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.
Feminism and Sex Work
MASWAN sees the fight to decriminalize sex work as a feminist movement. Below are some further resources on the sex worker movement and feminism.
- Melissa Gira Grant, Playing the Whore
- Melinda Chateauvert, Sex Workers Unite
- Delacoste and Alexander, Sex Work: Writings By Women in the Sex Industry
- Wendy Chapkis, Live Sex Acts
- Carol Leigh, The Strange Relationship Between Feminism and Sex Work
- Gail Pheterson, The Whore Stigma
- Morgane Merteuil, Sex Work Against Work
- First National Conference of Indian Sex Workers, Sex Workers’ Manifesto
- “All the Work We Do As Women”: Feminist Manifestos on Prostitution and the State, 1977
- SisterSong Collective, What is Reproductive Justice?
what is trafficking?
MASWAN defines trafficking as the forcible movement of people from one place to another, for the purposes of forcing them into labor, for one’s own financial gain. Because policy frameworks often conflate trafficking with consensual sex work, they unduly criminalize consensual workers, while making it harder for traffickers to be identified and stopped.
The UN’s Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children (2000), which has been ratified by 189 countries, including the United States. It defines trafficking as the following: “the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs.”
The National Human Trafficking hotline, funded by the US Department of Health and Human Services, defines trafficking as: “a form of modern-day slavery. This crime occurs when a trafficker uses force, fraud or coercion to control another person for the purpose of engaging in commercial sex acts or soliciting labor or services against his/her will.”
facts on trafficking
- Existing trafficking laws in the United States (and in Massachusetts) rarely achieve results.
- In 2015, across the country, the Department of Justice reported that 264 sex trafficking investigations resulted in 419 arrests, 108 indictments, and 90 convictions. For cases involving minors, the DoJ opened 538 investigations resulting in 2,253 arrests, 316 indictments, and 363 convictions.
- In Massachusetts, between the passage of 2011’s human trafficking laws and May 2017, there have been 32 human trafficking convictions. Of those convictions, the Boston Herald found that 21 of the defendants served less than the minimum sentence of five years, and three of those only served probation.
- Not all trafficking is sex trafficking. The International Labor Organization’s most recent estimates in 2017, for example, suggest that of nearly 25 million people forced into labor worldwide, 4.8 million (or about 19%) are forced into the sex industry. That means three quarters of trafficked people are not in the sex trade. Conflating sex work with trafficking not only promotes the misguided criminalization of sex workers–it also draws attention away from the forced domestic, construction, manufacturing, and agricultural workers who need justice.
- A significant proportion of trafficking occurs across international borders–nearly three-quarters of those trafficked into the sex industry were living outside their country of origin in 2017.
further resources on trafficking
National Human Trafficking Resource Center
SMS: 233733 (Text “HELP” or “INFO”)
Hotline: 1 (888) 373-7888
Hours: 24 hours, 7 days a week
Languages: English, Spanish and 200 more languages
- Melissa Gira Grant, The Truth About Trafficking: It’s Not Just About Sexual Exploitation
- Matt Stout, Maura Healey Defends Prosecutions in Human Trafficking Cases
- Emi Koyama, Rescue is for Kittens: 10 Things Everyone Needs to Know about “Rescues” in the Sex Trade”
- Marjan Wijers and Marieke van Doorninck, “Only Rights Can Stop Wrongs: A Critical Assessment of Anti-Trafficking Strategies”
Academic Papers and Books
- Laura Agustín, Sex at the Margins (London: Zed Books, 2007) (see also her blog!)
- Aziza Ahmed and Meena Seshu, “We Have the Right Not To Be ‘Rescued’…”: When Anti-Trafficking Programmes Undermine the Health and Well-Being of Sex Workers,” Anti-Trafficking Review 1(2012): 149-168.
