Op-Ed: Women’s equality depends on the decriminalisation of sex work
Updated: Apr 17
All over the world, sex workers are marginalised, stigmatised, and face a persistent risk of human rights abuses. It is this writer’s belief that the most effective way to ensure the health, safety, and equality of these individuals under the law is via the complete decriminalisation of sex work.
Sex workers suffer innumerable human rights abuses, committed by clients, police, and members of the public.
Examples of abuse include harassment, discrimination, exclusion from health services, forced HIV testing, extortion, arbitrary arrest and detention, forced eviction from home, rape, violence, trafficking, and murder. Furthermore, sex workers often receive little to no protection from the law or means for legal redress.
Sex workers’ rights: a feminist issue
Most sex workers are women (both cis and transgender), and most of their clients are men. Sex workers’ rights are thus synonymous with women’s rights, and the urgent question of how best to ensure their equality under the law is ultimately a feminist issue.
This article will not discuss the morality of sex work. Irrespective of whether women should be selling sex, they are. Therefore, governments cannot simply ignore the issue of sex work. Instead, they should proactively implement legal frameworks to protect sex workers’ rights, and in turn, promote the equality of all women.
Common legal approaches to sex work
There is a myriad of legal approaches to sex work across the globe. This shows how complex and contentious the issue is. The most common frameworks include: the criminalisation of sex work, the Nordic Model (under which it is legal to sell sex, but illegal to buy it), legalisation (with laws actively regulating sex work), and decriminalisation (the removal of laws criminalising sex work). Notably, the UK’s legal framework does not fall into these categories. While the purchase of sex is not illegal in the UK, many surrounding practices (such as street soliciting, brothel-keeping, and inciting sex work) are.
Which is the most effective legal approach?
In the following this section, I will assess the effectiveness of each legal framework according to its capacity to promote the equality of sex workers and limit the hardship and abuses they suffer.
Violations of sex workers’ rights cannot be seen in a vacuum; they must be contextualised to be fully understood. One important contextual f
actor is why sex workers enter the profession, despite their awareness of the risks they would face. Although some women undertake sex work entirely of their own volition, many are forced into the industry by poverty. Indeed, many sex workers come from backgrounds of discrimination and inequality, based on factors such as gender, sexuality, ethnicity, race, immigration status, disability, and mental illness. These limit their access to the traditional job market. In order to survive, these women are thus driven to seek alternative means of employment. This has been exacerbated by the cost of living crisis. In the UK, an inflation rate of 11% (as of December 2022) threatens to push the country into a recession. This has caused a sharp recent increase in women selling sex on the streets and online: the number of new profiles on sites such as Adultwork.com tripled from 2019 to 2022.
Evidently, the unrelenting presence of discrimination and emergent economic burdens have pressured more and more women into ‘choosing’ sex work. This makes it more important than ever to review the laws governing the sex work industry. With this in mind, I now assess the effectiveness of each legal framework: how well does each framework protect these specific women who have entered the sex work industry?
A. Criminalisation of sex work
‘Criminalisation’ refers to legislation that outlaws the selling of sex and activities related to sex work. This framework is employed in countries including Hong Kong and Papua New Guinea.
The criminalisation of sex work inherently disregards the factors that lead women to engage in the industry. Consequently, criminalisation punishes the poor and threatens sex workers’ rights. Indeed, studies have found that criminalisation makes sex workers more vulnerable to stigma, discrimination, violence, and exploitation. This not only restricts women’s access to healthcare, but also discourages them from seeking justice. In Papua New Guinea, colonial-era laws prohibit individuals from organising commercial sex and living off the earnings of sex work. A 2010 survey found that 50% of sex workers in the capital, Port Moresby, had been raped by clients or the police within a six-month period. Yet, these workers felt too afraid to report these crimes because they themselves are considered ‘illegal’. This demonstrates the extremity of abuses suffered by sex workers under a system of criminalisation.
