Prostitution in Australia- Where is it Legal?
Prostitution and the sex work industry has been one of the most hotly debated topics since the world’s oldest profession has been around. Australia has one of the more liberal attitudes towards sex work internationally. However, the laws with regards to prostitution in Australia vary widely from state to state. Critics say this inequality in what is illegal in some jurisdictions and what is legal in others is very confusing and ambiguous.
An article by Prostitution Laws in Australia by Pinto, Scandia and Wilson highlight how this “confusion creates problems” for everyone involved including law enforcers, sex workers and the general public who are often unaware of the precise legal status of some aspects of prostitution and in particular what is legal in their state or territory.
How prevalent is sex work in Australia?
Although prostitution in and of itself is legal in states such as Western Australia, Northern Territory and Tasmania, many activities associated with prostitution like brothels and street prostitution are not. Proponents for legalising certain elements of sex trade work say it was to “remove the criminal element in the industry, especially the use of underage and trafficked women, and to provide better regulation” (Source: Coalition Against Trafficking Women Australia).
However, sex work advocates like those from the Australian Sex Workers Association say that bills that criminalise specific sex work activities such as laws that punish those who purchase sex are antiquated and “severely endanger the lives and working conditions of sex workers.”
All forms of child prostitution, sex trafficking and sex slavery are illegal under Federal law regardless of state. To be eligible to register as a sex worker you must 18 years of age or older and have no prior criminal record.
NSW comes in as one of the more liberal of the states having legalised prostitution since 1995 with brothels coming under local council planning regulations. However, street prostitution is allowed on commercial streets but prohibited in residential zones.
How do the rest of the states stack up when it comes to prostitution in Australia? More importantly for workers and their clients, when and where is prostitution illegal in Australia?
In Queensland brothels and single operators have been legal since 1999 under the Prostitution Act 1999. Brothels are licensed by the Prostitution Licensing Authority (PLA). However, “street prostitution, unlicensed brothels, massage parlour prostitution and outcalls from licensed brothels remains illegal.”
In comparison, street prostitution and brothels (except sole operators) are illegal in Northern Territory. But unlike other states, escort agencies are legal. Escort agencies and escorts working from within an escort agency must be registered with police and the Territory Licensing Committee with the exception of solo sex workers.
Brothels, street prostitution, and receiving money from the avails of prostitution are also illegal in South Australia but there have been attempts to decriminalise prostitution in this state as recently as July 2015 when the Statutes Amendment (Decriminalisation of Sex Work) Bill 2015 was introduced into the Upper House.
In West Australia prostitution is legal under the Prostitution Act 2000, but many activities associated with it such as brothels, soliciting in a public place and pimping, are illegal.
The case for legalising sex work in Australia.
Critics against legalising any form of sex trade work say that legalising prostitution creates an “environment where illegal sex trafficking can then occur” and “young women lured into prostitution are subjected to a life of abuse and trauma” (BBC Trending).
Critics also argue that street workers contribute to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases, are victims of sex trafficking/slavery and are often addicted to drugs. However, a study of 247 female sex workers, Selling Sex in Queensland 2003 (Queensland PLA) paints a completely different picture. That is, “women in legal sex work appear to have good occupational health and are safer from violence, harassment and intimidation that often exist in illegal or unregulated prostitution.”
For example, sex workers have a higher standard of sexual health than the general population with sexually transmissible infections (STI) in Australian sex workers being amongst the lowest in the world. This is because “the consistent use of prophylactics with clients is the norm in the sex industry”. This study also, “it is illegal for sex workers and clients to engage in sexual intercourse or oral sex in Queensland without the use of prophylactics and it is illegal for clients to ask for unprotected sexual intercourse or oral sex.”
One quarter of licensed brothel workers and sole operators also report completing a bachelor’s degree, which compares well to the general population that comes in at 21% for those between the ages of 15 to 64 (Australian Bureau of Statistics).
This study also showed the plight of street-based sex workers to be quite different. Street-based sex workers commenced, on average, sex work six years earlier than other sex workers, and were “significantly more likely to have left school earlier than those persons working in the legal prostitution industry.” The study also shows that street-based sex workers were also “significantly more likely to have left home for an adverse reason, such as sexual, physical, or emotional abuse, than other sex workers.”
Street sex workers are also more likely than other sex workers to use illicit drugs. The Selling Sex in Queensland 2003 research found that “75.8% of street workers revealed they had become involved in prostitution because they were using drugs and needed money to pay for them, in comparison to just 2% of brothel workers and 8.5% of sole operators.”
Is this discrepancy between street-based and brothel based sex workers due to the fact that in most states street-based prostitution is illegal? What do we as a community need to do to make sex work safer for all workers in the industry? Pinto, Scandia and Wilson “believe that there is an immediate need for governments to consider reforms of prostitution based on a realistic understanding of the issues involved.”