The decision by Westpac to pull out of the funding of the world’s biggest brothel, Stiletto in Sydney, has not surprised those in the know in the s-x industry in NSW. According to reports, Westpac had come under pressure when the paper revealed a recentn investor presentation showing Westpac as the senior financier on the deal.

Brothels have been able to operate as legitimate commercial businesses in NSW for nearly 16 years since The Disorderly Houses Amendment Act 1995 abolished the common law offence of keeping a brothel and living off the earnings of prostitution. Before this act, all brothels were “disorderly houses” and could be closed down.  Following the enactment of the 1995 legislation, a brothel became a recognised land use that could be regulated by local councils under the Environmental Planning and Assessment Act 1979.

So if bonking for money is a legitimate business, why did Westpac make a sudden withdrawal? There is much speculation that many traditional investors took the high moral ground and had a whinge to Westpac because they don’t see the investment in prostitution as a noble pursuit of wealth. The big bank then trembled at the knees and buckled to pressure to discontinue its involvement in the controversial project.

Chris Gardiner is CEO of Police & Community Youth Clubs NSW, one of the largest youth organisations in Australia. He wrote in The Punch earlier in the year:

“There is something dystopian about a society where mum and dad investors and Super Fund bosses could monitor the stock market on their iPhones to see if their CEO has been working prostitutes productively enough. We will know what kind of society we have become if the stock is reported in the market round-up at the end of the 6pm news each night.”

Social stigmas die hard in Australia. Penny Crofts is a senior lecturer in the Faculty of Law, UTS Sydney who specialises in the regulation of the sex industry in NSW.  She believes brothels continue to be treated differently from other commercial businesses due to an aesthetic of disgust.

In a paper delivered in Melbourne in 2006, Crofts described disgust as:

“Disgust is a moral and social sentiment that conveys a ‘strong sense of aversion to something perceived as dangerous because of its powers to contaminate, infect, or pollute by proximity,contact, or ingestion’. Disgust has a feeling of ‘panic, of varying intensity, that attends the awareness of being defiled’.  The idea that brothels are offensive immediately links brothels with a discourse of disgust.”

Crofts said in 2006 that association of brothels with disgust can be transformed and by providing information about good management practices and the cleanliness and tidiness of brothels would undermine the overt association of brothels with disorderliness.

The O’Farrell government came to power this year promising to crack down on the sex industry by strongly regulating the legal industry and a major crackdown on illegal brothels. So why hasn’t the sex industry been able to accomplish what Crofts thought was something achievable?

Over the past few years there have been various stories about illegal brothels, trafficking of sex workers, underage prostitutes, unsafe s-x practices and other nefarious activities of the sex industry in NSW.  A recent report in The Sun-Herald on the threat of s-xually transmissible infections from cheap Sydney brothels illustrates just how much stronger regulation can’t come quick enough.

I can also inform Crikey readers that due to the unregulated state of the sex industry, many legal brothels are now providing oral sex without a condom, which is in defiance of NSW Health and Workcover guidelines for brothels.

So what sort of a reaction did we get from the sex workers organisation Scarlet Alliance to all this talk about unsafe sex? It is a key stakeholder in the NSW sex industry and as such has a major influence in the transformation of the aesthetic of disgust.  Recently, it hosted a think tank at its Redfern headquarters for all its members to devise a strategy to lobby the proposed changes by the O’Farrell government.

I received two phone calls afterwards from concerned sex workers who told me that the leadership of Scarlet Alliance believe in the right of sex workers to choose whether to partake in unsafe sex practices.

Indeed many of its members are culprits in supplying unsafe sex practices to desperate punters.  Melanie Robinson says on the Nothing About Us Without Us website about occupational work and safety: “Workplace conditions are best improved by strengthening workers ability to address OH&S issues …” However, there are several websites that advertise services that are is in contravention of the Workcover and NSW Health guidelines for brothels and sex workers.

No wonder Westpac pulled the plug.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey