Liquor in brothels – safety, gender and sex work

On or before 1 December 2023, new Victorian laws will come into operation that will allow the service of liquor in brothels as part of a broader package of reforms to decriminalise sex work throughout the state. 

This reflects a change in approach, with the previous Ministerial Advisory Committee on sex work recommending that the state government retain restrictions on serving, selling and consuming liquor in brothels – recommendations accepted by the then government. The Ministerial Advisory Committee argued that:

A ban on liquor in brothels may protect sex workers from the undesirable behaviour of clients who are under the influence of alcohol, and the effects of alcohol on sex workers themselves including impaired judgement and lower diligence about personal health and safety.

Unsurprisingly, these reforms and the concomitant shift in government policy were contentious. The parliamentary debate surrounding the new laws makes interesting connections between alcohol and sexual consent. In this post, we consider excerpts from the debate and the arguments surrounding liquor in brothels.  

When the laws were debated in parliament’s upper house in February 2022, Craig Ondarchie of the Liberal Party made a connection between alcohol and increased risk of violence. He argued:  

Given that this bill is primarily about improving the safety of sex workers, why include a clause that increases the risk of workers being physically abused in an alcohol-fuelled violence scenario? Why do that? […] Can and will the government guarantee that this will not lead to a rise in alcohol-fuelled violence in brothels? They are serving grog […] Men that put too much under their belt can get violent. So what are we planning to do? Serve alcohol in these brothels. Some men will have too much grog and suddenly they may turn violent – and we are trying to protect sex workers here. It does not make sense […] The mixing of alcohol and brothels could be unhealthy – unhealthy for the clients, unhealthy particularly for the workers.

Similarly, Stuart Grimley of the Justice Party expressed that he ‘was a bit perplexed as to why we need to supply a substance that blurs the lines of consent in places where sexual services are offered.’  

In the lower house, Roma Britnell of the Liberal Party argued that: 

This introduces a very real danger, particularly for sex workers […] It is contradictory to express concern for the safety and wellbeing of sex workers and then add alcohol to such workplaces, which is likely to increase the risk of violence and decrease safety and wellbeing for sex workers.

It was mostly conservative politicians making these arguments linking alcohol to male violence and diminished consent and safety, but Tim Read of the Greens Party said:

I think that allowing liquor licensing in brothels is an obvious consequence of removing sex work-specific prohibitions, but the consequences of that should be monitored for any impact on the safety of sex workers.  

The debate on these reforms raises three key issues relating to safety, gender, and sex work.  

First, the politicians involved in the debate argue that safety and protection should be a paramount consideration in the regulation of alcohol in brothels. As we have found in other research, ‘laws that would limit the rights of people who use alcohol and other drugs were routinely seen as justifiable on the basis that alcohol and other drugs were inherently “unsafe”.’ Here, in these parliamentary debate, alcohol is figured as unsafe because of the suggestion that it inevitably leads to violence and ‘blurs the lines of [sexual] consent’, which justifies maintaining laws that prohibit its service or sale in brothels.  

Second, the politicians conceive of sex work in a gendered way – the clients who consume the alcohol are all depicted as male. Our other research has found that parliamentary processes often ‘render alcohol and other drug effects as seemingly gender-neutral despite research suggesting that masculinities, alongside place and other factors, are entwined with alcohol and other drug usage and the social harms that alcohol and other drug regulation seek to address.’ Here, however, gender and masculinity are strong themes in the parliamentary debate, but in ways that replicate a gendered and heteronormative understanding of sex work as always occuring between a male client and a female sex worker. This can create a tension for other forms of sex work, much as male sex workers or female clients, and leads to implications that sex work perpetuates gendered dynamics of sexual relations that may not account for the ways in which sex work is actually negotiated in practice.  

Finally, the politicians do not give voice to sex workers themselves during the debate, despite Vixen having made its position on the issue clear. Victoria’s peer-only sex worker organisation argues that:

liquor licensing regulations should apply equally to sex work as they do for other industries. There is no need to create specific restrictions and any discriminatory regulations will undermine the intention of decriminalisation [of sex work].

As is often the case, the subjects of law reform lack a voice in the parliamentary debates around legislation, as we see here.  

Our drugs and human rights project considers these and other questions around safety, gender and the subjects of alcohol and other drug law reform in further depth, and we will continue to post findings from that project on our website. We hope these will help inform approaches towards human rights protections for people who use alcohol and other drugs.