In Australia, models of sex work regulation vary across jurisdictions, providing a unique standpoint to compare the effects of criminalisation, licensing and decriminalisation. Sex work was decriminalised in New South Wales in 1995 in response to Royal Commission findings of systemic police corruption. Decriminalisation removes police as regulators, removes criminal laws, and regulates sex work through standard occupational, planning and industrial mechanisms. On our 20th anniversary, we reflect on our lessons learned. Methods: A peak national organisation, Scarlet Alliance collects data via national forums, working groups and surveys. We conducted a five-stage consultation process with our membership, including sex workers from a range of organisations, locations, experiences and backgrounds. We reviewed relevant literature, health research and government reports to examine policy successes, failures and areas for reform.
Results: Decriminalisation of sex work in NSW has resulted in high rates of safer sex (Law and Sex Worker Health Study); low rates of sexually transmissible infections (Australia’s National HIV and STI Strategies); improved Workplace Health and Safety (NSW Government Brothels Taskforce); few amenity impacts and no evidence of organised crime (Land and Environment Court). In NSW, sex workers can access free legal advice. In licensing and criminal jurisdictions, majority of sex workers work outside the legal framework, with barriers to accessing justice.
Conclusions: Decriminalisation is the optimal model, supported by the UNFPA, UNDP, UNAIDS and WHO as necessary for HIV prevention, anti-discrimination and human rights. However, there is more to be done. Increasing political pressure to criminalise clients, a hostile funding environment, rescue industry and institutional discrimination remain barriers to the uptake of this model in Australia and overseas. Decriminalisation must be coupled with comprehensive human rights and anti-discrimination protections to be fully effective. The NSW experience offers useful insights for governments, researchers, health sector and sex workers internationally.
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