The Movement to Decriminalize Sex Work Is Having a Moment

On March 17, 2022, in a historic decision, Belgium became the first country in Europe and the second country in the entire world to decriminalize sex work. This decision came on the back of years of activism by sex workers’ rights groups, who have long been arguing that decriminalization is the only way to guarantee safe working conditions and access to important public services. 

If you’re new to the world of sex workers’ rights activism, some of the language can be confusing. Why is decriminalization preferred over legalization? How does either model protect people from bad actors like pimps and traffickers? What can folks who don’t work in the sex industry do to help advocate for safer working conditions? We’d like to answer some of these common questions and more, with an eye towards uplifting sex workers as the ultimate authority on the answers. 

To legalize sex work is to remove criminal penalties for buying and selling sex, so long as the people participating do so within a highly regulated parameters. 

To decriminalize sex work is to remove all criminal penalties for the buying and selling of sex, thus treating it like any other form of labor.

The distinction between legalization and decriminalization may not feel immediately intuitive, especially because these processes mean something functionally opposite when talking about drug legislation. Let’s consider a few examples of these various legal models to better understand how they work. 

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You’ve probably heard of the red light district in Amsterdam. Even if you’re not visiting the city for the purpose of purchasing sex, tourists regularly wander the streets of the red light district for a glimpse at the sex work economy, which is often less visible in many other countries. These well-known “window brothels” popped up after the Netherlands legalized prostitution in 2000. 

Legalization means that brothels and sex workers must obtain licenses to operate and must follow specific guidelines about where and how they can sell services. You can think of legalization of sex work in the Netherlands as being similar to how the sale of alcohol is regulated in the United States. Bars and restaurants must apply for specific licenses from special governing bodies in order to sell alcohol. They must operate within specific parameters regarding how and when they can sell someone a drink; for example, some states prohibit the sale of alcohol on Sunday or ban happy hours and other drink specials. The requirements are different and more stringent for selling alcohol than they are for serving any other beverage, which is why your neighbors can open up a lemonade stand on the lawn but not a margarita stand — unless they’re looking for a run-in with the police.

Decriminalization in New Zealand

Until March of 2022, New Zealand was the only country to completely decriminalize sex work. This means that there are no criminal penalties for buying or selling sex. Sex workers in New Zealand can decide upon their own working conditions, whether that means working with others in a brothel or shared flat, doing street-based sex work or working from their own homes. It also means that all sex workers are entitled to the same labor rights and services as other workers, such as healthcare and workplace protections. Additionally, any sex worker who experiences harassment or violence on the job can report these experiences to the police without fear of retaliation. 

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The Nordic Model 

Popularized in Sweden, the Nordic model calls for a decriminalization of the selling of sex while upholding criminal penalties for the purchasing of sex. It seeks to quash the demand for sex work without criminalizing or stigmatizing workers within the industry. Proponents of the Nordic Model see all sex work as exploitative and harmful and seek to facilitate a supportive exit out of the industry for anyone involved in the selling of sex. 

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What Sex Workers Have to Say

Sex workers’ rights activists have long pushed for full decriminalization as the model that best supports the safety of people working within the industry and best facilitates supporting workers who wish to transition out of the industry. People working in the sex industry also contend that full decriminalization is the best way to help victims of sex trafficking who are being exploited or forced to work in unsafe conditions. 

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Workers point out that, under a legalization model, only a select group of sex workers have access to rights and protections. People who sell sex outside of the strict government regulations still face stiff penalties for selling sex, are unable to apply for things such as mortgage loans or government healthcare, and do not feel safe to turn to police in instances of violence or workplace abuse, whether that’s from employers or clients. Additionally, it’s important to note that it is precisely the workers who are most vulnerable — whether out of economic need, immigration status or other factors — who will have the hardest time overcoming the bureaucratic hurdles to become licensed. 

One sex worker in England, where sex work is legal but working in a brothel is criminalized, explained these impacts to the UK’s English Collective of Prostitutes, a sex workers’ advocacy group: 

 “I was fed up of being a cleaner, bar maid and shop assistant, often all on the same day. Prostitution is certainly not the worst job I have ever had. I have worked on the fish market and as a cleaner where I was working for people who didn’t care if we were cold or tired or how we were spoken to. I would like to share a flat with another woman but we know that we risk being prosecuted. Working on your own is so much more dangerous plus it is harder to afford the bills so you have to see punters who you’d normally cross the road to avoid.” 

As mentioned above, the Nordic Model, while appearing more supportive on the surface, also creates significant barriers to sex workers’ safety. This model makes clients wary of offering identifying information that could be used for safety screenings and of spending time in public spaces negotiating services for fear of arrest. Sex workers can’t report abusive clients to the police without fearing significant loss of income, as police will set up surveillance at a workplace to arrest clients or will prosecute landlords for renting to sex workers.  

