Should sex work be decriminalized?

What’s happening:

Prostitution has been called the world’s oldest profession. But outside of a handful of counties in Nevada, it’s illegal in the U.S. A movement is now gaining traction to decriminalize sex work.

The City Council in Washington, D.C., and the New York state Legislature are considering separate decriminalization bills. Under decriminalization, selling and buying sex would still be illegal but would carry no criminal penaties. Several Democratic candidates for president — including Elizabeth WarrenBernie SandersKamala Harris and Cory Booker — have said they would consider decriminalizing sex work nationwide.

Laws concerning prostitution vary widely between countries, with some banning it entirely and others treating it as a completely legal industry. Some places, including Canada, use what’s known as the Nordic model, in which selling sex is allowed but buying it is still prohibited.

Why there’s debate:

The decriminalization push has largely been led by sex workers themselves, who say current laws make them vulnerable to violence and harassment while doing nothing to curb the demand for buying sex. Decriminalizing prostitution, they say, would create a legitimate marketplace that would put nefarious actors like pimps and traffickers out of business. Others make the case that sex work is a legitimate profession that should be afforded the rights and protections given to all other jobs.

Decriminalization advocates say it’s better than making prostitution legal, because they believe legalization would create space for a black market outside the law that would be fertile ground for trafficking and other forms of exploitation.

Opposition to decriminalization comes from a number of directions. There are, of course, those who believe that selling sex is immoral and shouldn’t be permitted. Others who support sex workers’ rights say decriminalization would make trafficking and exploitation worse by increasing demand in the sex trade. Some sex workers prefer the Nordic model or full legalization to the decriminalization bills currently under consideration.

What’s next:

It’s unclear whether the decriminalization bills in either New York or D.C. will have the votes to be passed, even with left-leaning legislative bodies in both places. If Washington’s City Council approves a bill, it will then have to survive a review from Congress before it can become law.



Criminalized sex work creates risk for people from marginalized communities

“Vice enforcement increases police contact with LGBTQ people, and can expose them to violence by increasing stigma against them.” — Melissa Gira Grant, New Republic

Consenting adults should be able to exchange sex for money

“Criminalizing adult, voluntary, and consensual sex — including the commercial exchange of sexual services — is incompatible with the human right to personal autonomy and privacy.” — Human Rights Watch

Decriminalizing sex work would decrease trafficking

“Decriminalization of sex work makes everyone safer. More than any other kind of system, decriminalization will help reduce the number of people who are trafficked and help those who are victims of trafficking get to safety more easily with fewer negative health and safety consequences.” — Katie Tastrom, Rewire

Sex work provides opportunity for people with limited options

“Throughout history, people have exchanged the commodity of sex for money to survive against poverty, to empower themselves against miserable life circumstances, and to challenge societal norms.” — Alex Corona, USA Today

Banning sex work is a violation of individual liberty

“Decriminalizing sex work is an opportunity to restore freedom and autonomy over our bodies. Supporting choice, freedom, and liberty is what this country is supposed to be about, and not allowing government to find and utilize more ways to control our individual bodies that interfere with our rights and liberties guaranteed by the Constitution.” — Tamika Spellman, The Root

Sex workers deserve rights afforded to people in any other profession

“Justice won’t be found in locking up sex workers, ending demand for commercial sex, or ‘exiting’ sex workers into low-wage jobs in sweat shops. It will come from these workers themselves building power to gain control over their working conditions…” — Natalie Shure, Jacobin


Decriminalization makes women involved in sex work less safe

“…decriminalization policies have appeared to increase barriers to seeking police interventions and avoiding violence because the laws have legitimized ‘management’ — pimps, traffickers, and brothel owners — and exploitation by clients under the guise of ‘purchasing choice.’” — Chitra Raghavan, Kendra Doychak, and Elise Juraschek, Albany Times Union

The decriminalization push glosses over the harsh realities of the sex trade

“[Decriminalization] buys into the myth of prostitution as a victimless crime, glossing over the harsh realities — abuse from clients and pimps, commonplace drug use, psychological and physical trauma — of sex work.” — Editorial, Washington Post

Legalization is a better choice

“Decriminalizing also does not protect willing, adult sex workers. True, they needn’t fear law enforcement, but they still don’t have full legal protections because they are still selling an illegal service. The better alternative is legalization…” — Allison Schrager, New York Daily News

It would increase sex trafficking

“If you remove any impediments to buying sex and normalize it, there’ll be an increase in that act. People from the most impoverished and marginalized communities then get trafficked in to meet that demand.” — Anti-trafficking advocate Alexi Ashe Meyers to InStyle

Decriminalization should be limited to selling sex; buying it should remain illegal

“There is another, better solution: a partial decriminalization approach that does not punish women who have been caught up in or coerced into sexual exploitation. The Equality Model decriminalizes the sale of sex while keeping legal prohibitions in place against pimping, brothels and purchasing sex — a move that protects those engaged in prostitution but shrinks the overall market.” — Yasmin Vafa, Washingtonian

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