What is decriminalization?
Decriminalization means the removal of laws that criminalize or penalize sex work. It does not mean the removal of laws that criminalize trafficking or exploitation of sex workers: sex work and trafficking are not the same thing. Decriminalization is different from legalization: legalization tends to mean more regulation of sex work, while decriminalization means the removal of laws that criminalize sex work. MASWAN believes that decriminalization offers the best path to protecting sex workers from violence and exploitative conditions and improving their access to health and other social services. For example, researchers have shown that decriminalization of sex work in New Zealand improved sex workers’ safety and access to health and social services.
further resources on decriminalization
- Amnesty International’s Q&A on decriminalization
- 10 reasons to fight for the decriminalization of sex work (from Maggie’s Toronto)
- Why decriminalizing sex work is a good idea (in the Economist)
- Ten reasons to decriminalize sex work (from the Open Society Foundation)
- UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work
- Sex Work and the Law (from the Global Network of Sex Work Projects)
- 100 Countries and Their Prostitution Policies
- Anti-Trafficking Advocates in Support of Decriminalization (from Freedom Network)
- Facts About Sex Workers and the Myths that Help Spread HIV (The Lancet)
Articles and Reports
- Human Rights Watch Report on Condoms as Evidence
- Where the NYPD arrests women who are Black, Latina, Trans, And/Or Wearing Jeans (Melissa Gira Grant)
- The War on Sex Workers (Melissa Gira Grant)
- The Impact of the Prostitution Reform Act on the Health and Safety Practices of Sex Workers (from New Zealand)
- Should prostitution be a crime? (Emily Bazelon)
- What I’m doing is not a crime: The human cost of criminalizing sex work in the city of Buenos Aires, Argentina (Amnesty International)
- Analysis of Raids to Fight Trafficking (The Sex Workers Project)
- Analysis of Street-Based Prostitution (The Sex Workers Project)
Academic Papers and Books
- Michele Decker et al, “Human Rights Violations Against Sex Workers: Burden and Effect on HIV,” The Lancet 385:9963 (2015): 186-199.
- A review of over 800 studies and reports finds that violation of sex workers’ human rights undermine HIV prevention efforts, and argues that abuses of sex workers are more likely to happen in contexts where sex work is criminalized.
- Scott Cunningham and Manisha Shah, “Decriminalizing Indoor Prostitution: Implications for Sexual Violence and Public Health,” NBER Working Paper 20281 (2014).
- The article estimates that, after a Rhode Island District Court Judge decriminalized indoor prostitution in 2003, between 2004 and 2009, there was a 31% decrease in rape offenses and a 39% decrease in gonorrhea. Note: This study emphasizes the point that “forcible rapes” went down in the general population, which plays into the myth that men buy sex as a substitute for raping non-sex-working women. The study also makes the claim that decriminalization frees up police resources to go after other crimes, which overlooks the fact that many sex workers get picked up on drugs, loitering, and theft violations.
- Alexandra Lutnick and Deborah Cohan, “Criminalization, legalization or decriminalization of sex work: what female sex workers say in San Francisco, USA,” Reproductive Health Matters 17:34 (2009):38-46.
- An interview study of sex workers from a range of backgrounds in San Francisco finds that most support a combination of legalization and decriminalization.
- Gillian Abel, “A Decade of Decriminalization: Sex Work ‘Down Under’ But Not Underground,” Criminology and Criminal Justice 14:5(2014): 580-592.
- A review of research on New Zealand’s decriminalization of sex work suggests that overall, it has helped make sex work safer in all sectors.
- Gillian Abel et al, “The Impact of Decriminalization on the Number of Sex Workers in New Zealand,” Journal of Social Policy 38:3(2009): 515-531.
- An estimate of the number of sex workers in five cities in New Zealand finds that the Prostitution Reform Act did not increase the number of people working in the sex industry.
- Christine Harcourt et al, “The Decriminalisation of Prostitution is Associated with Better Coverage of Health Promotion Programs for Sex Workers,” Australian and New Zealand Journal of Public Health 34:5(2010): 482-486.
- A comparison of Australian cities with differences in sex-work-related laws finds that in Sydney, where sex work is largely decriminalized, sex workers had more access to sexual health programs.
- Ronald Weitzer, Legalizing Prostitution: From Illicit Vice to Lawful Business (New York: NYU Press, 2012.)
- A detailed discussion of criminalization policies in the Netherlands, Belgium, and Germany to help consider alternatives to the US approach.
- Chris Beyrer, Anna-Louise Crago, Linda-Gail Bekker, Jenny Butler, Kate Shannon, Deanna Kerrigan, Michele R. Decker, Stefan D. Baral, Tonia Poteat, Andrea L. Wirtz, Brian W. Weir, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Michel Kazatchkine, Michel Sidibé, Karl-Lorenz Dehne, Marie-Claude Boily, and Steffanie A. Strathdee, “An Action Agenda for HIV and Sex Workers.” The Lancet 385.9964 (2015): 287-301.
- Aziza Ahmed, Margo Kaplan, Alison Symington & Eszter Kismodi, “Criminalising Consensual Sexual Behaviour in the Context of HIV: Consequences, Evidence, and Leadership,” Global Public Health 6:3 (2011): S357-S369.