For the sex industry, 2022 has been a rollercoaster ride. Like many Aussie sex pros, I’ve been slumped on my sofa for much of this year, weathering pandemics, earthquakes, and online censorship. There’s plenty to worry about, and if you feel like getting back under the covers at this point, I don’t blame you.
But it’s not all bad news: sex work law reform in Australia has taken a few steps forward. In May this year, new legislation came into effect in Victoria, decriminalising sex work (well, almost) and removing many of the silly regulations that were making our lives difficult. Now, a little further north in Queensland, the prospect of decrim has arisen too.
It’s something sex workers have sought for years. But nothing is certain. Will Queensland achieve full decriminalisation? Or will this effort, like many previous attempts, be derailed by whorephobia? It’s more important than ever that our voices are heard, to ensure we get what we need.
I recently spoke with two sex workers who are also veterans of law reform: Janelle Fawkes (a sex work activist and advocate based in Queensland, Australia) and Elle Coles (a sex work advocate and trans and gay rights activist currently based in New South Wales, but with extensive experience working in Queensland). Both are members of #DecrimQLD, a large group of sex workers who have joined with Respect Inc, Queensland’s peer-run sex worker rights organisation.
Let’s find out what’s happening, why it matters, and how you can help bring about full sex work decriminalisation in Queensland.
Sex work law in the sunshine state: it just doesn’t make sense.
Sex work laws in Queensland force workers into unsafe conditions, encourage discrimination, and create a bad relationship with the police.
The industry is regulated by a mish-mash of laws, including a brothel licensing system, regulations around advertising, and several other rules dictating how and where sex workers can do business. “You can't let another sex worker know where you are on a booking or check in at the end of the booking to let them know you're okay,” Janelle says. “You can't drive another sex worker to a booking. You can't have a receptionist to screen your calls. You can't work in pairs. You can't even work in the same hotel as another sex worker, which is completely ridiculous.”
This enforced isolation hits hard, especially for those who are already marginalised, such as trans or migrant workers. "For many trans workers, our family are other sex workers,” Elle says. “We’re often left with no one to contact. No one to drive us. We're very much on our own."
She points out the sheer unfairness of this system. "There are numerous industries where people are working in vulnerable situations, where they will call someone to make sure that they're safe. People know where they are, who they're with, so that they can sound an alarm bell if something should go wrong.”
In addition to this, sex workers, aren't able to describe their services to potential customers in their advertising. Elle recalls her time working in a co-op in Queensland, and how hard it was to screen potential clients. "Of course, when our clients called, they had no information and the laws hamstrung us - we were only able to describe our physical appearance, and we weren't allowed to talk about the services we provide, which for trans sex workers, puts you at great risk. The clients have a totally different expectation of the service you're going to provide.”
Having specific laws that single out sex industry businesses encourages the wider community to persecute us too...and existing anti-discrimination laws aren’t effective. Although sex work is meant to be covered, the specific wording refers to ‘lawful sexual activity’ - Janelle says that many of us aren’t protected. “Many workers who choose to work safely are also working illegally, due to Queensland's nonsensical laws.”
A recent survey of 204 sex workers in Queensland, conducted by #DecrimQLD, showed that 72.5% of sex workers have experienced discrimination, and a further 14.2% weren’t sure of whether what they experienced would be recognised as discrimination. The survey found that discrimination is a daily occurrence for many sex workers. Elle notes that marginalised workers such as gay and trans workers are often the most targeted. "We're the minority within the minority, and the upshot is that with transphobia and homophobia, these laws expose us, even double that down.”
The laws also create a bad relationship with the police force. Under the Police Powers and Responsibilities Act 2000, police can entrap sex workers while posing as clients. A sex worker doesn’t have to do an illegal act to be charged - agreeing to an activity is enough. In many cases, sex workers’ phones and earnings are confiscated. “You’d never imagine that offering a double would be illegal, right? Or telling someone where you are, or working from the same hotel as another worker,” Janelle says. “So lots of sex workers get caught out without even knowing that's a problem.”
