What Would the Decriminalization of Sex Work Look Like?

When New York Democratic State Senators introduced a bill to decriminalize sex work related crimes last year, a rally erupted at City Hall in opposition. A group of people who called themselves “The New York Alliance Against The Legalization of Prostitution” said the bill would legitimize pimps and johns, incite trafficking, and add to the overall exploitation of women. This type of backlash flares whenever there’s a push to decriminalize sex work, which would begin to remove criminal penalties for prostitution. After Amnesty International in 2015 advocated in favor of it, they were blasted by big-name celebrities like Meryl Streep and Gloria Steinem, both claiming it would give men more power over women.

When consensual sex work is considered a form of violence, it’s hard to look ahead at the possibilities of decriminalization. For sex workers who are hit with this rhetoric, often the first line of defense is to showcase their agency, how they’re not victims, how most of their clients aren’t criminals. But when most of the space is used wrangling an ideological debate about whether sex work is inherently demeaning, any discussion of how decrim would take shape gets lost in the crossfire.

But as Vermont recently followed New York and became the second state (alongside D.C which also initiated a bill) to introduce legislation to remove criminal penalties, the reality of a decriminalized future is inching closer. According to think tank Data For Progress, more than half of the population supports decrim, alongside 66% of voters under 44 in approval. This 2020 presidential primary was the first time it was ever discussed on campaign trails, with Corey Booker in full support and Bernie and Warren open to consideration. As empathy grows for sex worker’s plight, I wanted to know: What would decriminalization of sex work look like in the United States?

Is it enough to move sex workers out of the shadows?

Will It Stop the Conflation of Sex Work and Sex Trafficking?

People who rally against decrim refer to themselves as abolitionists, purposely equating the battle to end slavery with the one to end prostitution. In a New York Times article Should Prostitution Be A Crime?, the global executive director of Equality Now, Yasmeen Hassan said, “If prostitution is legal, and men can buy women’s bodies with impunity, it’s the extreme sexualization of women.”

Equality Now campaigns for stronger laws against sex traffickers, but it’s unclear if they actually understand what fraud and coercion in the industry look like. Their website list transactional sex and survival sex as forms of sex trafficking, blending a spectrum of people interacting with the sex industry into one vague category. Minors and adults forced into the industry are seen as identical to those who love their job and are happy to do it. Nor does it differentiate between the huge swath of sex workers who are driven by economic circumstances.

This campaigning emboldens VICE squads to raid and shutter brothels, massage parlors, and strip clubs with guns and terror, taking away their place of work and livelihood. If sex workers are seen as being forced to work against their will, the police are celebrated as their heroes. But raids rarely end in rescue. According to the Appeal, during a sting in Florida that was supposed to target human traffickers, undercover cops arrested 103 people, 28 sex workers on prostitution charges, 63 on solicitation, and 3 on trafficking charges.

Kate D’Adamo, a partner at Reframe Health and Justice, a QTPOC collective working at the intersections of anti-oppression, harm reduction, healing justice, says part of the problem is that the police don’t look as sex workers as rational beings. She explained how they use indicators such as workers sleeping and eating in massage parlors as signs of trafficking, even though it’s common if you’re traveling to work in a brothel, parlor, or strip club to sleep on the premise or club-owned housing to avoid paying for a costly hotel. Nina Luo, an organizer for Decrim NY, a coalition that’s working to decriminalize the sex trades in New York State, told me over email: “Police and DAs have no interest in correctly assessing when people are being exploited.”

The laws are also written so vaguely that it’s difficult to distinguish who is a victim. Promoting prostitution, for example, is a law that targets managers, drivers, and even sex workers who work together. It’s usually a misdemeanor offense but sometimes it gets charged as sex trafficking because prosecutors and police are unaware or unwillingly to differentiate between consensual sex work and trafficking.

The New York State bill advocating for decrim, Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act, would begin to untangle this mess. It would get rid of half of the two dozen anti-prostitution penal codes but keep the laws against traffickers who exploit minors or coerce people into the sex trade. When consensual sex work is no longer a crime, it will become easier to understand and recognize what victimization looks like in the sex industry and identify who is in need of support and help. It would stop sex trafficking victims from getting arrested for prostitution.

But in order for this to reach across the country, each city and state will have to address how their laws conflate trafficking and sex work, as well as why these laws exist. In Seattle, for instance, anytime a man is caught paying a sex worker, they’re stamped with a damning sexual exploitation felony, forced to go to ‘John School’ to work on their male entitlement, and undergo HIV testing. Many of the men arrested are foreign-born east Asian men working with tech companies, just as the majority of men arrested for ‘patronizing a prostitute ’ in New York are black, even though these numbers definitely don’t reflect the demographic of customers.

