Here’s Why We Should Decriminalize Full-Service Sex Work

Sex workers are one of the most mistreated people in society. Everyone wants to pretend they don’t exist, and would never believe that they know someone who is a part of that industry.

There’s only one way to make sex workers safer and decrease the stigma against the work they do. We need to decriminalize the industry and open things up to the light. 

What is sex work, exactly?

Technically, sex work is just what it sounds like: any work for money that involves sex. This means that porn stars, strippers, and cam girls are all sex workers.

However, the sex work we’ll be talking about is called full-service sex work. This is the exchange of money for sex, sometimes called prostitution. (This is no longer the politically correct term, though, and neither is prostitute. Sex worker and sex work are better. We’ll use it a few times throughout this article for clarity’s sake.)

Full-service sex work is consensual. If someone is trafficked or coerced into having sex with clients, that’s not sex work. It’s rape or human trafficking. Also, if a customer doesn’t pay or crosses a sex worker’s boundaries (like not using a condom), it’s no longer sex work. It’s rape.

There’s nothing inherently bad about sex work. It’s taboo, but people should be allowed to do whatever they want to do with their own bodies. However, some people are opposed to it on moral grounds.

Different models of sex work

In most countries throughout the world, sex work is illegal. However, there are other ways that governments can approach sex work that almost always lead to safer conditions for sex workers. Here are some arrangements that have been conceived or tried for sex work.

Prohibitionism

This means that all parts of full-service sex work are criminialized. Both sex workers and clients can be arrested, fined, or even put in jail for particpating in it. This is the most widely practiced legal strategy in the world. A main contributing factor for this is religious or moral beliefs.

Abolitionism

In an abolitionist approach to sex work, full-service sex work is legal. However, in this model, solicitation is usually illegal, aka working on the street. Brothels and third party involvement like pimps or madams aren’t allowed either. The sex work industry is also not regulated in regards to things like STI testing.

This model aims to eliminate prostitution by letting it slowly die out. While it would be legalized, it would not be promoted. (We don’t really see full-service sex work dying out, especially if it’s legal, but whatevs.)

Neo-abolitionism

Neo-abolitionism is one of the most popular sex work models outside of complete criminilization. It’s sometimes called the Swedish or Nordic model, and has been passed in Sweden, Norway, and France.

The strategy is based on these four pillars:

  • Criminalizing the buyers
  • Decriminalizing the sex workers
  • Helping sex workers get out of the trade
  • Providing awareness and education campaigns to the public

Although the Nordic model legalizes sex work, its objective is to decrease sex work as much as possible by deterring clients (mainly men) from using these services. 

While generally a step in the right direction, the Swedish model causes some of the problems it tries to solve. Since clients can still be arrested or fined, sex workers feel they need to operate in areas that receive less policing. This can lead to safety risks.

Decriminalization

Decriminalization does exactly what it sounds like it does: stop making full-service sex work a crime. This is true for both buyers and sellers.

When sex work is decriminailzed, workers are able to benefit from all of the workers regulations that everyone else does. If they work for a brothel, it can provide them health care. If they are injured on the job, they could be eligible for workers’ compensation, for example.

For many sex workers and advocates for the cause, decriminalization is the ideal model. It allows sex workers to operate outside the shadows and live safely.

Legalization

Legalization and decriminalization may seem like they’re the same, but they’re actually not. 

Think of it this way. When marijuana is decriminalized, that just means that cops can’t arrest people who are smoking it. When it’s legalized, shops can begin to sell it, there are laws about the legal age for people to smoke it, and there’s just lots of red tape overall.

For sex work, these regulations can be difficult to rise to. For example, workers might need to get an STI test every week, or only work in brothels, or avoid certain streets. 

Regulations may seem reasonable. In some cases, they probably are. However, all this does is create an underground sex work culture that doesn’t adhere to these standards. This means these people can still be arrested and fined. Often, the people who can’t keep to these standards are sex workers who are marginalized or desperate for money.

Most people will agree that legalization is better than nothing, but think that decriminalization is the best way to help sex workers.

How do things work where sex work isn’t illegal?

Sex work is legal in a few places in the world. Here’s a brief rundown of what it looks like when places make efforts to help sex workers.

France

France uses the abolitionist model. Until 2016, it was legal for a sex worker and client to exchange money for sex. In 2016, a law was passed that only partially decriminalized sex work. Sex workers were allowed to operate, but if clients were caught buying sex, they received a fine of around 1,500 euros. This was combined with an increased police presence.

What happened was exactly the fear: sex workers became less safe because they had to start working in less secure locations to protect their clients. 42% of sex workers say they’ve experienced more violence since the partial decriminalization law was passed.

Another interesting part of France’s model is their attempt to compensate sex workers who wanted to get out of the industry. They offered a monthly cash payment of 330 euros to sex workers who signed up for the program so they could get back on their feet outside the sex industry. 

By 2018, only 55 workers had signed up for the program, far below projections. This is likely because the incentive is not enough to live on, or perhaps because these workers didn’t actually want to leave the industry.

Nevada, USA

Did you know that sex work is actually legal in a small part of the United States?