- Aziza Ahmed, “Feminism, Power, and Sex Work in the Context of HIV/AIDS: Consequences for Women’s Health,” Harvard Journal of Law and Gender 34:1 (2011): 225-258
- Ronald Weitzer, “Sex Trafficking and the Sex Industry: The Need for Evidence-Based Legislation,” Journal of Criminal Law and Criminology 101:4 (2013): 1337-1369.
- Ronald Weitzer, “The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade,” Politics & Society 35.3 (2007): 447- 75.
- Janie A. Chuang, “Rescuing Trafficking from Ideological Capture: Prostitution Reform and Anti-trafficking Law and Policy,” University of Pennsylvania Law Review 158.6, Symposium: Trafficking in Sex and Labor: Domestic and International Responses (2010): 1655-728.
Public Policy and Deterrents
What is demand-side prohibition?
Policies to “end demand” for sex work, also called the “Swedish model” or the “Nordic model,” aim to criminalize clients of sex workers and pimps, but not sex workers themselves. Such policies can include “John Schools,” “rehabilitation” programs that aim to teach clients not to pay for sex.
Why does MASWAN oppose demand-side prohibition?
Demand-side prohibition may sound like it helps sex workers, but in fact it can create more unsafe working conditions. As sex work gets pushed underground, sex workers are less likely to access health and social services or report cases of trafficking. A study of the effects of demand-side prohibition in Sweden in 2004 found that the number of sex workers in Stockholm remained “stable” (p. 10) between 1999, right after the law was passed, and 2003. The study also suggested that sex work may simply have been driven underground, and that sex workers were more vulnerable to exploitation by clients and police. Efforts to “end demand” also divert resources away from services sex workers desperately need, like health and social services, toward expanded surveillance and policing. Ultimately, they further stigma against sex work and fail to address the needs of the most marginalized sex workers.
Further resources on public policy and deterrents
- The Real Impact of the Swedish Model on Sex Workers (Global Network of Sex Work Projects)
- End Demand Fact Sheet (Desiree Alliance)
- “Hands Off Our Clients!” (International Committee on the Rights of Sex Workers in Europe)
- Moving Beyond Supply and Demand Catchphrases: Assessing the Uses and Limitations of Demand-Based Approaches in Anti-Trafficking (Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women)
- Criminalizing Clients Endangers Sex Workers and Creates Barriers to Exiting Sex Work (Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women)
Articles and Reports
- Ann Jordan, The Swedish Law to Criminalize Clients: A Failed Experiment in Social Engineering
- Purchasing Sexual Services in Sweden and the Netherlands: Legal Regulation and Experiences
- Melissa Gira Grant, Amnesty International Calls for an End to the ‘Nordic Model’ of Criminalizing Sex Workers
- Elizabeth Nolan Brown, What the Swedish Model Gets Wrong About Prostitution
- Michelle Goldberg, Swedish Prostitution Law is Spreading Worldwide: Here’s How to Improve it
- Stephanie Berger,”No End in Sight: Why the ‘End Demand’ Movement Is the Wrong Focus for Efforts to Eliminate Human Trafficking,” Harvard Journal of Law and Gender 35 (2012): 524-70.
- Stéphanie Wahab, “Evaluating the Usefulness of a Prostitution Diversion Project,” Qualitative Social Work 5:1 (2006): 67-92.
- Scot Wortley, Benedikt Fischer, and Cheryl Webster, “Vice Lessons: A Survey of Prostitution Offenders Enrolled in the Toronto John School Diversion Program,” Canadian Journal of Criminology 44:4 (2002): 369-402.
- Benedikt Fischer, Scot Wortley, Cheryl Webster et al, “The Socio-Legal Dynamics and Implications of ‘Diversion,’” Criminology and Criminal Justice 2:4 (2002): 385-410.
- Martin Monto and Steve Garcia, “Recidivism Among the Customers of Female Street Prostitutes: Do Intervention Programs Help?” Western Criminology Review 3:2 (2002): 1-10.