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A Proposal to Advance Legal Representation for Sex Workers

Sex workers are subjected to legal abuse that can consequently hinder their health, access to resources and pathways in life. Sex workers suffer from a stigma that leads to abuse and neglect. They are a vulnerable population with few legal protections. These women are often looked down upon for their choices and are seen as dirty or unrespectable. This stigma stems from the way sex work is viewed in the eyes of the law. Legal systems all around the world offer few, if any, legal protections for sex workers. Law enforcement practices harm the health of sex workers, leading to less condom use, forced sexual interactions and breach of confidentiality (Csete and Cohen 2010). Sex workers cannot often trust police to help them, leading to more complications. 

Through studies it is evident that there is a demonstrative harm done by the lack of legal protections for sex workers (Platt et al. 2018). It is important that the Institute for Women’s Policy Research is aware that through legal reform, the health of sex workers can be better preserved. Based on evidence, experience and multiple perspectives, it is very clear that sex workers need a better justice system to surround them, which, in turn, will improve the group’s wellness. 

The Institute for Women’s Policy and Research outlines some of their priorities as employment and earning of women, job quality, reproductive health and the status of women. Sex workers are important in the realm of feminist policy concerns. Sex workers contribute to the economy while suffering poor job quality and status. By focusing on sex workers’ rights, the Institute for Women’s Policy and Research can include all areas of priority.

The criminalization of sex work has created barriers and complications for sex workers. This criminalization makes it almost impossible for sex workers to seek assistance from police if they are abused. Criminalizing sex workers also fuels a stigma surrounding them and can unfortunately lead to discrimination when seeking health care. Sex workers face discrimination in their everyday lives. The criminalization of their profession makes it very hard to feel protected by the law although they face abuse, rape and mistreatment. Unfortunately, police can often make the situation worse for sex workers. Police raiding of brothels has led to many human rights abuses towards sex workers. These include physical violence, mandatory HIV testing, threats of criminal charges for HIV transmission, breaches of confidentiality and unlawful detention (Csete and Cohen 2010, 822).  

Legal services for sex workers are not found often. There is a large push for police and legal reform in order to increase the safety for sex workers. Criminalization in America prohibits the use of brothels where there can be more comfort and rules in place. The raiding of the brothels can also put sex workers out on the street where conditions are much more dangerous. Qualitative and quantitative studies were conducted and concluded that repressive policing of sex workers was associated with increased risk of sexual and physical violence from clients or other parties. Police abuse their power when associating with sex workers through bribery, extortion and disrupting peer support networks (Platt et al. 2018). Since there are certain laws that allow police to make an arrest based on solely the possession of condoms, sex workers do not always carry them, which can lead to further health issues. When places with decriminalized sex work were studied, it was found that these sex workers had higher negotiating power with clients and more access to justice (Platt et al. 2018). 

Surveys have also been conducted that go right to the source. These surveys ask sex workers straight out what they prefer when it comes to the legalization of their profession. The three main options presented were keeping it criminalized, legalizing it or decriminalizing it. Each option comes with its own pros and cons, but sex workers had a higher preference for decriminalization (Lutnick and Cohan 2009). The current legal system is failing sex workers. It is impacting the livelihoods of people and causing health damage. Sex workers at least deserve the consideration to reform the laws surrounding sex work. The health of sex workers, American citizens, is at stake.

The policy options surrounding sex work include keeping it criminalized, legalizing it or decriminalizing it. There are many different arguments for all options. The suggestion here is to decriminalize sex work. Decriminalizing sex work eliminates the laws and penalties associated with the profession. Additionally, the enforcement of laws pertaining to prostitution is no longer handled by police and is instead handled by local councils. It will become the local council’s task to regulate the industry without police authority (Mathieson, Noble, Branam 2016, 380). 

By decriminalizing sex work there is an open opportunity for the expansion of a female-dominated field in the United State’s realm of economics. Supporting the economic endeavors of women is key to advancing sex positivity and lessening job discrimination for women. Decriminalization can open up opportunities for women, protect them from police brutality and help end the stigma surrounding the profession. I know these values are important to the Institute for Women’s Policy Research, and I believe advocating for decriminalized sex work would exemplify this (Mathieson, Noble, Branam 2016, 380). 

