Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Helping sex workers help themselves

Laws criminalising prostitution have done incredible damage to sex workers over the years but they have never succeeded in ending the practice. For that reason alone they should be opposed. Español

Anne Gathumbi
20 June 2016


Red Umbrella March for Sex Work Solidarity on 11 June 2016. Sally T. Buck/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

NAIROBI – Once, when I was meeting with a sex workers’ group in a brothel in Kenya, the women there got a call that one of their members had been found, dumped near a river with deep cuts on her face, hands, and thighs.

The woman had been taken into custody the night before by law enforcement. Her fellow sex workers had gone to the police station to bail her out but couldn’t find her. When they picked her up from a dumpsite, they learned she had been gang raped by the police, who then left her in the woods where she was accosted by street boys, who raped and beat her again. The sex workers attempted to report the incident but were threatened with arrests of their own.

The group collected money to take their friend to the hospital where she stayed for a month. They also took turns feeding her children and making sure they went to school. In other words, they provided the social services the state would not provide because, if they had not done so, their colleague would have died and her children would have become homeless.

There are many reasons I support the decriminalisation of sex work, but they all stem from the very simple fact that criminalising sex work doesn’t work.

Most sex workers I have met – not just in Kenya but in many other countries – have had a bad encounter with law enforcement, usually because the police stole their money or coerced them into performing sex acts under threat of prosecution. That’s one reason I support decriminalisation of sex work. There are many other reasons, but all of them stem from the very simple fact that criminalising sex work – the purchase of it, the sale of it, or the activities required to do either – doesn’t work. It has never been successful in its goal of eliminating sex work. Instead it has served to drive sex workers further underground, making it harder for them to access health services, employ safety measures, or report abuse or exploitation to police.

By removing the threat of legal sanctions, decriminalisation creates an environment in which we can focus on advancing the human rights of sex workers instead of punishing them. It’s no longer an abstract possibility. On 26 May, Amnesty International published a new policy on protecting sex workers, which includes a recommendation for decriminalisation of sex work and associated activities. With this policy, Amnesty International joins a large group of organisations worldwide that support decriminalisation, including the World Health Organisation, UNAIDS, Human Rights Watch, and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women.


Red Umbrella March for Sex Work Solidarity on 11 June 2016. Sally T. Buck/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

Their support is backed by evidence. New Zealand and New South Wales, Australia removed criminal penalties related to sex work in 2003 and 1995, respectively. Discussions with sex workers there reveal a much safer work environment, including an increased ability to screen clients, to work in areas with better security, to contact police in cases of violence, and to negotiate safe sex practices and fair compensation. Sex workers there have formed and joined labour unions, and been involved in articulating rules and regulations to govern their trade.

Decriminalisation also has many potential health benefits. A study published in The Lancet in 2014 concluded the policy could avert up to 46% of new HIV infections among female sex workers over the next decade. That’s even more effective than increased access to antiretroviral treatments alone, because when sex work is decriminalised, sex workers are empowered to insist on condom use and are better able to access HIV prevention, testing, and treatment services.

In Sweden, one sex worker told me how police would camp at her doorstep waiting to arrest any clients who showed up.

Unfortunately, a different approach is gaining favour in some parts of the world. Under the so-called Swedish model, which has been implemented in that country as well as several others, it is illegal to purchase sex or engage in third-party activities such as advertisement or management.

Although sex workers themselves do not face prosecution under this regime, they are hurt just the same. They have a hard time renting an apartment because landlords are afraid of being charged with brothel keeping, and must conduct their activities in more dangerous locations because clients are afraid of the police. In Norway, police use sex workers’ possession of condoms as evidence against clients. In Sweden, one sex worker told me how police would camp at her doorstep waiting to arrest any clients who showed up. Her neighbours eventually demanded she vacate her apartment. Such practices create stigma and lead to discrimination.

Sex workers are almost universally opposed to the Swedish model, and yet several countries in the European Union are considering it—a wilful ignorance that has no place amidst public health crises like the kind we are facing in many parts of the world. Criminalisation does nothing to protect sex workers or the communities in which they live; instead, it puts sex workers and their families at further risk. Decriminalisation is a better approach, empowering sex workers to advocate for themselves as equal citizens under the law.

The Open Society Foundations is a core funder of openDemocracy.

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