The Law and Sexworker Health (LASH) Project

Research Program
Date Commenced:
Project Status
Expected Date of Completion:
Analyses ongoing
Project Supporters

NHMRC Project grant, NSW Health Department, WA Health Department

Currently recruiting
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About the Project


It has long been suspected that different legal climates have different health and welfare outcomes for sex workers. As its various jurisdictions have different prostitution laws, Australia is an ideal country to study the effects of those laws.


We aim to determine if prostitution laws affect the health and welfare of sex workers.

Design & Method

Three capital cities were chosen for their different legal climates: Melbourne, where sex work is only decriminalised in licensed brothels (licensing), otherwise it remains illegal; Perth, where sex work remains criminalised; and Sydney, where most form of adult sex work are decriminalised, without licensing.

Through legal research we determined the laws and the level of policing of those laws in Victoria, WA, and NSW. We also mapped the female brothel-based sex industry in each city. Brothels were chosen at random, with a survey target of 200 sex workers in each city. Each brothel was repeated approached until every sex worker consented to participate or refused.  Each participating sex worker completed a questionnaire that was available in 4 languages.  Those women were then offered testing for chlamydia, gonorrhoea, Mycoplasma genitalium infection, and trichomoniasis. Comparisons were made between cities.


Data collection was completed at the end of 2007 and analyses and reporting of the findings are still underway.


This study provides the strongest evidence to date on the effects of prostitution laws.  Such laws are constantly under review around Australia and internationally.  Our main finding are that:

  • The level of policing is more important than the actual laws. Interestingly, policing activity did not seem to correlate with the law very closely.
  • The surveyed women in each city had very low rates of infection with STIs, consistent with their reports of high rates of condom use at work.
  • Most women enjoyed relatively low psychological distress scores
  • Licensing and criminal status hindered health promotion programs
  • The compulsory STI screening associated with licensing in Victoria proved to not be cost-effective. As a result, the Victoria Parliament altered its legislation.

Several peer-reviewed papers have been published and more are in the pipeline. The research has attracted invitations to present at national and international conferences. WA and NSW Health Departments have commissioned state-specific reports on their sex industries. The Victorian Government commissioned further research into its unlicensed sector.

Project Members
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Professor and Program Head
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Professor and Program Head
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Associate Professor
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Associate Professor and Program Head
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Project Attachment
Other Investigators

Project members: Christine Harcourt, Sandra Egger, Christopher Fairley

Other investigators: Marcus Chen, Sepehr Tabrizi, Lewis Marshall

Project Collaborators: External

Faculty of Law, UNSW

Sydney Sexual Health Centre

Melbourne Sexual Health Centre

Fremantle Sexual Health Centre

Royal Women’s Hospital, Melbourne

School of Population Health, University of Melbourne

Sexual Workers Outreach Project, NSW

RhED, Victoria

Magenta, WA

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