Brothels are legal in NSW and Victoria where it is decriminalised without the need to have a licence. Brothels in WA, SA, Tasmania are still illegal, whereas brothels in NT, Queensland and ACT have been partially decriminalised with a licensing model and strict conditions.
The legality of brothels vary across Australia's territories and states. This article is written by our own in-house sexual assault lawyers Sydney team.
According to a study into the sex work industry, men who visit sex workers most often do so at brothels (64.6%), followed by escort services (32.6%), massage parlours (26.8%), private premises with a single sex worker (25.5%), private houses where more than one sex worker workes (11.5%), and street sex work (5.9%).
How many sex workers are there in Australia? Whilst the number of sex workers and brothels across Australia is difficult to determine due to the varied levels of criminalisation and associated stigma, it is estimated that there are over 20,000 sex industry workers in Australia.
The modes of brothel regulation across Australia can broadly be described as ‘criminalisation', ‘licensing' and ‘decriminalisation'.
Western Australia, South Australia, Tasmania are characterized as having a criminalisation model with respect to brothels.
This means that criminal sanctions are imposed for brothel-keeping, as well as other associated offences.
The Northern Territory, Queensland, and the Australian Capital Territory, have adopted a licencing model.
This enables brothels to operate yet require licences to be gained with often strict conditions.
New South Wales and now Victoria, have adopted a decriminalisation model.
This enables brothels to operate similar to other local businesses, and with less restrictions than under licences.
However, they still require planning approval and are subject to governing laws.
Massage parlours that provide sexual service such as “happy endings” will also be classified in the same field as brothels and so the same brothel laws outlined below will apply across each State and Territory of Australia.
Keep in mind that when attending brothels or massage parlours providing sexual services, all sexual activities must be conducted with mutual consent. Here is more on sex and consent in New South Wales.
SYDNEY BROTHELS | ARE BROTHELS ALLOWED TO OPERATE IN NSW NEW SOUTH WALES
It is estimated that New South Wales has the largest population of sex workers and highest number of brothels, which reflects its status as the most decriminalised system of all Australian jurisdictions.
What are the Sydney brothel laws? Brothels are able to operate lawfully in NSW, provided that they comply with regulations and receive council planning approval.
Such premises are regulated by local councils like other businesses.
Whilst regulations may vary between local council areas, brothels must generally not be located in residential zones, within buildings that are also used as residences, next to churches, day-cares, schools, parks, playgrounds, or other places children frequent.
If a business has not received planning approval, and provides prostitution, whilst being held out as being available for massage services, sauna baths, physical exercise, a photographic studio, or for services of a like nature, an offence is committed.
A maximum penalty of a $550 fine and/or 3 months imprisonment is applicable, pursuant to section 17 of the Summary Offences Act 1988 (NSW).
Whilst brothels may be legal, their advertisement remains illegal, and is punishable by a fine of $660 fine and/or 3 months imprisonment as per section 18.
Despite it ordinarily being an offence to live wholly or in part on the earnings' of the sex work of another person, this is not applicable if the person owns, manages, or is employed in the brothel.
Owners of brothels must also ensure that workers, if suffering from a sexually transmissible disease or condition, take reasonable precautions against spreading it.
As per section 79(2) of the Public Health Act 2010 (NSW), operators face a maximum penalty of a $11,000 fine and/or 6 months imprisonment if they knowingly permit another person to have sexual intercourse whilst infectious, and not taking reasonable precautions.
Massage parlour Sydney
Massage parlours in Sydney that provide sexual services are also legal. They are classified in the same category as brothels if sexual services are provided. However, it is important to be familiar with the council rules and regulations around zoning to avoid hefty fines. The same brothel laws apply to Sydney or NSW Massage parlours who provide sexual services.
BROTHELS MELBOURNE | ARE BROTHELS ALLOWED TO OPERATE IN VIC?
Victoria has recently moved to a decriminalised system with respect to sex work and brothels, following the Sex Work Decriminalisation Act 2022 (VIC) being passed by Victorian Parliament.
The reforms affected by the Act are to come in stages, with Victoria abolishing the sex work service provider licensing system, commencing December 2023.
The licensing system will be replaced by business regulatory procedures, similar to those that operate currently in New South Wales.
Prior to the reforms, sex work and brothels were only legal if they abided by certain conditions set out in the Sex Work Act 1994(VIC).
The reforms were enacted due to the ‘outdated' nature of the licencing system.
In regulating brothels, similar to other local businesses, Victorian Parliament proposes that stigma and discrimination would be reduced, and sex workers would have more agency in choosing where to work.
The advertising controls have also changed for the sex work industry,
Brothels will now be able to advertise, and can describe services offered, as well as recruit for vacant positions for sex workers, with applicable offences in the Sex Work Act 1994 (VIC) now removed.
Massage Parlour Melbourne and Victoria
Massage parlours that provide sexual services in the context of running a business are legal with the same decriminalised approach as brothels in the State thanks to the changes in the law.
ARE BROTHELS ALLOWED TO OPERATE IN NORTHERN TERRITORY?
In the Northern Territory, sex work was decriminalised in 2019, as a result of the Sex Industry Act 2019 (NT).
Brothels are thus no longer illegal in the NT and are instead regulated by applicable planning schemes, similar to other businesses.
