© 2024 Umbrella Media

The decriminalisation of sex work in Australia

ByMolly Murphy

The Author

Molly Murphy is a writer, secondary educator and mother of two hailing from Melbourne’s inner west. Having an undeniable love of learning and creative endeavours, she has worked in the craft beer industry, as a record store clerk, and had a long-term career in education. Molly endeavours to improve pedagogical approaches to enhance student engagement and offer equal opportunities to students. Molly is a die-hard St Kilda supporter until the end and is known to have a long debate in the pub with you.

On the 22 February this year, the Sex Work Decriminalisation Act 2022 was passed by Victorian Parliament. The change in legislation has allowed sex work to now be viewed legally, as the same as any other business in Victoria. Celebrated by many within the industry, the legislation intends to reduce discrimination against sex workers and give them better support. Is it enough and is the legislation sound?

The Victorian Government has stated online that the new legislation will see that ‘sex work is legitimate work and is better regulated through standard business laws, like all other industries in the state. Every Victorian worker, no matter their industry, deserves to feel safe in their workplace’. 

For decades, the sex work industry has been a legitimatised, stable form of employment for many – but one viewed through (and regulated by) a semi-criminal framework. And for decades legislation has struggled to keep up with the continuing cultural shift that has seen attitudes to sex work, and indeed to sex itself, change in positive ways. The sex work industry requires an appropriate level of insight and knowledge to support these legislative  and attitudinal changes; they can’t be left solely in the hands of politicians and Victorian Police. 

Fiona Patten, Member of the Victorian Legislative Council, has led the way to decriminalise sex work since being elected to the Victorian parliament in 2014. Founder of the formerly named Australian Sex Party, renamed Reason Australia in 2018, Patten has worked hard advocating for the rights of individuals and businesses within the adult entertainment and sex work industries. 

Patten’s agenda is clear; she comes from the perspective of previously having worked as the CEO of Australia’s adult industry advocacy and lobbying group, The Eros Association. Her focus is to make the industry safer and allow for a societal and cultural shift to destigmatise the adult industry, which so far, has had a lot of backing. 

And it’s not just Patten who wants more support to advance decriminalisation of sex work within Australia. Scarlet Alliance (Australian Sex Workers Association), a national advocacy body for sex workers, believes that the current NSW laws are flawed as they do not fully decriminalise sex work and are looking to Victoria for some kind of cut through on the issue.  

‘Lucy’ (25), a sex worker from Bankstown in NSW, commented that working within female led brothels often is a core part of what makes the profession feel safe and supportive for sex workers. ‘It’s so lovely to see girls again and speak with them, knowing that they’re still working. It’s normal to go from one brothel to another if you have built those good relationships with the people managing it. There’s so many (girls) that basically flee the industry because there’s not enough help out there when and if they need it.’

Lucy says that ‘it’s almost a relief to see that they haven’t given up or left for good. It’s really normal to come and go from different brothels in Sydney and sometimes you see the same faces. It’s a comfort. We have all escaped other lives and jobs and finally feel like we’re doing something that suits us. Then to be told that it’s wrong. The shaming of sex workers and the control of their bodies is not okay and with the decrim (sic) act we are getting closer to seeing some real positive changes’.

‘Gen’, (38) from Melbourne, has worked in the industry as both a private escort and within brothels for the last 15 years. Gen said that decriminalisation (specifically speaking on Victorian’s restrictions) seems ‘like another way the government can get tax off us, but not help us where we need it. We want to feel safe. We want to be able to keep working without being made to feel like we’re worthless. It’s not the clients that make us feel that way. It’s the government who keep making it harder for us to work’. 

Not everyone is supportive of the changes, however. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Woman Australia (CATWA) believes that decriminalising sex work will enable abuse and reduce the safety of workers. Stage two of the decriminalisation process (which commences in December 2023) will see ‘sex service businesses (being) treated like other businesses’. This includes sex service businesses being able to apply to provide alcohol on site, wherever that site may be – an interesting proposition if the sex worker’s place of business is also their residence. CATWA points to strong correlations between alcohol and sexual assault and raises concerns around commodifying women’s bodies through sex.  

Others question the motives behind establishing the new legislation. Peta Credlin suggests that Patten is only promoting sex work for her own political agenda, saying on Sky News that the passing of the act ‘might have been a payoff to Patten’ and describing it as ‘horse trading’, possibly referring to Patten’s involvement in the passing of the Pandemic Management Bill in 2021. 

Even supporters of the legislation view it as imperfect; there are a parts of the new act that are overly ambiguous, and it does now fully decriminalise sex work. For example, restrictions will remain for street-based sex work, including limitations on where and at what times it can take place.  

However, the legislation – flawed as it is – progresses the rights of women in the sex industry by recognising their choice to work within it. Taking away their legal rights to do so and connecting the idea of sex work to abuse is not acceptable. The exploitation of women’s bodies comes from a lack of regulation and support, and I would offer that it’s a problem within all industries in Victoria. And as Scarlet Alliance points out, a decriminalised industry is not the same as an unregulated one. Regulation remains important for the safety of workers.  

Victoria is beginning to take steps to become the most liberal state in Australia when it comes to the decriminalisation of sex work, breaking away from the previous eras of discrimination and control of people’s bodies. But there’s still a lot to be considered before this issue achieves a more balanced response across Victoria. The changes have only just begun, and we’ll see how the new legislation plays out. 

Sex work requires informed, industry-knowledgeable people who work within it to assist with these changes. The need for sex workers themselves to give insights on what they want and need is pivotal. The state government must ensure it’s offering adequate support for sex workers, not just decriminalising the industry. 

If any concerns are raised by the article or for further support, please contact your local state Sex Work Association:

SWOP ACT (Australian Capital Territory)
P: (02) 6257 2855
Open Monday – Friday, 9am – 5pm

SWOP NSW (New South Wales)
P: (02) 92062166
Free call: 1800 622 902 (within NSW)
Monday – Friday, 10am – 6pm
Wednesday, 2pm – 6pm

Vixen Collective (Victoria)
P: 0414 275 959



Do you have any information on this topic we should know about? Please email confidential@umbrellanews.com.au or fill in the form below.

Sign In


Reset Password

Please enter your username or email address, you will receive a link to create a new password via email.