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Sex Work and Southern Theory

john Cameron Cox

This post authored by CJRC researcher Professor John Scott, CJRC Adjunct Professor Victor Minichiello, and Cameron Cox from Sex Workers Outreach Project Inc. originally appeared on The Australian Sociological Association (TASA) blog.


Click here to access the original post. 

A diverse global network is fighting to stop discrimination and human rights violations towards sex workers. Yet, historic concerns around sex work, grounded in the moral view that the commercialization of sex is degrading and damaging persist. So, what has been preventing sex industry reform? While the dichotomy between erotic and commercial life has remained, recent concerns include the idea of sex work as inherent victimization and the notion that reform equates with increased oppression of children and women. Following a period of increasing liberalization of sex work in western nations, achieved by sex worker advocacy groups and often supported by research in the social sciences, there has been a recent punitive shift in international policy. Indeed, advocacy and adoption of the so-called ‘Nordic model’ of regulation, which criminalises buying, as opposed to selling of sexual services, has marked recent reform initiatives in liberal democracies.

While Australian sociology has been relatively silent on researching the social, economic and health benefits of decriminalisation on the sex industry, and those who work and use this service, there is a significant body of Australian and international research which supports decriminalization of the sex industry. And as we discuss below, sex industry research reform offers a potent example of how sociological research in Australia has achieved significant policy impacts which are grounded in local experiences and social dynamics.

Sex work has been an archetypal form of gendered and sexual deviance and has remained of interest as a social problem to sociologists, whether it be a problem to solve or analyse. Early sociological research was moralistic and pathologising, or framed as a public health concern. Indeed, the way in which we have understood prostitution has been heavily influenced by the imagery of ‘street’ prostitutes, who have always comprised a small portion of the overall sex industry, with most estimates being at about ten percent and declining. Clients have remained a relatively under-researched population group, either because they are considered to be of less interest or hard to capture in studies. And yet what is clear from the recent studies is that clients and escorts are everyday citizens in our society.

A number of factors have impacted on numbers of street workers, including technological innovations, legislative reform and the gentrification of inner-city suburbs. Online escorting has been the most recent growth area of the industry. Indeed, the last two decades have seen considerable change to the structure and organisation of sex work worldwide, but policy has been slow to respond. There is also increasing recognition of gender diversity in the exchange of sexual services, despite the fact that most demand remains male driven and supply largely female.

Australia presents as a pioneering country in sex work research, with researchers of both female and male sex work laying much of the ground work for conceptualizing sex work as a highly gendered practice and, later, an occupation. While much Australian sex industry research echoed concerns globally, what was perhaps unique about early research was a strong qualitative and critical focus. Early research sociological research, such as Perkin’s and Bennet’s landmark study Being a Prostitute: Prostitute Women and Prostitute Men (1985), concluded that economic survival informed the choice to work as a prostitute, but also noted that prostitution presented a financial opportunity and market freedom, debunking the view of prostitutes as lacking in agency and was emulated in much Australian and international research. Politically, the dominant discourse in Australia has been a liberal agenda, with an emphasis on the legalisation and decriminalisation of sex work providing a framework that progressed beyond viewing the sex industry as a ‘social problem’ that needed to be solved as something that is inherently problematic.

The organisation of prostitutes into political lobby groups during the 1970s also sought to promote the human rights of sex industry workers, male and female. In 1996, Australia became one of the first country to unionise sex workers, campaigning for minimum wage, holiday, sickness, annual and maternity leave, overtime, occupational health and safety provisions, superannuation and meal breaks. Recent industry groups include Scarlet Alliance, Magenta, Vixen and SWOP, each having evolved from earlier activist incarnations.

Research has shown us that in Australia there is wide variation in male sex work between cities, regions and states. Sub-cultural norms, health cultures and public attitudes towards sex, while, at first glance, having much in common with other western cultures, have produced highly localised experiences and understandings of sex work. Notably, legislation and the way in which it is enforced have determined the way in which sex work is structured and organised in different locations.

