Even amongst sex workers there is a misunderstanding of what the difference is, which isn't good for creating a united front for change. Some think that decriminalisation means it will be a free for all with no laws or regulations and that legalisation is the way to go. Well, let's put the difference in plain English (sources at the bottom, I'm not footnoting this for you guys this time).
Simply put, decriminalisation is the removal of laws that make sex work, or aspects of sex work, illegal. That's it. It means that sex work will be subject only to the laws that all other businesses are subject to - OHS, workplace safety, public health, and tax laws. Legalisation, on the other hand, means that the act of selling sex is legal, but in the process of making it legal, they introduce laws that regulate how sex workers operate, and requiring them to abide by a set of rules or face criminal penalties - so essentially the government telling us how to do our job, rather than just having blanket safety laws and freedom to move within them. You can take this paragraph as the TL;DR if you like!
Legalisation in Australia
It is legal in all states except NSW (decrim) and SA (illegal) to be a sex worker. These states all let you work as a sex worker with the following caveats:
So this is what we are talking about when we say we don't want legalisation. We have it in most of Australia, and it makes it harder to work, and in some cases generally unsafe. To make a comparison, that's saying yes, you're allowed to be a plumber, but you can't advertise what you do, your workplace can't advertise for jobs, you're not allowed to unclog sinks, in some places you can only be an independent plumber - no companies allowed, you have to have your name on a list at the police station, and people will sneer at you for being a plumber. It makes zero sense when you apply this to another profession. Because plumbing is decriminalised - i.e., no aspect of the work is illegal outside of actions covered by workplace safety laws etc. - they don't have to deal with bullshit regulation.
Also called the Swedish Model, this is something that's sort of a hot topic in the sex worker community; as SWERFs (sex worker exclusionary radical feminists) really want to promote it, and we really want it never to be put into law. It's a form of legalisation developed in Sweden, but what it does is criminalise the clients. It's legal for sex workers to work, but clients may not seek their services, which hilariously makes us less safe, and saves no one from being trafficked at all.
Clients are even more severely reticent about giving out their details, which allows serial rapists and ugly mugs to slip through unseen. Brothels and other establishments are automatically illegal, as it's facilitating the buying of sex - so there goes another method of working. Sex workers lose business as well, which really isn't awfully fun for anyone. SWERFs like this model because it plays into their narrative that sex workers are poor female victims of circumstance, and clients are filthy violent male brutes - and as we all know, this is the opposite of true.
So what happens in a place that has decrim? Is it total lawlessness and STIs everywhere? Actually no. It's been shown to be the model that's most beneficial to sex workers - it gives us room to work. Here are some benefits:
Decriminalisation is already in effect in NSW and New Zealand, and studies have shown that the outcomes for sex workers, sex trafficking victims, and for law enforcement are far better. The more you bring the work out of the shadows and into the light, the safer people are. Remember that sex trafficking is to sex work what forced labour on farms is to legitimate agricultural employment.
"Sienna, I've seen all these studies on Google that say legalising sex work increases trafficking..."
Those studies are inherently skewed. Do you remember the seat belt studies from the 60s? Back when seat belts came out and were installed in cars, there was a massive increase in the number of people being admitted to hospital with life threatening injuries from motor vehicle accidents. Car companies used this to say "see, seat belts are unsafe!" The actual truth was that seat belts were causing more people to make it to hospital in the first place, where previously they would have died. These studies are similar. When you decriminalise sex work, it's far easier to distinguish between the legal workers and the trafficked individuals, so law enforcement can swoop in to make arrests and help the exploited. So it's seen as an "increase in trafficking" when really it's just an increase in finding the people who were already trafficked.
The other reason these studies are flawed is because of their location. In Europe, free travel is allowed within the Schengen area. Also in Europe, all of the countries have vastly different laws when it comes to sex work. Did you know, you can be prosecuted for trafficking if you are working as a sex worker and you bring in a friend from, say, Romania, to work with you because it's safer for them? You can be considered "trafficked" because you drove yourself over a damn border to work as a sex worker. The numbers are often falsely inflated because of these types of people. This is really similar to Victoria, where state police trot out these figures of "illegal brothels" they've shut down, which are actually 95% private workers doing incalls, because working out of your own premises counts as an illegal brothel operation. Yes, really.
We have to constantly fight with the morality police on these sorts of studies. Getting any done on sex workers at all is hard, because ethics boards don't really like the subject matter, but the SWERFs who commission those studies never bother to look at the people in construction, labour, and agriculture who are exploited in similar ways. Oh no, that would be admitting that the industry isn't inherently flawed, but that there are shitty human traffickers everywhere they can get away with it.
What the Swedish Model Gets Wrong About Prostitution | Time Magazine
State by state sex work laws in Australia | Scarlet Alliance
Decriminalisation of sex work: the evidence is in | Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations
Why decriminalising sex work is a good idea | The Economist
Prostitution in NSW: the Impact of Deregulation | S. Egger and C. Harcourt
Improving the health of sex workers in NSW: maintaining success | NSW Public Health Bulletin
People trafficking in Australia | Australian Institute of Criminology
The Future of Sex Work | The Guardian
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