Private Sex Workers
Who They Are
Private sex workers (private escorts) work for themselves rather than escort agencies or brothels. Private workers set their own prices, arrange their own advertising, take their own calls and make their own way to bookings (visits to clients). Private workers do not share any of their income with third parties and are responsible for all their own costs including advertising, transportation, phone, safer sex supplies, accounting services, etc.
Almost all male sex workers are private workers. A significant number offer an erotic massage service not including full sex. Erotic massage therapists may not identify as sex workers, despite being classified as sex workers according to the law.
Across Australia private sex work is the most common form of sex work albeit the least visible. ¹ ²
How They Work
Much of a private worker’s time is spent on advertising, marketing and promotion via social media. There are dozens of websites on which to advertise, some are free and some require the private worker to pay for ads. Although many private workers operate alone, on occasion they work in pairs doing ‘double bookings’, which means two workers attend to a client at the same time. This can provide companionship, financial rewards and additional security for the workers. Many private workers have day jobs, work part time in other industries or in other sectors of the sex industry. Many are students, many are parents. People frequently move in and out of private sex work.
Private workers are particularly active in online communities and on social media, which combats social isolation and allows for the sharing of skills.
Most private workers are based in the CBD and the inner suburbs of Melbourne. Many tour around Victoria, and sometimes work interstate and/or overseas.
The client visits the sex worker at the sex worker’s home or a hotel/motel booked in the sex worker’s name.
The private worker sets their own prices, usually at an hourly rate with additional fees applying to special services and for transportation costs if required. Some workers will see clients for brief periods of time (15 or 30 minutes), while others will insist on a minimum one hour booking. Private workers set their own rates for overnight or longer stays. Hourly rates for a full service booking usually range from $200/hr to $1200/hr. For happy ending massage services, prices typically range from $80/hr to $250/hr. On average, male workers charge a significantly lower hourly rate than female and transgender workers.
There are more than 40 websites displaying private sex worker ads catering to the Victorian market. In any given month there are more than 10,000 ads online. This doesn’t represent 10,000 individual sex workers as many workers advertise on multiple websites.
Private sex work offers high levels of autonomy and flexibility. It also allows the sex worker to keep all of their earnings.
A major obstacle faced by private workers is that under Victorian law they cannot provide services in their own home/place of residence (‘incalls’). Neither can private workers provide services at hotels, motels or other premises booked in their own name, even if the client offers to reimburse the cost of the hotel/motel. As a result, in order to work legally, private workers are required to meet clients in unfamiliar places.
Before commencing work as a private sex worker, the law requires one to register with the Business Licensing Authority (BLA). The worker is then issued a unique identifying number (‘SWA’ number), which must appear on ALL of their advertising. The SWA number is recorded along with other personal details on a government register, accessible in certain circumstances by Victorian Police. Registered details include the sex worker’s current legal name, their sex worker name(s), date of birth, residential address, phone numbers, and any business names used for sex work. Sex workers are obliged to update the BLA with any changes to this information throughout the year. The BLA issues the private worker with annual requests to update/amend this information.
The requirement to register with the BLA is resented by the majority of private sex workers and compliance is low. The graph below shows the number of private workers on the register in a six year period. In June 2019 there were 1,167. However, in the same year there were an estimated 4,000 private workers who were NOT on the register.
Under Victorian law, in their advertising private sex workers are prohibited from describing the services they offer. This frequently results in confusion on the part of clients, or encounters where a client expects a service the worker does not provide. Despite the fact that many private sex workers are qualified massage therapists offering a happy ending massage service, it is against the law in Victoria to use the word ‘massage’ in their advertisements.
Working alone can be isolating. Private sex workers may not be acquainted with other sex workers, and due to stigma, misunderstanding and prejudice, they’re often unable to talk freely about their working lives with others; something experienced by all sex workers. This physical and social isolation means most private sex workers are unaware of the support networks available to them.
Notes on Data
The graph above excludes the estimated 4000 unregistered private (self-employed) sex workers.
- Data dated 30 June 2018
- CAV categorises individuals according to their nominated biological sex, not gender identity
- Data based on all 1008 registered private workers as at 30 June 2018
- Data only includes registered private sex workers, excluding street-based sex workers, brothel workers and escort agency workers
- Data excludes unregistered private workers (the majority)
- Selvey, L., Hallett, J., Lobo, R., McCausland, K., Bates, J., & Donovan, B. (2017). Western Australian Law and Sex Worker Health (LASH) Study. A Summary Report to the Western Australian Department of Health. Perth: School of Public Health, Curtin University, page 16, Table 4
The above study found that in Western Australia in 2017, 55.4% of sex workers were engaged in private sex work.
2. R v Anwar et al 
This Canadian case in the Ontario Court of Justice relied on an expert witness, sociological and criminological researcher of Canada’s sex industry Chris Atchison. In paragraph 26 of the Reasons for Judgement, Mr Atchison referred to research that 77.9% of sex workers in Canada work indepenently. Culturally, politically and economically Canada has a similar profile to Australia and as such figures are likely to be comparable to Australia.
© Sex Work Law Reform Victoria 2020
Last updated: 7 May 2020