Mary Lucille Sullivan
Applying occupational health
and safety codes to Australia's
legalised brothel prostitution
Prostitution has been legalised or decriminalised in four Australian states and territories beginning with Victoria in 1984. Legalised prostitution is regarded as work and, as such, is governed by Occupational Health and Safety (OHS) codes formulated by state and territory governments in association with sex work organisations. These OHS codes provide a unique resource for analysing the power relations that are involved in prostitution.
Much of the literature on health and safety in prostitution has as its premise that legalisation or decriminalisation1 minimises work-related harms for prostituted women. Ine Vanwesenbeeck makes this point in her discussion of prostitution in the Netherlands, arguing that some form of regulation is 'needed to contest the power and dominance of employers over prostituted women, which remains invisible because of the illegality of their business' (Vanwesenbeeck 1994, p. 157). The weakness in her position is that she does not consider the male consumers who purchase women's bodies as an inherent source of harm. Moreover, as her study was undertaken prior to the formal legalisation of prostitution in the Netherlands in 2000, there existed no Occupational Health and Safety codes in countries other than Australia to test her views against. Australia's experience of treating prostitution as work demonstrates that prostitution can never be made into a safe and acceptable industry.
Australia's 1985 Occupational Health and Safety Act guarantees the right of all workers not to have their health put at risk through carrying out the ordinary requirements of their work. Prostituted women working in Australian licensed brothels or for escort agencies, as 'legitimate' workers, share these
1 Legalisation is when the state recognises prostitution as a lawful activity. In effect this
involves the regulating and licensing of brothel prostitution, which permits some women
to work in a limited way, while street prostitution, for example, remains illegal.
Decriminalisation means that prostitution is treated as a commercial activity, with no
restrictions other than those that apply to other businesses.