Prostitution was encouraged by conditions in colonial Tasmania. From the 1820s, the arrival of large numbers of female convicts, a gender ratio of seven adult men to every woman and hence a ready market of single men, and the assignment system, which meant women convicts lived reasonably openly in the community but were unpaid, led many women to turn to prostitution as one of the few ways they could earn money. Though brothels almost certainly existed earlier, evidence dates from 1827, and in 1831 organised prostitution was uncovered at the Launceston hospital, run by the assistant surgeon and the overseer. An inquiry into female convict discipline in 1841 showed that many female convicts turned to casual prostitution: police knew of a mistress and her convict servant in a brothel together, and of girls under twelve who worked as prostitutes.
Prostitution by itself was never illegal, but running a brothel was, and prostitutes could be, and often were, arrested on such charges as vagrancy. The police tried less to stop prostitution than remove it from public view, and were often accused of colluding with brothel owners. In 1860 police stated there were a hundred prostitutes in twenty brothels in Hobart; the Hobart City Mission reported that prostitution was carried on to a reckless extent, caused chiefly by drink. An anonymous pamphleteer claimed in 1858 there were 350 prostitutes, one in sixteen of Hobart's female population. He was one of the first to show sympathy for prostitutes, saying prostitution was due to poor education, little employment for women, ignorance and poverty. Such sympathy was slow to grow in the general community, and attempts to rescue prostitutes met with little support and less success.
Prostitution, or its visibility, declined from the 1880s. Complaints by the Royal Navy forced the Contagious Diseases Act (1879), by which police could examine prostitutes for venereal disease, and confine them in hospitals in Hobart and Launceston until cured. This did not necessarily prevent prostitution, but police claimed it was decreasing, and from the 1880s rescue work, often by churches, met with more success. Certainly prostitution became less visible in Tasmania's generally well-ordered communities. It continued, largely hidden, during the twentieth century, gaining publicity on such occasions as visiting fleets bringing influxes of prostitutes, some from the mainland. Venereal disease multiplied during the First World War, and in 1917 treatment was made equal for both sexes.
In 1999 there were twenty brothels with up to fifteen prostitutes in each in Hobart, Launceston, Burnie and Devonport, and a further hundred prostitutes working independently from suburban homes and hotel rooms, a total of approximately three hundred prostitutes. A survey of sex workers in 1998 showed most took up the work for financial motives. Advantages were listed by various responders as good money, higher self-esteem, flexible hours and empowerment; disadvantages were health worries, harassment, violence, drugs, long hours, lack of self-respect, stigma, and low pay with no benefits. Efforts from the 1990s to decriminalise prostitution met with no success by 2006.
Further reading: K Daniels (ed), So much hard work, Sydney, 1984; A Alexander, 'The public role of women in Tasmania, 1803–1914', PhD thesis, UT, 1989; G Curran et al, A study into the sex industry in Tasmania, Devonport, 1998.