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New report recommends decriminalisation of WA’s sex industry

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Western Australia’s sex industry should be decriminalised amid an increase in private sex workers and a decline in brothel and street-based sex work over the past decade, a new report led by Curtin University researchers has found.

The report, which includes a survey of 354 sex workers, found the greatest proportion of sex workers (40 per cent) reported that sex work enhanced their wellbeing, compared to one-fifth who said it hindered their wellbeing, with stigma and discrimination considered a major impediment to their wellbeing.

More than one in five sex workers in WA reported having been assaulted at least once in the past 12 months, and almost 50 per cent of respondents reported feeling uncomfortable or very uncomfortable with reporting the assaults and other crimes against them to police.

The report, titled Law and Sex worker Health (LASH) Study: A summary report to the Western Australian Department of Health, also found high rates of tobacco smoking in the surveyed population, and excessive alcohol consumption and illicit drug use rates were higher in men than women.

The report made seven recommendations, including the decriminalisation of sex work in WA, new training programs for healthcare workers and police to reduce the stigma and discrimination, and increased support for sex workers from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, particularly in rural areas.

Lead investigator Adjunct Associate Professor Linda Selvey, from the School of Public Health at Curtin University, said a number of sex workers and brothel owner/operators described a recent downturn in WA’s sex industry, reflecting the overall economy.

“While that did not translate to a reduction in the number of clients for some, the impact of this downturn on sex worker health and safety can be significant, as having fewer clients can result in sex workers being less discriminatory in their choice of clients and more likely to agree to unprotected sex with clients,” Associate Professor Selvey said.

“We observed significant changes in WA’s sex industry over the past 10 years, particularly the increase in private sex workers and relative decrease in brothel-based sex work and solely street-based sex work, as well as the increasing use of the internet and social media to promote sexual services.”

Associate Professor Selvey said the report demonstrated a number of ways that the criminalisation of sex work in WA had resulted in a negative impact on the health, safety and wellbeing of sex workers.

“This includes criminalisation being used as an excuse for abuse by clients of sex workers; a reluctance of sex workers to go to the police as victims of crime; the hidden nature of sex work in the context of private houses and massage parlours hindering access to services and health promotion; and the physical risk of street-based sex work,” Associate Professor Selvey said.

“The decriminalisation of sex work also allows a highly visible focus on workplace health and safety in brothels and massage parlours, and it offers an important step towards reducing the stigma and discrimination experienced by sex workers.

“There is sound evidence that decriminalising sex work does not result in an increase in the number of clients accessing sex work, and the normalisation of this work is important in improving the health and wellbeing of sex workers.”

As part of the study, 354 sex workers, including female, male, transgender, private, and touring participants, completed an online survey.

Dr Jonathan Hallett, Dr Roanna Lobo and Ms Kahlia McCausland, also from Curtin’s School of Public Health, Ms Julie Bates, from Urban Realists Planning and Health Consultants, and Professor Basil Donovan, from the Kirby Institute at the University of New South Wales, also contributed to the report.

The study was funded by the Sexual Health and Blood-borne Virus Program, Communicable Disease Control Directorate, Western Australian Department of Health.

The full report can be viewed here.

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