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Sex work: The power of words

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The term ‘sex work’ was coined in the late seventies and remains the preferred terminology of those who work in the sex industry.

Sex workers in Australia reject the term ‘prostitute’ and gender-oriented language which implies the oppression or coercion of disenfranchised women who lack agency or choice.

Today, the gender-neutral term ‘sex worker’ is used internationally by media, academics, health service providers and industry advocates and herein lies the power of words – the use of this term is fundamental to the self-determination of those engaged in the industry. In fact, the Australian Human Rights Commission has noted the importance of “using appropriate, inclusive and empowering terminology” [1]. It also reflects the central premise that sex work is a legitimate form of occupation which deserves the same rights and protections of other professions – it is a legitimate and legal form of employment.

In 2015 an informal social media campaign (#facesofsexwork) revealed the faces of a range of sex workers throughout Australia who didn’t fit the standard stereotypes. These individuals revealed a diversity of gender, sexual orientation, education levels and socio-economic backgrounds. They revealed themselves to be both male and female, of higher and lower socio-economic status, with a variety of education levels.


There is no one ‘sex industry’. The range of labor that falls under the umbrella of this comprehensive industry means that a simple reference to just one aspect of it is essentially inadequate. It incorporates brothels, private work, escorts, street hustling, hostessing, stripping and performing sex for videos and webcams. This diversity highlights the danger of defining the industry by one limited term which reinforces the usual misperceptions about it – violence, deviance or desperation.

In reality, the sex industry is merely a part of the larger informal economy where industries operate in a range of misunderstood sectors, under intense stigmatisation and discrimination. Over time, their methods of organisation and convention have been defined by privacy and discretion due to the nature of the services provided and the perception that this labor has been performed predominantly by women.

Sex industry laws in Australia are determined by State and Territory Governments. ACT, WA, Tasmania, South Australia, NSW, Victoria and The Northern Territory are all either in the process of, or have recently had, sex work law reform. Here in Canberra, sex work is legalised.


Decriminalisation does not mean an absence of regulation, but rather whole-of-government regulation. Importantly, police are not involved as regulators at any level unless there is a breach of law.

A decriminalised system supports the development and enforcement of occupational health and safety standards, access to industrial rights protections and permits sex workers to organise for better working conditions. The New Zealand experience with decriminalisation shows that this system does not increase the size of the sex industry – rather it provides better access to justice, health and safety for those working in the industry.

In 2011, an ACT Legislative Assembly committee reviewed the territory’s Prostitution Act and produced a report recommending a raft of changes to the way the territory’s sex laws should operate. Under current ACT law, sex workers can work legally either as sole practitioners or in brothels. There are 13 brothels registered with the ACT’s Office of Regulatory Services in 2016, two fewer than last year.

The Prostitution Act 1992 requires brothels, private workers and escort agencies to register with the Registrar of Brothels and Escort Agencies. The registrar operates from the Department of Fair Trading, however is constituted by The Prostitution Act 1992 and has special powers.  Brothels are restricted to operating only in the areas of Mitchell and Fyshwick.

There is no limit to the number of rooms in a brothel, and no probity investigations conducted as part of the regulation process. It is not an offence to work as a sex worker from a private home or hotel. However they must work alone.

Private workers are also called sole operator brothels or escorts and can operate legally under the Prostitution Act, and register with the Department of Fair Trading in the same way as Brothels and Escort Agencies.


In my role as the Executive Director of the AIDS Action Council (ACT), I’m fortunate to regularly interact with those at the coal face of the sex industry. The Council, one of industry’s premier support organisations, provides a diverse range of services that support the health and wellbeing of sex workers in Canberra.

One of our most successful programs, which operates nationally, is the Sex Workers Outreach Program (SWOP). Known as Australia’s largest and oldest community-based sex worker organisation, it focuses on a select range of education and health promotion initiatives.

As a strong advocate for the decriminalisation of the industry throughout Australia, SWOP proposes that it should be treated like any other business subject to standard regulatory mechanisms which protect the basic human and labor rights of working people. These include: local council planning; zoning and location controls; workers’ compensation requirements; occupational health and safety standards; and industrial rights.

SWOP is also considered the ACT’s premier advocacy and support organisation in the field of sex work. Our education and health promotion work targets the prevention of HIV, STI and Hepatitis C in the sex worker community. A key aspect of SWOP’s success is the development of strategic, collaborative and multi-disciplinary relationships health organisations, health professionals, government agencies, non-government organisations and sex workers themselves.

I have the unique and privileged opportunity to meet many sex workers through my work at the Council. In the ACT, the average sex worker is transient in nature – many spend an average of nine months in the industry and are already employed full-time in another industry. They see the sex industry as one they can dip into when it suits them, for their own reasons.

You might be surprised to know that sex workers have lower rates of HIV, STIs and hepatitis than the general community and that condom usage in sex workers in Australia exceeds 99%.

I’m not saying it is all glamorous however these are real people providing a personal service that is in demand and part of our legal and social environment. The Council is working to demystify sex worker and reduce stigma and discrimination in all affected communities.

[1] Addressing sexual orientation and sex and/or gender identity discrimination: Consultation Report (2011)

 Image of ‘silouette…‘ via Shutterstock

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