A new review of the world's oldest profession is underway in Victoria, laying bare the passionate battle of ideas over how to handle sex work.
Talks with the industry started this week as part of the state's review into decriminalising sex work, the precursor to a 2021 legislative overhaul.
Sex worker rights groups have long wanted decriminalisation, as has review leader Reason Party MP Fiona Patten, who was a sex worker about 30 years ago.
A key aim is to bring vulnerable street and independent workers into the law, making it safer for them to report crimes without fear of arrest.
But opponents say decriminalisation will give open slather to those who profit from sex workers and cannot prevent exploitation and violence.
"This is the bit that the public doesn't understand, is that it is decriminalising every pimp," former sex worker Sabrinna Valisce told AAP.
Ms Valisce worked in New Zealand before and after decriminalisation was legislated there in 2003. She initially campaigned for it but became disillusioned.
"There (are) myths about healthcare plans and being able to go to police," she said.
"Where there's some kind of back up, superannuation all that kind of stuff. Absolutely none of it happens."
Ms Valisce hoped to make a submission to the Victorian review through her organisations PEACE and SPACE International, but was turned down from contributing.
Former sex worker Genevieve Gilbert runs Pink Cross Australia, a charity that helps people exit the sex industry.
Traumatised by her own experiences, she thinks the Victorian government is not getting the full picture and wants funding for specialised exit programs to link people with mental health, social and welfare services, as well as publicly-funded warnings of the risks of sex work, like for smoking and alcohol.
"When anyone buys a woman for sex, it is an act of coercion and violence," Ms Gilbert said.
"That's what no one gets in the Andrews government. They need to hear this loud and clear."
Another former sex worker, Simone Watson, campaigns for legislation commonly called the Nordic model, pioneered in Sweden and adopted by at least eight other countries.
It criminalises the sex buyer but not the seller.
Ms Watson contacted the review to contribute, but got no reply.
She said decriminalisation of sex work was often argued with the same rationale as the legalisation of illicit drugs - that blanket legality makes everyone safer.
This parallel is "a false equivalent", Ms Watson said, because women can be harmed by prostitution whereas drugs don't suffer from being used.
The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women Australia has been accepted into the review but said it could be a challenge to contribute alternative views.
"It's clear the review wants as little opposition as possible, just enough to say they heard alternative voices," spokeswoman Tegan Larin said.
These groups reject the term 'sex work' in favour of 'prostitution', and believe it is possible to abolish the 'commercial sex trade'. They say industry contributes to broader male attitudes of entitlement and violence against women.
The idea sex work contributes to male violence against women is dramatising the issue, said Ms Patten, who sees sex as a fundamental part of life.
"For many people it would be seen as a human right," she told AAP.
Ms Patten wants those who have been harmed in the sex industry to be supported.
"I accept that there are some sex workers who have come out of this industry and really suffered from it," she said.
"For many other people it is a rewarding job, it is something that they don't mind doing."
Estelle Lucas, who runs online platform for Australian sex workers Red Files, said decriminalisation is long overdue and is a "no brainer" to save sex worker lives.
The Melbourne-based escort has friends who have done illegal sex work from home but not reported crimes for fear of unwanted attention from authorities.
Ms Lucas has worked under decriminalisation in NSW where she felt safer.
Sex worker-led organisation Vixen Collective has campaigned hard for decriminalisation and said the government needed to listen to sex workers who know what they themselves need.
The review was delayed for about six weeks due to COVID-19, but virtual private consultations via Zoom began on Monday.
Consumer Affairs Minister Marlene Kairouz said because of the "strongly held, differing views" the sex work review would get input "from all relevant experts".
Consultations will run for several weeks and a confidential report will be submitted in August, to inform new laws expected to be introduced to parliament next year.
Sex workers in Victoria currently remain barred from operating under coronavirus restrictions.
Australian Associated Press
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