What’s Happening with the Legalization and Decriminalization of Sex Work?

What’s Happening with the Legalization and Decriminalization of Sex Work?

Ever since the August vote to adopt a worldwide policy to better protect sex workers (proposed by Amnesty International), there’s been a lot of talk on how states should actually go about doing so. Celebrities, academics, and sex workers alike have all chimed in on whether they think sex work should be legalized or decriminalized, but it’s hard to know how to side with when there’s still plenty of confusion surrounding the differences between these two solutions. Read on to find out more about the differences between legalizing and decriminalizing sex work.


What do legalization and decriminalization even mean?

Legalization is when laws are in place to regulate the specifics of sex work, such as where, when, and how the work happens. Decriminalization is when all laws and regulations regarding sex work are removed.


How will each solution hurt or benefit sex workers?

As nice as legalization may sound on the outside, it can actually cause more harm than good towards sex workers. Having strict regulations in the sex industry prevents sex workers from being able to make their own decisions in regards to how, when, and where they want to do their work, thus potentially limiting both their income and personal autonomy. Also, if a sex worker were to report being physically or sexually assaulted while on the job to law enforcement, but hadn’t been sticking to the new regulations, then the sex worker would be penalized, not the attacker. Sex workers are already rightfully afraid of law enforcement; legalization would only intensify that fear.

Decriminalization, however, allows sex workers to do their business without fear of police involvement—unless they themselves call for it. By getting rid of laws that prohibit sex workers from engaging in their trade, the stigma against sex work will drop, and according to this study, so will HIV rates.


Where has sex work already been legalized or decriminalized?

Nevada is the only state in the U.S. that has legalized sex work. This means that prostitution is only legal within brothels set up in certain Nevada counties, and nowhere else. The brothels have very strict laws requiring STD tests, which could be a positive, except for the fact that any prostitute, whether they work in a brothel or not, could be charged with a felony if their test results come out HIV positive.

In New Zealand, however, sex work has been decriminalized ever since the Prostitution Reform Act of 2003. Under this act, anyone over the age 18 is allowed to engage in sex work however they see fit, whether that’s in a brothel, in their home, on the street, online, etc. Sex workers are still expected to follow the same laws as every other working New Zealander, without having their profession unfairly scrutinized. This allows sex workers to feel more comfortable seeking help from law enforcement, encourages workers to band together in unions and other rights groups, and has increased condom usage.


Clearly, there are a lot of differences between the legalization and decriminalization of sex work, and plenty of opinions surrounding which solution is best. Ultimately though, I think it’s best to listen to what actual sex workers have to say about the matter. They are the ones affected by this the most, yet they are also one of the most silenced groups. If you want to learn more about what actual sex workers have to say on this matter, check out the resources below:

Cover image courtesy of Shutterstock.