Why People Want Sex Work To Be Decriminalised In Australia

Want more Junkee in your life? Sign up to our newsletter, and follow us on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook so you always know where to find us.

A really important conversation about sex work is about to happen in Australia.

A long review of Victoria’s sex work legislation is going to wrap up in the next couple of weeks and there’s broad agreement from advocates and human rights organisations that decriminalisation should be the way forward in Australia.

So what do we need to know about it, and how are sex workers being failed by the current laws? 

The laws for sex work are different across all Australian states and territories.

In Victoria, sex work is legal but only if workers are either in a licensed brothel or registered on a permanent database, which seriously limits workers’ choices when it comes to their own working environments.

The laws mean that the majority of sex workers in the state are operating illegally.

Fiona Patten: “It was designed before the internet, it was designed before we changed our workplace and our work models, so it was well overtime to review the legislation and look at what is best practice today”

That’s Fiona Patten, she’s the founder and leader of the Reason Party in Victoria and she’s leading the state’s sex work review by speaking to health organisations, local government, police, but mostly the sex workers themselves.

FP: “Decriminalisation does not mean no regulation but what it means is treating this business in the same way that we treat other businesses”.

 Patten told me that we can kind of analogise sex work to hairdressing as an industry in the way it could be regulated. Hairdressing is still subject to workplace and planning rules as well as health and safety regulations but it’s not exactly under a criminal code.

That kind of model makes a lot of sense when we consider the issues that sex workers face when their job is illegal.

The risk of violence against sex workers can be up to seven times higher in criminalised environments and when violence does happen or workers are mistreated by employers, they’re obviously much more apprehensive to go to the police about it.

FP: “When you force people to work in difficult situations, certainly in situations where they don’t have the protection of the police, where they’re scared to go to the authorities because they’re working in a technically illegal workplace, this is where people are more vulnerable to exploitation.”

The difference in treatment between the sex work industry and other industries has also become really obvious over the course of the pandemic.

Sex workers have collectively lost millions of dollars because licensed brothels were kept shut down, even while beauty and massage therapists were allowed to open.

Worker support groups have also reported that because they can’t access Jobseeker or Jobkeeper, some sex workers have been relying purely on donations from the sex worker association Scarlett Alliance to get by.

FP: “In the current legal situation, in the current moral judgement of this industry we’re seeing that play out in the over restrictive nature of COVID legislation.”

The push for taking sex work out of the criminal code in Victoria is something that Patten wants to see broadly happen across Australia.

New South Wales and the Northern Territory are the only places that have decriminalised it so far in Australia. Across the rest of the country there’s a complete patchwork of what is and isn’t illegal in the industry that changes from state to state.

FP: “Sex work is still treated as other and decriminalisation is about removing that otherness of this industry, for want of a better word, normalising this industry and saying that it is a profession like anything else and that people work in this industry, they work professionally.”

The Takeaway

Sex workers around Australia are still being maligned by our patchy legislation and the pandemic has only made their position more obvious.

Victoria’s review is an opportunity for another Australian state to draft progressive legislation that protects sex workers for doing their job and create an equal playing field.