While the actual exchange of payment for sex is not illegal in Australia, the offences surrounding this exchange are leaving sex workers vulnerable to numerous dangers, such as health, safety, theft and legal loopholes.

Except for NSW and Victoria, all states have criminalised brothels and define them as, “[places where] persons resort to for the purposes of prostitution”. A definition this broad could leave a sex worker’s own home classified as an illegal brothel. The reality is, criminalising a sex worker’s place of employment, criminalises sex work.

Illegalisation has been proved to have disastrous effects for sex workers. Tim*, a sex worker in Victoria believes, “the industry quite often puts one in a vulnerable position without the security of a safe environment. Brothels and other safe spaces are a necessity. They need to be deemed legal”.

Image: Angela Villón gets ready for work (Photo by Emily Wright/VICE News)

The HASC report in 2015 recognised that on top of not allowing a safe space for sex work, forbidding people from working together (which may help protect them) keeps workers as sitting ducks. “Criminalising working together is dangerous and creates opportunities for violent clients who know that sex workers are either working alone, or likely be breaking the law”.

Even where brothels continue to operate illegally, it is a lawless place. There is no enforcement of OHS regulations that would otherwise be considered standard, such as the supply of condoms. As underground brothels are not subjected to any accountability for the working conditions they give their workers, harassment and abusive conditions are able to flourish.

With the current laws, it is nearly impossible for a sex worker to seek justice. The police force deems their place of employment a criminal activity and reporting their employer would mean an end to their employment and income.

Reporting to AdelaideNow in 2015, Alexandra*, a sex worker local to South Australia revealed, “I’ve had things stolen but I’ve never reported these incidents to the police… I’m too afraid to out myself”. But even theft is minor to the threat of violence, disease and assault.

In Norway this issue has been approached using the Nordic Model, which argues that legalising sex work perpetrates the objectification and exploitation of women. It criminalises the purchasing of sex, rather than the selling.

Image: Soho 2013 sex workers protesting against the closure of and evictions from brothels. (Photo: Justin Tallis/AFP)

However, although the model has been praised by conservative groups in Australia, such as the Australian Christian Lobby, rights organisations such as the Scarlet Alliance and human rights group Amnesty International are damning of the model’s effects. They believe the Nordic model reaffirms the damaging stigmatization of sex workers being women who are victims deemed ‘mentally unfit’, rather than consenting adults of any gender and sexuality. This could endorse the old-fashioned moral perspective that sex work is wrong, and has dire consequences.

Sex workers have been forced from the safety of working with one another, fearful of being charged as trafficker and have even been evicted by landlords who are scared of being charged as a pimp. According to the organisation December17, after purchasing sex was criminalised in 2012, the rate of assault against sex workers increased 50% in Norway.

In Janelle Fawkes’s (the manager of Scarlet Alliance) opinion, NSW’s decriminalisation of sex work for the last 17 years, “[has] delivered outstanding outcomes for sex workers’ health and safety and that of the general community”. Similarly, the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women supports decriminalisation worldwide.

When we consider the implementation of the Nordic model here in Australia, we should take into consideration the material impact of such regulations on the lives of sex workers. Sex worker rights are human rights and it is time that our law reflects a consideration for the safety of all Australians.

To support the rights, health and safety of sex workers in Australia, the Scarlet Alliance can be found at this link where it updates followers on the legal situation of sex workers globally.

*Names changed for the purposes of anonymity