Sex work: Decriminalisation is not a dirty word


IT is 6pm on a Friday in a New South Wales (NSW) brothel only minutes from the central business district (CBD) and Cassandra, the manager of a successful Sydney establishment, is busy in her office booking escorts for the evening while warmly greeting her girls as they arrive for their long 10 hour shift.

‘Lola’ is wheeling in her suitcase, an entire load of luggage since she has arrived from interstate less than an hour before, and she’s got an air of anticipation about her, much like a young woman on the first day of a holiday.

“I’ve only been in the industry for about eight months,” she says after we’ve been introduced, “but I love the job so much!”

Why would she enjoy sleeping with strange men one might ask?

“I’m a university student and this job provides incredible flexibility for me to do it as I please, I’m treated really well by clients and I’m able to earn money that would be impossible doing anything else… Well anything else that is legal.”

On Lola’s monthly visit, where she stays for a week at a time, she is usually able to make between five to seven thousand dollars that pays for both her tuition expenses and facilitates her comfortable lifestyle.

21-year-old Brisbane born Lola is a fly-in-fly-out (FIFO) working girl in what she calls one of the most prestigious and high-class brothels in the country.

“We’re taken care of really well here by staff and security and the high rates men pay to see ladies really ensures that they are likely to be pleasant and respectful.”

Co-worker and friend, 28-year-old Adriana, who has worked in the industry on-and-off for five years now, explains that she has tried working in a few different states and has learnt that NSW work is the most secure.

“In other states like Western Australia (WA), although it’s a lucrative part of the world for sex workers because of the mining industry, the legislation is a bit muddled up and unstable, making it difficult to know what we can and cant do,” says Adriana.

International spokesperson for the Scarlet Alliance The Australian Sex Worker Association, Rachel Wotton defines in a 2012 Sex Workers Regulation Review, the sometimes blurred term ‘decriminalisation.’

Decriminalisation is where the criminal laws in relation to adult sex work are repealed and the sex industry is regarded in the same way as any other business.

There is no need for ‘new’ or ‘special’ laws to regulate the industry, instead it comes under the plethora of laws already in place.

This can include taxation, planning and building codes, Occupational Health and Safety regulations, zoning laws, fire codes, employment laws and fair trading regulations.

The basis of decriminalisation is equality.

Exemptions, for special consideration from any usual regulations, are only sought if sex workers’ privacy or health and safety would be compromised due to the high level of discrimination these individuals still face in society.

The Australian Constitution does not grant general criminal law powers to the Commonwealth Government and thus prostitution laws are matters for the state and territory Governments.

Since the 19th century all Australian jurisdictions and New Zealand (NZ) had criminalised most activities around prostitution but in the latter part of the 20th century these laws became increasingly diverse.

Most recently, Eastern states including NSW and the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and NZ largely decriminalised sex industry practices.

Professor Basil Donovan is from the Kirby Institute with University of New South Wales Medicine and leader of The Law and Sexworker Health (LASH) Project.

He explains within the 2010 report, the awkward legal response to sex work in WA.

“The last WA government voted for complete decriminalisation, but lost power before the new law was proclaimed,” says Donovan.

The WA government has periodically debated the issue. Some sex work is currently legal, however, it is heavily regulated.

Politicians and community groups on both sides of the coin are arguing for and against the decriminalisation of services.

Liberal MP and former pastor, Peter Abetz, has been quite vocal in recent months throughout the WA media, strongly advocating the criminalisation of sex work and the banning of brothels in the state.

He believes that women do not make the choice to enter into the sex industry and that legalising the service legitimises the sexual abuse of women.

Rebecca Davies has been a sex worker on and off for a decade, and is a member of The Scarlet Alliance.

“It was in no way a last-ditch thing for me,” she says.

“Whether or not we enjoy the work we’re doing, has nothing to do with whether or not we deserve to have labor rights.”

Abetz plans to push for new legislation over the coming months, while advocates for sex workers aim to fight it.

Max Taylor from Magenta, an organisation that provides support to sex workers in Western Australia, passionately explains how it is dangerous to stereotype sex workers.

“Many people have parallel careers or jobs, many invest the majority of their working lives in the industry and make good money, they pay taxes, they get a mortgage,” says Taylor.

“The fact that sex workers are ordinary people like you and me gets completely overlooked.”

The Scarlet Alliance along with other support groups like the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) and Magenta, collectively testify to an overabundance of benefits that come from the decriminalisation of sex work.

These benefits have been exemplified in NSW for 19 years now since the Disorderly Houses Amendment Act in 1995 was passed, allowing people to run and operate a ‘brothel’ viewing it as legitimate land use, equal to any other commercially viable business.

Decriminalisation was introduced in order to avoid police corruption, who once had the role of regulating the industry.

Stripping police of this regulatory role has successfully addressed the problem.

Police were deemed inappropriate regulators of the sex industry and Janelle Fawkes, manager of The Scarlet Alliance says, “we are glad they’re out!”

The Alliance continues to affirm they have a strong base of evidence and experience that supports decriminalisation as the best model of regulation of the sex industry.

Furthermore, they also testify to have equally strong proof of the failure of licensing and registration in other states.

Decriminalisation is supported by the United Nations (UN), and NSW is world renowned for its best-practice model.

