A new report published today by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Center for Transgender Equality, and 22 other United States-based human rights organizations finds that 52 percent of Americans and two-thirds of voters age 18 to 44 years support decriminalizing sex work.

Decriminalizing sex work means ending laws that make it illegal to sell and buy consensual, adult sex or related activities like advertising sex work or renting a room to a sex worker. Actual criminal behavior such as child prostitution or sex trafficking would, of course, remain illegal.

Decriminalization campaigns in Washington, DC and New York have both gained traction in recent months after decades of efforts by sex worker activists.

Congresswoman Ayana Pressley (D-MA) has called for decriminalization as part of her effort against mass incarceration in the US. She has noted that criminalization especially harms Black women and trans people who turn to sex work because of poverty and discrimination. Criminalizing their work only worsens their situation.  

But Pressley is still in a minority. Candidates running in US state and national elections this year should support decriminalizing the voluntary sale and purchase of sex and ending the violence criminalization encourages against women and gay, bisexual, and transgender people.

Today’s report includes testimony from sex workers about the abuses they experience at the hands of police, including coercive sex in exchange for no arrest, stalking, and discriminatory profiling. “One time, I was walking and holding hands with my boyfriend and the police arrested me,” said Bianey Garcia, a trans sex worker from New York. She has been arrested four times but only once while performing sex work. She believes each other arrest resulted from her being trans.

Human Rights Watch has researched the effects of criminalization in several places including China, Tanzania, South Africa, and in several cities in the US. These reports show that when faced with arrest or police abuse, sex workers are less likely to report crimes committed against them or the trafficking of others, ultimately making them more unsafe.  

We all have a human right to autonomy over our bodies. Arresting and fining or imprisoning people for consensual sex doesn’t make any sense and makes some of the most vulnerable Americans even more so. Elected officials should listen to voters and begin decriminalizing sex work in the US.