The Path to Decriminalisation

On 12 October, 2021, the Victorian Government tabled¹ a sex work decriminalisation bill in the Victorian Parliament. The Legislative Council will resume debate on the Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill 2021 (Vic) on 10 February 2022. Each state and territory in Australia has its own sex work laws, and Victoria is set to become the fourth jurisdiction in the world to decriminalise sex work (after New South Wales, New Zealand and the Northern Territory).

What laws govern Sex Work in Victoria right now?

Victoria has not yet decriminalised sex work. For decades Victoria has had a sex work licensing system where police are the main regulators of the sex industry. Sex workers must register their legal name on a special government ‘sex work register’, which can be accessed by police at any time. Hundreds of laws restrict or ban how sex workers advertise, where sex work can take place, hiring staff and more.

A minority of sex workers operate legally within the outdated and highly restrictive sex work licensing laws. The majority of sex workers are driven underground and risk criminal prosecution because the current laws are so onerous, that only a minority of workers are able to comply. Up to 80% of Victoria’s sex workers currently operate outside the strict licensing framework imposed on them. This means almost no sex workers report rape or other crimes (such as theft, or fraud) to police. They are simply too scared that they themselves might be arrested by the police.

How Will Sex Work Decriminalisation Change Things for Sex Workers? 

The Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill 2021 (Vic) seeks to remove criminal laws associated with consensual adult sex work. This will allow existing general business and council laws to the regulate the industry. Sex work will then be regulated in a manner similar to hair dressers or massage therapists, for example like a hair dresser a brothel would be permitted to operate in commercial and residential areas. Hundreds of existing general laws applying to other businesses will continue to apply to sex work and regulate the entire sex industry. These include, for example, business, tax, council and criminal laws relating to workplace safety, employment conditions and commercial operations. 

Once sex work is decriminalised, sex workers will be able to access medical, health, legal and other support services without worrying about getting in trouble with the police. If a sex worker wants to report a crime to police, they can do so without risking prosecution themselves.

Do I Still Need to Comply with the Sex Work Licensing the Registration Laws?

Yes. The new laws have not yet passed and so do not yet apply. All existing sex work licensing laws still apply. Even if the current bill passes into law this year in 2021, some of the new provisions won’t apply until later in 2022². Other parts of the law won’t apply until 1 December 2023³.

Where Did This Start?

Back in the 1970s veteran sex workers’ rights activist, Cheryl Overs founded a small working group, which in the early 1980’s became the Prostitutes Collective of Victoria (PCV). PCV helped develop early concepts of sex workers rights, support programs for sex workers and began the fight to decriminalise sex work. In 1985, Victoria conducted a thorough inquiry into sex work, the Neave Inquiry which recommended partially decriminalising sex work. However, following the inquiry, a licensing system was established which is still in place to this day – a system which criminalises most forms of sex work. Since the late 1980s, sex workers and various sex worker groups have consistently lobbied for the full decriminalisation of sex work.

After spending time overseas, Cheryl Overs returned to Australia in 2019 and has been working closely with Sex Work Law Reform Victoria.

Cheryl Overs (right) has been a sex workers’ rights activist since the 1970’s

To read about the events leading to decriminalisation since 2010, please read our Sex Work Review Blog.

What Has Sex Work Law Reform Victoria been Doing?

 In 2018 and 2019 we lobbied members of parliament, government agencies, police, and others,  calling for Victoria’s sex work laws to be reviewed. In 2020 we partnered with the Michael Kirby Centre at Monash University to conduct a sex worker consultation as part of the 2020 Fiona Patten Review into sex work. We made two submissions to the 2020 Review. In 2021, we made a submission to the August 2021 sex work consultation about sex work and local government laws. Along with seven other sex worker support groups, we also met with the Department of Justice and Community Safety on 23 August 2021 for an additional consultation.

  1. See 3rd item on the Votes and Proceedings No 125

2. Clause 2(2) of the Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill 2021 (Vic)

3. Clause 2(3) of the Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill 2021 (Vic)

© Sex Work Law Reform Victoria 2022

Last updated: 10 February, 2022