Decriminalizing sex work is very important in the fight for the equality of all women. Sex workers are among the most vulnerable groups of people in the world and the Criminalization of prostitution is very dehumanizing to them and it puts them at higher risk of abuse from clients and society.
This post is inspired by the stories I grew up hearing about sex workers and their clients and situations involving sex workers that I have witnessed. About one year ago, I attended a two-day workshop at a hotel and after our first night everyone was talking about an altercation involving a sex worker and her client the night before. Apparently, the man (the client) refused to pay the woman (the sex worker) the amount they agreed on and the woman insisted that he pay her exactly what they agreed on which he refused. The hotel staff intervened and told the woman to take what he gave her. However, she insisted that it was her right to be paid but she was told to take the money and leave because she had no rights.
I have heard similar stories over the years about how sex workers “have no rights”. Stories of sex workers who got physically assaulted by their clients whilst people just stood and watched because of the notion that, if she was not “selling herself” it would not have happened to her. I have also witnessed situations where women who were accused of being sex workers were publicly shamed and called names
Here are five reasons why sex work should be decriminalized:
The criminalization of sex work dehumanizes the sex worker: Sex workers already face discrimination and stigma in society. They are viewed as people who have no dignity and are not deserving of respect or rights. The laws criminalizing sex work contribute to the dehumanization of sex workers on some level. People feel that they are justified to abuse and shame sex workers because “what they are doing is not just immoral, it’s criminal”.
Secondly, when society recognizes only one narrative and applies it to all sex workers, it has a very dehumanizing effect, and the fact that it is criminal is not helping. Society fails to recognize the fact that sex workers are people with individual stories and experiences. People get in to prostitution for different reasons and the story is not always “she wants cheap money” or “she is lazy”. Sometimes the story is, she was abused as a child and prostitution is the only way she asserts ownership of her body or prostitution is the only route she sees out of poverty or it is the way she feeds herself and her family. The point is, there is no one story.
Dehumanizing any person or group of people is the worst thing that can be done because when we take a person’s story away from them and paint them as just one thing, we somehow say that it is justifiable to do things to them that we would not normally do to other people because they are “less human”. This is demonstrated in the way society treats sex workers and that is why people are so quick to say that “they have no rights”.
Decriminalization of sex work is the best way to protect sex worker from violence and abuse. We cannot talk about protecting women from violence and abuse without talking about all women including sex workers. Protecting women from violence and abuse cannot be done without the full decriminalization of sex work. According to research Carried out among two hundred and fifty one female sex workers in Gambia in 2011 on Sexual Violence against Female Sex Workers, 29% of the female sex workers stated that clients forced them to have sex
Sex workers face the danger of being physically abused by clients and because sex work is criminalized in The Gambia it is very unlikely that a sex worker would report abuse she endured from a client. Thus, some men feel that they can abuse these women with impunity and they often get away with it, Just like how the man who refused to pay the woman what they agreed on got away with it.
Furthermore, the laws pushes sex workers and those soliciting sex to quieter and more isolated places were sex workers would be at higher risk of being abused by clients.
They need to be part of the conversation on HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.
All men and women need to be part of the conversation on HIV and other Sexually Transmitted Diseases. The criminalization of sex work pushes sex workers further underground and makes them unreachable to activist and health workers. However, if sex work is decriminalized they would be more reachable. Specialized community outreach programs can be done targeting sex workers on how they can protect themselves from HIV and Sexually Transmitted Diseases. It is very important that sex workers get out of hiding for their health and well-being but the first step is removing the fear of persecution.
Decriminalizing sex work is not decriminalizing human trafficking. Human Trafficking is a terrible human rights violation and all efforts must be done to stop the practice. It is very important to differentiate sex workers who get into the practices voluntary and those who get in the practice as a result of coercion. Even though some sex workers get in to prostitution as a result of human trafficking, not all sex workers were trafficked. Sex workers should be able to run (yes, run) to the police for protection without the fear of being arrested for prostitutio
In several African countries soliciting sex from sex workers, brothel keeping, and prostitution in general is criminalized in some form directly or indirectly. In the Gambia, procuring, brothels, male persons who knowing live on the earnings of sex workers or solicit in public for immoral purposes, and females who live on the earnings of prostitution who exercise control, direction or influence over the movement of sex workers are all criminalized. Furthermore, a sex worker acting in a disorderly or indecent manner in public is considered to be idle and disorderly , and liable to a fine and or imprisonment.
The main reason why many states criminalize sex work is to stop women from getting in to prostitution, however criminalization as a means of deterrence has not worked. If states are so concerned about stopping prostitution what they should focus on is dealing with some of the situations that compel women to get in to prostitution. Of course, decriminalization is not going to automatically rid sex workers of all risk of violence and abuse but it will create options for sex workers which can make them safer.
If sex work is decriminalized, sex workers would have several options at their disposal. They would have the option to negotiate with their clients in more open and safer places. They would have the option to report abuse they suffer from clients or other individuals without fear of persecution. They would have the option of getting information about their health and well-being from NGO’s, Civil Society Organizations, Health Organizations, Health personnel etc.
Furthermore, decriminalizing sex work could potentially reduce the stigma and discrimination that sex workers face. If members of the public know that sex workers are not considered “criminals”, and if anyone commits a crime against them they would be held accountable, I believe that will be a good first step towards fighting the stigma and discrimination that sex workers face and changing the perception of people towards them.
There is a general misconception that there are only female sex workers, however the sex work industry does not only consist of women, there are male sex workers too. Even though, this article is focused on female sex workers and the specific issues that they deal with. I recognize the fact that the stories of male sex workers need to be heard and they need to be protected too.
 For the purpose of this article I will be using “sex work” and “prostitution” inter-changeable.