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Tale about sex workers in St Kilda.

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Tuesday 3 September 2002

Leslie Cannold, Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics, University of Melbourne


A Tale about Sex Workers in St Kilda  


I recently had occasion to wonder whether when idealism and reality clash, reality need always be the winner.  


The occasion for this wonder was my local council’s attempt to work out what to do about street prostitution in St Kilda, a suburb where women have long worked the streets.  


What they decided to do was to try to herd the problem into containment areas that would contain sex worker centres where clients could be serviced. One of the sites they chose for this role was a busy main street bordered by a number of quiet solely residential streets, including mine.  


Now, the first wind most of neighbors had of the plan was when they’d opened the paper Saturday morning to see our street amongst a list of seven sites “preferred’ by Council.  


By the following Saturday, this list had shrunk to four, with the Council having clearly declared it would ultimately choose four for the proposed two year trial.  


While I was as open-mouthed as my neighbors at their choice of location, I had known containment was the Council’s preferred solution to the rapid proliferation of street sex in St Kilda. Their thinking was based on a major report by the Attorney General Street Prostitution Advisory Group. The Report wasn’t perfect, but it sought input and consensus from all stakeholders: residents, traders, police, sex workers, and the agencies that service them. As a consequence, the criteria it had set down for deciding the location of the containment areas had seemed to reflect, in a largely uncompromised manner, the needs and values of all stakeholders.  


For instance, while the criteria stipulated that the areas could not be near residences, day-time convenience retailing, places of worship and places where children congregate, they also stipulated that the areas must be able to accommodate amenities for the workers like toilets, lighting, and syringe disposal units.  


The Report suggested that only sites that met these criteria would be selected for the trial. 


More importantly, it implied that if no areas met the criteria, the plan would be abandoned, not modified just to achieve an outcome.  


But then reality struck.  


It soon became abundantly clear that idealised containment zones representing the values and needs of all stakeholders, simply didn’t exist in the reality of St Kilda.  


If the criteria weren’t watered down few, if any, sites for the trial would be found.  


For me, this was the point where the idealism of the process needed to have held firm.  


This was the point at which the politicians either needed to extend the search for a site beyond the boundaries of St Kilda or tell the Advisory Group to return to the drawing board for a solution better tailored to reality. 


But this is not what happened.  


The Council hurried ahead with the process of shortlisting sites, despite their own admission that most sites violated the Report’s criteria.  


The State Government looked on either applaudingly or in silence.  


Councilors began using the media to espouse new ethical standards for the selection of containment sites:  


The talk was no longer about the pursuit of justice for all but relied instead on utilitarian notions of “net community benefit” and “least harm/best fit.”  


Solutions that were, in effect, about throwing some stakeholders to the dogs to ensure a positive outcome for others.  


So, how might it all have gone differently?  


It may have been unrealistic for me to have expected that politicians might walk away from an idea in which they have so heavily invested. Consequently, I now believe that rather than a strength of the process, the Group’s seeming separation of idealism and reality was a weakness.  


In the future, it may be preferable for the Advisory Group to move back and forth between the idealised solutions they come up with to the political and geographic realities to which those solutions must be applied.  


This may be the only way for the politicians it serves to deliver a solution without selling their souls.  


Guests on this program:


Dr Leslie Cannold  

Writer and Ethicist 

Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public Ethics 

University of Melbourne