Yesterday, lawmakers in New York State introduced a bill decriminalizing sex work. Decriminalization would be a big step towards protecting the health, safety, and dignity of sex workers.
Other US states and Washington, DC, where a bill to decriminalize sex work is also pending, should follow. Nevada is the only US state that allows sex work in some places.
Human Rights Watch’s research has consistently found that criminalizing sex work violates the right to bodily autonomy and offends dignity. Additionally, it doesn’t stop sex work. What such laws do is make sex workers considerably less safe. Many sex worker groups and human rights activists worldwide have reached the same conclusions.
Our research in New York City, San Francisco, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and New Orleans shows that arresting sex workers is a waste of time for both sex workers and police. It also humiliates sex workers, who are often from marginalized communities and struggling to make ends meet.
Additionally, police often use possession of condoms – which in many places is evidence of prostitution – as a reason to harass or arrest sex workers. This means some sex workers choose either not to carry condoms, or to carry only a few. The use of condoms as criminal evidence undermines efforts to end HIV transmission and contravenes the right to health.
Human Rights Watch found the same patterns in Tanzania, China, and South Africa – humiliating harassment and abusive arrests. There, police often engage in extortion and rape, pushing sex workers into more dangerous places like dark parks and strange cars to do their work. And when clients and others beat and rape sex workers, they are afraid to report such crimes, knowing they are likely to be treated as criminals themselves. Almost all the sex workers I interviewed in South Africa were parents struggling to stay afloat and get their kids fed, clothed, and educated. It didn’t make sense to them, or to me, why they were arrested.
But criminalization of consensual adult sex work doesn’t make sense anywhere. Decriminalizing sex work – and protecting the health and safety of sex workers – does.