The following article is a report by Caroline Norma, requested by the Women’s Human Rights Institute of Korea in late 2019, on the reality of legal prostitution in Australia, contrasting it with South Korea. This is the first time the original English text has been published.
Australia: A sunny country for sex exploiters, a sorry place for their opponents
In geopolitical terms, Australia is known as a ‘middling’ power, which generally means we are a client-state of America. Since the Second World War, we have furnished the United States with military bases, deployments in all wars, and intelligence monitoring, including today as part of Five Eyes. American companies extract huge untaxed profits from Australia through mining minerals and other ventures, even if Australia’s economy has prospered over the past twenty-five years thanks to Chinese money. Australia is located in Asia, has a large Asian migrant population, and its economy is roughly the size of South Korea’s, but its government and population is loyal to America and Western libertarian values.
This means the sex industry mostly enjoys unfettered commercial opportunity in Australia, along with drugs traders and pornographers. Prostitution entrepreneurs since the late 1990s have been able to operate in Australia’s most populous state, New South Wales (capital Sydney), with almost no regulatory restriction. The roughly 2000 brothels that operate within 20 kilometres of Sydney’s CBD are mostly not even registered with local government (like hairdressing salons must be), let alone operating with any license or special oversight. In Australia’s national capital of Canberra, pornography distribution has been legal since the 1980s, and the city has hosted a legal red-light district since the mid-1990s, even while it functions as Australia’s heart of elite government, diplomacy, research, and the arts.
Living in Australia as an opponent of the sex industry makes for an interesting life, because anti-abolitionist ridicule and derision is strong, and comes mostly from progressives. I’ve actively opposed prostitution and pornography in Australia for the past twenty years, but even now I’m surprised where I bump into pro-sex industry views. One day at a high-level board meeting at my university, for example, with the Vice Chancellor in attendance, an external speaker was invited to lecture on the merits of ‘sex work’. Australia universities allow sex industry proponents on campuses to speak to students. Opponents of the sex industry are not similarly welcomed by public institutions, though. When me and other abolitionists attend parliamentary hearings for members of the public to comment on bills relating to prostitution, for example, we are challenged and shouted at by left-leaning MPs. When parliamentary committees publish reports on prostitution legislation they misrepresent the Nordic Model, and they defame us under parliamentary privilege. The sex industry is regulated at the state level in Australia, and Victoria’s state government (in its capital Melbourne) was one of the earliest legislators of licensed prostitution in the post-war Western world. This means there are politicians, business people, and NGO-sector entrepreneurs who have a long-standing stake in deregulated prostitution in Australia, and so they oppose abolitionists everywhere, including in feminist circles, among socialists, in unions, and even at the National Council of Single Mothers and their Children!
After I moved to Melbourne for university, I joined the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia (CATWA) upon returning from a three-month internship with a feminist organisation in the Philippines that assisted local women in tourist bars. These bars in the mid-1990s were often owned by Australian men, and their customers were mostly white foreign males. Seeing local women manhandled by customers in the bars, and hearing their stories of sexual exploitation, set my mind against prostitution and the sex industry’s business. When I returned to Melbourne I joined night-time outreach trips to brothels and strip-clubs with members of the feminist anti-trafficking organisation Project Respect. This organisation, which still operates today, is a rare NGO offering assistance to women in Australia’s sex industry. There are additionally a couple of small initiatives offering emergency housing to prostituted women in Australia, but none receive ongoing assistance from government or any substantial public support.
Pro-prostitution organisations, on the other hand, receive substantial and ongoing financial support from government at both state and federal levels, and their representatives are invited to major government roundtables, consultations and celebratory events. There exists a political party in Victoria that has occupied a parliamentary seat since 2014 that campaigns for full sex industry deregulation, even though the state already allows legal licensing of brothels and out-call agencies. The incumbent Labor Party in Victoria supports this campaign, as does the Victorian Greens. The Northern Territory government, too, which hosts Australia’s largest population of Aboriginal residents, is currently considering fully deregulating its sex industry, even though it already allows legal licenced prostitution outcall agencies (ultimately passed in November 2019). The Labor Party in the Northern Territory, similar to Victoria, leads efforts towards enactment of legislation that would restrict no activities of the sex industry except its selling of children.
