The state of Victoria will soon join New South Wales and the Northern Territory in decriminalising sex work, after a years-long effort to repeal criminal laws associated with consensusal adult sex work ended with a “momentous” victory. Sex work advocates, however, say there’s still a long way to go.
On Thursday evening, Victoria’s Sex Work Decriminalisation Bill was passed in the state’s upper house by a healthy margin of 24 votes to 10. As a result, it will no longer be a criminal offence to offer consensual sex work between adults; the state will do away with its antiquated sex worker register, and street-based sex work will be partially legalised in some parts of the state.
The victory, sex work industry advocates hope, emerges as a major first step towards fully legalising sex work, and regulating the space in line with the way other service-based businesses are across Victoria, and Australia more broadly.
After a hard-fought policy push that has been at play for close to 40 years, however, industry leaders say these reforms are only the beginning.
Some of the industry’s leaders were disappointed to see that some street-based sex workers could still face criminal charges. As part of the bill’s passage, the Victorian government introduced new offences that would actively thwart street-based sex work near schools, childcare facilities, and places of worship between certain hours and on “holy days”.
Jules Kim, chief executive at Australia’s peak sex worker organisation Scarlet Alliance, told VICE that while the bill’s passage will bring about many important, “critical changes”, decriminalisation must mean decriminalisation for all sex workers in order to fully destigmatise the labour of sex workers. As it stands, the bill doesn’t go all the way.
“In our campaigning, we've been very upfront that this is not decriminalisation, unless it’s decriminalisation for all of us,” Kim said.
“We’re still really committed – and I think the sex worker community is out [rightly] celebrating [the bill] – but we’re committed to continue [pushing for further reforms. I think the message from our community, and from Vixen and Scarlet Alliance, is that we’ll continue to fight really hard to ensure that the many positive elements of the bill extend to everybody.”
Dylan O’Hara, acting manager at Victoria’s peer-only sex worker organisation Vixen, took the same position. Like Kim, they told VICE the fact that workers across parts of the industry will be left to “regulation by police”, doesn’t really align with the bill’s intent.
“I think this is very disappointing, and it’s really, again, it’s a missed opportunity where the bill could have gone further,” O’Hara said.
“It is going to be the situation, unfortunately, that street-based sex workers will still be experiencing criminalisation, and that there will be criminalisation in street-based sex work at certain times of the day; in particular places, at different times of the year. And I think Victoria could have gone further, and we’ll need to go further to meet that bar.”
Some of the new laws are set to take effect as soon as next month, while the remaining changes will be rolled out in December of 2023. From March this year, consensual sex work will no longer be a criminal offence, and sex workers will be covered by the Equal Opportunity Act, protected as “profession, trade or occupation”.
Come December next year, Victoria’s licensing and registration framework will be completely dispensed with, replaced by new industry regulations – like the usual planning, occupational health and safety, among others – that cover other service industries.
Both Kim and O’Hara have been working with members of the upper house to spearhead the bill’s passing for years. In recent months, their demands have fallen onto the shoulders of Animal Justice MP Andy Meddick, and Reason Party leader Fiona Patten, who have each driven the industry’s agenda through the Victorian government.
The state campaign was borne of a 2019 parliamentary review of laws governing sex work, which was headed by Patten, who herself is a former sex worker, and embraced sex work decriminalisation as a tentpole policy platform when she first came to office, back in 2014.
Before these changes, street-based sex work was strictly criminalised across the state, and paid-for sex was only condoned under a stringent licensing regime made available only to select brothels and escort agencies, and licensed private sex workers.
Malcolm Roberts, a spokesperson for Sex Work Law Reform Victoria, said the Bill’s passage should go a long way towards allowing for progressive changes to health, planning and other laws across the state. But crucially, “and uniquely”, the bill strengthens anti-discrimination protections available to sex workers.
“We would like to thank the leader of the Reason Party, Fiona Patten, who has campaigned tirelessly for sex workers’ rights in Victoria and previously in the ACT,” Roberts said.
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