NSW’s leading health agency for sex workers says calls to introduce new regulations affecting brothel licencing and sex service provision are likely to undermine the health and safety of sex workers and their clients.
The NSW Government announced today it is proceeding with plans to introduce a tougher licencing system for brothels in response to allegations of sex trafficking and criminal involvement in the industry. Some sex industry commentators have also been calling for unprotected sex to be made illegal in NSW brothels to stop clients asking for unsafe sex from sex workers.
However, the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) says the current system is working well in terms of public health outcomes and the most effective way to protect sex workers and their clients is through education, not regulation. “When NSW’s existing regulatory framework was introduced in the wake of the 1990s Wood Royal Commission, it eliminated much of the corruption around the industry that the Commission had identified and significantly improved public health outcomes,” says SWOP General Manager Lance Schema.
NSW has some of the highest rates of condom use among sex workers anywhere in the world, and sex workers have lower rates of STIs than women and men in the general population. Research by the UNSW’s Kirby Institute found that 99 per cent of commercial sex encounters in 2010 involved a condom and that STI rates among sex workers are at a historic low – lower in fact than in comparable groups of sexually active young women in the general community. According to the Kirby Institute’s Professor Basil Donovan, “if sex workers in NSW were transmitting STIs, we would see STIs in their clients. Current evidence is that sex workers’ clients have lower STI rates than other men.”
Mr Schema says this shows NSW sex workers have a very high awareness of – and commitment to – safe sex practice. “Even if clients are asking for unsafe sex, the overwhelming majority of sex workers aren’t providing it. So, the behaviour that needs to change is that of the client, not the sex worker. Legislating safe sex would place a pointless and ultimately unenforceable burden on the very people who are the most informed about the benefits of safe sex. The law isn’t the solution here. Evidence-based education and awareness is.”
Mr Schema says SWOP is also concerned that a licensing system similar to those in Victoria or Queensland could further undermine NSW’s success to date. Licensing systems in Queensland and Victoria have not stopped illegal brothels or allegations of trafficking, but they have restricted access by health workers to sex workers, especially the most vulnerable, such as migrant sex workers.
“Proposals to add a centralised and costly licensing system to the existing local council registration process is a step backwards, potentially pushing many brothels back into the black market and wiping away the health and safety gains made over the last 15 years.”
“Protecting the health and dignity of sex workers is a challenging and long term job. So far, the evidence is that NSW has done better than almost anywhere else in the world. We need to be careful we protect this investment and continue to make the industry safer for everyone involved in it.”