Australian academia is almost completely dominated by researchers writing uncritically of ‘sex work’. The most notorious is convicted child rapist Paul Wilson who co-authored a book in 2012 on sex trafficking that recommended sex industry deregulation as its solution. While Wilson is no longer in the tertiary sector, academics at Australian universities similarly hostile to abolitionists are too numerous to list, but include people like Barbara Sullivan, Larissa Sandy, Basil Donovan, Erin O’Brien, Alan McKee, Paul Maginn, Penny Crofts, Jason Prior, JaneMaree Maher, Sharon Pickering, Alison Gerard, Kath Albury, and Mark McClelland. These kinds of researchers receive government funding to pursue projects advocating escalated deregulation of Australia’s sex industry, and further loosening of controls on internet pornography.
Of course, Australia is merely a middling country in global terms, and so its academics have none of the international economic, cultural or policy clout of Americans or Scandinavians. However, in relation to prostitution policy at least, Australia exercises more influence overseas than its size warrants. For example, sex industry decriminalisation policy enacted by the NSW government since the late 1990s was referenced in New Zealand’s decision to decriminalisation its sex industry nationally in 2003, and Australian ‘sex worker’ organisations promote sex industry deregulation in the Asia-Pacific region. Their largest lobby group, Scarlet Alliance, has received Australian government funding to promote its activities and ideas in Papua New Guinea, East Timor and Thailand. Two of the organisation’s core activists spoke in Japan last year, and the organisation campaigns for a ‘migrant sex work’ visa category that would effectively legalise sex trafficking into Australia. A well-known representative of the organisation, ‘Jules Kim’, calls herself a ‘Korean-Australian’ in local media appearances.
In addition to exporting abroad its prostitution policy approach, Australia is a safety-net commercial environment in the Asian region for sex industry entrepreneurs driven out of country-jurisdictions hostile to their business activities. As I argued in 2011, South Korean pimps and traffickers moved their commercial operations to Australia after 2004 when their domestic operating environment was made more difficult by the passing of anti-prostitution legislation. Because Australia’s visa and legislative infrastructure was comparatively welcoming of the sex industry, these Koreans were able to re-establish their businesses abroad. As a result of their subsequent activities in Australia, a Korean woman fell victim to a horrifying arson attack in Sydney, another was murdered by a customer, and others suffered slave-like conditions of prostitution.
I think South Korea and the governments of other countries adopting versions of the Nordic Model (Sweden, Iceland, Norway, Ireland, Canada, Northern Ireland, France, and Israel) should bring to the United Nations evidence of human rights violations perpetrated against their female citizens in jurisdictions like Australia that deregulate the sex industry. We should learn from the example of the brave former ‘comfort women’ and bring civil suits, diplomatic pressure and trade boycotts against countries like Switzerland and Germany that furnish sex enslavers with commercial markets. These countries are acting not unlike the Japanese wartime government that supported the trafficking activity of its military abroad during the 1930s and 1940s. If survivors of trafficking to countries like Australia were able to collectively make public appeals for redress of the harms inflicted upon them while abroad, like the halmoni have done since the early 1990s, I think Australia’s role in facilitating contemporary gender-based human rights violations would be better understood internationally. Global recognition of Australia’s crimes against Asian women is needed if external pressure is going to force the country’s government to change its domestic laws on prostitution, I believe.
In the United States there is a bill under consideration that would require the State Department in its yearly Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report to judge countries’ efforts in respect of ‘serious and sustained efforts to reduce the demand for commercial sex’ solely on whether they prohibit sex buying. If not, they will not be able to satisfy the 12th criteria of the 4th minimum standard, which means they may not be awarded ‘Tier 1’ status. This kind of international measure is helpful to abolitionists in Australia for bringing global scrutiny to the policies of the Australian government, and encouraging it to reconsider its long-held commitment to sex industry deregulation. Countries like South Korea and other jurisdictions adopting the Nordic Model should form a geopolitical bloc with preferential trade status and special migration treaties, and these blocs should promote themselves as safe-zones for women (while recognising, of course, that much work towards sex equality still needs to be done). The nine countries in the world currently enacting the Nordic Model should establish an annual high-level leaders’ forum to come together to discuss mutual cooperation and inter-country benefits that can be developed on the basis of their shared view of prostitution as a form of violence against women. This forum could invite US Department of State officials to liaise about the Trafficking in Persons Report, and could align with the European Parliament and Council of Europe, which are also international bodies that maintain explicit policies in support of the Nordic Model.