The erasure of consensual sex work is a weapon that targets immigrants and men of color. Decrim would begin to address this but as Nina Lou explains: “Decriminalizing sex work is only one piece in the larger puzzle of decriminalizing communities.”

Will Police Just Find Another Way to Arrest Sex Workers?

In Seattle, Aurora Avenue North is lined with cheap motels and street-based workers. Once the hunting ground for the Green River Killer, a serial killer who targeted sex workers, the famous track now faces another threat: gentrification.

As Amazon and other tech companies have grown, more and more people have flocked to the Emerald City. To accommodate the growing population, seven-story apartment buildings with ground-floor stores have encroached on Aurora Avenue, an area The Seattle Times opinion writer and urban planner Ryan DiRaimo said it’s “ripe for change.” The newcomers, however, are quite scandalized and angry by the site of visible sex work, particularly since a lot of sex workers are back on the streets after Backpage shut down. In response, arrests have increased and framed as a way to help out the community.

Seattle based Sherae Lascelles, a community organizer and founder of Green Light Project, a harm-reduction program at the intersection of sex work and drug use, said to me the police make Seattle an already hostile work even more dangerous through neglect and intimidation. Cops have been known to spread false rumors about dangerous conditions to increase stings, follow sex workers in their cars, and scare off potential clients. Lascelles doesn’t believe that simple decrim alone would bring a huge relief to street-based sex workers because the police would find other laws to charge them with. If ‘loitering with an intent to solicit for prostitution’ is off the books, then it still leaves loitering. As well as other baseless crimes that are thought of to lower the quality-of-life of residents.

Nina Lou added: “It’s critical to understand that most people in the sex trades are criminalized populations, period. Women of color, especially trans women of color, immigrants, and migrants, people who use drugs or are experiencing homelessness – all of these folks are being targeted for quality-of-life policing no matter what.”

But decrim is a start. It’s one less way to arrest someone. One less reason to stop-and-frisk someone in the sex trade. And it will begin to take away some of the stigma associated with the industry. But like Lou’s organization is practicing, it’s important for decrim to be advocated alongside divestments from police systems. Similarly, as Lascelle is carrying out, it’s crucial for decrim to accompany services that criminalized populations need: healthcare, housing, childcare, and food assistance.

Will Sex Workers Get Labor Rights?

Abolitionists use decriminalization and legalization as synonymous terms. But, in reality, decrim describes the removal of laws that penalize sex workers, whereas legalization reflects a system where only under strict circumstances is prostitution allowed. In Nevada for example, brothels are legal but workers have to live on the premises. If they leave to go visit their mom, they have to get a health screening. Regulations like these are used more to control sex workers than to keep them safe.

But if decrim bills were to pass, would some regulations be necessary to access labor laws? D’Adamo said discussions about what kind of parameters sex workers want to work in is the first step to build the industry above the world of criminalization. The key is that unlike Nevada’s brothels, any participation outside of the regulations wouldn’t result in a criminal penalty.

To start the conversation about what kind of regulations are suitable, sex workers have to talk about where their work falls under labor and health and safety standards. Should condoms be necessary for brothel workers? Should there be designated spaces to work on the street? Should 40 hours be used as a marker for overtime? Even then, labor rights won’t magically appear because of the hostility towards workers and worker’s rights in general. The majority of strippers, for example, don’t get minimum wage or overtime and can’t unionize because they’re consistently misclassified as independent contractors. “Decrim will move sex workers into the world of worker’s rights and the criminalization of poverty,” says D’Adamo. “But it will begin the process of being seen as a worker.”

Decrim will open up the floodgates for sex workers to begin to imagine how each facet of their industry fits into the working world. They can begin to gather, organize, and share information more widely. Sex workers will move out of the shadows but head down the long path towards acceptance as workers in our society. It’s the beginning, not the end.🔮

Edited by rachel

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Reese Piper

Reese Piper is a writer and stripper living in Brooklyn. She is currently working on a memoir. Follow Reese on Twitter

Reese has written 3 articles for us.


  1. I love all the sex work centered writing we’ve been getting on Autostraddle these days. This is such a good thorough examination of the issue.

  2. I recommend looking to my home country of New Zealand for evidence of the positive effects of decriminalisation. Sex work was decriminalised here in 2003. The focus of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003 was on the human rights of sex workers, protection from exploitation and promotion of occupational health and safety. A review conducted in 2008 found the law change to have been beneficial for sex workers. The New Zealand model works. Check it out.

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