Human Rights Watch has conducted research on sex work around the world, including in Cambodia, China, Tanzania, the United States, and most recently, South Africa. The research, including extensive consultations with sex workers and organizations that work on the issue, has shaped the Human Rights Watch policy on sex work: Human Rights Watch supports the full decriminalization of consensual adult sex work.

Why is criminalization of sex work a human rights issue?

Criminalizing adult, voluntary, and consensual sex – including the commercial exchange of sexual services – is incompatible with the human right to personal autonomy and privacy. In short – a government should not be telling consenting adults who they can have sexual relations with and on what terms.

Criminalization exposes sex workers to abuse and exploitation by law enforcement officials, such as police officers. Human Rights Watch has documented that, in criminalized environments, police officers harass sex workers, extort bribes, and physically and verbally abuse sex workers, or even rape or coerce sex from them.

Human Rights Watch has consistently found in research across various countries that criminalization makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence, including rape, assault, and murder, by attackers who see sex workers as easy targets because they are stigmatized and unlikely to receive help from the police. Criminalization may also force sex workers to work in unsafe locations to avoid the police.

Criminalization consistently undermines sex workers’ ability to seek justice for crimes against them. Sex workers in South Africa, for example, said they did not report armed robbery or rape to the police. They said that they are afraid of being arrested because their work is illegal and that their experience with police is of being harassed or profiled and arrested, or laughed at or not taken seriously. Even when they report crimes, sex workers may not be willing to testify in court against their assailants and rapists for fear of facing sanctions or further abuse because of their work and status.

UNAIDS, public health experts, sex worker organizations, and other human rights organizations have found that criminalization of sex work also has a negative effect on sex workers’ right to health. In one example, Human Rights Watch found in a 2012 report, “Sex Workers at Risk: Condoms as Evidence of Prostitution in Four US Cities,” that police and prosecutors used a sex worker’s possession of condoms as evidence to support prostitution charges. The practice left sex workers reluctant to carry condoms for fear of arrest, forcing them to engage in sex without protection and putting them at heightened risk of contracting HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Criminalization also has a negative effect on other human rights. In countries that ban sex work, sex workers are less likely to be able to organize as workers, advocate for their rights, or to work together to support and protect themselves.

How does decriminalizing sex work help protect sex workers?

Decriminalizing sex work maximizes sex workers’ legal protection and their ability to exercise other key rights, including to justice and health care. Legal recognition of sex workers and their occupation maximizes their protection, dignity, and equality. This is an important step toward destigmatizing sex work.

Does decriminalizing sex work encourage other human rights violations such as human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children?

Sex work is the consensual exchange of sex between adults. Human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children are separate issues. They are both serious human rights abuses and crimes and should always be investigated and prosecuted.

Laws that clearly distinguish between sex work and crimes like human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children help protect both sex workers and crime victims. Sex workers may be in a position to have important information about crimes such as human trafficking and sexual exploitation of children, but unless the work they themselves do is not treated as criminal, they are unlikely to feel safe reporting this information to the police.

What should governments do?

Governments should fully decriminalize sex work and ensure that sex workers do not face discrimination in law or practice. They should also strengthen services for sex workers and ensure that they have safe working conditions and access to public benefits and social safety nets.

Moreover, any regulations and controls on sex workers and their activities need to be nondiscriminatory and otherwise comply with international human rights law. For example, restrictions that would prevent those engaged in sex work from organizing collectively, or working in a safe environment, are not legitimate restrictions.

Why does Human Rights Watch support full decriminalization rather than the “Nordic model?”

The “Nordic model,” first introduced in Sweden, makes buying sex illegal, but does not prosecute the seller, the sex worker. Proponents of the Nordic model see “prostitution” as inherently harmful and coerced; they aim to end sex work by killing the demand for transactional sex. Disagreement between organizations seeking full decriminalization of sex work and groups supporting the Nordic model has been a contentious issue within the women’s rights community in many countries and globally.

Human Rights Watch supports full decriminalization rather than the Nordic model because research shows that full decriminalization is a more effective approach to protecting sex workers’ rights. Sex workers themselves also usually want full decriminalization.

The Nordic model appeals to some politicians as a compromise that allows them to condemn buyers of sex but not people they see as having been forced to sell sex. But the Nordic model actually has a devastating impact on people who sell sex to earn a living. Because its goal is to end sex work, it makes it harder for sex workers to find safe places to work, unionize, work together and support and protect one another, advocate for their rights, or even open a bank account for their business. It stigmatizes and marginalizes sex workers and leaves them vulnerable to violence and abuse by police as their work and their clients are still criminalized.

Isn’t sex work a form of sexual violence?

No. When an adult makes a decision of her, his, or their own free will to exchange sex for money, that is not sexual violence.

When a sex worker is the victim of a crime, including sexual violence, the police should promptly investigate and refer suspects for prosecution. When a person exchanges sex for money as a result of coercion – for example by a pimp – or experiences violence from a pimp or a customer, or is a victim of trafficking, these are serious crimes. The police should promptly
investigate and refer the case for prosecution.

Sex workers are often exposed to high levels of violence and other abuse or harm, but this is usually because they are working in a criminalized environment. Research by Human Rights Watch and others indicates that decriminalization can help reduce crime, including sexual violence, against sex workers.

Aside from decriminalizing sex work, what other policies does Human Rights Watch support with regard to sex workers’ rights?

People engaged in voluntary sex work may come from backgrounds of poverty or marginalization and face discrimination and inequality, including in their access to the job market. With this in mind, Human Rights Watch supports measures to improve the human rights situation for sex workers, including research and access to education, financial support, job training and placement, social services, and information. Human Rights Watch also encourages efforts to address discrimination based on gender, sexual orientation, gender identity, race, ethnicity, or immigration status affecting sex workers.

Human Rights Watch research documenting abuse against sex workers: