Tracy Connelly’s death highlights dangers in sex industry

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By Ed Kennedy

The death of sex worker Tracy Connelly found dead July 21, 2013 in Greeves St, St Kilda has reignited debate surrounding the dangers of the illegal sex industry and how it can be best addressed.

The social issues surrounding the legality of prostitution have a lengthy history and remain hotly debated. Following Ms Connolly’s death a number of voices in the community insist changes must occur to ensure not only a death such as Ms Connelly’s isn’t repeated but also ongoing abuses in the wider sex industry do not continue to occur.

Professor Shelia Jeffreys a lecturer in the Social and Political Sciences at the University of Melbourne feels the death of Ms Connelly has highlighted the industry remains unsafe and unregulated.

“The death of Ms Connelly shows the reality of the industry, the violence that takes place in the industry and it undermines the glossy view of the industry that is often put across in the media; this idea men shall always use women in this way, and that there shall always be danger and that there was nothing that can be done about it” Ms Jeffreys’ said.

Ms Jeffreys’ feels a solution proposed by the Coalition Against the Trafficking of Women (CATWA) known as ‘The Sweden model’ should be implemented in Australia to prevent abuses.

“The position of the CATWA is that the men who use women in prostitution – and not the women themselves – should be penalized. This is the system in Sweden, Norway and Iceland and recently its implementation has been agreed upon by all parties in France.”

“This model shall put the blame for the harm to women in prostitution should lie; with those men who are prepared to carry out this form of abuse with women,”

Ms Jenny Stokes of the Salt Shakers Christian Group agrees with Ms Jeffreys’ that a greater understanding of the industry needs to occur as she also supports a change to the law.

“Despite claims to the contrary, prostitution is not just another job. There are huge ramifications for the girl involved and for their whole family. I agree with Ms Jeffreys’ that Australia needs to seriously look at the model adopted in Sweden where the ‘clients’ are criminalised”, Ms Stokes said.

Presently in Victoria prostitution is ‘legal but regulated’ for brothels and licensed escort agencies. For many years since the founding of Victoria in 1851 prostitution was illegal with the first state laws defining its ban enacted in 1852. While earlier laws had loosened the restrictions surrounding prostitution, it was with the Prostitution Control Act of 1994 (now known as the Sex Work Act 1994) that brothels first became fully legal and regulated.

While brothels (and escort agencies) are ‘legal but regulated’ street prostitution although known to exist within the local community and across Victoria remains illegal. In 2011 reports indicate Victoria police believed there were around 40 sex workers engaged in street prostitution in St Kilda and at the time of her death Ms Connelly was understood to have been engaging in street prostitution.

For those who would seek desire a greater restriction of prostitution a focal point of the debate concerns legalized establishments as many who are opposed to prostitution would support an all out ban and re-criminalisation of its activities.

Ms Robin Smith, manager of the Pink Palace brothel does not feel a restriction on legalized prostitution is the answer but instead a greater focus on the issues surrounding street prostitution is required.

“I would hope the tragic death of Ms Connelly highlights the need for action on street prostitution. This is not just ‘code’ for brothel owners wanting to increase business. Instead, these girls are in a dangerous environment and furthermore, given a reason some street workers don’t work in brothels, is because they would fail a medical – so too are the clients’, Ms Smith said.

“I’ve a good relationship with the local police and I know there’s a lot of factors that determine how they’re job can be done – like funding, staffing – but I would say, it would be good to see a greater police presence in stopping street prostitution for the safety of the girls.”

While many in the community may feel the presence of brothels endorses the legitimacy of prostitution – and even encourages it –Ms Smith instead feels prostitution shall always be a feature of society were it made illegal the absence of a safe environment for sex workers would only make it more dangerous.

“There’s a huge difference with what goes on in a brothel compared to on the street. Every client that comes into a brothel is first seen by a receptionist before they go and meet one of the girls. This creates a safeguard right away. As well as this, we have other security measures in place. “

“The girls and clients have an understanding, that only acts agreed on beforehand shall be committed.  If at any time the client try’s to do something outside of the agreement or becomes a threat to the safety of the girl, she knows to stop immediately, indicate to the client the session is over and if necessary even hit the panic button. Sex workers who are on the street have none of these protections and are left to fend for themselves should they encounter someone with bad intentions”.

While Ms Smith does not support a ban on prostitution she shares the concerns of Ms Jeffreys’ and Ms Stokes in feeling there could be better regulation of the industry as she believes the standards in her brothels are not an industry-wide feature.

“Obviously I only work here and I’m speaking generally but I’ve been in the industry long enough to know that a girl at other brothels can often be forced to see clients they don’t want to – We don’t do that here.”

“The way we run the Pink Palace is to be considerate of the girls who are running their own business from our establishment. They decide what clients they see – we only provide the rooms – and we don’t order girls to do things they don’t want to do. Instead we make sure there is a safe environment for them and it should be said don’t have any desire to try and keep girls in the industry if they don’t want to be there.”

Though the above care shown by My Smith for her employees is surely admirable and it is clear the Pink palace seeks to uphold a higher standard than others in the industry for Ms Jeffreys’ the issues surrounding prostitution originate at the source and cannot be addressed elsewhere else but their origin.

“There’s a very great deal of research which suggests women in prostitution are seriously harmed and that they have to disassociate to survive the abuse that is being done to them. This can include drug use. “

“However well regulated practices may be the use of women’s bodies in this way it can not be seen as positive. This is because the fact is women who experience what is done in prostitution find it painful and very difficult to deal with – if not right away then later on.”

While new proposals and changes to the law shall continue to debated  Inspector Paul Breen, Port Phillip Local Area Police Commander sais police are aware the community has been substantially saddened by the death of Ms Connelly and sais while he acknowledges it is a difficult issue – and the police have taken multiple avenues in addressing it – the law presently regards street prostitution as illegal and that police in turn remain committed to enforcing the law to ensure the safety of all in the local community.

“Police from the Port Phillip response zone remain committed to addressing issues associated with illegal sex work in the St Kilda area. The Port Phillip police work closely with a number of relevant community groups linked with street sex work in conjunction with conducting sustained police operations that are both overt and covert”, Inspector Breen said.

“The operations undertaken target illegal street sex workers, clients or a combination of both.  Banning notices are also issued to clients that prohibit them from entering a declared area for 72 hours.”

There are no easy answers in the debate surrounding the legitimacy and morality of prostitution, nor are the present laws or proposed changes wholly satisfactory to all parties. However it is clear people on all sides of the debate share a sense of grief and sadness of her passing –and a resolve to see such an event is not repeated. For those mourning the death of Tracey Connelly, one of us in the broad and diverse local community that is St Kilda, that resolve may offer some small measure of comfort in those moments of sadness as the debate goes on.

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