Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Should Sex Work (Prostitution) Be Decriminalized?

Amnesty International now advocates decriminalization of adult sex work.

Recently, Amnesty International, the Nobel-Prize-winning human-rights organization, provoked international controversy by advocating the decriminalization of all adult prostitution, now increasingly called sex work.

Amnesty proclaimed that its decision reflects its firm commitment to human rights. “Sex workers are among the most marginalized populations in the world. They are particularly at risk for human rights violations, including physical and sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion, harassment, and exclusion from health care, housing, and other social and legal benefits available to other workers.”

Amnesty argues that decriminalization empowers sex workers. “Gender inequality and discrimination promote women’s entry into sex work. We do not think that criminalizing women for their lack of life choices is the answer.”

Critics Pounce

Opponents of decriminalization immediately charged that Amnesty’s proposal would increase pimping, brothels, and sex trafficking. “Decriminalizing sex work is not progressive,” says Rachel Moran, a former child sex worker turned anti-sex-work activist and author of Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution. “It simply bolsters men’s entitlement to buy sex while decriminalizing pimping and human trafficking.”

Moran argues that any step toward legalization benefits the sex trade. During the seven years after Denmark decriminalized sex work, prostitution increased 40 percent. And after the Netherlands legalized sex work, Amsterdam became such a raucous destination for sex tourism—and assaults and robberies of sex tourists—that the Dutch government was eventually forced to close much of Amsterdam’s red light district.

But even critics acknowledge that centuries of suppression efforts have had little impact on the prevalence of sex work—other than driving it underground, where sex workers find themselves even more at the mercy of pimps, traffickers, and violent clients.

Those who want to keep prostitution illegal offer a solution—the “Nordic model.” Pioneered by Sweden in 1995, it shifts police focus from sex workers to their clients, arresting johns. Since Sweden began arresting men looking to buy sex, street prostitution in Swedish cities has dropped by more than half.

Amnesty Retorts

Amnesty International insists that its advocacy of decriminalization in no way promotes pimping or trafficking—which is why two prominent anti-trafficking groups, Anti-Slavery International and the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women agree with the group and support decriminalization. Amnesty supports strong penalties for human trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Amnesty argues that keeping prostitution illegal imprisons sex workers in the underground economy, where they have no rights. It’s difficult for them turn in their pimps, or clients, or police who rape them because the criminal justice system stigmatizes them as “criminals.” A 2010 study in Papua, New Guinea’s capital, Port Moresby, shows that during a recent six-month period, 50 percent of sex workers said they were raped by clients or police. The underground economy becomes a prison. It’s very difficult for sex workers to escape to legitimate jobs and above-ground lives.

As for the Nordic model, yes, it gets sex work off the streets, but it substantially increases risks to sex workers. Swedish sex workers say that since the police began arresting johns, sex work has shifted to clients’ homes, a setting that favors violent psychopaths where sex workers have fewer escape options and feel more threatened than they do on the streets.

Amnesty insists that prostitution cannot be suppressed. It’s been around so long, it’s often called “the oldest profession.” Since ancient times, sex work has been well documented all over the world. It’s mentioned repeatedly in the Bible. Through much of human history it was tolerated, if not welcomed, just as alcohol and gambling have been. If an activity can’t be suppressed, why fight it? Amnesty asserts that it’s better to approach sex work from the perspective of harm reduction by reducing the rampant victimization of sex workers.

Prohibition Never Works

One glance at the history of prohibiting human vice shows that it never works. Consider U.S. prohibition of alcohol from 1920 until 1933. There’s little evidence that drinking declined. Prohibition simply drove it underground—and enriched organized crime syndicates, creating the modern Mafia.

Laws against possession and sale of marijuana have in no way suppressed use or sale of weed. Many sources contend that pot is one of the largest cash crops in the U.S. Tens of millions of Americans routinely flout the laws against it. Marijuana prohibition has led to the imprisonment of tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding Americans. And it has cost billions of tax dollars for enforcement efforts that have been futile.

Here’s a fact of life: Many men want more sex than their girlfriends or wives care to provide. Evolution made men hornier than women. The biological purpose of life is to reproduce life, to send one’s genes into the next generation. The way men do this is to spread sperm far and wide by having sex with lots of women. In contrast, the way women transmit their genes is to raise a few children to maturity, hopefully with the help of a committed male partner. As the old saying goes, men have relationships to have sex. Women have sex to have relationships.

I’m not arguing that all men flock to sex workers. But all over the world, plenty of men always have. This may be regrettable, but it’s undeniable. Many studies show that surprisingly few johns are lonesome single guys. Most are men with girlfriends or wives. I once attended a presentation by a longtime Seattle sex worker who surveyed her several dozen regular clients about why they visited her. Many said, “To save my marriage.” (To learn more about this survey, see my blog post.) Sex work monetizes desire discrepancies between men and the women in their lives. Laws prohibiting sex work have never worked, and never will.

Of course, decriminalization doesn’t solve all problems related to sex work. Psychopaths can still prey on sex workers, and women can still be trafficked. But in my opinion, decriminalization is a major step in the right direction, a step that should improve sex workers’ lives, encourage them to report and testify against pimps and traffickers, and make it easier for them to transition into less stigmatized occupations.

I agree wholeheartedly with Amnesty International. Adult sex work should be immediately decriminalized worldwide. What do you think?