Are brothels bad? When are they good? Why do sex workers oppose obligatory health checks?

I don’t think brothels are a bad thing and I don’t think brothels are a good thing – not per se. Businesses that offer sexual services to customers who drop in to select a sex worker are a kind of shop and a kind of workplace. Some people like to buy in that kind of shop and some people like to work in it, with managers, set shifts and rules. Some rights activists wish all sex workers would be entrepreneurs working independently or organise themselves in small collectives, but many people like being employed and having a boss and colleagues. Like an office or plant, a brothel can function as a reassuringly ordinary place, with its attendant office politics, opportunities for learning, quarrels with managers and struggles for better conditions.

When this form of conventional workplace has been banned, getting brothels back can feel progressive: thus a Swedish parliamentarian’s suggestion and the legislation described below in Western Australia. Australia’s states and territories make up a patchwork of different sorts of sex-industry legislation. In the case of Western Australia (capital city Perth), prostitution has been ‘illegal’, which means ‘criminalised’, but also ‘tolerated’ until recently.

Note, however, that the classic brothel system assumes that sex workers must be obligated to undergo regular, frequent tests to make sure they are free of sexually-transmitted infections – while clients are not. If the interest is in containing disease, everyone ought to be tested equally frequently: There is no defensible reason to make prostitutes more responsible for disease-containment than anyone else who has sex. Unfortunately, this sexist and stigmatising practice is frequently mentioned as an inherent condition of brothels.

WA to legalise prostitution

AAP, 20 June 2010

Western Australia is set to legalise prostitution in a bid to improve health standards and keep brothels out of residential areas. Hundreds of suburban brothels are expected to close when WA Attorney-General Christian Porter ends decades of “turning a blind eye” and starts regulating the sex industry next year.

Prostitution is illegal in WA but police rarely lay charges unless they are related to underage sex or unsafe practices. Under the new legislation, brothels will be licensed and confined to designated commercial and industrial areas, and police will be given powers to investigate and forcibly close those which fail to comply.

Sex businesses will need to follow health and safety standards to obtain and maintain their licences. Individual sex workers will need to register with a central agency and will undergo compulsory health and blood checks.

They may also be required to carry ID cards.

Mr Porter said suburban operators would be given a grace period from next year to either close or move to a licensed area. Applications for brothels would first be put to local councils and then assessed by state regulators. Mr Porter said the new regulations would limit problems in non-residential areas.

WA brothel madams welcomed the move over the weekend but feared the bid to register individual prostitutes would drive some underground. While most agreed the new regulations would improve health and safety in the industry, they said some sex workers would be loath to have their personal records on file. This will lead a lot of workers into going underground,” North Perth brothel owner Donna McGuirk told The West Australian newspaper on Saturday.

“We are quite lucky in WA in that we don’t have girls working with organised crime, but the sensitivity of this information that they want the girls to hand over means that many will try to work outside the system.” Kalgoorlie madam Bruna Meyers told the paper she was opposed to a central register but welcomed plans for a licensing system and health checks. She said it would crack down on operators advertising unsafe sex, which was currently illegal but not widely policed.

Opposition attorney-general spokesman John Quigley said confining brothels to industrial areas would create “sex ghettos”.

7 thoughts on “Are brothels bad? When are they good? Why do sex workers oppose obligatory health checks?

  1. concerned abolitionist...

    As a worker on the issue of sex trafficking, I can tell you that trafficking and prostitution are inexorably connected. In many areas that prostitution has been legalized, it has had the opposite effect of what was intended. While legalization is usually intended to impose health sanctions, minimum wages and fair treatment, these things cost money to upkeep. And in the world of sex work, the competition is everywhere, and price means everything. Any fan of Walmart or other discount store knows that in a market economy the lowest price wins. The same holds true here. Those individuals who engage in prostitution are typically familiar with existing “underground” or illegally, and if they can offer a commodity at a lower level (perhaps at the expense of health standards, sanitation and fair wages), they will. This will almost assuredly create an increase of illegal trafficking; even if there are fairly-paid and treated women employed at brothels, there will be an equal or greater number of illegal CHEAPER brothels with trafficked (and often underage) victims. Legalization of prostitution actually INCREASES sex slavery, rather than reducing it. When you reduce a human being to a commodity, someone will always offer that commodity for a cheaper price. Is it really worth it?

  2. lu

    i am not sure how i feel about brothels either and can appreciate that differences amongst and between sex workers and that they certainly do not fit one type of workplace to carry out their transactions.

    but what i do know is that if a brothel is a legally functioning business then it is their responsibility to their clients and their workers to obey health and safety legislation and just as you are not allowed on many worksites without the appropriate health (and often, drug and alcohol testing) checks, you would also not be allowed to work without having been tested for sti’s as this is a risk involved in this type of work and this type of purchase.

    a legal brothel, as a licensed business, must keep its workers and clients safe and i think it makes sense to respect your workers’ rights, but you would also have a responsibility to your clients and i think it is reasonable to make testing a condition of employment.

    of course, i am only speaking from the perspective of countries like australia that would have defined and enforceable health and safety legislation, but the reality is that many states would not have this capacity.

  3. Kevin Burctoolla

    I can tell you that trafficking and prostitution are inexorably connected.


    it has had the opposite effect of what was intended.

    Legalization of prostitution actually go down.

    you reduce a human being to a commodity, someone will always offer that commodity for a cheaper price. Is it really worth it?

    concerned abolitionist

    when you both in one then the cops end up in going all over it.

    when you have your way. they will break one set for law then the next one
    and they have no Respect for other.

    this is word form Adam simth.

  4. figleaf

    Hi Laura!

    Put me strongly in the camp that wants to keep sex workers autonomous and independent. That doesn’t rule out brothels, of course. And your point is well-taken that many people strongly prefer to be employed rather than self-employed.

    Some years ago now I had an extended conversation with an Australian about sex work in her area and she said that while brothels were legal in her state the legislation gave virtually all the advantage to brothel owners and still tended to treat the sex workers themselves like dirty, diseased commodities. Not as bad as Nevada’s brothel system but it sounded pretty similar.

    The phrasing of people available to be quoted in the AAP article (optimistic or outright enthusiastic current or prospective brothel owners but no word at all from actual workers) and the idea that it should be brothel owners rather than workers themselves who’ll be responsible for health checks doesn’t allay my concerns that this will end up being more of the same.

    Again, I don’t in principle object to employer-employee relationships, nor do I have a problem with employers having terms and conditions of employment, or setting standards of customer service. I do have a problem with the usual assumption that brothel owners, madames, or other sorts of pimps should be assumed to have the kind of in loco parentis authority over “their” employees this initiative seems to imply.


  5. Pingback: Laura Agustin on Brothels | Jessica Land

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