Regardless of where you live in Australia, you’ve probably seen – if not visited – a brothel. They seem to be in every city: on major streets and in strip malls, hidden in industrial areas and backed up on to business parks. Sprawling, multi-storey pleasure palaces advertise glamour models and porn performers alongside tiny, dimly lit massage studios that promise happy endings for less than a 50.
And then there’re private workers: pages upon pages of advertisements available to any adult with a working internet connection, with providers advertising everything from sensual massages to ‘girlfriend experiences’ to acts so raunchy that we daren’t print their name.
Sex work and the people who perform it are almost everywhere. But most of us rarely stop to think about the legality of the profession. I’ve met some people who are shocked to hear that sex work is legal, and others who are horrified to hear that it could be anything but.
So stop and think for a moment: what does the law have to say about the brothel in your area? About the service providers who advertise online, or the people whose work is based in the street? Are you breaking the law with your once-a-year visit to the rub ‘n’ tug? Is your favourite escort in danger of arrest simply for trying to earn a living? And does it really matter to you? Surely not, right? I mean, after all: it’s just sex. Isn’t it?
Annie* is an intelligent, pretty, articulate brunette. She started working in a brothel around a year ago while studying; and although she has since finished her studies, Annie still works in that same brothel. Her reasons for doing so are vast. “My sexual and emotional evolution have kept me in the industry,” she says. “I have experienced a sexual awakening, become more comfortable with my body, and learnt to practise self-love and experimentation. I’ve rejected internalised shame and sexism, and prescriptions of what is ‘normal’ sex and love. I’ve become part of a sisterhood of women who negotiate and subvert oppression and suffering and continue to promote compassion. And,” she adds cheekily, “Cash.”
Annie works in New South Wales, where sex work is decriminalised. The laws here are among the most accommodating in the world, but it’s hardly a Wild West free-for-all: adult venues must still pay taxes, register with councils and local authorities, and comply with the same regulations as any other business.
New South Wales is a rarity, though. Fly a few hours up and over the border to Queensland, and life is very different: just ask Janelle Fawkes. Janelle is the Campaign Leader for Respect QLD, a peer-led organisation that campaigns for sex worker rights. “In Queensland, independent sex workers aren’t able to work in pairs or even in the same building or hotel as another sex worker – even unknowingly. We can’t call or text another worker to let them know that our client has arrived or left, or even share the location of our booking. We’re unable to have someone answer our phone for us or play any kind of receptionist role, and we can’t even use a driver that another sex worker uses and recommends. Obviously, these are things that sex workers in all areas use as very simple safety strategies.”
The current legal framework has been in place for 18 years, and while it doesn’t forbid the exchange of sexual favours for cash, it makes it incredibly difficult for sex workers to operate safely without breaking the law. At a recent Respect QLD meeting, Janelle and her colleagues decided to focus their efforts on campaigning for Queensland to adopt the decriminalisation model, as New South Wales has; by asking one simple question: “Why is sex worker safety illegal in Queensland?”
To dive into the legality of sex work in all the different states and territories of Australia is to fall down a complex and often-contradictory rabbit hole of law. In Victoria, it’s legal to own and run a brothel, but illegal to advertise it (surely a frustration for any enterprising parlour owner). The Northern Territory allows escorts to work privately, and to advertise their services, so long as they don’t organise the service from the same place they provide it: meaning that it’s possible to visit an escort at her apartment, but she legally has to be in a different location when she takes your phone call and confirms the appointment. Western Australia forbids street-based sex work, to the point that an individual can be stopped and searched by police if there is even a suspicion that they may be intending to solicit work. Anecdotally, according to sex worker organisation Scarlet Alliance, condoms are said to be something police frequently search for and use as evidence that an individual may or may not be intending to solicit. But it’s also illegal to provide a sexual service in Western Australia without a condom, so many workers find themselves having to choose between risking arrest for carrying condoms, or risking arrest – and potentially their own health – for providing a service without one.
The consequences of sex workers feeling unsupported by the law, or the law preventing sex workers from working in ways they feel safe, are very real.
