Legislative Council: Wednesday, September 27, 2023



Summary Offences (Prostitution Law Reform) Amendment Bill

Second Reading

Adjourned debate on second reading.

(Continued from 30 August 2023.)

The Hon. N.J. CENTOFANTI (Leader of the Opposition) (17:30): When I introduced this bill into this chamber I sought to conclude my remarks because I wanted to share with the chamber personal stories of women who have been in prostitution recently and from family members who have been tragically affected by this industry.

I want to start with M, and I use the acronym M because this survivor has asked to remain anonymous. Many of these women face post-traumatic stress disorder because of their experiences and it is critical that they are treated with care, compassion and respect in this debate. This is M's story:

I worked privately [as] a prostitute from 2016 to late 2017 and even during that short period of time, I experienced many situations that resulted in psychological damage.

I come from a dysfunctional background. My father left when I was three years old, and my mother was controlling and emotionally unavailable. I was always the black sheep of the family. I was also severely bullied as a child, and had trouble making friends at school.

When I was 18 I entered into an abusive relationship. When I got out of that, I kept meeting other men, hoping they would give me the love I've been craving all my life, but instead they would use me for sex and leave. I've never had a healthy relationship.

When I was in my mid 20s, I started using ice and my addiction quickly got out of control. My journey with prostitution starts, when one time I decided to get a larger amount and spent all of the money I had on a deal just to find out it was pretty much salt. I was devastated, and the only option I saw was to sell my body and make up for the lost cash. I reached out to an acquaintance who worked as a prostitute and asked her if she could get me a couple of jobs. She agreed. Then she said I could be making between 2000-4000 a week doing this job. Before I knew, I was all in.

Especially during the first couple of months, I experienced what I call a honeymoon period, where I could have all the money I wanted and I thought men could no longer hurt me. I thought I was in control. Then the trouble started. I had been robbed of my bank card, my drugs and the money I had earned. I had received continuous death threats because I wouldn't let him take off the condom. I had to have sex with ugly old men, the oldest being probably in his 80s. I could say all I wanted, that I enjoyed doing it, but then I had to deal with those stinky old men, often abusive and demanding.

I didn't see it at that time but [I] was slowly wasting away.

In the meantime, I got kicked out of my house for drug related issues, and rented out a hotel room for $1000 a week, now [I] had to be available nearly 24/7 to support both my addiction and to pay for the hotel room. I sometimes had thought of leaving but couldn't see any alternative option. Instead, I convinced myself that I generally enjoyed 'working'. I'd sarcastically say, that 'I do this, because I wasn't born to make cappuccinos'. If people said 'you're not going to do this for the rest of your life, are you?' I thought, why not?

Though there had become a point when I knew I had to stop, I couldn't lie neither to myself or others, anymore. I was a walking zombie, and the only people I had contact with, were other girls and drug dealers. I had an agreement with the Serviced Apartments that I would stay there till the end of November in exchange for a reduced rate. In the couple of weeks prior to my departure I had tried to find alternate accommodation but to no avail.

The day I left, I became homeless, and coming down off ice. While I still had the energy, I spent the day going back and forth from Housing SA and an organisation called Streets to Home (which no longer exists), unfortunately neither could help me and eventually I ended up at the sobering up unit for a night. I spent the following at the RAH hospital, detoxing from drugs and suffering from intense kidney pain before being discharged to Hutt Street Centre.

I had applied for Catherine House but at that time I was unable to get a room, so I spent the next couple of months in Motel rooms funded by Housing SA and a granny flat sourced from Gumtree, where the owner tried to take advantage of me. In late February 2018 I finally was able to get into supported accommodation. Unfortunately, that is not a place for women coming from backgrounds like mine and who generally want to get their life's back on track.

The other occupants were often affected by their domestic violence relationships, secretly abusing prescription and recreational drugs, and in constant conflict with one another. Unfortunately the staff turned a blind eye to that. In addition, I received only about four counselling sessions during my three months stay, and no other supports. In May 2018 I was able to get into a program (Towards Independence) dedicated to helping recovering drug addicts with complex background, where I finally started receiving real help, bi-weekly counselling sessions and 24h hours emergency support. So all up, it had been seven months before I received the help I needed. Unfortunately Towards Independence no longer exists.

Therefore, I would strongly recommend and advocate The Coming Project, a dedicated program for women escaping sex industry.

Today, nearly six years later I'm still healing. When I first left the lifestyle of sex work and drug abuse, I was severely traumatised. I had received the diagnosis of PTSD, severe anxiety and major depression. I was under constant care of mental health professionals, and especially for the first two years, I feared everyone. I couldn't deal with crowds and catching public transport. I had trouble being one-on-one with men, including male medical practitioners. If I saw someone in the street, who reminded me of my average client (a middle aged, middle class man) I would get triggered. I genuinely thought that everyone was against me.

