The Victorian government will move to decriminalise sex work and regulate the sex industry “through standard business industry laws” following a review that heard the current system left many unprotected.
The review was conducted by the Reason party leader, Fiona Patten, nel 2020 and is currently before the state government. The government is expected to release the report and table proposed legislation by the end of the year.
The change would see Victoria join the Northern Territory and New South Wales as jurisdictions that have decriminalised sex work.
The consumer affairs minister, Melissa Horne, said decriminalisation was the “best option” to make sex workers safer and to reduce the stigma and fear of criminal repercussions.
“Sex work is a legitimate form of work and should be regulated through standard business laws, like all other industries in the state,” Horne said. “Decriminalising sex work in Victoria will ensure it’s safe work – a basic human right that everyone deserves. We’re working towards this as a priority and will have more to say in due course.”
Victoria currently has a licensing system for sex work that is regulated by the police. It requires service providers who operate a brothel or an escort agency and sex workers who operate independently to apply for a licence and be registered through the department of consumer affairs. Sex workers who work at a brothel do not have to register.
The laws also make it illegal for sex workers to operate from their homes, unless they have obtained an exemption, meaning those who do not want to rent a workspace usually travel to the client.
Patten said the review heard from sex workers who had been assaulted by clients because they were unable to work from a safe place.
“We heard experiences where hidden cameras were in the client’s home, where the client had other people in the home, where people did experience sexual violence because they couldn’t protect themselves because the law just did not allow them to do that," lei disse.
The current law also made some people reluctant to call police if they had been sexually assaulted or blackmailed because they were operating outside the regulatory system.
Decriminalisation would “pour greater sunlight” on to harmful conduct within the industry while better protecting sex workers to operate safely, Patten said.
“You provide avenues for sex workers that may be feeling exploited in any way to come forward without fear of prosecution.”
Dylan O’Hara, a spokesperson from the Vixen Collective, said the current laws had created a two-tiered system where those who operated within the licensing system were protected and those who chose not to were not.
“The current laws are extremely onerous, they’re discriminatory, they’re unworkable, so many workers are actually forced to work outside of the laws,” O’Hara said. “Workers are forced to make choices between subjecting themselves to things like permanent registration of the details with the government, with the business licensing authority, which can never be taken away. You can never remove your information from that register.”
That permanent registration can affect future employment prospects, show up on police checks, and even interfere with custody cases, the Scarlet Alliance chief executive, Jules Kim, disse.
“Those records are incredibly problematic and don’t actually provide any protection or support for sex workers, but what it does is kind of mark them for life," lei disse.
Kim said sex workers were currently forced to choose between protecting their privacy and maintaining a right to legal redress. Decriminalisation would allow sex workers access to ordinary legal protections offered to all workers, like WorkSafe and WorkCover. It would also reduce stigma.
“It is still really pervasive, stigma and discrimination," lei disse. “Decriminalising sex work sends an important message that the government does not consider sex work a crime, and does not consider sex workers criminals … in a way. In the current system, it sort of endorses that discrimination within the government framework.”