Prostitution was legalized in counties with a population under 400,000 all the way back in 1971. Because of the population cap, sex work is only legal in 10 counties and five cities. (Hint: Las Vegas doesn’t qualify.) There are 21 brothels in Nevada.

In Nevada, full-service sex work is only legal in licensed brothels. That means that there are people (read: men) who are determining whether people (read: women) can make income in this manner. Only allowing brothels means that there’s a lot of sex work that takes place illegally, either because someone doesn’t want to deal with a brothel’s regulations or because they wouldn’t be welcome because they’re marginalized (person of color, trans, fat, etc). 

There are other rules, too. Condoms must be used during every sexual encounter. Sex workers must get tested for STIs either weekly or monthly, depending on the county. 

The brothels can have some pretty fucked up rules, too. A columnist toured a brothel, and when a new client would come in, a bell rang. All of the girls had to hurry down and present themselves so he could pick his favorite. It’s a weird atmosphere, for sure.

Plus, some brothel owners prohibit their employees from leaving the brothel for extended periods of time. Some sex workers are forced to leave the county where they work when they’re not working. Sometimes, the children of a sex worker can’t live in the same area as her brothel. Some workers can’t have cars at the brothel at all, which is wild.

So maybe Nevada isn’t the perfect example of a healthy sex work system, either. Which brings us to…

New Zealand

New Zealand has completely decriminalized sex work, including running a brothel, soliciting on the streets, and living off someone else’s sex work. At the same time, they use only minor regulation in the industry.

The country has been using this model since 2003 and, surprise, their country hasn’t turned into a degenerate wasteland. When the law was reevaluated in 2008, they actually found little change to the sex work industry overall. The number of workers was approximately the same as it was in 2003. However, women were more willing to come forward to police officers when they experienced violence.

New Zealand is probably the most liberal country in the world regarding its sex work policies. It’s worth looking to them when considering decriminalization in any other country.

Why are some people opposed to decriminalization?

There are people on all parts of the political spectrum who oppose the decriminalization of sex work. Some feminists and conservatives alike don’t like the idea, admittedly for different reasons.

Let’s start with the easy one. Conservatives aren’t in favor of sex work because they think it’s indecent and a sin. Their objections are mostly morality-based. They have a right to their opinion, but it’s not very surprising, is it?

Another reason many people are opposed to sex work is that they assume the vast majority of people who do sex work are being forced to or coerced to in some way. Often, people lose their way on what is and isn’t human trafficking. 

Not all sex workers are being trafficked. The vast majority aren’t. Most sex workers you talk to will say that they got into the industry by choice, and many even say they like their jobs. Some people can’t wrap their heads around that, but it’s the truth. Even if it’s just a paycheck to them, how is it so different from exchanging your time for bagging groceries?

Of course, there is human trafficking that occurs, where people (predominantly women and children) are kidnapped and forced to have sex so their kidnapper can make money. This is obviously repugnant.

Unfortunately, it is true that human trafficking has increased in countries that legalized prostitution. They found that the expansion of the market outweighs the idea that legal workers would be favored over illegal ones. Countries that allow legal sex work experience more people crossing the border to participate, often individuals who are being trafficked. 

Of course trafficking is horrible and needs to be stopped. Perhaps there are ways to legalize sex work and decrease trafficking. If there are regulations, it might be more difficult to jump through the government hoops if you’re trafficking something.

It’s also important to remember, though, that sex workers are injured, raped, and killed every day. We need to make decisions that help them as well as trafficking victims.

7 reasons to decriminalize

1. Reduce HIV and other STI transmission

Unfortunately, sex workers cannot always have completely safe sex with their customers. In several U.S. cities, possession of condoms was used as evidence of prostitution. For fear of arrest, these sex workers would sometimes have unprotected sex with clients because they didn’t want to carry around condoms.

Sometimes, clients offer to pay more for sex without a condom. If a sex worker is desperate, they might consent. Also, if a sex worker requires a client to use a condom, they might get upset and sexually assault them while not wearing a condom anyway. 

Sex workers are 13 times more at risk of contracting HIV than the general population. The stigma against sex workers makes it difficult for them to access testing, health care, and prevention services. 

If sex workers feel safe accessing health care, they might be more likely to get tested and ask for help if they notice symptoms. Condom requirements like the ones in Nevada might help sex workers, too. In a perfect world, all sex work would be safe under decriminalization.

2. Make sex workers feel safe to report crimes

In countries where sex work is illegal, sex workers don’t have very good relationships with the police. They stay away from them, and don’t feel like they can report crimes that happen to them for fear of being laughed at or even jailed for prostitution.

When sex work is legalized, workers feel safer to come forward about violence that happens to them. This gets more rapists off the street. Plus, sex workers might have access to information about trafficking or violence against other workers. If they feel safe, criminals of all types can be held accountable.

3. Get rid of challenges caused by having a criminal record

As we know, doing sex work makes you much more like to be arrested than the average person. This can have a huge impact on your life for a long time.

