When I first arrived in Melbourne last January, one of the first things I did was take a tram to the Melbourne Sexual Health Centre. The MSHC is affiliated with the University of Melbourne and I knew I’d be taking many of my public health classes there.
On my way there from the city center, very excited about exploring my new turf, I saw a maroon-colored, neon-lit building right down the street from the MSHC. “Is that a brothel?” I asked. It was. It was quite conspicuous and didn’t even have a euphemistic “massage” sign, quite unlike the brothels in my native California. What I soon learned is that sex work is legal in the state of Victoria (of which Melbourne is the capital) and that this legality has well-researched public health benefits.
Under this law, sex work is defined as masturbating a client, or providing penetration into the vagina, mouth or anus for financial compensation. Additionally, sex work includes “letting someone view acts of sexual penetration or masturbation when there is any form of physical contact between any watcher and any watched or when any watcher is allowed or encouraged to masturbate.” In order to be legal sex work, sex workers must be consenting and over the age of 18. In Victoria (other Australian states have different laws), legal sex work takes place in licensed brothels or through licensed escort agencies. Independent sex workers can work legally outside a brothel or agency, but they must have a small business permit. Street-based sex work does occur, but is not legal.
Here are a few things I’ve learned about legalizing sex work.
1. Legalizing sex work reduces STIs for sex workers and, by extension, their clients.
Male, female, and transgender sex workers in Victoria are required to undergo monthly checks for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomonas, and tri-monthly blood tests for HIV and syphilis. Sex workers who work in the legal system have significantly lower rates of all the aforementioned STIs than the general population of Victoria. This is attributed to widespread condom use, good health education for and among sex workers, regular STI testing, and the simple fact that sex work is legal, since this status gives sex workers more negotiating power. Interestingly, recent research has suggested that the STI tests could be required every three and six months, respectively, and still provide the same low levels of STIs. Also of note, the few STI diagnoses that do occur among sex workers working within the legal system are nearly always from non-transactional (i.e. private relationship) partners, not clients.
2. Legalizing sex work reduces, but does not eliminate, stigma and discrimination.
Despite its legalization, stigma surrounding sex work is still present in Victoria, particularly in the health sector. It is not surprising that many sex workers are dissatisfied with the frequency of these tests when many health care providers treat them disrespectfully. The particular brothel that I saw my first day in Melbourne had quite a convenient location, since the MSHC is well known for providing non-judgmental health services to sex workers. The MSHC also offers training to Victorian health care providers that emphasizes non-judgmental, respectful treatment of sex workers.
While stigma still exists, legalizing sex work has undoubtedly reduced the pervasiveness of stigma. Victorian police are now formally trained to be sensitive to sex worker rights and to take charges against clients seriously. Sex workers can make decisions based on their own sense of safety, without fearing legal retribution. There are also local organizations dedicated to supporting sex workers.
3. Getting input from sex workers themselves drives positive outcomes.
Rhed, Victoria’s sex worker education and advocacy group, provides holistic support for sex workers, regardless of whether they work within the legal or illegal systems. Rhed uses a peer-based approach in their education programs and emphasizes inclusion of sex worker views and experience. Public Health literature highlights that one of the most important steps to success is including the target population in program planning and delivery, and Rhed does this very well.
Rhed provides education for sex workers about their rights, how to navigate the health and legal systems, and what to do if they’ve been the victim of a crime. Rhed recognizes that even when a sex worker is working within the legal system, he or she may not know his or her rights. For more detailed information on sex work laws in Victoria, have a look at Rhed’s Safety and Legal Information page.
One of the concerns I hear frequently in regards to sex work is about trafficking; that is, sex work that is forced or coerced, and involves transporting people from one country to another. Trafficking is illegal in all of Australia and the police are very aware of the issue. I went to a lecture about sex work given by members of Melbourne’s St. Kilda police force wherein they discussed trafficking in Melbourne. What I found most compelling about their talk was how they believed sex workers themselves (those working in the legal and illegal systems) were one of the best resources for reducing trafficking. The police officers spoke from experience, discussing how sex workers inform them when coerced or underage sex work is happening in their neighborhoods. I imagine this kind of dialogue would be difficult or impossible if sex workers faced harsh legal penalties if exposed to the police.
Walking home from my last class of the year, I passed the same brothel that I saw the first day I arrived, and took a picture of it on my phone. This time, it was decked out with festive Christmas decorations. Laws that help keep people safe, reduce stigma, and have public health benefits? Sounds like something to celebrate to me.