Breaking the chains: Queensland’s move toward decriminalising sex workers

In Queensland, the sex work industry is pointed on the edge of a ground-breaking transformation as the government contemplates the implementation of the Queensland Law Reform Commission’s recommendations. These proposed changes, which include decriminalising sex work, revising advertising regulations, and providing anti-discrimination protections, have the potential to significantly improve the lives of sex workers and reshape the industry’s landscape.

The current system and why change are needed

To appreciate the effect of these proposed changes, it is crucial to understand the existing legal framework surrounding sex work in Queensland. The state’s approach to the regulation of the sex industry falls under the Prostitution Act 1999 and Criminal Code Act 1899, which decriminalised certain aspects of sex work while maintaining strict controls over others.

Under the current law, sex work is legal in Queensland, but only within the confines of specific regulations. Prostitution is legal through either licensed brothers or sole sex operators.

Brothels are legal in Queensland provided they are licensed, registered and comply with strict licensing and planning requirements [1].

Licensed brothels in Queensland are regulated by the Prostitution Licensing Authority (PLA), which assure these establishments adhere to licensing, planning, and health requirements. This is to ensure these establishments meet specific health, safety, and welfare standards. 

Sole operator sex work is legal in Queensland under the Prostitution Act 1999, allowing individuals to engage in sex work independently. They must work alone, without employing others or working in cooperation with other sex workers [2]. Private sole sex workers can also provide outcall services, where they visit clients at their homes or hotel rooms [3].

Additional key prohibitions of the current law are as follows: 

  • Street-based sex work: Soliciting clients in public spaces is illegal in Queensland. Under s 73 Prostitution Act 1999, engaging in public soliciting for the purpose of prostitution is an offense.
  • Escort agencies: Escort services, which involve sex workers visiting clients at their homes or hotel rooms, are legal in Queensland, provided they comply with the requirements of the Prostitution Act 1999. However, escort agencies, which involve businesses organizing and facilitating escort services, are illegal [4].
  • Advertising restrictions: The publishing of advertisements relating to prostitution is prohibited, including those publications that use explicit language, images, or descriptions of services offered [5].
  • Age restrictions: Queensland’s sex work regulations include age restrictions to protect minors from involvement in the industry. The legal age for sex work in Queensland is 18 years. It is an offense to employ or engage in sexual services with a person under 18 [6].

Most Queenslanders assume sex work has already been decriminalised. The reality is different. While sex work is legal under a narrow licensing framework, about 90% of sex workers operate in the “unlawful sector” privately or in unlicensed businesses. The existing legal frameworks are reported by the Queensland’s Law Reform Commission (QLRC) [7] to be stigmatising sex workers and increasing their vulnerability to exploitations & violence, and in doing so failing to protect their human rights. The current laws are said to isolate the workers and create barriers for them to access health, safety and legal protections.

Issues that were raised concern the prohibition for sex workers to be employed in pairs, the prohibition of sex workers to work with a reception, the prohibition to work with someone to help screen, book; as well as to provide safety checks before and after the job, all of which forces sex workers to choose between working safely or lawfully. Sex workers are also genuinely reluctant to report crimes committed against them to police due to risk of being arrested. 

New proposed law

The QLRC report was confirmed to be used by Attorney-general Shannon Fentiman as a springboard to overhaul current laws. The commission is understood to have made 47 recommendations, with the Queensland government to consult with local governments before finalising the new law [8].

Research by the Queensland’s Law Reform Commission had shown that decriminalisation would be the best way to safeguard their rights, health and safety. 

The proposed reforms aim to decriminalise sex work, enhance the rights of sex workers, and modernize the regulatory framework surrounding the industry. Decriminalisation would recognise sex work not as a crime, but as work. The reform suggest for laws (such as work, public health, advertising and public amenity laws) with general fit for purpose applications to be used, while dismissing special laws that single-out sex work.

The recommended framework would essentially means the following key points: 

  • De-criminalisation of consensual adult sex work: The report recommends that consensual adult sex work be decriminalized in Queensland. By removing criminal penalties, sex workers would be able to operate without fear of legal repercussions. Per the recommendation, sex workers would be able to operate with more than two people and operate lawful sex-work businesses. 
  • Abolition of current restrictions on advertising: The report recommends abolishing the existing restrictions on sex work advertising, enabling sex workers to communicate more openly with potential clients. This would help create a more equitable market and provide sex workers with increased control over their work conditions, clientele, and income. Sex workers would be able to describe their services (including massage), and advertise job vacancies. The advertisement would also be allowed on TV and radio. 
  • Abolition of licensing: Licensing had resulted with a two-tiered industry of licensed and unlicensed operators, where the 20 licensed brothels in Queensland only make up 10% of the industry. The recommendations suggest abolishing the requirement and the Prostitution Licensing Authority itself, seeing as not effective and not needed. 
  • Introduction of anti-discrimination protections for sex workers: The QLRC calls for the introduction of anti-discrimination protections specifically for sex workers. These protections would help ensure that sex workers are treated fairly and without prejudice in various aspects of their lives, reducing stigmas around them. For this purpose, definitions applying to ‘lawful sexual activity’ and ‘sex work’ would be all amended. The recommendation seeks to protect sex workers from unlawful discrimination under Anti-Discrimination Act, targeting particularly at accommodation providers and employers. 

Other recommendations such as having Workplace Health and Safety Queensland as the regulator responsible for making sure work health and safety laws are followed is also included.

The future of sex work regulation in Queensland is poised for a significant transformation, as the state government considers the implementation of the Queensland Law Reform Commission’s recommendations. Decriminalization, coupled with the proposed changes in advertising, licensing, and anti-discrimination protections, has the potential to create a safer and more equitable environment for sex workers. Moreover, mandatory training and education programs can empower sex workers with essential knowledge and skills, contributing to a more responsible industry overall. The landscape of sex work regulations in Queensland depends on the successful integration of these proposed reforms, paving the way for a more progressive, safer, and better-regulated industry. By learning from the experiences of other jurisdictions and engaging in informed and balanced discussions, Queensland has the opportunity to set a new standard for sex work regulation, ultimately benefiting both sex workers and society as a whole.

[1] Prostitution Act 1899 Division 1 

[2] Criminal Code Act 1899 s 229H

[3] Criminal Code Act 1899 Chapter 22A

[4] Criminal Code Act 1899 s 229E; Criminal Code Act 1899 s 229HB

[5] Prostitution Act 1999 s 93

[6] Criminal Code Act 1899 s 229FA

[7] Queensland Law Reform Commission, ‘A Decriminalised Sex Work Industry for Queensland: Report Summary’ (Report No 80, June 2023)

[8] Daily Mail Reporter, ‘Queensland Introduces Controversial New Law Change to the Way Sex Workers are Policed’ (Daily Mail Australia, 25 April 2023)

*Disclaimer: This is intended as general information only and not to be construed as legal advice. The above information is subject to changes over time. You should always seek professional advice before taking any course of action.*

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