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The call for a review of whether sex work should be decriminalised in Victoria is a welcome step and one that is sure to generate its share of heated discussion. In its most transactional form, prostitution is the exchange of sexual services for payment no different to many other types of work. In reality, that has never been the case.
Often enveloped in debates involving human rights, mental and physical health, morals, drug use, human trafficking, coercion and violence, it's an occupation that governments have struggled to deal with for more than a century. As Victoria stands today, street prostitution is a crime but selling sex at registered brothels, escort agencies, or as a private sex worker is permitted under strict licensing conditions enforceable with fines and even jail. The complex regulations include laws making it illegal for self-employed private sex workers to take a client into their home or a motel without council permits or licensing approval.
Faced with stigma, few bother to jump through the hoops which, fearing detection, discourages them to seek assistance if needed from health services or police. As Victoria stands today, street prostitution is a crime but selling sex at registered brothels, escort agencies, or as a private sex worker is permitted.
Credit: Janie Barrett. The Andrews government review, to be led by Reason Party MP and sex worker advocate Fiona Patten, will make a call on whether the removal of criminal penalties would provide a better outcome for prostitutes. The results have been encouraging. In NSW, a close look at the impact on prostitution nearly 20 years after the changes were made revealed it had improved human rights, removed police corruption, netted savings for the criminal justice system and helped with the surveillance, health promotion, and safety of the industry.
In New Zealand, a similar report found there was no expansion of the industry since the laws had been relaxed, but employment conditions for many prostitutes still left a good deal to be desired. While traditional distrust of authorities remained, sex workers were more willing to report crimes against them to police. How effective putting the onus on the mostly male buyers of sex to reduce demand in the industry is much debated. In , prostitution in Victoria was labelled "riotous" and "indecent" behaviour carrying a penalty of imprisonment for up to 12 months.