Listening to women and workers is also a vital component to research and policy. Decriminalization is a step in the right direction because sex workers have explicitly stated that is what they would prefer. Studying sex workers in San Francisco, it was learned that the majority of the women studied had a strong preference to remove statutes that criminalize sex work (Lutnick and Cohan 2009). They believe it could help increase their legal rights, as well as protect them from potential violence. A decriminalized system would not have targeted laws hindering the lives of sex workers. It was concluded that sex workers want sex work decriminalized with an addition of some legalized regulations, like health screenings and zoning codes (Lutnick and Cohan 2009). Decriminalization is something to be considered because that is what the people want. It is what the people who actually work in the industry are desiring. 

In order to decriminalize sex work, there needs to be a shift in laws. Laws need to change from “catch-all” offenses that criminalize most of sex work to laws that protect sex workers from abuse (Albright and D’Adamo 2017). It is recommended that there be a change in laws regulating sex work. 

The way decriminalization works is to remove all criminal penalties for the buying and selling of sex. This would allow sex workers to feel safer, give them the opportunity to build trust with police and grant them full human rights. The successes of decriminalization can be seen in New Zealand and Denmark. In New Zealand decriminalization improved workplace safety, health and social care access, along with emotional health improvements (Platt et al. 2018). 

Working with government officials to prioritize the health, safety and human rights of sex workers needs to occur. Decriminalization can be implemented in the United States and all over the world. By working closely with local governments, regulations and assistance programs can be used to ensure the rights and protections of sex workers. There can be an implementation of resources like clinics and social workers in local communities that can help this process. 

Sex work has received an awful stigma that has led to the decrease in quality of life. The abuse from clients and police has built an alarmingly negative environment for sex workers. By decriminalizing sex work, there can be an improvement in many aspects of life. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research strives to eliminate barriers that hinder the participation of women in society. Advocating for sex workers is no different. Decriminalize sex work and make the lives of millions of women across the United States better. 



Administrator. “Home – Institute for Women’s Policy Research.” IWPR 2020, September 22, 2020. https://iwpr.org/

Albright, Erin, and Kate D’Adamo. “Decreasing Human Trafficking through Sex Work Decriminalization.” Journal of Ethics | American Medical Association. American Medical Association, January 1, 2017. https://journalofethics.ama-assn.org/article/decreasing-human-trafficking-through-sex-work-decriminalization/2017-01

Csete, Joanne, and Jonathan Cohen. “Health Benefits of Legal Services for Criminalized Populations: The Case of People Who Use Drugs, Sex Workers and Sexual and Gender Minorities.” Wiley Online Library. John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, November 24, 2010. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/j.1748-720X.2010.00535.x

Lutnick, Alexandra, and Deborah Cohan. “Criminalization, Legalization or Decriminalization of Sex Work: What Female Sex Workers Say in San Francisco, USA.” Taylor & Francis. Open Society Institute, December 3, 2009. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1016/S0968-8080(09)34469-9

Mathieson, Ane, Anya Noble, and Easton Branam. “Prostitution Policy: Legalization, Decriminalization and the Nordic Model .” Seattle Journal for Social Justice, 10, 14, no. 2 (2016). 

Platt, Lucy, Pippa Grenfell, Rebecca Meiksin, Jocelyn Elmes, Susan G Sherman, Teela Sanders, Peninah Mwangi, and Anna-Louise Crago. “Associations between Sex Work Laws and Sex Workers’ Health: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis of Quantitative and Qualitative Studies.” PLoS medicine. Public Library of Science, December 11, 2018. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6289426/

Gina Magliocco

Delaware '21

Gina is a Senior at the University of Delaware and the current President of the Her Campus UDel Chapter  She is an International Relations major with a minor in Public Policy.  She enjoys writing very much and has also been published by "Young Professionals in Foreign Policy." Gina is from Westchester, New York. 
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