Sex workers in Victoria, still reeling from months of inability to work legally during the COVID-19 pandemic, have renewed calls for the government to decriminalise the industry.
Sex worker Alex* said that they were once attacked by a client who threatened them by saying Alex was “probably not registered” as the state government still requires.
Dylan O’Hara of Victoria’s sex worker peer organisation Vixen Collective called the current “ridiculously complex” laws a “failed, costly, and discriminatory system that causes immense harm”.
The impact of the pandemic and lockdown has only further hurt those in the community, leaving some unable to even feed themselves and their families.
Peer support for sex workers
Peer organisations have worked to support those in need, including by establishing a crowdfund for the neediest.
“COVID-19 has had a devastating and unprecedented impact on sex workers in Victoria,” said O’Hara.
“Sex workers don’t have sick leave or holiday pay, and not all sex workers can access government support.
“Many sex workers lost all or a significant part of their incomes very suddenly, leading to intense financial hardship.”
Vixen Collective volunteers have worked throughout the pandemic to advocate and help the community access information and emergency relief.
“COVID-19 has had a disproportionate impact on sex workers as a marginalised community who are already impacted by stigma and the current sex work laws in Victoria, which is why the current review into how to implement decriminalisation in Victoria is so important, and why it’s so crucial that Victoria does decriminalise all forms of sex work,” said O’Hara.
Decriminalisation on the horizon
MP Fiona Patten – a former sex worker – last month presented the state government with recommendations for how to approach decriminalisation.
She agreed that the impact of the pandemic on sex workers has been “dramatic”, in part because it was among the first industries to close.
“There’s a misconception that the industry is unsafe and risky, that there’s no way it can operate safely in the time of COVID, which is just not the case,” said Patten.
She said that the current sex work laws are “obsolete” and “onerous”, forcing many to work outside the law.
She lauded Vixen Collective’s advocacy for decriminalisation, which led to the Labor Party vowing in 2018 to review the laws.
O’Hara noted that decriminalisation involves a complete dismantling of the licensing and other existing laws surrounding sex work.
“Decriminalisation does not involve any form of registration or licensing,” they said.
“Licensing is a costly and dangerous failure.
“By singling sex workers out for pointless red tape and surveillance, it produces stigma and discrimination and leaves us open to targeting from police.”
Patton said that she believes the “final steps” of decriminalisation are close.
“The government asked me to conduct a review and make recommendations for the decriminalisation of sex work in Victoria – not looking at whether it should be decriminalised, but how,” she said.
“I’m very hopeful that it will lead to legislative reform in early 2021.”
Patten added that she hoped to see such reform result in reduced stigma against sex workers.
O’Hara said that sex workers are waiting on developments now that Patten’s recommendations have been presented to the government.
“We are waiting with great anticipation to hear what has been recommended and to see the government make good on its commitment to Victorian sex workers to achieve full decriminalisation of all forms of sex work,” they said.
“It’s well past time.
“The decriminalisation process must be driven by sex workers ourselves – it’s our safety and livelihoods that are on the line.”
*Not their real name.