At present, there is almost no government or public concern in Australia about foreign women in the local sex industry. Similar to other western countries, there remains insufficient awareness of the business model that causes ‘Asian massage parlours’ to proliferate in cities like Melbourne and Sydney, and there is denial at the highest levels of the Australian bureaucracy that the country has a problem with sex trafficking. This is despite 30 to 50 per cent of people in the sex industries of Australia’s capital cities being foreign, and mostly from Asia. Australia has enacted federal anti-trafficking legislation since 2005, but the government’s national anti-trafficking action plan includes the statement that
[t]he regulation of the sex work industry in Australia is the responsibility of the States and Territories and, subject to regulations, sex work is largely legal or decriminalised in Australia. As a party to the Trafficking Protocol, Australia is obliged to address the ‘exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation’, rather than sex work itself.
Visa-holders can legally enter Australia’s sex industry as both investors and victims (different from New Zealand, which doesn’t allow visa holders in its sex industry), and people found in the industry without legitimate papers are simply deported. The ‘working holiday’, ‘tourist’ and ‘student’ visa categories are commonly used as vehicles of trafficking. There are very few trafficking cases brought before Australia’s courts, and fewer than 15 convictions for any type of ‘trafficking’ or ‘slavery’ offence have been achieved since 2005. Asian women in the local sex industry are generally perceived as ‘sex work migrants’, and no awareness circulates among the Australian population about the racism of having large numbers of Asian women on sale in the sex industry with few protections while local women enjoy government efforts to strengthen domestic violence and other gender-violence laws.
Australia pursues progressive, world-leading policies on domestic violence, child abuse imagery, and digital sexual harassment, and the country’s gender-pay gap is small compared to other rich countries. Sex-based discrimination in job recruitment and popular media is not widespread, and Australian society doesn’t impose upon women the strict requirements of beauty of Northeast Asian societies. They are also not as pressured to marry and have children to fulfil parental expectations. However, on the flip side of these gender-based rights and privileges enjoyed by local Australia women (inadequate as they are), is the lack of consideration given Asian women traded for prostitution in Australia’s sex industry. These women are simply deemed ‘migrant sex workers’, because the Australian population and government is convinced that prostitution is merely a form of work, and that women (especially Asian women) in the sex industry are simply in easy jobs greedily earning money. As a result, ‘Asian-only’ brothels proliferate in major cities, and research I undertook with a student in 2016 showed that the Melbourne brothels advertise Asian women at rates higher than 40 per cent. An earlier 2012 report identified more than 50 per cent of survey respondents in approved brothels in metropolitan Sydney as of either ‘Asian’ or ‘other non-English speaking background’, and nearly 45 per cent of these respondents as speaking only ‘poor’ or ‘fair’ English. Similarly, a 2010 study found over 54 per cent of women in prostitution in Western Sydney as born overseas. The men who buy these women for prostitution in Australia are not necessarily their compatriots: a 2015 study notes that ‘[n]early all [migrant sex worker] respondents reported their customers to be primarily Anglo (92 per cent)’. In other words, a sex industry operates in contemporary Australia to sell Asian women to local men, with these women often sharing neither a common nationality nor language with their buyers.
South Korea’s Nordic Model
The different example set by the South Korean government since 2004, and the prostitution prevention and protection policies administered by the Women’s Human Rights Institute of Korea (WHRIK) over the past fifteen years, have taught me, however, that the Australian government’s approach to the sex industry is neither natural nor inevitable. In 2005, I accompanied Sheila Jeffreys and other Australian feminists to attend the Women’s Worlds conference at Ewha Womans University where we learnt about South Korea’s different approach to prostitution from advocates like Youngsook Cho and Heisoo Shin.
