Canberra Centre Masthead

Sex and the city: Canberra’s sex industry

Laura Peppas

Pollies, porn and pyrotechnics. The sex capital of Australia. We’ve all heard it before.

For a city so often dismissed by outsiders as sterile, it’s ironic that Canberra has long been synonymous with sex.

And a unique exhibition at the Canberra Museum and Gallery (CMAG), X rated – The Sex Industry in Canberra, proves it; delving deep into Canberra’s raunchy past.

The exhibition features historic posters, photographs, videos and other materials from CMAG’s collection as well as loans from the National Film and Sound Archive and private individuals, exploring the legislative and social history of the sex work industry, the pornography industry and associated industry bodies.


“The Passion of the Old Canberra Brickworks,” published in Ecstasy magazine, 1990. Courtesy of the Canberra Museum and Gallery. Photograph by Jeff Schultz.

Exhibition curator Rowan Henderson says Canberra’s reputation as “the sex capital” began in 1984 with the legalisation of the sale of X-rated videos.

“At the time, the sale of X-rated videos was legal only in the Northern Territory, so this move brought many of Australia’s X-rated distributors to Canberra and led to the pornography industry eventually being based in the ACT,” says Rowan.

By 1989, the adult video industry was the fifth biggest industry in the ACT, with an annual turnover of more than $30 million.

Another ground-breaking decision came in 1992, when sex work was legalised in Canberra; a move that focused on harm-minimisation rather than criminalisation.

“Previously, brothels had operated illegally, but the new laws concentrated legal brothels in the three industrial suburbs of Fyshwick, Mitchell and Hume,” says Rowan.

“It was really a harm-minimisation strategy about making the industry safe for workers, keeping organised crime out and ensuring safe sex practices were followed.”


“Sell Safe Sex,” 1990, a poster by Kath McCann promoting the aims of Workers in Sex Employment (WISE). Courtesy of the Canberra Museum and Gallery. Photograph by Rob Little.

However, the rise of the internet and in turn the accessibility of pornography in the late 1990s led to a downturn in Canberra’s sex industry.

“The pornographic video ordering part of the business kind of disappeared and with it the industry took a hit in the ACT,” says Rowan.

“There are still adult stores and brothels obviously, but that other part of the business doesn’t exist anymore.”

Rowan says several sex workers have visited the exhibition, with positive feedback.

“They’ve been really positive about the representation of sex workers in the exhibition, which is good because we really wanted to be respectful, we didn’t want to get into a debate about the moral issues of the sex industry, we just wanted to focus on the reasons we had this regulated industry,” she says.

“We really haven’t had any negative feedback from anyone so far…I think Canberrans are very open-minded about sex.”


Cartoon, Same plot, different characters, Geoff Pryor, 24 November 1989

Perhaps one of the most thought-provoking features of the exhibition is a film screening to be held at the end of this month titled Scarlet Road. The film follows Australian sex worker Rachel Wotton, who specialises in working with clients with a disability.

“I think that access to sexual expression for disabled people is a really interesting issue raised by the sex industry that many people wouldn’t have considered,” Rowan says.

The film screening of Scarlet Road (rated M) is on Saturday 30 May from 2.30–4pm at CMAG. Entry is free. RSVP by Thursday 28 May, places are limited. Call 6207 3968 for more information.

The essentials

What: X-Rated – The sex industry in the ACT*
Where: Canberra Museum and Gallery, 176 London Circuit, Canberra
When: Open now until 20 September
How much: Free

*Please note this exhibition is for people 18 years and over.


Laura Peppas

Laura Peppas is HerCanberra's senior journalist and communications manager and is the Editor of Unveiled, HerCanberra's wedding magazine. She is enjoying uncovering all that Canberra has to offer, meeting some intriguing locals and working with a pretty awesome bunch of women. Laura has lived in Canberra for most of her life and when she's not writing fervently she enjoys pursuing her passion for travel, reading, online shopping and chai tea. More about the Author