Decriminalizing sex work: the pros and cons

Following Amnesty International’s decision to decriminalize all aspects of sex work and prostitution in order to help protect the human rights of sex workers, there have been countless rows in the media about the pros and cons of implementing such a policy.

Here, Anna Hiller summarizes and discusses the arguments for and against a policy that decriminalizes sex work. She argues that whilst decriminalization of sex work is an important step towards strengthening the rights of sex workers, the problems of increased human trafficking and potentially “benefiting the pimps” should not be overlooked.

Pro: Prostitution is a job just like any other and sex workers should be given access to basic rights

Kay Thi Win, coordinator for the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers argues that decriminalizing sex work is a crucial step in strengthening sex workers’ rights and improving their living conditions. Decriminalizing sex work involves giving sex workers the rights to associated and organize, to be protected by the law, to be free from violence and discrimination; the rights to privacy, health, movement and migration, and above all the right to work and to freely choose the nature of that work.

If sex work is made decriminalized, all laws which prevent sex workers from working safely are removed. Sex workers will be able to freely report crimes to the police without having to state that they or their clients have been committing a criminal offense. Zones where sex workers practice can be regulated more efficiently and medical testing facilities can be established.

Win’s arguments are supported by networks of sex workers and those working with sex workers all around the world. There is evidence collected by academics and international organizations such as the World Health Organization, Human Rights Watch and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women that suggest that criminalizing any aspect of sex work makes sex workers more vulnerable to sexual and other forms of violence, forced rehabilitation, arrest, deportation and contracting HIV.

Luca Stevenson from the International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe further states that criminalization of sex work reinforces both the social stigma and the material conditions that put individuals at risk.

The social stigma of sex work and the material conditions that make individuals take up such work is even more evident in developing countries: While decriminalizing sex work will not eliminate poverty, it may at least improve sex workers’ living condition by changing moral and religious frameworks. Feminists of the global south have long argued that the right to sell your body is a basic human right that is not tolerated by society in most of the developing world. Decriminalizing sex work will make marginalized groups and there problems visible that otherwise would only operate in clandestine spaces.

In the developed world, sex work has been legalized in Germany, New Zealand and the Netherlands. In Britain, it is illegal to approach someone in a public place to ask for their services as a prostitute or to offer sexual services. Renting or allowing the use of a property as a brothel is forbidden, however, paying for sex is allowed if the person is over 18 and hasn’t been forced into prostitution, apart from in Northern Ireland.

Contra: Pimps will be the only ones to benefit from decriminalizing prostitution

Apart from those condemning prostitution for religious and moral reasons, supporters of the counter position such as the coalition against trafficking in women argue that prostitution laws do not strengthen the rights of sex workers, but the rights of pimps making it easier to take advantage of them and their work. This is backed by the results of one academic study by University of Heidelberg which looks at the link between prostitution laws and human trafficking rates. The study suggests that legalization fuelled human trafficking to meet the demand of an expanded market. Many individuals from low-income backgrounds will voluntarily join brothels but end up caught in a dangerous web they cannot easily escape. Another poll conducted by Ver.di suggests that legalization reduces the likelihood of raids in brothels, so that brothel owners can force their employees to more risky practices.

Due to dependence of prostitutes on pimps and brothel owners, it is difficult to prove any case of exploitative procurement. Since legalization, there have hardly been prostitutes suing for incomes in court in Germany. It is estimated that less than one percent of them even hold an employment contract.

©duncan c/Creative Commons License

© duncan c/Creative Commons License

Decriminalization of sex work is also supposed to increase sex tourism, not only in developing but also in developed countries. The expanded market decreases individual sex workers’ bargaining power when it comes to working conditions they will be more vulnerable for exploitation. For example, research has shown that since legalization of sex work in Germany, working conditions for sex workers have worsened: more services are offered under riskier conditions and for less money than 10 years ago.

The groups opposing Amnesty’s motion suppose that most prostitutes are victims who sell sex simply to survive and because they have no other option. With regard to the situation in developing countries, it is especially questionable how many sex workers actually choose their profession out of free will and not out of necessity.

Decriminalization the way forward

Decriminalization of sex work is an important step towards strengthening women’s and minority rights in developed and developing countries whilst also helping to remove the social stigma associated with working in this profession.

However, decriminalization has to make sure that the law benefits sex workers and not pimps and exploitation through increased demand potentially fueling human trafficking and undermining individual sex worker’s bargaining power. Policy makers should therefore collaborate with both sex workers and human rights organizations when drafting new laws.

While sometimes being strongly interlinked in practice, when it comes to policy making prostitution and human trafficking should be treated as two different issues. Whilst not making human trafficking legal, decriminalization of sex work may provide incentives for traffickers to increase their supply. On the other hand, decriminalization also strengthens the rights of people who have been trafficked by drawing a clear line between legal sex work and illegal sex work that is subject to prosecution.

As many of the counterarguments against decriminalization of sex work are based on human trafficking, the success or failure of policies that decriminalize sex work may well depend on how the issue of human trafficking is dealt with.


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.

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