Tonight, I had a startling conversation involving two very prominent criminal lawyers in New South Wales which lead to a couple of things. First was the accusation by one lawyer that by defending sex worker rights, I was morally inadequate and “disturbed”. The second claim was the most astounding. It was stated that their disdain for the sex industry was a moral matter rather than a legal one. The other lawyer chimed in to argue that not all things legal are “right”.
When I was admitted onto the Solicitors Roll of New South Wales, back in 2003, I never envisaged that I would become a sex work advocate. My views about sex work had not yet formed. However, I was taught in law school that if I were to be a legal professional, I would always have to act in the best interests of my clients, I would need to put aside any preconceived ideas about what I consider to be right or wrong.
Today, in my sex work advocacy, I work on the following bases:
1. I Don’t Actually Think Sex Work Is Wrong
I have made it clear in my advocacy that I believe sex work is not wrong and that the industry needs to be decriminalised. This makes many people (including lawyers who like to make laws about things) very uncomfortable. I believe decriminalisation makes life better for sex workers and it leads to better health outcomes, safer and more open work environments, and less discrimination. For every argument that is sent my way that attacks the sex industry, I feel comfortable in defending its right to exist. Yes, there are drugs, yes there is violence, but all of these problems are far better dealt with by making the environment decriminalised rather than subjecting the industry to heavy regulation and criminal sanctions (unless they fall under the provisions of the Crimes Act).
We also need to remember that for every person who has suffered in the sex industry, we have a large body of men, women and transgender people who are willingly participating in it. Whether they love or hate their job, whether they are doing it just for the money, these are all things which are entirely separate from the baseline concept of agency. As I have always stated very clearly in my practice, I am happy to help sex workers stay in the industry when they make the choice to do so, but I am more than happy to help a sex worker get out of the industry if that choice is taken away from them.
2. Even If I Did Think Sex Work Was Wrong, I’d Still Defend You
My job as a lawyer is to advocate for the interests of individuals before a court of law and at times, that means I need to act for individuals that society does not consider worthy of legal representation. The key to being a good advocate is to remain of the view that, despite your clients being in the minority, they are just as deserving of a life free from discrimination as everyone else, regardless of the choices they have made in their lives. This is fundamental to being a good human rights lawyer.
Thankfully, I was taught that everyone was deserving of the right to come before a judge and have that judge determine their fate. Any judgement prior to court day leads to a even greater miscarriage of justice. If lawyers picked and chose who their clients were based on morality, then those individuals who fall on the wayside of public opinion would be completely without assistance by our legal system. The irony of tonight’s conversation was that I was essentially being called morally bankrupt by two men who have acted for some of the most notorious criminals this state has come across. They have also acted on behalf of alleged criminals who have been found not guilty. If these men had subjected their clients to the same moral rigour as they have with sex workers, those clients may not have had the benefit of their legal services to begin with, and may have subsequently found erroneously guilty.
We lawyers cop a significant amount of criticism both from the media and society in general – we get called ambulance chasers, and people who have problems managing their own morals. It’s safe to say we lawyers have a bit of an image problem, so to speak. Some of that comes from the fact that sometimes, we need to act for people that general society would rather we not. So when lawyers cast their OWN moral aspersions on parts of society, something we are specifically trained not to do in ethics class, that does not leave much hope for the minority that are subject to those aspersions. It is likely that they will feel that they won’t be treated fairly by the law as a whole if and when they need it. This has a flow on affect to the way that minority class treats police enforcement, as well as officers of the court.
I may be criticised by a small portion of the sex work community for some stances I have taken but my overall stance regarding the industry remains the same. It disappoints me greatly that I was confronted by such attitudes from members of my own profession. We don’t like to publicly criticise each other for our behaviour because we are a proud profession. However, this behaviour was something I could not ignore. This has not only led me to have a deeper think about my role in the sex industry, but even moreso, my role as a lawyer.