We surveyed 100 countries and found that less than half have passed laws that legalised either prostitution, brothel ownership or non-coercive agency relationships with third parties. While many countries criminalise the selling and purchase of sexual services, prostitution has never been illegal in Australasian jurisdictions, only activities associated with sex work, such as soliciting, pimping and keeping premises used for sex work. Currently, a mix of complex legislation operates under the frameworks of decriminalisation (NSW), licensing (Victoria, QLD, NT), the criminalisation of activities associated with sex work (SA, WA), and registration (ACT).

So what sort of policy ‘works’ in an Australian context? The law has been ineffective in eliminating sex work through criminlisation. At best it might be considered to have symbolic impute, as a deterrent, but there is no hard evidence to indicate that the incidence of sex work increases in the absence of criminalisation. Criminalisation ironically creates a deregulated sex industry by driving sex workers underground. Criminalisation creates a barrier between standard regulators of work and business and the sex industry. Further, labour abuses and other exploitations are concealed in any industry forced ‘underground’ by criminalisation For example, instances of trafficking of persons, and issues related to trafficking like circumstances, are more readily apparent when an industry is operating legally and above ground and is transparent to the scrutiny of the standard regulating and policing agencies. Criminalisation also provides opportunities afforded for police corruption and exploitation of workers.

Legalization involves state regulation of the sex industry through licensing. Licensing is considered to exclude undesirable elements from industry involvement, but large proportions of the industry remain unlicensed and, thus, criminalised. In some countries this has resulted in increased police surveillance, forced health evaluations, higher taxes and financial penalties for sex workers. In licensed Australian brothels, workers are not subject to normal work entitlements and they are also subject compulsory health examinations and controls not typical of other industries.

In contrast, organisations, such as Amnesty International, sex industry lobby groups and researchers have favoured decriminalisation strategies, with their pragmatic protection of human rights and public health. In this system there are no special laws aimed solely at the regulation of sex workers or related activities. Instead, sex workers are subject to the same laws that regulate other businesses, such as tax laws, occupational health and safety regulations, zoning regulations and employment laws. All this is premised on the definition of sex work as activity that involves consensual sexual exchanges between adults for some form of remuneration. Sex work and sex workers are still of course subject to the criminal law in the same manner as all citizens of the state and are therefore protected from exploitation and violence by the same laws that protect non sex workers from exploitation and violence. Decriminalisation is best conceptualised in terms of a ‘harm reduction’ approach. Research indicates that decriminalisation delivers better public health outcomes, improved working conditions, safety and well-being, while not increasing the volume of the sex industry or impacts on amenities.

There are claims that decriminalisation increases the overall volume of sex work activity and leads to more trafficking and child prostitution. There is no evidence that this has been the case in NSW, where the sex work was decriminalised in 1995. Of course, the real problem here lies in the conflation of trafficking with sex work and competing definitions of what trafficking might be. Further, some research has cherry-picked data for worst cases of exploitation and generalizes these to all sex work and sex worker experiences. It is better to frame concepts of trafficking and forced prostitution as forms of exploitation. Exploitation is experienced by varied occupational groups, but is not exclusive to sex work.

As research in Australia has shown, the experiences of sex workers and clients are diverse and any generalization or simplistic policy calling for abolition requires caution. In our thinking, decriminalisation presents a fine example of what Raewyn Connell refers to as ‘southern theory’ and an example of how local researchers and activists can lead the world in policy reform. As sex worker advocates have long noted, ‘the problem’ is not sex workers, but bad policy. Likewise, creating an open and transparent sex work industry is very likely to reduce and perhaps eliminate stigma, making it a safer environment for sex workers to operate within.

John and Victor have a website on male escorting ( that includes blogs by sex workers. 

A link to a Q&A on Amnesty International’s Policy to Protect the Human Right of Sex Workers is below:

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