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It’s time… to decriminalise the world’s oldest profession

By: Zahra Wilson, Paralegal, Hearsay: The Legal Podcast

Sex work has a long history – not for nothing is it, tongue-in-cheek or otherwise, called the world’s oldest profession. In March 2022, Victoria joined the Northern Territory and New South Wales in decriminalising sex work. 

But what exactly does “decriminalisation” mean? It’s one of those perennial questions without a simple answer. For Victoria, beginning 10 May 2022, a raft of changes came into effect in the state decriminalising certain parts of the sex work industry, including street-based work, certain advertising, and working while infected with an STI. 

The remaining patchwork criminalisation of sex work across the rest of Australia perpetuates a harmful stigma which indirectly, and wrongly, affords protection to potentially violent customers because workers live in fear the of law.

Breaking bad… taboos

Sex workers have long been excluded from public discourse thanks to puritanical and anachronistic ideologies which attempt to erase their very existence. The criminalisation of sex work is one offshoot of such limited worldviews. 

The avoidance of public discussion about traditionally “taboo” topics such as sex work has historically prevented, and is preventing, the access to justice that sex workers need and deserve. Latent social anachronism towards sex work is especially confounding given many workers identify as members of hot-button vulnerable groups, such as those from LGBQTIA+ community, or from migrant backgrounds. 

It’s especially disheartening that over the past few decades and multiple waves of feminism, sex workers are regularly left out of vital feminist conversations, despite being one of the largest victims of gender-based violence. Breaking down barriers and engaging in these conversations is fundamental to the functioning of our legal system. 

The Sex Work Decriminalisation Act 2022 (Vic)

On 22 February 2022, Victoria passed the Sex Work Decriminalisation Act 2022 (Vic) (Act). The legislation is a welcome change because it increases the legal protections available to sex workers in the state. Decriminalisation in this particular Victorian sense generally means the repeal of existing offences and penalties for consensual sex work. 

The Act is split into two effective waves, with the first commencing on 10 May 2022 and the second in December 2023. The first wave of legislation decriminalises certain aspects of the industry such as street work, while the second wave focuses on abolishing the existing licensing regime, changes to planning controls, and the repeal of specific brothel and escort provisions in the Public Health and Wellbeing Act 2008 (Vic). 

Importantly, the legislation is government recognition that “sex work is legitimate work and is better regulated through standard business laws”. To that end, the industry will be monitored and regulated by Victoria’s current workplace health and safety watchdog – WorkSafe Victoria. 

There is still a long way to go with adequate legal protections for sex workers across all Australian states and territories, and an even longer way to go with eradicating the harmful stigma around sex work, but the future is looking bright with a number of passionate advocates leading the voice of reform.

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