The Problems with Victoria’s Existing Laws

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In our view the criminal law should not be used to enforce notions of sexual morality but should instead be used in cases of actual violence, harassment and abuse, which are covered under other more appropriate sections of the Criminal Code.


Canadian Alliance for Sex Work Law Reform

In early 2022, the Victorian Parliament passed the Sex Work Decriminalisation Act 2022 (Vic), which will progressively decriminalise sex work throughout 2022 and 2023. The information below relates to Victoria’s sex work licensing laws, which will remain in place until 1 December 2023.

How the Law Fails Its Own Objectives

How well are Victoria’s sex work laws addressing common fears about the sex industry?

What About Organised Crime in the Sex Industry?

One of the objects of Victoria’s Sex Work Act is to ensure that criminals are not involved in the sex work industry.¹ However, unlike all other industries, Victoria’s sex industry is regulated by the police using criminal laws. This leads to a breakdown of trust between sex workers and authorities, including health authorities. This makes it more difficult for the police to detect organised crime involvement when and where it occurs.

What About Women Being Coerced in the Sex Industry?

Coercion is currently a crime² in Victoria. If Victoria decriminalised consenting adult sex work, coercion would remain a crime.

What about the spread of HIV and other sexually transmitted infections?

The sixth objective of Victoria’s Sex Work Act aims to ‘maximise the protection of sex workers and their clients from health risks.’

Sexually transmissible infections and HIV are no more prevalent in the sex worker community than in the general population.³ Victorian law criminalises large numbers of sex workers, which means:

  • large number of sex workers remain unreachable by peer support workers and health support workers
  • there is a great level of mistrust between sex workers and all authorities, including health outreach workers
  • there is an additional barrier to providing health education to sex workers.

Q: Do Victorian sex workers have higher rates of sexually transmissible infections compared to the general  population?

A: No. Studies show that sex workers in Victoria present with sexually transmissible infections (including HIV) at similar rates to the general population. This is based on several studies that included both female and male sex workers across multiple sectors of the sex industry

Proliferation of Unlicensed Brothels in Inappropriate Locations

The fourth objective of Victoria’s Sex Work Act aims toensure that brothels are not located in residential areas or in areas frequented by children.’

Despite this, there are now hundreds of suspected unlicensed brothels across both Melbourne and regional Victoria.⁴ Inevitably, some of these will be near schools.

Regulating the location of brothels is a complex legal matter involving both state and local government legislation. Because Victoria’s existing legislation is so complex, there remains confusion amongst authorities as to who is responsible for dealing with unlicensed brothels (Victoria Police, local councils or Consumer Affairs Victoria?).⁵ Other states and territories have conducted inquiries and produced commission reports aimed at identifying ways to address this problem.⁶ The last time Victoria held an inquiry relating to the regulation of sex work was well over 30 years ago, in 1985.⁷

Children Exploited by the Sex Industry

It is currently a crime in Victoria to engage a minor under the age of 18 in the sex industry in any way whatsoever.⁸ If Victoria decriminalised consensual adult sex work, engaging minors in the sex industry would remain a crime.

The Welfare and Safety of Sex Workers

The ninth objective of Victoria’s Sex Work Act aims to “promote the welfare and occupational safety of sex workers.” However, surveys carried out among sex workers reveal that they feel Victoria’s law makes sex work less safe.9

How the Law Fails to Address Other Public Concerns

Human Trafficking

Human trafficking is a serious crime. A decriminalised legal environment makes it easier to detect human trafficking where it occurs.

Q: Why is this?

A: When sex workers are safe to report crimes to the police, they are more likely to do so.

Q: Is there widespread human trafficking in the sex industry?

A: Not according to available police evidence. Australian Federal Police statistics show that between 2005 and 2016 there were 21 human trafficking-related offences recorded in Victoria’s sex industry, with five offenders charged and only two of those offenders convicted. Outside the sex industry, there were 12 human trafficking-related offences recorded over the same period.

Q: Does decriminalisation encourage human trafficking?