After that, in 2007, I enrolled in a 6-month Korean language course at Seoul National University during which time I volunteered with the former Center for Women’s Human Rights. During this time I met Yunmi Lee who later came to Melbourne to work at Project Respect, and I was introduced to the work of Salim Center in Pusan and to Jeong Mirye of the National Solidarity Against Sexual Exploitation of Women. In September 2011 I joined an annual activist bus tour to cities like Gunsan and Taegu to commemorate the enactment of Korea’s anti-prostitution laws and the women who lost their lives in the sex industry. The following year, in 2012, I was fortunate to be invited to give a presentation on International Strategies to Counter Sex Trafficking at the WHRCK (current WHRIK) International Symposium on Prevention of Sex Trafficking. During this trip I was introduced to Jinyoung Shin-Pak at the Taegu centre, and the delegation also joined the Wednesday demonstration at the ‘comfort woman’ peace statue in Seoul. Later, in 2014, I accompanied a delegation of Australian parliamentarians on a Nordic Model fact-finding tour to Korea where we toured support centres and met with government bureaucrats and staff at the WHRIK. After this, a group of Korean activists visited Melbourne to research prostitution policies and approaches in Australia. Most recently, in 2019, Byun Jeonghee from the Salim Center and other Korean activists travelled Kyoto where I was based then as a visiting researcher at Doshisha University to give lectures on abolitionism and other feminist topics. Since then, I have published joint media pieces with some of these experienced feminists about the #MeToo movement in South Korea.
I have gained a great deal of knowledge and inspiration over a decade towards anti-prostitution research and advocacy through the example set by the Women’s Human Rights Institute of Korea and abolitionist activists and researchers in Korea. The expertise and longstanding experience of these counterparts is valuable to all abolitionists in the Asia-Pacific region, and these days their influence is spreading in Japan. I am closely connected to Japan through my research and teaching work, and I’ve worked with abolitionist groups in the country over the past decade (the Anti-Pornography and Prostitution Research Group, and PAPS). There is now a coalition forming in Tokyo that works towards the Nordic Model in Japan, and this group (Anti Sexual Exploitation Network in Japan) has recently invited Jeong Mirye, Byun Jeonghee, Jinyoung Shin-Pak and Taegu Mungchi members to speak in Tokyo to learn of abolitionist efforts in South Korea. The example set by activists and the Korean government is very powerful in Japan, especially given the history of Japanese male involvement in the wholesale prostitution of Korean women, before, during and after the war.
The large volumes of English-language translations the WHRIK and other groups (such as Durebang: My Sister’s Place) and activists have undertaken over the past fifteen years have been very helpful to abolitionists efforts overseas, and I hope they continue. South Korea has been an unusual example of a Nordic Model country that has made available in English most of its reports, publicity materials, research, documentary films, survivor testimonies, and media articles continually from the earliest days of the 2004 legislation. As a result, we now have a treasure-trove of documentation in English to learn from in attempting to rally for the Nordic Model in countries abroad. This is a gift from Korean abolitionists to the world that we should all be thankful for. We should also be thankful for all the overseas speakers the WHRIK has sponsored to lecture in Seoul, including Sheila Jeffreys, Janice Raymond, Fujiwara Shihoko, and Julie Bindel. These speaking opportunities helped spread awareness of Korea’s approach among abolitionists abroad. In turn, overseas delegations of abolitionists from Korea sent to Australia, Germany, and Japan have also been helpful in promoting the Nordic Model in countries currently hostile to the approach. I hope these tours can continue, and the WHRIK can continue to promote its viewpoint and activities abroad, especially in Japan where activists have recently become receptive to the message.
