Decriminalizing Sex Work: Unpacking The Controversy

The decriminalization of sex work is a controversial topic, fraught with legal and political implications and complicated terminology. Opinions are deeply divided, especially among women’s rights advocates. 

A key argument is that decriminalization would only make problems worse; that trafficking and prostitution are a form of violence against women, therefore eliminating the demand, not encouraging the practice, is the best solution. Also, decriminalization may not be enough to help those at risk. A trafficked person may not identify as a sex worker so any policies put in place to protect them would be of little use.

On the other side of the argument, decriminalization is seen as empowering because it promotes the health and human rights of sex workers. Sex workers often operate underground, but bringing the industry out of the shadows could reduce social stigmas and exposure to violence.

Some governments agree with this idea. In June 2003, New Zealand became the first country to decriminalize sex work. Other countries have followed suit, all with different regulatory approaches. Indeed, UN Women, an organization committed to gender inequality, once supported decriminalization, but after facing intense criticism has since declared their neutrality on the subject.

With all the controversy surrounding the issue, a consensus is likely far away. Would decriminalization make a safer space for the sexually exploited? Or could having the conversation be beneficial in itself? 

Inequality and Lack of Agency

There is a hierarchy of privilege that contributes to an individual’s experience within the sex industry.  Inequality and marginalization are the same that occur in the rest of society. Although there are men and transgender, the majority of sex workers are women. Some are working by choice, and others by force. While others see no other way to support their families.

Gender inequality sits at the core of legal issues. If caught, women are more likely to face criminal prosecution. While their clients are less likely to be found or charged. Moreover, some enter the industry not realizing they were going to be criminalized. This can leave a mark on their records forever which impacts their future, making it harder to adopt, find work, and vote in certain countries.

Because sex work is criminalized, it means there is less protection in the case of an attack. It also increases the likelihood of the survivor facing charges as it is still criminalized across many countries. This can give traffickers a safety net because they know their captives have nowhere to go.

Decriminalization and Legalization, What’s the Difference?

There are different regulatory approaches to sex work, including legalization, criminalization, and decriminalization. These are highly complicated which only adds to the controversy.

Decriminalization means removing laws that criminalize sex work. This means that no individual should be criminalized in any way for selling sex, whether it is survival sex or self-identified. This does not mean it would allow human rights abusers to have more power, or give them the ability to continue without investigation or persecution, which legalization has to potential to do. Decriminalization in this instance is about seeing the workers themselves with the most control and getting to make self-determining choices. 

When women are behind in choices that affect them, it leads to better outcomes. As such, it can be empowering when everyone has agency, safety, and autonomy, which not everyone has.

The sex industry exists in our society, whether we like it or not. Globalization and the accessibility of pornography have only exacerbated its prevalence. Perhaps one thing that everyone can agree upon is that there need to be more protection, support, and resources available. 

If we do not openly talk about the sex industry, everybody is more disempowered than they should be, especially the most vulnerable and marginalized people in society.

Kristen Rive-Thomson


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