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February 01, 2021 6 min read

Please note: This article contains references to the mistreatment of sex workers.

If you’re a culture-savvy, sex-positive person, you probably already know a little about sex work. You may have seen photos of workers marching in the streets with ‘decriminalise now’ banners held high. You probably understand that sex work – like any other kind of consensual sex - is okay. Maybe you even count a few escorts, strippers or pro dommes among your friends.

But is sex work legal in Australia? What does ‘decriminalisation’ really mean? And why do activists insist it’s the only way, when many states of Australia already allow it in one form or another?

I’ve been working as an independent escort in Melbourne for ten years and the law has always been an issue - it affects the health, safety, and human rights of sex pros everywhere. Here’s an introduction to sex work decriminalisation in Australia, and why it matters.

Sex work in Australia: The basics

In case you’re not familiar with sex work, a quick definition: it’s the exchange of sexual (or just sexy) services for payment. It includes not only hands-on jobs such as escorts, street-based workers, and brothel workers, but also strippers, porn performers, cam artists, erotic massage workers, peepshow performers, phone sex line operators, and kink professionals.

Sex work law in Australia is complicated – it varies depending on location. There are three kinds of systems at play: criminalisation, licensing (also known as legalisation), and decriminalisation. Most states of Australia do a bit of each.

Criminalisation: “The cops are coming for us!” (Or just for some of us.)

Criminalisation means sex work is illegal - either all of it, or just certain jobs or activities. Sometimes laws also criminalise workplaces (such as brothels) or target people who do sex work while having STIs (such as HIV). Right now, South Australia is the only state that criminalises all sex work.

Criminalisation deprives sex workers of the protections that most citizens take for granted; imagine trying to seek medical care or report a crime against you when you're worried about getting a fine or a jail term yourself? People who want to rob or rape know that a criminalised sex worker will have a harder time deciding whether to report the crime.

Under criminalisation, the people who get picked on the most are women, people of colour, trans people, and street workers; those who are vulnerable and have less ability to fight back against charges. Criminalisation becomes another way for society to keep marginalised people down.

Some folks argue that the sex industry needs to be banned to prevent it happening. But sex work is the world's oldest profession. We’re here to stay…and if our work is criminalised, we’ll have a miserable time of it.

The Nordic model: “The cops are coming for our clients.” 

Sometimes people ask me, “What about the laws in Sweden? Is arresting clients a good idea?” The Nordic (or Swedish) model of sex work criminalisation punishes the customers of sex workers, rather than the workers themselves. It’s based on the idea that people who pay for sex are wrong, and people who do sex work are the victims.

There are a few problems with this. Firstly, it doesn’t work; there’s little convincing evidence to show that the Nordic model prevents sex work. As I said, we’re here to stay.

Secondly, our clients don’t deserve to be punished any more than we do. There’s nothing wrong with paying for a sexual service if you’re treating sex workers with respect. The idea that workers are victims and customers are abusers is both unrealistic and unhelpful.

Lastly, criminalising clients makes our job dangerous. Because they’re nervous, many clients will refuse to provide personal details, which means workers can’t do proper safety checks. Like criminalisation, the Nordic model encourages a negative perception of sex work, or ‘sex work stigma’. Studies show that the Nordic model often leads to higher rates of violence against sex workers.

The Nordic model is just another type of criminalisation – it has all the same dangers for sex workers, and few benefits. We need to make sure it’s never considered an option in Australia.

Licensing: "Do it this way, or else…”

Licensing is also sometimes called 'legalisation' - a confusing word that seems to suggest sex work becomes legal. Unfortunately, that’s not the case.Under a licensing system, sex workers are only allowed to work if they follow specific rules - where we can work, what we can say in our advertising, and how we practice safer sex.

This may sound fine – you might think, ‘aren’t all businesses supposed to follow rules and regulations?’ The problem is that many licensing laws make our work difficult, even dangerous. In Victoria, independent escorts such as myself aren't supposed to let clients visit us at home. Instead, we must travel to a client’s house or hotel room – places where we have more to worry about, such as hidden cameras or unexpected guests. Worse, in Queensland it’s illegal to tell a friend where we’re going, if that friend is another sex worker. Yup, we’re meant to toddle off to a stranger's place with zero backup. It's a situation I wouldn't recommend for a Tinder date, let alone a sex work session.

If a worker breaks the rules (and who wouldn’t, given some of them are so dangerous?) then they're back to square one - criminalised, unable to seek help if they need it. And, as I’ve said before, it’s usually those of us who need the most support who are most affected. Licensing creates a situation where some workers can do their jobs confidently, and others are forced to work in constant fear. It’s just not fair.

Under licensing, it’s usually the police who enforce the rules. If you know anything about law enforcement, you’ll also know that putting them in contact with vulnerable people is a bad idea. Some international studies have shown that the more often police and sex workers come into contact, the more likely sex workers are to be abused and assaulted.

Full decriminalisation: “Sex work is work.”

Decriminalisation means that sex work is treated like any other business. This way relies on existing laws to cover the normal stuff that comes up at work – sex work becomes just another everyday work activity.

I often speak with folks who say, “But shouldn’t sex work be specially regulated? After all, there are risks involved.” They think we should be monitored like doctors or builders, to make sure nobody comes to harm. But sex work isn’t the same as performing open heart surgery or building a skyscraper. It’s simply sex – the same as most people get up to at home. When we treat sex work like other kinds of work, there are more than enough rules to keep everyone safe.

When sex workers feel empowered to run their businesses in ways that work best for them, everyone benefits. It means we can keep ourselves safe. Decriminalisation is championed not only by sex workers, but by every sex-worker-run organisation in Australia. It’s also recommended by Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International.

But wait, there’s a catch.

When I say ‘decriminalisation’, I’m talking about full decriminalisation – that is, all types of sex work are allowed.

Sometimes, a government will decriminalise some types of sex work, but not all. For example, in New Zealand most sex work is permitted, but migrant sex work is still banned. In Australia, New South Wales has decriminalised all types of work except for street sex work. This ‘mostly decrim’ way of doing things isn’t the same as full decriminalisation – it has similar problems to a licensing system, with some of us forced to work unsafely.

Full decriminalisation doesn’t leave anyone behind. People such as myself and my friends can work in ways that help us feel safe. It helps the public understand that the work of escorts, strippers, brothel workers, porn performers and other sex pros is a legitimate way to make a living. And it means us sexy workers are free to make our own choices about what we do with our bodies…a basic human right.

For most folks, sex is a regular part of life. If you believe that everyone deserves to feel safe, make a living, and have their rights respected, full sex work decriminalisation is the only way to go.

Want more information about Australian sex work law? Please visit Scarlet Alliance, Australia’s nation peak sex worker organisation.

- Georgie Wolf

Georgie Wolf is an Aussie escort, writer and educator. Georgie is the author of The Art of The Hook Up, as well as being a staff writer for Tryst.link.

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