The sex trade in Asian women that blots the Australian landscape was investigated by The Age newspaper and its partners late last year. In this trade, women are trafficked into Australia from countries like China and Thailand on visas organised by migration agents who collaborate with organised crime. Sometimes private colleges also assist in scams to provide student visas. Once in Australia, they are pimped across the country through motels, ‘Asian massage parlours’, and suburban flats. None of this trade is hidden, the women are advertised openly and prostituted in venues in suburbs and commercial areas. Syndicates operating nationwide instruct local overseers to train these “scared” young women like a “new racehorse or a new dog”, and then they are bought by thousands of Australian men for rape scenarios and other delights seen in pornography.
This trade in Asian women is no underground secret: victims are openly advertised for sale on websites and discussed in forums where sex buyers review their bodies and prices. Nothing is done to help them because state governments in Victoria and New South Wales (NSW) wash their hands of responsibility for prostitution by fully deregulating their sex industries. As a result, more than a decade ago, Australia became a commercial destination of choice for organised criminals who know the country offers a regulation-free, high-demand, high-margin, and low-policing environment for the trading of women.
Governments, too, know about the trade while doing little to stop it. A NSW parliamentary committee convened in 2015 to review the state’s ‘regulation of brothels’ made the astonishingly frank admission that it was ‘very concerned that the current absence of regulation facilitates sex workers being brought to Australia under false pretenses, being held against their will and forced to provide services which they had not agreed to’. The Committee had heard from police and social service agencies that women with little English and barely any knowledge of their locations submit to sex with parades of customers in leased venues in shopping strips.
International agencies have criticised Australia’s laisse faire sex trade for decades. Continually since 1995, the committee for the Convention for the Elimination of all forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) has noted Australia’s ‘lack of a comprehensive approach to combat trafficking and exploitation resulting from prostitution’, as well as its ‘absence of effective strategies and programmes to prevent women from entering into prostitution, address the demand for prostitution and support women who wish to discontinue their lives in prostitution’, and its ‘low rates of prosecutions and convictions of traffickers’. Australia is known internationally as a country that trumpets a “sex work is work” free-choice defence when anyone scrutinises its domestic Asian sex market.
This defence is cultivated by the country’s own politicians, and, between 2014 and 2022 a Victorian parliamentary seat was occupied by the former head of Australia’s pornography industry association. In this role, supported by the Labor Government, she was able to eliminate nearly every legal and regulatory restraint on the operation of the sex industry in Victoria. She did this even in the face of opposition from the local government, which is now left with the problem of dealing with brothels and other sex industry enterprises operating without restriction in Victoria’s suburbs and regional areas. These problems are multiple and various. Parents and a three-week-old baby were incinerated in a Victorian suburban house fire in 2020 that was deliberately lit by a woman dispatched to the house for prostitution by a male housemate. After prostituting her he had stolen all her money, and she had lit the house fire in retribution. In another case in 2021, a 16-year-old girl was found to have worked at a Victorian suburban brothel since 2019. The brothel was operating with a license from the state government.
Australia’s National Plan to End Violence Against Women and Children released last year refers to “sex workers” but not to victims of the country’s Asian sex trade. The Albanese Labor Party government wants to stamp out violence against women, but responded to The Age revelations by changing the topic and saying it had ‘no tolerance for the exploitation of migrants’. But it should see the country’s Asian sex trade as a barometer of Australian views on women and respectful relationships. In 2020, CEDAW nominated ‘norms and stereotypes regarding male domination and the need to assert male control or power, enforce patriarchal gender roles and male sexual entitlement, coercion, and control’ as driving ‘demand for the sexual exploitation of women and girls’. The National Plan looks away when it’s Asian women absorbing the violence, but their plight should be seen as misogyny’s beating heart.
Nobody attends to their plight because Australia adopts, almost nationwide, a legal approach to the sex industry that legalises or decriminalises most of its commercial operations. Customers of the sex industry are mostly allowed to act with legal impunity, and even regulations against sex trafficking have mostly been replaced with laws against ‘forced labour’. In other words, practices of traffickers that are specific to the pimping of women (like debt manufactured against victims) are no longer flagged in Australian anti-trafficking legislation in a way that would make prosecutions easier. At the national level, Australia sends no message to its male citizens or overseas traffickers that female sexual exploitation is a practice against which the state will take action. The idea that decriminalising prostitution will help women in the sex industry is shown to be wholly wrong in the case of Australia. Rather than helping women, decriminalising prostitution creates a legal and social environment in which the money-making activities of pimps and traffickers are protected, and the welfare of their victims is wholly ignored.
At least in history, before the invention of penicillin, countries like Australia sometimes had to take action against prostitution because of society-wide problems of venereal disease contagion. Their solutions were often terrible—such as the creation of locked hospitals—but at least some small official awareness existed of prostitution as a social or health problem. Contemporary western states like Australia, however, no longer retain any notion of prostitution as a problem. While some countries like Sweden comprehend prostitution as a human rights violation, for countries like Australia that have no history of understanding female exploitation in human rights terms the legalisation of prostitution leaves women entirely unprotected, even when their involvement in the sex industry entails trafficking, violence, illness, and injury.
Australia cannot realistically tackle problems of violence against women while it allows an open-air sex trade in Asian women to be carried on nationwide. The ‘respectful relationships’ that are urged of men in families and workplaces ring hollow when these same men can book a woman for sex acts in 30-minute blocks. Australia furnishes international sex traffickers and organised crime with a lucrative operating environment as long as it fails to see prostitution as a form of violence against women that must be stamped out. Outsourcing this violence to Asian women doesn’t make it any less a problem of misogyny, and legalising the sex industry just seals their fate as supposedly willing, consenting ‘sex workers’ for whom no aspect of prostitution is harmful or unjust.