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Open Society Foundations

Last month, Amnesty International issued a resolution calling for the decriminalization of sex work.

In many parts of the world — including the vast majority of the U.S. — certain forms of sex work are criminalized. Amnesty joins a long list of human rights organizations in calling for the decriminalization of consensual sex work worldwide, including the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women, Human Rights Watch, and the Open Society Foundations.


This is big news for sex workers and their clientele, but why should those of us who are neither sex workers nor clients support them in pushing governments to decriminalize? Here are four reasons to join the fight.

1. Decriminalization can improve policing and boost trust in law enforcement.

For some time, police in a number of cities have been known to confiscate condoms as evidence in prostitution cases. There are any number of reasons someone might carry condoms (say, for instance, they plan to have sex?), not all of which are to engage in sex work.

All images via iStock.

In 2013, a black transgender woman named Monica Jones was arrested in Phoenix, Arizona.

She was charged with what a local statute calls "manifesting prostitution," but others came up with what some might argue is a more accurate name: walking while trans.

In Phoenix, a local ordinance gives police the authority to arrest a person for stopping to talk to someone on the street or sidewalk, for asking someone if they are a police officer, or for accepting a ride from someone an officer believes to be a stranger.

A study of a similar ordinance in Brooklyn found that 94% of those arrested for "loitering for the purpose of engaging in prostitution" were black. In 2011 alone, around 57,000 people were arrested on these types of charges — which, again, aren't for engaging in a form of sex work but for simply fitting a profile of what a sex worker looks like in the mind of the arresting officer.

So long as sex workers — as well as those who fit the profile of sex workers — feel like their existence is in itself a crime, they're less likely to trust law enforcement. Decriminalizing sex work provides a pathway to better policing for us all.

2. It will improve public health and reduce the spread of HIV.

One of the most common arguments people make in trying to justify keeping sex work criminalized is an old talking point that decriminalization of sex work would lead to an increase in HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and infections. In reality, the opposite is true.

In a study published last year by The Lancet, researchers estimate that decriminalization of sex work worldwide would result in a 33% to 46% decrease in new HIV infections.

How? Well, as addressed earlier, so long as police officers use condoms as evidence in cases against sex workers, workers will be less likely to carry prophylactics, leading to an increase in the number of unprotected or under-protected acts. Couple that with an understandable fear of getting tested for STIs, and the spread of these diseases will continue both inside and out of the sex worker community.

3. It can help improve working conditions.

People in favor of keeping sex work criminalized frequently bring up points about the poor working conditions, danger, and harassment workers face. Their solution boils down to this: If sex work wasn't a viable option, the women involved would be saved ... but then what?

Are working conditions that much better in other service industry jobs? Not really. Take, for example, the life of a waitress.

Last year, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission released a study that showed 37% of all sexual harassment claims came from the restaurant industry (despite the fact that just 7% of women work in it). That's both disproportionately high and takes the honor of being the worst of any sector of the workforce.

If poor working conditions are enough to criminalize a profession, then the service industry as a whole would be long gone.

Decriminalization has the added benefit of deterring violence against women. For example, in New Zealand, decriminalization has improved workers' ability to screen clients, access security services, and (going back to the first point) reach out to police if they become victims of violence.

4. It means freedom of choice.

If two consenting adults want to exchange money for sexual services, then who are any of us to stop them? Prostitution is a crime based almost entirely on one's own moral hangups.

Policing personal morality is in poor taste. Why should it be any of our business what consenting adults choose to do? It's not as though they're harming others. In this case, the argument against sex work is similar to the argument against same-sex marriage: if you're not involved, it doesn't affect you, so why is it your business?

You don't think sex work is morally permissible? Then don't be a sex worker. You don't think it's morally acceptable to pay for sex? Then don't visit a sex worker. You can make these decisions on your own without the threat of jail time.

For more great reasons to get involved with the fight for decriminalization, check out this guide from the Open Society Foundations.

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