Sex work is set to be decriminalised in the Northern Territory
Sex work is set to be decriminalised in the Northern Territory

Sex work to be decriminalised in the NT

SEX work will be decriminalised in the Northern Territory.

A discussion paper to be released Saturday by the Labor Government calling for input into how best to make the change has lifted the lid on our sex industry, detailing how the Territory's confusing and outdated laws have pushed operations underground.

Hamstrung by regulations which put their safety at risk, Territory sex workers instead choose to work out of illegal brothels dotted around the Darwin city centre.

According to the discussion paper, a dozen illegal brothels masquerading as massage parlours operate with the bounds of the CBD.

They might be illegal, but sex workers say these businesses, off Darwin's laneways and arcades, give them the safety and security they can't get if they were to work to the letter of the law.





A discussion paper calling for input into how best to decriminalise sex work in the NT has lifted the lid on our  industry
A discussion paper calling for input into how best to decriminalise sex work in the NT has lifted the lid on our industry




Graffiti nearby gives away the location of some. "Does your wife know??" is scrawled in red paint below the barred window of one business in Edmund St.

Their existence is an open secret in Darwin, but although these illegal brothels operate in plain sight on the fringes of the law, there is little appetite from police or licensing authorities to crack down.

In 2015, Territory police and Australian Border Protection Force officers conducted raids on 19 parlours across Darwin and Palmerston.

No arrests were made for illegal prostitution, but three workers found to be in breach of their visa conditions were deported.

Under current legislation in the Territory, sex work isn't illegal, but brothels are.

The nonsensical laws, which have been in effect since 1993, prevent sex workers from working in pairs or employing drivers or security guards. Solo workers aren't allowed to work from home and can't solicit from the street.

And transactional sex can only take place in a place other than where the deal was made.

That means sex workers employed by legitimate escort agencies have to leave the safety of that business and travel to a hotel room or the client's home, exposing them to unnecessary risk.

The laws also require workers employed by agencies to register with police as sex workers.

Natural hair and eye colour is logged, along with descriptions of any tattoos or other distinguishing features. And once workers are on the register, they're there for life, even decades after leaving the sex industry.

The discussion paper details the transient nature of the Territory's sex industry workforce, with numbers peaking around major events such as the Darwin Cup Carnival and Supercars as FIFO sex workers head north to service the influx of boozed up tourists.

Attorney-General Natasha Fyles is responsible for reforming the laws. She said it was time for Territorians to have a grown-up conversation about how to decriminalise and regulate the industry.

Doing so would bring its workers in from the shadows, she said.

"All Territorians deserve to be safe at work. Being a sex worker is a recognised profession in the NT, but workers have no protection and minimal rights," she said.

Ms Fyles said she had met with sex workers who told her about the dangers presented by the current restrictions on their trade. "By allowing them to have those drivers and security officers, that will stop the isolation they see right now and allow them to operate as professional businesses, safely," she said.

Gala Vanting, president of the Australian sex workers union Scarlet Alliance, said full decriminalisation was the best way forward.

"It is the only model that acknowledges the safety, humanity and sovereignty of sex workers. Sex workers are members of our community who deserve the same access to safety at work as everyone else," she said.

Read the discussion paper online at


NT sex laws as they stand now

BROTHELS are illegal

However escort agencies are legal

The escort agency operator must be licensed with the Director-General of Licensing

Sex must not take place at the escort agency

Sex workers employed by escort agencies must be registered for life with police

They must provide details including their natural hair and eye colour and descriptions of tattoos

There are currently no licensed escort agencies in the NT

Solo workers don't have to be registered but must make arrangements only for themselves

Solo workers can't employ drivers, security guards or receptionists

Advertisements can be made in the "adult entertainment" section of newspaper classifieds but must only show a person's face and head (no other body parts)

Ads must not describe workers by age, race, colour or ethnicity or any physical attributes

Ads cannot be bigger than 3.5cm by 4.5cm