A: No. The criminalisation of human trafficking sits alongside the decriminalisation of sex work

Is Sex Work Inherently Dangerous?

Victoria’s sex work laws give the police the power to arrest or charge most of Victoria’s sex workers. They are put in unnecessary danger by the fear or reluctance to report crimes to police, for fear that they themselves will be arrested.

Drugs in the Sex Industry

Laws relating to illicit drugs apply to ALL Victorians equally, including those working in the sex industry. While there are limited studies on rates of illicit drug use in Victoria’s sex industry overall, credible studies from other states suggest low rates of drug use by sex workers.10 The most recent and extensive study was conducted in Western Australia and surveyed 331 sex workers in that state. Those surveyed represented all genders, sex work sectors and language groups. The study found the most common illicit drug currently being used was marijuana, with 11.3% of those surveyed reporting usage.11

However, any sex worker needing support around substance abuse issues, whether from peer support workers or other health workers, is at a disadvantage when it comes to accessing these services. This is because Victoria’s sex work laws criminalise large numbers of sex workers. This leads to a breakdown of trust between sex workers and authorities, including health authorities.

Police Corruption and the Sex Industry

There is presently no evidence of police corruption within Victoria’s sex industry. The criminalisation of sex work in New South Wales prior to 1995 allowed for police intervention in the brothel sector, which lead to police corruption in the sex industry in that state. This situation produced an incentive to decriminalise sex work in New South Wales in 1995.

A 1997 Royal Commission into the New South Wales Police Service found that “In permitting well-run brothels to operate [referring to the 1995 decriminalisation of sex work in NSW], a potential opportunity for corrupt conduct on the part of police was closed off.”12

  1. See section 4(c) of the Sex Work Act 1994 (Vic)
  2. See ss 8-9 of the Sex Work Act 1994 (Vic)
  3. Callander D, et al, A cross-sectional study of HIV and STIs among male sex workers attending Australian sexual health clinics (2017) Sexually Transmitted Infections, 93:299–302.Rowe J, Shantusi Surveying HIV and Need in The Unregulated Sex Industry (2011) Inner South Community Health Service [Star Health], pp2-3
  4. In 2019 Victoria Police estimate Victoria has at least 500 illegal brothels.
  5. Macreadie R, Prostitution Control and Other Matters Amendment Bill 2008D-Brief 7 (2008) Parliamentary Research Library Service, page 9
  6. – New South Wales 2015 Inquiry into the Regulation of Brothels
    – Australian Capital Territory 2012 Inquiry into the Prostitution Act 1992
    – Queensland’s 2004 Crime and Misconduct Commission Report, “Regulating Prostitution: An Evaluation of the Prostitution Act 1999”
    – Tasmania’s 2012 Department of Justice Sex Industry Review, “Regulation of the Sex Industry in Tasmania Discussion Paper”
    – The Northern Territory’s Attorney General 1999 Report, “National Competition Policy Report Concerning the Regulation of Escort Agents and Sex Workers”
  7. Marcia Neave’s 1985 Victorian Inquiry into Prostitution
  8. See ss 5 – 7, 11 and 59 of the Sex Work Act 1994 (Vic)
  9. Sex Work Ministerial Advisory CommitteeImproving the Regulation of the Sex Industry and Supporting Sex Workers Who Want to Move On, (2007) Consumer Affairs Victoria, Section 6.3.2<>
    Harcourt C, van Beek I, Heslop J, McMahon M & Donovan B 2001.The health and welfare needs of female and transgender street sex workers in New South Wales. Health and Work 25(1): 84–89
  10. Seib C, Fischer J & Najman JM 2009. The health of female sex workers from three industry sectors in Queensland, Australia. Social Science and Medicine 68: 473–478
  11. 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 23, table 16
  12. The Hon Justice JRT Wood, Royal Commission Into The New South Wales Police Service, Final Report, Volume 1: Corruption, (1997)  The Government of the State of New South Wales, Finding 1.40

© Sex Work Law Reform Victoria 2022

Last updated: 10 May 2022