The decriminalisation of prostitution is associated with better coverage of health promotion programs for sex workers

Christine Harcourt, Jody O'Connor, Sandra Egger, Christopher K. Fairley, Handan C Wand, Marcus Y. Chen, Lewis Marshall, John Martin Kaldor, Basil J Donovan

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Objective: In order to assess whether the law has an impact on the delivery of health promotion services to sex workers, we compared health promotion programs in three Australian cities with different prostitution laws. The cities were Melbourne (brothels legalised if licensed, unlicensed brothels criminalised), Perth (criminalisation of all forms of sex work) and Sydney (sex work largely decriminalised, without licensing). Methods: We interviewed key informants and gave questionnaires to representative samples of female sex workers in urban brothels. Results: Despite the different laws, each city had a thriving and diverse sex industry and a government-funded sex worker health promotion program with shopfront, phone, online and outreach facilities. The Sydney program was the only one run by a community-based organisation and the only program employing multi-lingual staff with evening outreach to all brothels. The Melbourne program did not service the unlicensed sector, while the Perth program accessed the minority of brothels by invitation only. More Sydney workers reported a sexual health centre as a source of safer sex training and information (Sydney 52% v Melbourne 33% and Perth 35%; p<0.001). Sex workers in Melbourne's licensed brothels were the most likely to have access to free condoms (Melbourne 88%, Sydney 39%, Perth 12%; p<0.001). Conclusions: The legal context appeared to affect the conduct of health promotion programs targeting the sex industry. Brothel licensing and police-controlled illegal brothels can result in the unlicensed sector being isolated from peer-education and support.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)482-486
Number of pages5
JournalAustralian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - Oct 2010
Externally publishedYes


  • Brothel licensing
  • Decriminalisation
  • Health promotion
  • Occupational health and safety

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