry, by pushing it underground, by making it easier for women to be exploited in this industry?”
Wayne Morgan from the Australian National University College of Law agrees the the Nordic model can be counterproductive.
“In fact criminalising either side of the transaction, so either the sex worker or the client, means that the industry is driven underground,” he said.
“It cannot be regulated, proper health and safety standards cannot be put in place, and sex workers of course feel reluctant to go to police or other authorities.”
The Scarlett Alliance represents sex workers and its chief executive Janelle Fawkes says her members reject the Nordic model.
She says criminalising the buying of sex does not help those who sell it.
“Like in any business transaction when there’s two parties, if one half of that transaction is criminalised, it impacts heavily on the other party,” Ms Fawkes said.
“It obviously is not coming from a feminist position. It’s coming from a very abolitionist moral agenda or position which is based on the fact that as sex workers we cannot make choices about our own lives.”
Ms Fawkes says a better solution exists in Australia.
“Why a group of politicians would travel to the other side of the world at the cost to taxpayers when, in fact, the world recognises we have the best model of regulation here in New South Wales, it astounds me,” she said.
“Decriminalisation in New South Wales is the removal of police as the regulators of the industry. It means that sex industry businesses are regulated in the same way as any other business.
“That means that councils regulate zoning and amenity and people have the same legitimate rights to industrial relations protections and pay tax like everybody else.”
The politicians will head overseas next month. Mrs Jones rejects criticisms that the tour is a junket.
“I’m a mother of four small children,” she said. “I don’t go overseas at a whim by any means.
“People will say what they need to say and I’m comfortable with that because I think these women are worth standing up for.”