ACLU Analysis Finds Decriminalizing Sex Work Improves Public Health and Public Safety

Analysis of more than 80 studies on the impacts of decriminalization shows that any form of criminalization harms adult sex workers.

October 21, 2020 1:45 pm

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NEW YORK — The American Civil Liberties Union today released “Is Sex Work Decriminalization the Answer? What the Research Tells Us” a comprehensive review of more than 80 studies on the decriminalization and criminalization of sex work. In addition to finding that decriminalization will improve public health and safety while increasing economic stability for sex workers, the studies reviewed do not indicate a clear link between criminalizing sex work and stopping human trafficking.

The studies included in the review looked at three models of decriminalization: full decriminalization, which removes all laws and criminal penalties specific to sex work; “end-demand” or “Nordic” models that criminalize buying but not selling sex work; and legalization models that require sex workers to register or impose other regulations. The research reviewed by the ACLU shows that full decriminalization has the greatest benefits for public health and safety.

“Right now, millions of people are asking what we can do to reduce abuse by law enforcement, racial disparities in our criminal justice system, and our overall jail and prison populations,” said LaLa Zannell, the ACLU’s Trans Justice Campaign Manager. “One policy that can achieve all of these goals — particularly for Black trans women and immigrants — is to recognize that sex work is work and treat it like any other industry. Sex workers have been saying they face significant violence from police and clients for decades and it is time that we all listen to these voices when determining how to improve safety for sex workers.”

ACLU offices around the country have been engaging with local sex worker-led groups to support calls to district attorneys to decline to prosecute sex work related offenses and to repeal state legislation criminalizing sex work. At the federal level, the ACLU has opposed laws that prevent sex workers from screening clients online, such as SESTA/FOSTA, which the research reviewed by the ACLU suggests has increased violence and harassment faced by sex workers.

Recommendations in the research brief include:

  • Lawmakers should fully decriminalize consensual sex work by eliminating all criminal penalties for sellers and buyers. Also remove all criminal penalties for youth who participate in sex work, but not for adults who exploit youth. Decriminalization should include a retroactive component, permitting expungement of criminal records.
  • Police officers should eliminate their unwanted presence that targets sex workers and profiles transgender people.
  • Reform-minded prosecutors should decline to pursue charges related to consensual sex work. This includes both street-based sex work and laws like SESTA/FOSTA that prevent sex workers from screening clients and discussing safety online.
  • Policy makers should listen to what sex workers say is necessary to improve their health and well being which includes divesting from police and investing in community-based health care and housing initiatives.

More on the ACLU’s campaign to decriminalize sex work is available here:

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