Sex workers are less likely to be treated respectfully when they’re the victims of crime. Elle says, “I've tried to lodge a complaint myself with police over an issue, and they were more interested in trying to find a way to charge me than they were in having any interest whatsoever in the perpetrator."
Laws that make so little sense that they can be unknowingly broken…widespread discrimination…and a police force that often won’t help us when we’re the victims of crime. It’s a situation that needs to change.
Change is happening. But will we get what we really want?
The Queensland Government has finally expressed an interest in decriminalisation of sex work. But unless sex workers are clear about what they need, things could still go wrong.
In August of 2021, the Queensland Law Reform Commission began an inquiry into reforming sex work laws in QLD. This year, the commission published their discussion paper, ‘A framework for a decriminalised sex work industry in Queensland'. This is the first time the Queensland government has expressed an interest in decriminalisation of sex work - and Janelle says that it’s a really big deal. “This is a shift away from regulating sex work from a criminal perspective, towards seeing sex work as work and regulating sex work businesses in the same way as any other business - removing police out of the picture.”
But as always, what actually happens might not be what sex workers want and need. Policy makers still don’t understand sex work. Often, their views are warped by outdated attitudes to sex and morality. Janelle says that this sometimes means they’re not able to imagine a world where sex work is treated the same as any other form of work. “That’s a consistent barrier we come up against.”
Sex workers are very clear on the solution - we’ve been talking about it for decades. So, what needs to happen?
1. Full decriminalisation
The government has expressed an interest in decrim - but unless it’s full decriminalisation, it’s simply not good enough.
“This is a paper that says very clearly the intention is to decriminalise sex work,” Janelle says. “. So at least we're not having conversations about what model it should be. Now we're actually talking about what decriminalisation should look like.”
The most essential thing to know here is that we want full decriminalisation, not licensing.
Full decriminalisation - the removal of all sex-work-specific laws from the criminal code - is the only way to ensure that no sex workers are left behind. Often, lawmakers will offer what they call ‘decriminalisation’ but still target some marginalised groups, such as street-based or migrant workers. This is what happened recently in Victoria, where regulations relating to most kinds of work have been removed but street-based workers are still banned from working in certain locations at certain times and at risk of high fines or charges.
Beware - unless all workers are included, it’s not true decrim! Leaving some workers subject to the law is unfair, and often means that the most vulnerable among us are still harassed by the police and forced to work in ways they find unsafe. Janelle says, “Our aim is for no sex worker to be left behind. And, you know, that's a tricky one, because law reform processes are always trying to peel off one part of our community as more problematic. We need the benefits of decriminalisation to apply to all sex workers.”
Under full decriminalisation, sex work businesses operate under the same laws and regulations as any other kind of commercial enterprise. Elle says, “Once we've enshrined their rights in the same way as everybody else's, the best solution is to repeal all laws that are specific to sex workers. And then we will have a perfectly workable situation without licensing. Without police regulation. But still abiding by common law and the regulations that apply to other industries."
Full decriminalisaton isn’t a radical idea. It’s been supported by many human rights organisations, worldwide, for decades. "Even in 1990, the world evidence was very clear from numerous organisations. The World Health Organisation had already put out statements about sex workers' human rights,” Elle says, “And since then, Amnesty and numerous women's organisations have all asserted the rights that we all should have to bodily autonomy.”
2. Sex-work-specific anti-discrimation laws
Along with full decriminalisation, anti-discrimination laws that protect sex workers are essential. But in Queensland, the current laws simply aren’t effective.
In order for sex workers to be protected, the attribute (or what and who is protected) needs to change from ‘lawful sexual activity’ to specifically cover ‘sex work’ and ‘sex worker’. “We're sick of being hidden under a layer of terms that disguise the facts,” Janelle says. “We also need the exemptions that allow for lawful discrimination against sex workers to be repealed. Accommodation providers can charge sex workers more and evict us. Victoria has just repealed this same law on 10 May and we hope Queensland will too.”
Solid anti-discrimination law is particularly important when it comes to state and local government planning. When sex-work-specific laws are repealed, sex work businesses are still subject to business planning controls and permits - councils and state government play a role in determining where sex industry businesses can be located. Janelle points out that there’s plenty of opportunity for bias to creep into that process. “We've learned from New South Wales, where many councils just banned sex workers or didn’t fairly assess development applications. So what we're hoping for in Queensland is a system which protects sex workers and the sex industry from discretionary decisions by councils.”
