criminal law

Decriminalising Sex Work in Australia: What is the Law?

SCB Legal |

2 November, 2018

legal and illegal written on pieces of paper

Table of Contents

It would seem that the notion of decriminalisation is being widely reported in the media. In Australia, there has been a long campaign to decriminalise marijuana and more recently, Australians were very vocal in their support of decriminalising abortion. An issue that might not be as publicised is the fact that South Australia has been trying to decriminalise sex work for a long period of time. But what is actually the law regarding sex work?

Prostitution is legal in Australia, or so we think.

Many visitors to Australia often comment about how progressive Australian laws are with respect to sex work. Sydney’s Kings Cross brothels have always been widely known, so people assume that prostitution is legal Australia wide.

However, it might surprise you to learn that sex work is illegal in many Australian states.

Law reform: Will sex work be decriminalised Australia wide?

Similar to other issues such as legalised abortion and euthanasia, the law regarding sex work varies from state to state.

When considering law reform, it’s important to remember that these are not federal laws but rather state and territory laws.

Each state and territory has autonomy but with this ‘freedom’ comes its own set of challenges. This is why the issue of decriminalisation is dependent on individual states and is not a consistent law throughout Australia.

It’s important to note that law reform does exist on a federal level, such as changes that have occurred to family law.

NSW’s sex work laws compared to WA and Tasmania

In NSW, sex work laws are the most progressive and no restrictions apply, such as public solicitation. However, this is not the case in many other states in Australia.

The Australian Institute of Criminology’s sex work publication reveals that “some or almost all forms of sex work are criminalised in Tasmania, Western Australia and South Australia.”

The Law regarding sex work in South Australia

Greens MP Tammy Franks described South Australian sex work laws, as the “most archaic and the oldest sex work laws in the country”.

Parliament’s attempts to decriminalise sex work laws in South Australia dates back to the 1980’s. The Decriminalisation of Sex Work Bill 2013 was introduced by Hon Stephanie Key, Member for Ashford.

In a rally held at Parliament House in 2013, members of parliament urged the South Australian government to decriminalise sex work. Ms Key warned that “current laws put sex workers’ health and safety at risk.”

While the bill was introduced years ago, only recently was actionable support shown. South Australian Attorney General Vickie Chapman announced, that she will sponsor an Australian bill to decriminalise sex work.

The Statutes Amendment (Decriminalisation of Sex Work) Bill 2018 will hopefully become law but at this juncture the following are considered crimes, according to Australian law.

South Australian law regards the following as crimes

The Summary Offences Act 1953 makes sex work a crime in South Australia. Listed under the section entitled “Offences against decency and morality”, are many sections including numbers 25 and 25a.

  1.  – soliciting and 25a – procurement for prostitution.

To review further laws, Greens MP Tammy Franks, provided a complete list of current South Australian sex work laws.

Pleas to decriminalise sex work in Australia

A lot of attention has been focused on South Australia, probably because the state has the strictest laws. However, other states have also called for Australian sex work laws to be more progressive.

The ABC reported the new push for sex work decriminalisation in Western Australia and that was in 2013.

How will new laws benefit sex workers?

Assuming the Decriminalisation of sex work bill passes both the upper and lower houses, the bill will:

  • decriminalise sex work
  • prohibit discrimination against sex workers
  • provide sex workers with access to the same rights and protections as other workers
  • improve the health, safety and legal rights of sex workers

Australian sex work laws in need of reform

Australian law appears to be lagging behind, as it relates to protecting the rights of Australian women and men. Recently, this issue was highlighted due to the archaic Queensland abortion laws that are still being debated.

In October, the guardian reported how Australian laws are failing sex workers. The article revealed how Australian law treats sex workers who have been conned out of payments. One of the issues raised was whether non payment to a sex worker constitutes rape.

According to some jurisdictions, if a person who agreed to pay for sex and then refused or resorted to trickery, their “acts constitute rape”. This is due to the fact that “consent for the sexual act was obtained fraudulently”. Horrific accounts such as these signal that the laws need to be amended and urgently.


Does Australian law protect sex workers’ rights?

A recent Queensland article suggests that current laws are placing sex workers in harm’s way. The ABC reported that Queensland sex workers say current laws put their lives at risk.

According to the law, “independent sex workers are not allowed to message one another about their current location or check in or out with each other”. Clearly, this type of isolation places them in a very vulnerable situation.

The role of police has also been cited, as a reason for why crimes regarding sex workers go unreported.

How The Scarlet Alliance Defends sex workers’ legal rights

The Scarlet Alliance was formed in 1989, in order to better protect the rights of sex workers. The organisation addresses many issues affecting sex workers, including health and legal matters.

One of the important roles it upholds is informing “Government and policy makers, at all levels, in relation to Sex Industry legislation”. These bills and laws are crucial and their successful passage into becoming legislation impacts sex workers immensely.

Scarlet Alliance’s objectives to better protect sex workers

  • To promote the civil and human rights of past and present sex workers and to work toward ending all forms of discrimination against them;
  • To lobby for legal and administrative frameworks which do not discriminate against sex workers;
  • To challenge any government at any time when and where it implements legislation, regulations, rules, policies or law enforcement practices which are discriminatory and/or repressive to the rights and autonomy of sex workers;
  • To actively promote the right of all sex workers to work in whatever area of their chosen occupation, including street, brothel, escort, private and opportunistic work.
If you have been the victim of a crime, please contact SCB Legal’s caring lawyers who champion the rights of all people.

Questions about Sex Work Laws in Australia

Do you think sex work should be legal Australia wide?

What reforms regarding the law in Australia would you like to see implemented?

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