Feminist anti-prostitution efforts in Australia
In Australia, anti-prostitution efforts began in the early 1990s when Sheila Jeffreys moved to the University of Melbourne and established CATWA together with other feminists. Project Respect was subsequently created, as then Collective Shout. There now also exist smaller anti-prostitution groups like Nordic Model Australia Coalition with significant survivor involvement and leadership. In 2016 I organised Australia’s first abolitionist conference in Melbourne, and this conference launched a collection of survivor stories written by women who had escaped the sex industries of Australia and other western countries, which I edited together with Collective Shout co-founder Melinda Tankard Reist. Since that time there have been yearly Summits Against Sexual Exploitation held in various Australian cities. There has also been events against reproductive exploitation led by Dr Renate Klein at Spinifex Press who was also involved in establishing CATWA in the early 1990s. Efforts at the grassroots level against decriminalisation legislation tabled in state parliaments are mostly led by the Australian Christian Lobby, and a small number of survivors write and speak publicly in support of the introduction of the Nordic Model in Australia. At present, there are Nordic Model bills drafted for Victoria and South Australia, and abolitionists continue to work to find cross-party joint sponsors for these bills that we hope will one day be tabled in state parliaments. There are a few supportive MPs around Australia, including (formerly) Rachel Carling Jenkins in Victoria, Greg Donnelly in NSW, Clare Scriven and Emily Bourke in South Australia, Gerry Wood in the Northern Territory, and Giulia Jones and Vicki Dunne in the Australian Capital Territory. These politicians have been brave allies of abolitionists, and Bourke and Scriven’s efforts in South Australia were crucial in recently defeating decriminalisation legislation in that state.
A lot of my research work has focused on the history of the ‘comfort women’ sex slaves of the Japanese military during the China and Pacific wars (1937-1945). At the moment I research the history of military prostitution by Japanese, Australian, and American troops in New Guinea (now PNG) during the Second World War. Australia has not actively supported the former ‘comfort women’ in their activism since the 1990s, even though a survivor, Jan Ruff O’Herne has lived in Australia for most of her adult life. There was a resolution tabled in Australia’s federal parliament in 2007 in support of the ‘comfort women’ but it was not passed, and Australian diplomats are quiet in international fora on the issue, probably because of Australia’s close relationship with Japan. While there are now peace statues established in both Melbourne and Sydney thanks to the efforts of local Korean-Australians with support from local councils in South Korea, these commemorative installations are located on private property, not state-owned land as in the case of San Francisco’s statue. But there are researchers in Australia who produce good scholarship in support of the struggle for justice, including Tessa Morris-Suzuki, Yuki Tanaka, and Ustinia Dolgopol.
I think, though, that the lack of activity in Australia in support of the issue (compared to Canada, for example, with a similarly large Asian migrant population) reflects the general climate in Australia relating to sexual exploitation. While the average Australian would be very sympathetic to military sexual slavery victims, there is little knowledge and awareness among the population about sexual exploitation as a present-day problem that must be tackled politically, rather than as just a ‘welfare’ issue. I suspect the Australian population would believe Japanese military sexual slavery has no connection whatsoever to contemporary life, even though, walking through any of Australia’s major cities, they will see ‘Asian massage parlours’ enacting sexual slavery similar to that organised through wartime comfort stations.
To tackle the sex industry and all the violence, depredation and trafficking intrinsic to its commercial activities, I think adopting the model of activism and leadership of the halmoni and their South Korean supporters since the early 1990s would be a good first step. State-sponsored ‘civilian sexual slavery’ should be researched by the United Nations in the way Radhika Coomaraswamy did in 1996 and Gay McDougall did in 1998. The experiences of victims should be published in multiple volumes in numerous languages like that of True Stories of the Korean Comfort Women so the world can begin to understand the similarity of civilian and military forms of sexual slavery. Monuments and statues should be erected to commemorate deaths of women in prostitution in each country, and to celebrate the lives of still-living survivors of state-sponsored sex industries.
In Tokyo in 2000, as is well known, there was held the Women’s International War Crimes Tribunal on Japan’s Military Sexual Slavery that assessed official culpability in Japan for crimes of rape and enforced prostitution perpetrated during the China and Pacific wars. Similarly, there should be peoples’ trials held in countries that have deregulated their sex industries over many years (Australia, Germany and the Netherlands) where survivors from all over the world can testify as to harms sustained as a result of being prostituted in those countries. Trial judges can assess the extent of each country’s responsibility for these harms, and call upon politicians and others who played crucial roles in establishing commercial environments friendly to sex industry operation in the countries to be questioned (in Australia, for example, the Women’s Electoral Lobby was an early proponent of deregulation). Perpetrators of prostitution against women in each country should be encouraged, like the Japanese veterans who spoke at the Tokyo Women’s Trial, to come forward and testify as to their knowledge of what is done to women in the name of men’s ‘night-time entertainment’ and ‘sexual release’ in civilian forms of prostitution.