Billboard sex? No way.
Street prostitution? No worries.
By Heather Merle Benbow
June 20 2002
The Bracks Government's poor timing this week in relation to two
has exposed its contradictory attitude to women.
On Tuesday, the Minister for Women's Affairs, Mary Delahunty, announced
that the government was developing "gender portrayal guidelines"
encourage the positive portrayal of women in outdoor advertising.
Then, yesterday, Attorney-General Rob Hulls announced a new "harm
minimisation" approach to street prostitution in St Kilda -
allow the exploitation of Victoria's most vulnerable women to be
under the carpet.
The Attorney-General's Street Prostitution Advisory Group was formed
response to St Kilda traders' and residents' concerns about an increase
street prostitution. From the outset the group took a narrow view
more than threefold increase in the number of women working in street
prostitution in St Kilda in the past 15 years.
In its interim report it stated: "The advisory group has not
itself with moral arguments about whether street prostitution should
permitted; it accepts that prostitution will continue."
Rather than pondering what the presence of up to 50 women working
street prostitutes at peak times in St Kilda tells us about the
women in Victoria, and the safety of those particular women, the
group sought to achieve "reduced harm to the community caused
Yet surely those who are most harmed by street prostitution are
The advisory group acknowledged the disadvantage that drives women
street prostitution in the first place: "They are the victims
abuse and violence, and confront problems in relation to drug dependency,
homelessness, and mental and sexual health." In fact, a 1996
report found that 80 per cent of street prostitutes had a substance-abuse
These are some of the most economically and socially disadvantaged
and girls in our community, yet the government opts for a quick
fix - move
them on so the curb crawlers (dignified with the title "clients")
"serviced" in tolerance zones.
After paying a fee, the woman will be used in a "sex-worker
located away from residential areas, schools, places of worship,
and retail areas.
Meanwhile, Women's Affairs Minister Delahunty worries about the
of woman in outdoor advertising as merely "cute, curvaceous
compliant". The minister last year convened an advisory committee
complaints about a spate of sexist stereotyping in billboard ads.
The shoe manufacturer Windsor Smith was rightly criticised for
a series of
advertisements that evoked a kind of brothel-chic: there was a woman
apparently fellating a man in a suit, a woman with breasts bared
her legs around a football player, and a man in a seedy room removing
shoes as two emaciated women wait patiently for him on a bed.
Such images are clearly not "positive" representations
of women, according
to the minister. Fair enough. But why is the hand-wringing over
representations of women as objects for sexual use not accompanied
concern over the purchasing of real women and girls in St Kilda,
sanctioned by the Attorney-General?
And what of the state's legal brothels and strip clubs? How can
advertising be improved to project a positive image of women?
The Women's Affairs Ministry seems not to realise that Victoria's
sex industry is one of the busiest (and one of the most tolerated)
world - there are an estimated 60,000 visits to legal brothels in
state every week. It is little wonder that advertisers have taken
cue from the burgeoning sex industry.
An alternative approach, and one that the Minister for Women's
could proudly promote, would be to see sexual exploitation of women
human rights issue. This approach would require the de-criminalisation
soliciting, so women are not further victimised, and penalties for
who seek to buy sex. Most importantly, though, the government should
exit strategies and social services for street prostitutes wanting
The Bracks Government is sending out mixed messages on the status
of women in Victoria: a business may sell sexual use of women by
the half-hour, but the government frowns upon advertisers who portray
women as sexual objects to sell shoes.
The femocrats of the Victorian ALP appear content to tolerate the
exploitation of Victorian women - so long as they don't have to
it on their way to work.
Heather Merle Benbow
Heather is a doctoral student at The University of Melbourne.