To move away from this legislation would be to step back 19 years in sex worker health and safety.

Decriminalisation is what sex workers want.

The system is the most effective and there is no need for a reform to the current system in NSW .

This legislation has brought improved work safety, high rates of safer sex practice, low rates of sexually transmitted infections and no evidence of organised crime.

The regime allows sex workers to access support in the event of a crime, such as underage or illegal sex trafficking, without fear of persecution.

Decriminalisation means that sex industry businesses are inherently regulated like other businesses, subject to existing regulatory mechanisms such as local council planning and zoning regulations, WorkCover and the Australian Taxation Office.

“People hear decriminalisation and they think it’s a free-for-all, no holds barred, anything goes, and that’s not what it means at all. It means we’re removing the criminal tendencies, and treating the sex industry like any other industry,” says industry veteran Davies.

Suggested improvements from The Alliance would be, if these mechanisms were applied fairly and sex industry businesses were actually treated like any other business.

A decriminalised system amplifies opportunities for outreach, magnifies capacities for peer education, supports sex worker self-determination, maximises compliance, increases transparency and minimises discrimination.

The LASH report published for the WA government in 2010, found that, due to consistent use of condoms by sex workers, Australia has seen a steady decline in STIs in the sex workers and their clients.

Specifically in NSW where prostitution is completely decriminalised, the LASH report found that condom use was approaching 100 per cent in Sydney brothels in 2011.

In the report, Donovan found in the NSW sex industry, “condom use for vaginal and anal sex exceeds 99% and sexually transmissible infection rates are at historic lows.”


Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) sex worker pack contents.


These diminished levels of sexually transmitted infections (STIs) have been maintained over the last decade.

The report confirms that there is still no documented case of a female sex worker in Australia acquiring or transmitting human immunodeficiency virus (HIV)infection at work and HIV in female sex workers remains rare.

The few residential female sex workers identified as HIV positive have all had intravenous drug use as the probable source of infection.

The prevalence of STIs amongst certain groups of sex workers tends to be higher.

For example, male sex workers, females from Asia, teenage sex workers, those who engage in high levels of illicit drug use, and street workers typically had higher rates of STIs.

STI rates in Asian sex workers in Sydney are, however, now as low as their local peers.

WA sexual health of workers is only marginally less than their east-coast counterparts on average due to a lack of education through access to outreach and the increased incidence of international workers.

Magenta promotes that with decriminalisation these workers will feel more comfortable in seeking education and further improving the overall health status of workers in the west similarly to Eastern states, NSW and the ACT.

Sydney based worker Adriana expresses why NSW work takes the cake when it comes to industry health and safety.

“We have incredible access to loads of support services in NSW,” says Adriana.

“We can and are encouraged to drop into see a health care provider at one of many sexual health clinics available to us in order to receive regular checkups.”

“These provisions and outreach projects such as SWOP provide tailored, convenient and completely anonymous consultations and provide excellent education and services to working girls like myself.”

“As part of our employment and in compliance with regulatory laws we must provide our employer with a sex workers certificate every three months in order to continue being put on the roster. I love getting the piece of mind that I’m healthy and to gain extra information about how to completely protect myself,” she explains.

To this day, surfacing of plans surrounding the implementation of licensing and registration laws from the Liberal government in WA is a recurring idea.

These laws, if passed, would enable police to more readily prosecute prostitutes in an effort to eradicate the industry in the West.

Under the plan, all sex workers will have to be registered with a relevant authority and will be able to work only from licensed premises, meaning they won’t be able to travel to remote towns and work from motels.

There will be strict protocols around advertising in local newspapers – no advertising will be allowed by anyone who doesn’t give their real name to the licensing authority – and police will be able to enter any premises to issue on-the-spot fines for both prostitute and client for whatever offences they suspect with reasonable evidence.

There is an argument that claims changes to the WA law may in fact normalise the profession.

Prostitutes will be licensed and registered like plumbers or accountants, they’ll have to work from areas where their business is approved, they’ll need Australian Business Number (ABNs) and tax file numbers (TFNs), and so they’ll be no different from anyone else.

Magenta director Taylor, argues against the proposition, saying the registration system won’t work, “because sex workers won’t register.”

“It will result in a small legal industry and a much larger illegal industry, with all the corruption associated with that. I don’t honestly understand it. History tells us that a pragmatic approach is best – what is the point of making criminals of people?”

“Sex workers are often desperate to avoid trouble, rather than make it,” says Taylor.

“The idea that sex workers cause trouble wherever they go – it’s been proven again and again to be false,” she says.

“You hear people saying, ‘they’re all Asian, they look like they’re underage, they’re working illegally, they’ve probably been trafficked’ but in my view, making prostitution illegal won’t stop people from trafficking, and won’t stop child prostitution. Both of those things are already illegal.”

The prospect of new laws that will potentially deplete the industry horrifies working ladies cashing in on the mining boom in WA.

When discussing the proposal of this scheme, fresh-faced industry girl Lola, is appalled.

“If I had to disclose that kind of personal information over here, in NSW, I’d be incredibly unimpressed,” she says, slipping one foot into her stiletto in the luxury Sydney brothel setting.

“I really enjoy this work, but I wouldn’t want my parents or anyone else to know about it for that matter.”

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