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Decriminalisation & Legalisation

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  • Legalisation means the creation of special laws that allow some legal ways of sex working. But this works to undermine HIV &Human Rights Prevention efforts by splitting the industry into legal & illegal categories.
  • Blames & shames sex workers who do not comply with restrictive regulation. For many workers a legal work setting is not an option.
  • Sex workers who work in illegal setting face a range of problems that sex workers face under criminalisation.
  • Usually the majority of & the most marginalised sex workers are still criminalised.
  • Sex workers face enormous control & surveillance of consensual adult sexual activity usually not accompanied by any other ’criminal’ activity. Surveillance measures are an unnecessary &poor use of community resources and creates a breeding ground for corruption & diminishing sex worker’s access


  • Strict laws that aim to control sex work don’t prevent sex workers working in a range of ways that suit them - It just forces them to work illegally. This causes division amongst workers & interrupts peer education.
  • Sexual health testing &treatment is less accessible under a mandatory model. Workers with an STI will avoid testing as they may be prevented from working.
  • Legalisation usually controls sex work business with restrictive zoning & exorbitant licensing fees. It gives power to local government which often has a moral agenda to prevent sex industry businesses. Usually only a big business can afford to comply with legislation &contest moral gate keeping. Sex workers who in very big settings have very little bargaining power.
  • Allows introduction of discriminatory legislation applied only to the sex industry, often with licensing &fines that push sex workers underground.


  • In a decriminalised setting sex workers are more empowered to negotiate with clients.
  • Sex workers can attend health and other services and expect a non-discriminatory service.
  • Other legislation covers a broad range of issues including sexual and labour exploitation, in both commercial &private context.s
  • Industrial legislation has zoning laws for business that can be applied to sex businesses.
  • Sex workers can report violence without fear of arrest & expect a rightful prosecution.
  • Corruption decrease as authorities have less power to demand bribes from sex workers, and sex workers can report corruption.
  • Existing Occupational Health & Safety legislation can help sex workers to secure better worker places.

Sex work environments need:

  • 1. Safe sex equipment, Acceptable client Behaviour Policy, Work Safety (good beds, fire exits, smoke free etc).
  • 2. industrial standards including minimum wage
  • 3. Management guidelines to prevent inappropriate fines, bonds, splits of or withholding of pay.

Only decriminalisation can deliver this.

Just a few examples.

  • The most marginalised sex workers (migrant sex workers, street sex workers, transgender sex workers, male sex workers, sex workers who use drugs, underage sex workers) will benefit most from decriminalisation that gives full access to rights, support and services.
  • Child Protection legislation exists to enable prosecution of any abuse of children’s rights, without legislation that criminalises sex workers.
  • Sexual Assault legislation exists to enable prosecution of sexual assault and sexual exploitation of adults or children.
  • Kidnapping legislation can be applied to protect those forced or deceptively recruited into sex work.
  • Sex workers (our sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers) can feel part of the community and can access services and events more equitably.
  • Decriminalisation makes it easier to access and educate clients of sex workers.
  • Safer sex equipment (condom, lube, dams) can be distributed, stored and carried more freely. HIV Prevention efforts become much easier.

More reading

Elena Jeffreys on whether the Left should support stricter regulation of the sex industry Published by Overland Journal, this article explores the problems that legalisation has created for sex workers and policy makers in Victoria.

Registration Is Discrimination By Lian, published in Play magazine (NT) in 2006

The Victorian Situation with Legalisation Sheranne Dobinson, Safe House Worker, Prostitutes’ Collective of Victoria. This paper questions the supposed improvements that Victorian workers in the sex industry are said to have gained by 'legalisation.’ In particular industrial rights, tax, human and civil rights have failed to be provided for workers and the Victorian model “should be viewed as a lesson in seriously defective policy making and how to avoid it.”

Unfinished Business Achieving effective regulation of the NSW Sex Industry. This joint paper by the Sex Worker Outreach Project and AIDS Council of NSW looks critically at the contradictions and barriers to effective regulation in NSW. Printed in February 2002 it documents the changes since 1995, the aims of the laws then and the work still left to be done.

Queensland Licensing Authority Annual Report 2002 In this report the Board are candid in their criticism of the Licensing Regime they are overseeing. In particular implementing overly restrictive laws has impacted their ability to achieve the desired outcomes of regulating the industry. A clear majority (perhaps up to 90%) of the industry choses to remain unlicensed in 2002. In 2011 they still only have about 25% compliance.

Prostitution Law Reform in Germany The oldest profession on its way to becoming a profession Dr Thomas Crofts, a senior lecturer at Murdoch Uni School of Law in WA has mapped the path to the legalisation of the sex industry in Germany. The political forces, policy pressure and subsequent effects of reform are all described briefly with good references. People in the sex industry can now legally be covered by health insurance at the normal rate and are able to pay into superannuation funds legally.

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