Inner city sex workers win decriminalisation fight

Inner city sex workers win decriminalisation fight
Katie Johnson

Sex workers in the inner city are celebrating after the Victorian Government announced sex work would be decriminalised across the state over a two-year period.

The reforms will ensure sex workers have access to the same rights as any other Victorian employee, regardless if they work for themselves, a small employer or a large company.

Vixen Collective advocacy co-ordinator Dylan O’Hara said decriminalisation was an “urgent and overdue change” which their organisation had been working towards for decades.

“There’s been a huge amount of work over the years to get decriminalisation onto the Victorian Labor Party’s policy platform so it was a really exciting and positive day,” Mr O’Hara said.


We welcome the government’s acknowledgement of the harms the current laws have been causing for many years and the recognition that sex workers work and police should not be regulators of the sex industry.


Currently, Victoria has an outdated licensing system for sex work that is regulated by the police.

Brothels, escort agency providers and sex workers who operate independently must apply for a licence and register through the department of consumer affairs – making it illegal for sex workers to operate from their homes or the street.

Mr O’Hara said that the current regulations were “harmful and stigmatising” and forced many sex workers to operate outside of the law.

“These laws don’t work, they’re not evidence-based and they have failed us as sex workers,” he said.

“Working within the laws means we are regulated by the police, and if you’re forced to work outside the laws because they are dangerous and difficult to comply with, you’re open to being targeted by the police.”

“We’re forced to make choices based on hundreds of pages of discriminatory, arbitrary law, rather than our safety needs as working members of the community.”

One of the issues with the current laws is that for sex workers who register with the business authority, their details are held on the register permanently.

This can pose threats to the privacy, safety and wellbeing of past and present sex workers.

For those without a licence or those practicing street-based sex-work, they also do not have access to basic rights and can be discouraged from engaging with healthcare providers, the justice system, or other government services because they fear being stigmatised or possibly receiving criminal penalties.

Mr O’Hara said that Vixen Collective – which operates out of Carlton’s Trades Hall – would continue advocating during the next two years to ensure the decriminalisation was “genuine”.

“The legislation is still being developed, so we will be working fiercely to make sure the government extends the benefits of decriminalisation to all sex workers as it has committed to do,” O’Hara said.

“The current proposals fall short of that in some areas – it’s crucial that no sex workers are left behind.”

“Decriminalisation has to be for all of us.”

Twenty-five-year-old Viola, who has worked in brothels in the inner city for the past five years, said the decriminalisation announcement was “incredibly emotional” for her as it would have a huge impact on her working environment.

“Due to restrictions around independent work in Victoria I only work in brothels, and over the past few years I have flown to NSW to work privately there as it is safer and easier under their decriminalisation framework,” Viola said.


The removal of the Sex Work Act licence, as well as the licensing restrictions and planning controls on independent workers will allow me to continue to develop my business here in my home state.


“Decriminalisation will mean I will not have to rely on brothels and their managers’ whims to work and I will be able to independently run my own business and make more money without giving a cut to managers.”

Viola said she had always been “too scared” to get a sex work licence as she knew many people who had their personal information made accessible to stalkers, and had issues travelling internationally.

She also said that as the current laws had created a situation where a handful of brothels had all the power, it was a “careful balance” between standing up for her own rights while knowing she could be fired for any reason.

“I have been fired by a manager for deigning to travel interstate and work there and there was nothing I could do between a lack of anti-discrimination protections and access to Worksafe,” Viola said.

“If I choose to take private bookings in Victoria I run the risk of police harassment and entrapment [and] I’ve had to deal with the anxiety of negotiating services with clients over the phone or text knowing that the restrictive advertising rules in Victoria on which words or phrases I use could get me into legal trouble.”

Viola also said that the current public health regulations on sex workers including mandatory STI testing was “draconian” and “infantilising”.

“Sex workers are experts in their own sexual health and being forced to submit to state sanctioned testing is dehumanising,” Viola said.

“It’s often unnecessary as I am extremely stringent in my sexual health practices and know when I’ve been exposed and when I need to get tested.”

“The current framework … treats us as if we are vectors of disease and is a waste of time and money.”

When decriminalisation comes into effect, it will bring Victoria into line with other jurisdictions – including NSW – where sex work was decriminalised in 1995.

MP Fiona Patten, who was a sex worker for two years – had been leading the review into decriminalisation since 2019 and said the announcement was a “red letter day for the red light industry”.

“This is a case of making the world better by removing a discriminatory law, not imposing a new law,” Ms Patten said.

“The collective view of all the sex worker groups was that decriminalising the industry was by far the best way to give them the best occupational health and safety outcomes.”

The decriminalisation announcement was particularly welcome as sex workers are still struggling to make ends meet during the state’s sixth lockdown.

Although she was one of the few sex workers to receive JobKeeper, Viola said the lockdowns had robbed her of the ability to earn enough money so she’d be able to pursue further study and had a major impact on her mental health.

“I’m sure many people experienced touch starvation over the course of lockdowns but it was particularly jarring for me going from 100 to zero in an instant,” she said.

“Personally, my work has a healing aspect and I believe deeply in the healing impact of tenderness and touch, being unable to share those gifts with the beautiful people of Melbourne has been hard during this time.” •

To donate to sex worker’s in need visit Scarlet Alliance’s fundraiser at

Caption: Vixen Collective is based out of Carlton’s Trades Hall.

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