To be clear, what sex workers are asking for is nothing special. The same laws apply to both the sex industry and all other kinds of businesses. But where history has shown that some organisations - such as councils, for example - treat sex workers badly, there should be protections to ensure we receive a fair go.
3. Peer-led workplace health and safety guidelines
Just as law reform needs to be guided by sex workers, our health and safety should be based on peer expertise, too. Our fellow sex workers are best placed to develop guidelines and work with the industry to ensure sex workers know what we should be able to expect in workplaces and sex industry businesses know what their responsibilities are.
Our peers in Queensland have studied what works, and what doesn’t. “And one of the things that's been great is when sex workers and sex worker organisations have really led the process, and developed strong WHS guidelines that are flexible enough to accomodate a range of settings where sex workers work,” Janelle says. “We will get expert advice, of course, where we need it. Our guidelines will need to be translated into multiple languages and have audio visual as well as written options, and Respect Inc will play a critical education role.”
Any successful law reform effort should include space - and funding - for peer-led education.
How you can help bring decrim to Queensland
So, we’ve talked about what’s needed…but how do we make it happen?
Basically, it’s all about ensuring people listen to what workers have to say. “Sex workers are very clear on what the problem is, what the solution is.” Janelle says. “But policy makers are lagging behind. We would really love to outweigh all the anti’s by having strong support for decriminalisation and also pushback against continuing licensing and criminalisation of street-based sex workers, and the other wild things that always pop up in law reform processes.”
Sex workers are the experts, and any plan that doesn’t include us is destined to fail. Janelle says, “There's often a paternalistic or moralistic approach, thinking that they're going to come up with this thing that's better than what sex workers could come up with ourselves. Well, history shows us that whenever that happens, it doesn't work.” She says that our lived experience means that we can see the unintended consequences that lawmakers trip over when they’re in charge of reform.
If you’re a sex worker who lives or tours Queensland, you have a role to play in bringing full decrim to the state. The Queensland Law Reform Commission has asked for submissions - your chance to share your experience and emphasise what’s important to you. How? By making a submission to LawReform.Commission@justice.qld.gov.au by the 3rd of June, 2022.
Making a formal submission can feel daunting, but it’s easier than you might think. Your response can be as simple as a short email outlining your experiences and DecrimQLD, Respect Inc and Scarlet Alliance have produced an information kit with helpful tips and key issues that you can adapt to suit your message.
Elle says, "Submissions don't have to be long or academic. You can simply introduce yourself, talk about the type of sex work you do, and assert that they approve of the submissions put forward by Respect Inc, Decrim Queensland and Scarlet Alliance."
Here are a few key steps for getting involved:
- Refer to Respect QLD’s information sheet for key issues and tips on how to word your submission.
- Get in touch with the Respect QLD office for assistance. They’re available to help on Wednesday afternoons, 12-5pm & on the 25th of May, 6-8pm. Just drop in to the office or give them a call, and they’ll be able to guide you through the process of writing a submission. If these times don’t suit, contact them for other options.
- Submit your response by email to LawReform.Commission@justice.qld.gov.au by the 3rd of June.
- Stay up to date with the latest developments by following #DecrimQLD on Twitter or Instagram, or Respect Inc on Facebook.
- Consider getting involved in the campaign. Sex workers in Queensland are invited to become part of the #DecrimQLD committee, which meets once a month in person and online.
If you’re a policy nerd or information geek (as many of us are) you’re welcome to take the time to read the full discussion paper. But it’s not essential.
Elle says that there’s a lot of community spirit around this latest push for law reform. “There’s a really large group of sex workers around the state joining together to get rid of these harmful laws - joining with Respect QLD, our funded sex worker organisation, to get decriminalisation. And we've got thirty-plus other organisations that have signed on in support as well.”
With such strong feelings in the community, and so much support, there’s every reason to believe that full decriminalisation is possible in Queensland. With your help, it can happen.