Sweeping changes proposed for 'restrictive' sex work laws
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Sweeping changes proposed for 'restrictive' sex work laws

HIV-positive sex workers could soon be allowed to operate in Canberra under sweeping changes proposed for the territory’s decades-old prostitution laws.

Legislative references to "prostitute" and "prostitution" will also be replaced with "sex worker" and "sex work" if the Sex Work Bill 2018, to be introduced next month, passes the ACT Legislative Assembly.

The ACT government will look to update the 1992 Prostitution Act.

The ACT government will look to update the 1992 Prostitution Act.Credit:Robert Banks

The bill, which would replace the 1992 Prostitution Act, further proposes to allow sole operators to work without registering with the ACT's Office of Regulatory Services, and would force brothel owners to supply workers with personal protective equipment, such as lubricant, condoms and dental dams, for free.

The reforms were among those recommended as part of an inquiry into the territory's sex work laws in 2011 following the 2008 death of a 17-year old working in a Canberra brothel.

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Sex Worker Outreach Program ACT education officer Lexxie Jury labelled the proposed changes allowing HIV-positive sex workers and clients to sell or access sex a key win for the industry.

Similar laws exist in NSW, where sex work is decriminalised. A patchwork of laws exist in other states and territories but, according to the Scarlet Alliance, those in the ACT were most restrictive.

If passed, references to the Public Health Regulation 2000 would be inserted into sex work legislation, removing offences prohibiting sex workers and clients with sexually transmissible infections from providing or receiving commercial sex services.

The proposed legislation would essentially bring laws relating to sex workers in line with those applicable to the broader population, which require that "all individuals ... take reasonable precaution against transmitting a transmissible notifiable condition, including HIV".

A Justice and Community Safety Directorate spokesman emphasised the government was still consulting on the proposed changes.

"The Prostitution Act currently requires all sex workers to use prophylactics at all times during particular commercial sexual services that involve a risk of transmission of infection and this will not change," he said.

Ms Jury said: “As long as you’re using all your protections, [HIV transmission] isn’t a concern.

"They will advertise in The Canberra Times that they are HIV positive and that will attract clients who are HIV positive.

"They create their own niche market and that’s perfect because that’s not something we have in the ACT."

The proposed legislation does not cover off all recommendations from the inquiry's 2012 report.

Both the Sex Worker Outreach Program and the Scarlet Alliance will continue to push for the territory government to allow more than one private sex worker to operate from a single premises.

The ACT's current laws mean sole operators can't share a house or hotel room, which Ms Jury said was a safety concern.

"What backs up our argument, sadly, is that six sex workers were attacked last year - they were physically beaten, attacked and held at knifepoint, they were raped, they had their money stolen, and they were all lone workers working from a hotel premises," she said.

"One jumped from a second storey building, a balcony, into bushes. She broke her leg to get away from these guys.

"If you had two workers there, I’m not saying it wouldn’t have happened, but there’s less chance."

Scarlet Alliance chief executive Jules Kim said the bill was both a step in the right direction and a missed opportunity.

"While we welcome the changes, it is a shame they haven't taken up the opportunity to act on all the recommendations," she said.

Each group will also pursue the decriminalisation of sex work.

The sex work bill had been written in consultation with stakeholders, the Justice and Community Safety Directorate spokesman said.

"The measures in the bill will provide greater support for sex workers and their clients through improved work health and safety protection measures," he said.

"They will also better support the human rights of sex workers by removing discriminatory offences which are already covered by other legislation and remove pejorative language from the Act."

Canberra Liberals health spokeswoman Vicki Dunne said she was "very concerned about the health and welfare of all people in the industry".

"I think we should approach these changes with extreme caution,” she said.

Meanwhile, 21 of Canberra's 29 brothels and escort agencies have been inspected by WorkSafe ACT since July 1 2016. Three were issued with improvement notices relating to safety management systems, such as issues with electrical tagging or a lack of fire-fighting equipment.

All issues have been corrected, a government spokeswoman said.

ACT Policing said there had been two charges for "operate brothel other than in prescribed location" since 2013 and 2018 - one in the former year and one in 2016.

Emily Baker is a reporter for the Sunday Canberra Times. She previously reported on education for The Canberra Times.

Michael Inman is a courts reporter for The Canberra Times

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