Stigma and stereotypes about sex work hinder regulatory reform

In 2016, a UK Home Affairs Committee report highlighted that street-based sex work has diminished significantly over the last two to three decades. shutterstock

Although sex workers around the world lobby for decriminalisation, sex work law remains controversial. This article is part of a series exploring sex work and regulatory reform.


Mention the word “prostitution” and there’s more than a fair chance that most people will automatically think of a drug-dependent female in high heels and a mini-skirt shivering on a cold and darkened street in a dodgy part of the city.

This stereotypical image is largely informed by popular cultural and media representations of sex workers and red-light districts. Socially conservative politicians, religious organisations, and certain branches of radical feminism also play an instrumental role in perpetuating this stereotype and reinforcing the stigma endured by sex workers.

However, sex work is much more complex and nuanced in terms of the types of people who offer commercial sexual services, the types of sex work they perform, where sex work takes place, and why people engage in it.

To be clear, “sex work” is used here to refer to consensual sexual encounters between two or more adults for some form of payment. Sex work includes different types of erotic labour such as street work, brothel work, in-calls, lap-dancing, web-camming and pornography. Sex work may involve direct and indirect sexualised interactions between provider and client.

People forced or coerced into providing commercial sex against their will by a third party can in no way be viewed as performing sex work. Such acts constitute labour/sexual explotiation and even, depending on the circumstances, human trafficking.

Consensual sex work and human trafficking for sexual exploitation are wrongly conflated, by certain political, religious and feminist groups, as being one and the same thing.

Why people engage in sex work

It is important to acknowledge that people do in fact choose to do sex work. This is not to say that these decisions are easy or without challenges to the individual because of wider social taboos and stigma that surround sex and sex work.

For many people, economic expediency or necessity is a key factor. For example, The Sydney Morning Herald reported in 2013 that an increasing number of single mothers were turning to sex work and lap-dancing in order to make ends meet, due to cuts in parenting welfare payments.

People in other vulnerable or precarious situations such as drug or alcohol dependency, abusive relationships, homelessness, unemployment, or coming to terms with their sexual and gender identity may also engage in sex work for survival, experimental and/or lifestyle purposes.

A 2015 study in the UK found that one in 20 students were involved in sex work. As students find themselves facing increased debt burdens by the time they graduate, sex work has become a means of mitigating this issue and also covering costs while living away from home and attending university.

Other people choose sex work because it offers them economic opportunity. It is seen as a form of labour they can exploit for material gain because they have a certain mix of attributes in terms of sexuality, looks, skills, personality and attitude.

Sex work also offers flexible working hours that suit peoples’ lifestyles.

Sex work spaces

It is often assumed that only women are sex workers. While it is the case that the majority of sex workers are women, men plus trans and gender-diverse individuals also engage in sex work.

The complex legal arrangements and stigma that surround sex work means it is impossible to ascertain the number of sex workers in Australia. Estimates put the overall number at around 20,000 people. The gender profile of sex workers varies across different sex work scenes.

Street-based sex work tends mainly to comprise women with a predominantly male client base. For some, this mode of sex work offers greater labour flexibility, autonomy, and lower overheads compared to indoor work.

There are small street-based scenes in cities like Manchester, London, Dublin and Berlin involving young queer-identifying males who often have older heterosexual-identifying male clients. There is also an emerging body of research showing that an increasing number of women are now booking the services of male and female sex workers.

Street-based sex work is often imagined to be the most visible and prominent form of sex work. This is far from true. It is estimated that the street-based scene in Australia accounts for between 5-10% of sex work. Street-based sex work is illegal in all states and territories with the exception of New South Wales, where it is:

… lawful as long as it is not near or within the view of a school, church, hospital or dwelling.

In 2016, the UK Home Affairs Committee highlighted that street-based sex work had diminished significantly over the last two to three decades, with research suggesting it accounts for less than 5% of all sex work.

The majority of sex work in Australia now takes place off-street and/or online. Off-street sex work spaces include brothels, saunas, massage parlours, private apartments or homes, BDSM dungeons, strip clubs and lap-dance bars. Most of these tend to be female-dominated work spaces. The vast majority of male, trans and gender diverse sex workers offer their services online.

Online sex work generally refers to websites or social media platforms that sex workers use to advertise their services, where clients can make bookings, and where some form of live or recorded sexual performance can be viewed. Webcam performers can market anything from conversation to explicit sex acts.

All manner of people, in terms of gender, age, sexuality, socioeconomic status, ethnicity and body shape can be found on cam websites. For some sex workers, web-camming might be their primary form of erotic labour and source of income. For others, such as adult performers, web-camming may be an additional or supplementary form of income.

Time to decriminalise consensual sex work

Consensual sex work takes multiple forms and takes place in a variety of spaces. The actual practice of sex work, like non-commercial sex, predominantly takes place behind closed doors; it is discreet, private and out of view.

When sex workers experience exploitation or violence at the hands of clients, employers, the police or others, these crimes must be be dealt with promptly and justly.

For Australian sex workers and peer-led sex work organisations, decriminalisation is seen as the only model of regulation because it affords protection of their human and labour rights.

Decriminalisation is supported by a number of highly respected international organisations including: Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, the World Health Organization, and UNAIDS.

The Legislative Council in the South Australian parliament recently passed a bill supporting the decriminalisation of sex work. If the Legislative Assembly passes the bill then South Australia will be the second state to do so, after NSW which decriminalised sex work in 1995.


Read the rest of the articles in this series here.