Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site


When the lobbyist makes the laws: Victoria and the sex industry

  • 20 October 2022
‘If you didn’t have prostitutes there would be so much more rape. We’re human shields.’ – Maria*, (not her real name), a survivor of the sex industry after twenty years   If we really care what happens to people, what place does prostitution/sex work have in our society? The people that do this work — are they safe, are they respected? Reformers usually push to align modern legislation with changing community attitudes toward sexuality and there are many humane and rational benefits in this trend. If we aspire to be a compassionate and enlightened society, how do we reconcile the conflicting needs and demands around the question of paying for sexual gratification?

Some people take the view that prostitution acts as a safety valve for the rest of society. Do the safety and happiness of the lucky majority depend cynically on the suffering and exploitation of a few human shields? At its simplest and most benign definition, one might regard prostitution as something that some men want from women and pay for; and conversely what some women might want to do to make money — indeed the cliché is that prostitution is humanity’s oldest profession. Like the poor, prostitution is always with us (and tragically, many of the workers, unlike their employers, are indeed also poor). In that view, prostitution is ‘sex work’, and sex work is ‘just work’, and should be regarded as just another kind of job. This is a view that tends to be held mostly by those who would describe themselves as being on the compassionate and progressive side of politics, and who would wish that laws did not tend to discriminate against or victimise people who are working in the sex industry.

There is another, more critical view of prostitution that is held by many feminists and also by mainstream conservatives — two distinct groups of people who don’t often agree yet share deep concerns about this matter. They come from different positions and still join up with the idea that the sex industry is a ruthless exploiter of vulnerable women (and girls and boys), and therefore needs to be at least controlled and overseen by the state to ensure that community standards of care and respect are upheld. 

Increasingly, around Australia, states are bringing in legislation that reflects the view that prostitution should be treated just like any other kind of work. New South Wales did so in 1995, as did