B. The Nordic Model
The Nordic Model involves two elements: it allows the sale of sex, but outlaws the purchase of sex. This approach was first instituted in Sweden as part of the 1999 Violence Against Women Act. It later came into effect in Norway through the 2009 Sex Buyer Law. Today, it is widespread throughout the Nordic region, adopted by three of its five countries.
Like criminalisation, the Nordic Model aims to eliminate sex work. However, it does so without overtly punishing sex workers. Proponents of the Nordic Model laud its targeting of pimps, brothel owners and sex buyers. They also celebrate its aim to create a society in which commercialised, one-sided sexual gratification has no place, and women are not deemed saleable objects. However, by disallowing the purchase of sex, the Nordic Model threatens sex workers’ income. This worsens the economic hardship many of these women are already trying to escape.
Furthermore, the Nordic Model criminalises the operational aspects of sex work, such as by prohibiting sex workers from working together in groups and banning the letting of premises used for selling sex. This threatens sex workers in two ways. First, it propagates the criminality of their work, and thus further stigmatises and marginalises sex workers. Second, by preventing sex workers from working in groups, the Nordic Model hinders workers’ ability to ensure their own safety.
‘Legalisation’ refers to laws and policies which actively regulate sex work. This framework is adopted in the Netherlands, where sex work is treated as an ordinary occupation. With legalisation, sex work is brought within the realm of legal regulation, and under the control of legal institutions. This means that governments can implement policies addressing the abuse of sex workers. By extension, governments can better protect women.
However, even with legalisation, some sex workers are left beyond the realm of legal protection. Although licensed brothels exist in Tunisia, sex workers wishing to leave their brothel jobs must obtain authorisation from police and demonstrate their ability to earn an ‘honest’ living. Workers who flout these regulations are criminalised and denied legal protection. Evidently, criminalisation remains possible even under the model of legalisation. Human rights abuses also remain possible, especially against workers operating outside the law.
Legalisation thus has the same limitations of both criminalisation and the Nordic Model: it does not comprehensively protect sex workers from marginalisation, stigma, and abuse. On the contrary, certain workers are actively excluded from the legal realm and denied legal protection.
While legalisation involves laws and policies actively regulating sex work, ‘decriminalisation’ involves removing laws criminalising sex workers. Decriminalisation is two-pronged: laws criminalising violence, exploitation, and human trafficking remain firmly in place, while laws criminalising sex work are eradicated. This approach was first introduced in New Zealand with the passage of the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act, which decriminalised sex work.
Decriminalisation is the most effective at tackling the human rights abuses faced by sex workers and ensuring their health, safety, and equality. Decriminalisation shifts the conversation away from stigmatisation and marginalisation. Instead, women are given dignity in endeavouring to provide for themselves and their families. Women can work together for increased safety, and report crimes and abuses to the police with the assurance of legal redress. Crucially, decriminalisation empowers women to exercise other related rights, such as access to health care.
These advantages are borne out in New Zealand. Since the Prostitution Reform Act was passed in 2003, over 90% of New Zealand’s sex workers have reported their improved access to additional forms of employment, which was consequent on the removal of their criminal status. They have affirmed their increased health, safety, and legal rights, and are more willing to report acts of violence to the police.
Given these findings, governments are urged to decriminalise sex work. This would be the first step in treating women who sell sex with respect and prioritising their safety from human rights abuses.
In addition, governments must acknowledge and address the factors that lead women to undertake sex work. They must seek to empower marginalised groups who face inequality, particularly in their access to the job market. This should be done via anti-discrimination policies, as well as increased social services, access to education, financial support from the state, and job training and placement. In doing so, our societies will ensure that no one has to sell sex in order to earn a living, while protecting the opportunities and rights of those who choose to do so.
These goals and policies seem lofty, and may only be fully implemented over the course of several years. Nonetheless, they are crucial for ensuring increased respect, support, and safety for sex workers. Governments must therefore employ these measures in conjunction with the complete decriminalisation of sex work, thereby bringing us closer to a world in which all women are treated equally under the law.
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