Up until early 2022 I couldn't even think of getting a job, I was that anxious. When I did decide to start looking for employment, it took me further six months to find work, as I had a large gap in my resume. Today, I work part-time and I still have my off-days, however I have a supportive boss.

To summarise, I believe that regardless of what the women in the sex industry say, how much they enjoy it and how empowered it makes them feel—it is denial and self preservation. It can be also a coping strategy. No one enters this industry simply by choice. There are always underlying issues. The fellow sex workers I had met, all came from dysfunctional backgrounds, whether it be childhood trauma, domestic violence, homelessness or lack of financial security. They did not see any other option. Some, like me wanted to take revenge on their ex boyfriends. Others did this to keep their pantry full while caring for their underage children. And once you're on that path, it is very hard to quit. When I look back, I admire my own strength to leave. Even though my head I was convinced that that was what I wanted, deep in my heart I was longing for something more.

Rachel Moran, an Irishwoman who spent 11 years working in the sex industry—on the streets, in the brothels and as an escort, writes in her book titled 'Paid For':

I absolutely stand by that.

Thank you for taking the time to read my personal testimony, and I trust that it will help you to get more insight into the truth behind the sex industry.

That concludes M's testimony. I also want to share some excerpts from Ella Zorra, who wrote this in 2017:

My parents had cast me out at eighteen. Despite repeated, genuine efforts to patch up our already [troubled and terrible] relationship, [my mother] refused to talk to me.

It was the lack of options and choice, the inability to see a way out, an escape pushed me into survival mode. I was running form destitution and to this day remain terrified of homelessness.

Prostitution stripped me of my sexuality, and ripped out my ability to truly desire someone.

I am numb and my insides feel dead. All the times I could have died, all the men who could have crushed me, all the drunken idiots I let drive me. The dark alleyways I've stumbled down, the doors I've walked through, not knowing what was waiting for me, the condoms I haven't used, the things I have shared with people I didn't know.

I use people because people have used me. I fear that all of my relationships and friendships are subconsciously powered by what I learnt while escorting—that people exist to be used and nothing more.

Finally, I want to share the story of Louisa and her daughter Emily, who turned to prostitution at the age of 18 to fuel an ongoing addiction with drugs and whose body was found dumped on a street in Kilburn at the age of 21. Emily kept a diary, and in it she speaks of her despair and about Charlie, her pimp. The diary does contain some colourful language, which I have substituted for the sake of the chamber. She says:

I hated what I had to do to get heroin, I hated looking and feeling like [crap] when I didn't have it and I hated being a slave to it. The whole show that went with being a junkie, going to Charlie's every morning, hanging out, finding the money, being looked down upon by everyone. No one respects you when your like that. I hated hurting the people I loved and not being trusted by anyone. Not giving a [care] apart from using.

Take the pain away, switch me off and let me sleep—make me turn back time and say no, make me turn back time to do things different. Let so many people down, let myself down. Lost my best friend to drugs, lost my dignity, my self-respect, the people I cared for, I [screwed] people over, I stole, I sold myself and I sold my soul.

Finally, a poem she wrote:

So you lost again

Time after time,

You take the blame,

You hide your shame

Try as you may

The past does dismay

Stupid girl don't you see

A Junkie you'll always be

Let those down who love you

Burn your ashes to the ground

You love them too

But your mind is not sound

The words that you say

Make no sense

Take your drugs

You look so tense

I'm addicted to you

You are my source of life

You make me do what I do

Get that knife

I love you, I'm sorry

Its imperative for me

I fill your heart with worry,

Because of her addiction, Emily did not have a choice and she desperately needed help.

Two weeks ago, the members of the European Parliament confirmed their abolitionist position and delivered a powerful message as they voted in favour of the initiative report on the regulation of prostitution in the EU; its cross-border implications and impact on gender equality and women's rights drafted by a Social Democratic Party member of the European Parliament, Maria Noichl.

After months of mobilisation and the first positive vote in the Committee on Women's Rights and Gender Equality on 27 June 2023, a majority of members of the European Parliament confirmed the abolitionist stance of the European Parliament, following the steps of France, Sweden and Ireland. With this vote, they made it clear that prostitution is a form of violence and that implementing support and exit programs for survivors is the best way to tackle it.

The reform that I propose with this bill is not new. It is being adopted in many countries around the world as it is seen to reduce demand and, most importantly, supports women wanting to exit the industry. This is about women's equality and recognising that the sex industry for the vast majority of women is not a choice. I commend the bill to the chamber.

Debate adjourned on motion of Hon. I.K. Hunter.