Decriminalisation of Sex Work in New South Wales

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In 1995, sex work in the Australian state of New South Wales (NSW) was decriminalised. Sex workers and our allies were active in leading the law reform efforts. Under decriminalisation, sex work is recognised as a legitimate occupation which is subject to industrial regulations that focus on occupational health and safety issues, and provisions for local councils to implement zoning policies.

The decriminalisation of sex work was introduced as State policy in partial response to rampant police corruption and profiteering from the sex industry, which was exposed during the 1995 NSW Woods Royal Commission into police corruption. The Woods Royal Commission highlighted ‘a clear nexus between police corruption and the operation of brothels’. Similarly, sex worker law reform advocates identified that legislation which criminalised sex work, or allowed for police to regulate the industry, was contributing to unsafe and often exploitative working conditions faced by sex workers and providing opportunities for police to profit from the sex industry .

NSW, which has an estimated population of 10,000 sex workers, is one of the few regions in the world where sex work is decriminalised. The decriminalised NSW sex industry model is often cited as an example of best practise, evidence based regulation by sex workers and our allies in undertaking law reform, human rights and HIV prevention advocacy campaigns. However, under the NSW model, street based sex work is still partially criminalised, with street based sex workers restricted from working within view of residential dwellings, and/ or a church, school, hospital and other public amenities. Due to the gentrification of inner-city areas which have historically been street working spaces, many sex workers (and their clients) operating from these areas are regularly targeted by police responding to vocal neighbourhood groups opposed to street based sex work. The NSW Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP NSW) and Scarlet Alliance, the Australian Sex Workers’ Association, have engaged in an ongoing law reform campaign to challenge policing practices and to reform legislation and which continues to criminalise street based sex workers.