In “Twenty Years of Failing Sex Workers“ — a report created by sex workers who had worked in Sweden since the implementation of the Nordic Model — the authors also detail the many ways in which the Nordic Model enables police to abuse and harass sex workers themselves:   

“The hacking of my computer charge was dropped after three and a half months since I refused to give them my clients. I told them that – If I give you my clients, that will get out and I will never again be able to do anything, I will be destroyed, my job, my reputation and everything. They were like – Well if you don’t help us, we won’t do anything for you. And then they totally harassed me, they had me under surveillance to try to get to clients…So I had to terminate my first hand contract and I’m still moving around because I’m scared.”

What About Trafficking? 

The big question that gets asked anytime there’s talk of decriminalizing the sex work industry is “What about trafficking?” This is a question with an incredibly nuanced answer, but there are a few simple and helpful things to understand. First, it’s important to note that no model of decriminalization removes criminal penalties for facilitating minors into sex work or forcing adults into sex work. The consensual exchange of sex for money between adults is an entirely different issue than human trafficking and the sexual exploitation of children. Trafficking remains criminal under every legal mode of sex work. 

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The anti-trafficking movement has long relied on images of (young, attractive, white) women in chains to garner sympathy while obscuring the realities of the trafficking industry. Popular media, such as the Liam Neeson film Taken (2008), perpetuate and reinforce myths about the mechanisms of sex trafficking, namely that women are snatched off of the streets and then sold into slavery. 

In their book Revolting Prostitutes, Molly Smith and Juno Mac, both sex workers and activists themselves, take a close look at the material conditions that result in people being trafficked. If you don’t have time to read the book, we highly recommend this article by the same authors. Smith and Mac cite ample research, concluding that sex trafficking happens predominantly when people seek help crossing borders to pursue work in other countries. 

Smugglers charge exorbitant fees, which often aren’t paid up front, to help people cross borders — instead, people promise to repay their debt after arriving in a new country. The UK’s anti-slavery commission noted that kidnapping people to take them across the a border for free was an unlikely choice for a smuggler to make when people are willing to pay up to £30,000 for the service. Once in a foreign country, workers are incredibly vulnerable to exploitation. Undocumented, often lacking local language skills, and having taken out large debts to their smugglers, these workers are likely to find themselves trapped in unsafe working conditions, which they’re unable to report without fear of deportation. 

Put more plainly, people aren’t disappeared off the street and trafficked into the sex industry. Instead, they make desperate choices under economic distress, and then find themselves lacking any legal protections or means of advocating for safety and workplace protections. Smith and Mac offer clear solutions to these problems: “Acknowledging that people who end up in exploitative situations wanted to migrate is not to blame them. It is to say that the solution to their exploitative situation is to enable them to migrate legally and with rights.”

Opening borders eliminates the need for human smugglers and the fear of deportation that prevents many trafficked sex workers from reporting abuses to police. Decriminalizing sex work makes it possible for any worker to report abuses from clients or employers without fear of arrest.

Criminalized economies create the conditions for criminal activity. Greater policing of the sex industry means that people who are most scared of the police are pushed underground into the least safe conditions. Conversely, the expansion of sex workers’ rights and workplace protections makes the industry safer for sex workers and less appealing to human traffickers. 

How You Can Support the Movement 

Much of the stigma that negatively affects sex workers and sways public opinion is rooted in myth. You can educate yourself on the myths and realities of the sex industry, for starters — this TED Talk by Juno Mac is short, sweet and excellent. Seek out educational materials created by sex workers with lived experiences, such as the collaborative blog Tits and Sass, rather than police or social workers. This collection of stories, compiled by The Sex Worker’s Opera, is also a great resource for first-person accounts.

You can also connect with a local sex workers’ rights movement group. The Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) has chapters across the United States. Your local chapter is likely to have up-to-date information about legislative policies to support or protest. The SWOP Behind Bars chapter specifically supports incarcerated sex workers and facilitates a penpal program so people on the outside can write letters to people currently incarcerated. Not only do these letters offer support and compassion, but we know that inmates who receive letters from the outside are less likely to experience harassment from prison guards.

Support local mutual aid and harm reduction initiatives, like clean needle exchanges and condom distribution efforts. Whose Corner Is It Anyway is a Massachusetts-based mutual aid/harm reduction organization run by sex workers for sex workers who have participated in street-based sex work and used injectable drugs. The organizer writes: “The ultimate focus of the project is on the needs and goals of  low-income, street-based, and/or survival sex workers who use the so-called “hard drugs”–stimulants and opioids–and/or experience housing insecurity. These workers take the brunt of the criminalization and stigma of sex work, so they deserve to be the ones calling the shots on how to fight back.” 

If trafficking is the issue you feel most passionate about, check and see if the anti-trafficking organization you’re supporting works in partnership with local sex workers’ rights orgs. Finally, make sure the services you’re supporting aren’t collaborating with police to facilitate arrests. In a country where sex work is criminalized, anything that supports sex workers in meeting their needs without needing to risk arrest helps keep people safe.

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