The act of engaging in transactional sex is not illegal in South Australia, but it’s surrounded by a web of prohibitions: it is illegal to receive money from a brothel in respect of prostitution, it is illegal to assist in brothel keeping, and it is illegal to live on the earnings of prostitution. It’s even effectively illegal to visit a venue frequented by prostitutes without a ‘reasonable excuse’; and recently reported raids by South Australian police have left many workers foregoing the relative safety of working together, in brothels and houses and choosing to work solo. As Janelle points out, this is indicative of a greater issue: “When police are regulators of the sex industry, they aren’t effective at being both protectors and prosecutors. If you report a crime as someone who doesn’t work in a criminalised workforce, the focus of police is on solving the crime and identifying the perpetrator. If a sex worker in a criminalised state reports a crime, the focus then turns to what a sex worker does in their work – so we’re effectively reporting ourselves as doing sex work, and by describing how we do it, we’re giving away the fact that we do many aspects of our work illegally.”
The consequences of sex workers feeling unsupported by the law, or the law preventing sex workers from working in ways they feel safe, are very real. The recent passing of the SESTA and FOSTA bills in the United States has shut down many avenues of online advertising for sex workers, both in the US and abroad. The bills have changed the Communications Decency Act to hold website owners and hosting companies responsible for what users post on their sites, and while the bill was created to ostensibly fight human trafficking, it’s sex workers who have borne the brunt of its effects. With sex trafficking and consensual sex work lumped together in the eyes of many, and sex work illegal in almost every state of the US, there has been a rush by hosting companies to delete any and all sexual content from their servers and websites: many sex workers report losing not only their favoured advertising platforms, and therefore their income, but also their access to health and safety resources, client screening tools, and even personal social media accounts. With some workers turning to street-based work out of desperation, the bills’ effects have already been felt heavily: not by traffickers, who now needn’t worry about advertisements being kept and used against them as evidence, but by workers themselves. At the time of writing this piece, 14 workers have gone missing and another three have been murdered.
“I believe that the way anti-trafficking prevention has been used in the US is despicable,” Janelle says. “[These laws are] a targeted attack on spaces where sex workers advertise, and therefore a targeted attack on sex workers as a whole.”
Of course, none of this is to say that the industry should be run without any regulations. For Annie, even New South Wales could stand to improve its approach: she points to the fact that alcohol is often freely available in brothels in New South Wales, who don’t have to apply for a liquor license in the same way that restaurants or bars do. But there are a few other suggestions she has to share: “I’d like to see better Occupational Health and Safety standards in brothels and even strip clubs,” she says. “Shorter shifts for workers, who are sometimes asked to work 10 or even 12 hours without breaks. There need to be more avenues of support for workers who are being bullied, either by management or other workers; and a way to prevent unfair practices of workers paying excessive shift fees or having money deducted from their pay for clients’ poor – and sometimes criminal – behaviour.” The list goes on: there’s a need for increased education around drug usage and sexual health, particularly among younger workers whose lack of experience in the industry can see them ‘led down the garden path’ by clients or managers who encourage unsafe practices to get them more bookings, and in turn more money. With almost all brothels providing only casual employment to workers it’s not uncommon for a worker to be threatened with losing their job for arriving late to a shift, calling in sick, or refusing to see a client they judge to be intoxicated or unsafe.
“Ultimately,” Annie says, “Australian laws around sex work should be universal, yet still locally handled. We need to offer workers more avenues for self-advocacy – but also allow criticism of current laws, too.”
And in case you’re still thinking that all of this is just irrelevant background noise to your next sneaky parlour visit or strip club outing with the boys, think again. The well-being of sex workers is vitally important, not just because it will have a direct impact on the experience you may have when visiting a sex worker, but because if sex work is to be taken seriously as real work, then the rights of the workers performing it must be taken seriously too. Workplace safety, job security, and support of local councils and law enforcement: none of it should be too much to ask.
*Names changed to protect the anonymity of the sex workers who contributed to this piece.