However, such premises are restricted from being next to childcare centres, schools, places of worships or restricted development zones.
As per section 18, if a brothel employs 3 or more sex workers, the business is required to obtain a ‘certificate of suitability' through the Commissioner for Consumer Affairs.
This assesses whether the person is suitable to operate a brothel and considers compliance with occupational health and safety laws and criminal history.
Individuals, whether working at premises by themselves as solo workers or with another worker, are not required to obtain a licence and be on the private register of licensees.
Advertisement of sex work premises is also illegal, with a fine of $3,160 applicable.
GOLD COAST LEGAL BROTHELS | ARE BROTHELS ALLOWED TO OPERATE IN QUEENSLAND?
Brothels are legal in Queensland, provided that they apply for and gain a licence from the local government authority.
As per the Prostitution Act 1999 (QLD), the licences impose various conditions and restrictions on how sexual services are provided.
Licences can impose restrictions on the number of sex workers permitted and the number of rooms used to provide prostitution, among other conditions.
In gaining a licence, the authority will assess a persons criminal history, including with respect to any associates, character, reputation, financial background, and plan for operating the proposed brothel.
If brothels aren't licenced, they are considered ‘prohibited brothels' and continuing to operate such premises is an offence.
Police officers or an authorised officer from a local government authority may apply to the court for a declaration that a particular premises is a prohibited brothel.
If granted, the declaration is circulated in the local newspaper, and posted upon the entrance of the premises.
The owner and occupier of the premises is also notified.
If they continued to operate, despite the declaration, a maximum penalty of a $27,570 fine or 3 years imprisonment is applicable, as per section 70.
Penalties also apply under the Chapter 22A of the Criminal Code Act 1899 (QLD), where the provision of sex work is deemed ‘unlawful', a maximum of 7 years imprisonment applies for knowingly carrying on the business of providing such services, pursuant to section 229HB.
If the person engaged in prostitution is a child or a person with a mental impairment, the person carrying on the business faces a maximum penalty of 14 years imprisonment.
Massage Parlour Gold Coast, Brisbane, Sunshine Coast
Similar to brothels, massage parlours that provide sexual services in Queensland are required to obtain and maintain a licence. It is illegal to run a massage parlour without a licence. Licences impose strict conditions that must be complied with in order to maintain a licence from the local Government authority.
The licence can limit to the number of rooms and sex workers in the business premises.
Running a massage parlour providing sexual services without a licence attracts penalties of up to 3 years imprisonment and/or $27,570 fine.
ARE BROTHELS ALLOWED TO OPERATE IN THE AUSTRALIAN CAPITAL TERRITORY?
Brothels are legal in the ACT, provided that they register their businesses that they register their businesses with ‘Access Canberra', as outlined in the Sex Work Act 1992 (ACT).
Sole operator sex workers aren't required to register; however, they are prevented from sharing premises with other sex workers.
Owners and operators of brothels are required to provide yearly notice to the regulator with details regarding the business.
If they fail to do so, a maximum penalty of a $16,000 fine and/or 1 year imprisonment is also applicable, as per section 13.
Operating a brothel, other than in a prescribed location as enabled by registration, is punishable by a maximum penalty of $1,600 and/or 1 year imprisonment, as per section 18.
ARE BROTHELS ALLOWED TO OPERATE IN TASMANIA?
Whilst other forms of sex work in Tasmania have been decriminalised, brothels remain illegal.
Brothels are considered ‘commercial sexual services' under the Act, with operating one punishable by a $138,400 fine and/or 8 years imprisonment, as per section 4.
Receiving services from a brothel carries a maximum penalty of a $17,300 fine and/or 1 year imprisonment.
ARE BROTHELS ALLOWED TO OPERATE IN SOUTH AUSTRALIA?
In South Australia, brothels are illegal, as per the Summary Offences Act 1953 (SA).
It is an offence to assist in, or keep, or manage a brothel, as well as receive money paid in a brothel in respect of sex work, pursuant to section 28.
A maximum penalty of a $1,250 fine and/or 3 months imprisonment is applicable for a first offence, whereas a fine of $2,500 and/or 6 months imprisonment is applicable to a subsequent offence.
Permitting a premise to be utilised as a brothel is punishable by the same maximum penalties, pursuant to section 29.
An offence using the outdated word ‘common bawdy house' to refer to a brothel, is found within section 270 of the Criminal Law Consolidation Act.
It imposes a maximum penalty of 2 years imprisonment for keeping a brothel.
Massage Parlour Adelaide, South Australia
Massage parlours that provide sexual services are illegal in South Australia attracting the same criminal penalties as brothels of up to 3 months imprisonment for first offenders, and 6 months imprisonment for second or more offenders.
ARE BROTHELS ALLOWED TO OPERATE IN WESTERN AUSTRALIA?
In Western Australia, brothels are illegal, as per the Western Australian Criminal Code.
As outlined in section 190, a person who assists in, manages, or owns a brothel, faces maximum penalties of up to 3 years imprisonment.
However, if dealt with summarily, the maximum penalty applicable is 12 months imprisonment and a fine of $12, 000.
This offence is also applicable to lessor or landlords of premises, who collect rent, with the knowledge that the premises is being used for prostitution.
Knowingly living wholly or partly on earnings of a sex worker, is also an offence, as per section190(3).
The same maximum penalty is applicable.