Every year in the U.S., between 70,000 and 80,000 people are arrested for prostitution. 70% of those arrested are female sex workers and madams, 20% are male prostitutes and pimps, and only 10% are clients. ‘

Having a criminal record is a huge barrier to many parts of society. It can make it difficult to find a place to live. It can restrict the careers you can have, like working with kids, getting into the medical profession, or becoming a teacher. You might not be able to volunteer or get a government job. Plus, if any employer does a criminal background check, they might not hire you based on the results. (They’re not supposed to do this, but let’s be real, they do.)

If sex work were decriminalized, this problem would be eliminated altogether, as long as sex workers obeyed any rules or restrictions.

4. Reduce police misconduct and brutality

Sex workers don’t just have a negative relationship with police because they can arrest them for prostitution. They also get a lot of abuse from members of the police force.

When sex work is criminalized, police violence and coercion against sex workers is enabled and more common. Police can react violently to sex workers, either verbally, physically, or sexually. There’s documentation of cops taking bribes from people the sex workers called the cops on and police taking condoms away. Cops might also ask sex workers for sexual favors in exchange for not arresting them.

When sex work is legalized, workers have a better relationship with the police. Because cops don’t see them as subhuman, there’s less violence. Decriminalizing sex work is one stop forward in stopping police brutality in all its forms. Plus, if sex workers do experience harrassment or violence from cops, there’s a chance they could report it and be met with a less negative reaction.

5. Reduce racial and gender inequality

While all sex workers are subject to marginalization, there are some demographics that encounter more violence and experience more stigmatized treatment.

People of color are much more likely to be arrested for offenses involving sex work. In 2015, nearly 40% of adults arrested for prostitution in the United States were black, even though black Americans only make up 12% of the U.S. population.

Trans women are more likely to be arrested on sex work charges, even when they’re not doing sex work. In New York, a loitering law that was passed that was meant to decrease prostitution resulted in many trans women getting arrested for nothing more than walking down the street.

Black trans women often need to turn to sex work because they have nowhere else to go. A study in DC saw that 40% of trans respondents said they’d been denied a job because of their gender, and 55% of black trans respondents were unemployed. 

Legalizing sex work would reduce some of the burden on these marginalized people. If sex work became a legit job, they could receive benefits and work in safe conditions. Either way, sex works brings black, brown, and trans people out into the light.

6. Bring down sexual violence

The statistics of violent crime against sex workers are crazy high. Globally, sex workers have a 45 to 75% chance of experiencing sexual violence at some point during their careers

In 2004, the homicide rate for female sex workers in the United States was 204 per 100,000, making it the riskiest profession in regards to murder in the country. 

A study of 1,000 sex workers in Cambodia who were both cisgender and transgender found that 93% of them had been a victim of rape in the past year. In addition, about 75% had been gang raped by clients and about a third were gang raped by police.

All of this is so fucked up, and everyone just sort of accepts it as the way of things.

Decriminalizing sex work would reduce this violence. Men would feel less empowered to hurt sex workers this way if they didn’t know they could get away with it, and hopefully the police would be able to help (and stop being awful). 

Not legalizing sex work is absolutely a safety issue, and it’s one that we need to do something about.

7. Let people control their bodies

Prohibiting sex work attempts to tell people, and particularly women, what they’re allowed to do with their own bodies. A lot of this is based on moral or puritanical grounds. 

Everyone should have a right to privacy and the freedom to have sex how they please without any interference from the government. Especially in a time when reproductive rights are coming into question, bodily autonomy is even more important than ever. 

As long as sex acts happen between two consenting adults, their bodies, their choice.

Progress towards decriminalization

Besides countries that already decriminalize and legalize sex work, it seems like the U.S. is making the most progress. There are loud pro-sex work protestors in the country, so much so that a small movement has been formed.

First, the bad news. The United States passed SESTA-FOSTA two years ago, which led to sex workers not being able to market their services online, and scrubbing adult content from much of the internet. A study created by sex workers has found that 72.5% of respondents who rely on sex work for their income say they have experienced “increased economic instability” after the law passed. 33.8% reported an uptick in violent client experiences, probably due to finding clients on the street rather than safer places like certain websites.

This law has really screwed over sex workers, and it’s unlikely it will be fixed. Unfortunately, SESTA-FOSTA was passed as an anti-human trafficking law. If you’re a lawmaker, you really don’t look good if you don’t sign a law that says its opposed to human trafficking. Can you imagine the campaign ads? 

But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t keep fighting. Currently, several U.S. states are considering legislation that would decriminalize prostitution. This seems like an issue that would need to be fought on the state level first, much like legalized marijuana. 

Bills have been introduced in Maine, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., and New York. The bill didn’t move forward in D.C. after a 14-hour hearing, but the other ones are still pending. One of the best things about the New York bill is that it would also release sex workers from prison and remove prostitution charges from their criminal records. Plus, New York has a bill pending that would remove the “walking while trans” law.

In addition, former presidential candidate Kamala Harris said in 2019 that she supported decriminalizing sex work. That’s a big deal. Not even more liberal candidates like Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren have done that.

There are many people out there who are fighting for sex workers rights. If you’re someone who strips, or sells used panties, or is a cam girl, or even if you don’t do any sex work at all, have solidarity for your full-service sex siblings. They deserve to be safe.