What Are Sex Work Laws?

Sex work laws are state/territory laws applying only to the sex industry. An example would be Victoria’s solicitation laws that apply to street-based sex workers and their clients. Sex work laws exist in contrast with general laws which apply to all other industries. For example, consumer laws apply to all types of businesses, not just one industry type. Sex work laws:

  • are mostly state/territory laws
  • are criminal laws as opposed to civil laws
  • apply ONLY to the sex industry. This can include sex workers, their families, clients, managers and sex industry business owners.

Each Australian state and territory have different sex work laws ranging from complete criminalisation (South Australia) to almost complete decriminalisation (New South Wales).

Sex work laws can be broadly divided into four distinct models:

  1. criminalisation
  2. licensing/legalisation
  3. decriminalisation
  4. Nordic/Swedish model (not found in Australia)

Australia is a fascinating case study in sex work laws because it has adopted the first three legal models.


The criminalisation model prohibits the sex industry by making it a criminal offence to offer or receive, or both, services of a sexual nature. The offence is committed by the client, or the sex worker, or both. This model will result in sex work being either wholly or partially criminalised.


By licensing the sex industry, a jurisdiction determines the legal conditions under which the industry can operate. For example, legal brothels and independent workers are all required to apply for a licence, and can only legally be involved in sex work once approved.  A number of restrictions then operate to mandate how the sex work is to be conducted. Regulation and compliance are handled by a government agency and the police. Police are generally used to enforce compliance.


This involves removing the criminal element from the provision of sexual services and allowing workers to operate under general business related laws.  Sex workers and associated businesses such as brothels and escort agencies are regulated according to workplace health and safety laws, taxation, immigration, planning, and industrial laws in the same manner as other businesses. New South Wales, New Zealand and the Northern Territory have all mostly decriminalised sex work.

© Sex Work Law Reform Victoria 2021

Last updated: 29 September 2021