Sydney has a diverse and open sex industry. Compared to other Australian cities Sydney’s sex industry is commensurate with the size of its population. NSW men are infrequent consumers of commercial sexual services, with only 2.3% purchasing sexual services in any one year, similar to the Australian average. The number of sex workers in Sydney brothels was similar to estimates from 20 years ago. These data confirm that the removal of most criminal sanctions did not increase the incidence of commercial sex in NSW.
Despite several remaining laws against prostitution related activities, offenses finalised in the NSW courts were overwhelmingly concentrated on the street-based sex industry. A third of those who were prosecuted were male clients of street workers. Over the seven year period, 2000 to 2006, there were no prosecutions against several prostitution laws.
Sydney brothels are widely dispersed in inner urban and suburban areas, and they attract few complaints from neighbours. Because of difficulties in gaining development approval from local councils many Sydney brothels operate without approval, they are often small with poor occupational health and safety standards, and may masquerade as massage parlours. There are periodic reports of local government corruption, but no evidence of widespread police corruption around sex work.
Compared to sex workers surveyed in Melbourne’s licensed brothels and in Perth, brothel-based female sex workers in Sydney were better educated, and were more likely to have been born in an Asian or other non- English speaking country. In contrast to these other cities, the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) and the Multi-cultural Health Promotion team at the Sydney Sexual Health Centre have been actively working with and have had full access to this sector for 20 years. As a result the migrant sex workers in Sydney have achieved similar excellent levels of sexual health as their local counterparts.
Condom use at work approaches 100% in Sydney brothels and when the LASH team tested the Sydney sex workers the prevalence of four STIs – chlamydia (2.8%), gonorrhoea (0), Mycoplasma genitalium (3.6%), and trichomoniasis (0.7%) – was at least as low as the general population.
In general Sydney brothels workers enjoyed levels of mental health that were comparable to the general population. However, 10% of the Sydney women were found to be severely distressed on psychological testing (the Kessler-6 scale): twice as often as the general population. Psychological distress was strongly associated with injecting drug use.