Ten years ago, Australia made a risky policy move it thought would help protect women and children: it legalized prostitution. Today, only 10% of the prostitution industry operates in Australia's legal brothels. The other 90% takes place in underground, illegal sex markets thick with forced prostitution and human trafficking victims.
The University of Queensland Working Group on Human Trafficking recently released a report stating that the prostitution laws in Australia had failed. Since 1999, women in Australia have had the option of working legally in licensed brothels or on their own. The hope was that women with an entrepreneurial spirit and a passion for commercial sex would set up their own businesses, and make everything safe, legal, and regulated. That hasn't happened.
What has happened, instead, is entrepreneurial pimps have lured and trafficked Asian women to Australia and set up illegal brothels with lower prices. Trafficking is "booming" in Queensland, and there are few laws to help protect women who are lured or coerced into prostitution against their will. And as legal brothels try and compete with the trafficking boom, they cut costs, which often involves cutting freedom and benefits for women. Even in the legal, liscenced brothels of Queensland, women have reported being coerced into working under unfair conditions or against their will.
Australian advocates and policy-makers are offering a number of solutions to this problem, everything from increasing the police force looking for illegal brothels to making the legal brothel's fees lower to adding new legal protections for immigrant women in the commercial sex industry. The one thing everyone seems to agree on is that legal prostitution in Australia isn't working to protect women. But how should it be fixed?
Here's my vote: Legal prostitution in Australia isn't working to protect women because legal prostitution doesn't work to protect women. It will always be cheaper to set up an illegal brothel full of slave labor than to pay fees and salaries and health care to licensed workers. As long as there are men demanding cheap commercial sex, there will be traffickers willing to supply it. And where there is a legal market, there will be more men demanding sex, though not always at legal market prices.
Australia's experiment is one more example of when the theory of prostitution and the practice of it don't match up. In theory, Queensland should now be full of empowered women owning and working in commercial sex businesses and a vast majority (if not all) of women in commercial sex participating freely. In practice, it is a tiny, ineffective legal commercial sex industry with little entrepreneurship and a massive, booming industry of sexual slavery.