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.
The emergence of online markets in the sex work industry requires us to rethink how the industry is regulated.
There is abundant evidence that decriminalising sex work safeguards the human rights of sex workers, while also contributing to public health and safety. Despite this, the push for reform in Australia has never gained momentum.
The cliché that sex work is the world’s oldest profession conceals countless changes the sex industry has undergone in recent decades. Shifting social norms have been one driver of change. However, the extent to which technology impacts the structure and organisation of sex work is often overlooked.
New technologies mean more diverse sexual practices
Advances in technology have provided new opportunities for diversifying sexual practices.
Historically, the location of sex work and the organisation of sexual services has been linked to different technologies. The car took sex work out of inner-city areas and into suburbia. The telephone created a market for escorts.
Technology has provided both sex workers and their clients with greater mobility and anonymity, opening sex work up to new markets. Sex industry advertising was visible online as early as the 1980s, and has since grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry.
The growth of online dating and sexual rendezvous sites and their smaller operating costs has made online escorting a popular alternative to “traditional” sexual services like brothels.
Some say new online dating applications and sites will significantly decrease demand for sex work, especially in places where it is highly stigmatised or illegal. However, there is evidence that technology has raised awareness of sex work and provided greater access to new markets.
Expansion of sex work markets
The internet has changed the geography of sex work and globalised sex markets.
The internet and mobile phone technology allowed sex workers to operate in rural areas without the need to live permanently in such places. This helps them avoid the stigma that might come with operating in smaller communities.
The internet has helped distribute information and awareness of sex services to a wider sociodemographic audience than previously reached through printed media.
Another impact of technology has been the increased visibility and availability of male sex workers, online escorts in particular. Research indicates that men account for an estimated 5-20% of sex workers in liberal democracies. A recent report suggests there are 40-42 million sex workers worldwide, with 80% of these being female.
Male sex workers providing services to an exclusively female clientele are also increasing in popularity among time-poor professional women.
All this research indicates that the stereotypical image of the prostitute – a young female inner-city street worker, servicing men for survival sex – is far removed from the realities of contemporary sex work.
Regulating sex work in the 21st century
While the regulation of the sex industry is mostly concerned with the visibility of sex work in public spaces, in reality only about 5-10% of sex work is street-based in liberal democracies such as Australia and New Zealand.
In terms of male sex workers, 90% are independent operators – and the vast majority of these are online.
Despite these changes to the sex work industry, legal reform has stagnated in most of the world. Historic concerns around sex work grounded in the moral view that the commercialisation of sex is degrading and damaging persist. So does the notion that sex work is inherently victimising.
This has seen a punitive shift in the last two decades in liberal democracies, particularly where human trafficking has been conflated with sex work. This trend could be put down to the increased visibility and accessibility of sex work thanks to advances in technology.
There is little evidence that criminalisation can reduce the incidence of sex work. It has, however, been shown to increase risk of harm and violence for both sex workers and their clients. Criminalisation also provides opportunities for police corruption and the exploitation of workers, as was historically the case in New South Wales and Queensland.
New South Wales is the only state in Australia to decriminalise sex work, which it did in 1995. Research indicates that decriminalisation in this jurisdiction has delivered better public health outcomes, improved working conditions, safety and wellbeing for sex workers, and does not increase the volume of the sex industry.
A New South Wales government inquiry concluded the incidence of sexually transmitted infections among sex workers in the state is equal to or better than the population as a whole.
Decriminalisation of sex work has made it easier for sex workers to obtain regular STI checks at medical clinics and obtain information about safe sex. This is because they aren’t at risk of implicating themselves as criminals where sex work is decriminalised.
Decriminalisation views sex work as an occupation that involves consensual sexual exchanges between adults for some form of remuneration. It accounts for the way in which technologies have changed the structure and organisation of sex work in recent decades – a shift from pathology to professionalisation.
Professor, School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology