What is Decriminalization of Sex Work?

Engaging sex workers and sex worker-led organizations is incredibly important for improving health outcomes for sex workers. Unsplash/Vin Stratton

UNFPA works with a variety of stakeholders to meet the health needs of sex workers. These include health care workers, government and community leaders, sex worker organizations, and sex workers themselves. By supporting communities as they create their own solutions, UNFPA helps change attitudes and reach better health outcomes. For sex workers, this can mean greater access to food, shelter, health care, and safety. It can also mean working toward the decriminalization of sex work. Dr. McCracken defines decriminalization as the repeal of, “…all laws that criminalize adult consensual sex and related activities, including laws criminalizing sex work; buying, soliciting, or procuring sex; brothel-keeping and management of sex work, loitering, and public nuisance that are also used to target sex workers or clients. It does not repeal laws against trafficking, child sexual exploitation, or other forms of violence.”

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This means that those who provide or access sexual services are not penalized or punished for their behavior. Instead, sex work is treated like other work. In New Zealand, where sex work is decriminalized, sex workers are entitled to unemployment benefits when situations like the COVID-19 pandemic arise. Dr. McCracken says that the biggest health issue that sex workers face are criminalization and discrimination. She explains, “If prostitution were not criminalized, it would allow sex workers greater access to the systems that provide safety and health care. Sex workers are more susceptible to violence because predators know their work is illegal and target them. Criminalization increases impunity and the violence perpetuated against sex workers–most especially when it occurs by people with power, like police officers. Sex workers have virtually no recourse and the criminal legal system, in addition to criminalizing prostitution, is designed to stigmatize and further marginalize them.”

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