Why are we Calling for the Decriminalisation of Sex Work?

Victoria’s existing sex work laws are supposed to protect sex workers from violence and exploitation.¹ However, in practice, the laws increase the risk of violence for most sex workers.

This is because the majority of Victoria’s sex work laws do not target those who exploit and traffic women. Instead, the laws focus police attention and resources on people choosing to work in the sex industry. Victoria doesn’t only criminalise street sex work. All sectors, including brothel, escort agency and private sex work remain criminalised to varying degrees.

The law in Victoria is an example of a licensing model of sex work legislation. One of the key features of this licensing model is the requirement that self-employed sex workers, unlike other service workers, register their details on a government database, which is accessible by the police.

sex work laws can only be changed by parliament (Unsplash: Robert Bye)


Q: Why is Victoria’s licensing model of sex work laws problematic?

A: Because of concerns about their privacy and safety, most sex workers are reluctant to comply with licensing requirements. This means the majority of sex workers are working outside the law

Q: Isn’t sex work already legalised in Victoria?

A: Yes and no. The existing Victorian laws are overly complex and, in practice, criminalise many sex workers.

Q: Isn’t sex work already decriminalised in Victoria?

A: No. Victoria has a licensing model of sex work laws.  Only three places in the world have partially decriminalised consensual adult sex work:  New South Wales, the Northern Territory and New Zealand. 

Q: What is the difference between legalisation and decriminalisation?

A: Decriminalisation is different from legalisation. Victoria legalises sex work through a licensing system. Legalisation, or licensing, poses onerous restrictions on all sex workers and sex industry businesses. Licensing requires individual sex workers to register on a government database, using their legal names and addresses. In Victoria the government maintains a register of individual sex workers accessible to authorised police officers

According to Australia’s peak sex workers’ rights association, Scarlet Alliance,

“Licensing inevitably creates a ‘two-tiered system’, with some sex workers and businesses able to comply with strict regulation, and the rest unable or unwilling to comply.”⁴

Under decriminalisation, sex industry businesses in Victoria would be treated like any other. New South Wales, New Zealand and the Northern Territory introduced partial decriminalisation in 1995, 2003 and 2020 respectively. Sex industry businesses and sex workers in these two jurisdictions are subject to existing regulations such as local council planning, zoning and location controls, workers compensation requirements, occupational health and safety standards, and industrial rights obligations.

Decriminalisation does not mean no regulation.

In a decriminalised environment, police are not involved as regulators of the sex industry, unless there is a breach of existing law, such as assault. In a decriminalised framework, existing general laws continue to regulate the sex industry as they do any other.

Sex workers’ rights organisations across Australia support full decriminalisation as the legal model which provides the safest workplace conditions for all sex workers. None of Australia’s sex workers’ rights organisations support the licensing/legalisation model.

Human Trafficking versus Sex Work

Under decriminalisation, existing anti-trafficking laws remain in place. Human trafficking occurs in many industries besides the sex industry. Powerful anti-trafficking laws protect sex workers, along with workers in other industries where trafficking may occur.

Human trafficking and coercion are criminal offences. Existing human trafficking laws protect sex workers, along with any other workers in situations where trafficking may occur. Criminalising consensual adult activity carried out in private within the sex industry does not protect sex workers.

  • Although Victorian legislation refers to sex work as work, in practice the legislation effectively treats sex work as a criminal activity. Sex Work Law Reform Victoria does not believe sexual activity occurring between consenting adults in private should be treated as a crime.
  • Because some aspects of consensual adult sex work remain criminalised, sex workers are often reluctant to report crimes committed against them to the police.
  • Victoria’s existing laws make it more difficult for health authorities to reach sex workers, creating an additional barrier to reducing HIV and other STI’s.⁵
  • While sex workers are required by law to pay tax, elements of their working lives remain criminalised.
  • Victoria’s sex work laws are overly complicated, outdated and have not been reviewed in over 30 years. This complexity makes compliance with and enforcement of the laws confusing and costly.⁶ 
  • Sex workers have embraced the development of technology, using the internet and  smartphones in the course of their work. In light of this, Victoria’s sex work laws, which date from 1994, have become outdated.[see more]
outdated legislation
sex work laws are outdated (Unsplash: Erol Ahmed)

Q: What about STI rates amongst sex workers?

A: Studies show that sex workers in Victoria present with sexually transmitted infections (including HIV) at similar rates to the general population. This is based on studies involving female and male sex workers across multiple sectors of the industry.⁷, ⁸

  1. s 4 (f), Sex Work Act 1994 (Vic)
  2. Donovan B, Harcourt C, Egger S, Watchirs Smith L, Schneider K, Kaldor JM, Chen MY, Fairley CK, Tabrizi S (2012) The Sex Industry in New South Wales: a Report to the NSW Ministry of Health, Kirby Institute, UNSW.
  3. See section 24(3) of The Sex Work Act 1994 (Vic)
  4. Scarlet Alliance, Principles of Model Sex Work Legislation (2014) Scarlet Alliance, page 6
  5. Donovan B, Harcourt C, O’Conner J, Egger S, Fairley C, Wand H, Chen M, Kaldor J, Marshall L,  The decriminalisation of Prostitution is Associated with Better Coverage of Health Promotion Programs for Sex Workers (2009) 34(5) Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health, 482
  6. Macreadie R, Prostitution Control and Other Matters Amendment Bill 2008 D-Brief 7 (2008) Parliamentary Research Library Service, page 9
  7. 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.
  8. Rowe J, Shantusi Surveying HIV and Need in The Unregulated Sex Industry (2011) Inner South Community Health Service [Star Health], pp2-3

© Sex Work Law Reform Victoria 2020

Last updated: 13 March 2020