How policies meant to protect sex workers continue to fail them

by Dr. Manisha Shah with Rachel DuRose

“41. Standing Together for Sex Work Solidarity” by Sally T. Buck is licensed with CC BY-NC-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Let’s be clear… sex work is work.

And evidence shows that when it is treated as such, everyone benefits.

June 2nd marks International Sex Worker’s Day — a day commemorating 200 sex workers who protested their criminalization by occupying the Saint-Nizier Church in Lyon, France.

Over 45 years after the Saint-Nizier protest, the fundamental belief sex workers were rallying for is still being debated.

This is why the Global Lab for Research in Action, a research institute at UCLA, is calling on leaders, lawmakers, and governments to decriminalize sex work.

While there has been talk of decriminalization — the removal of criminal penalties for sex work — in Los Angeles, Manhattan, Philadelphia and Washtenaw County, we still criminalize sex work in the United States.

Research, whether it be from Rhode Island or the Netherlands, shows that decriminalization of sex work decreases incidents of abuse and rape, decreases STI rates, and decreases sex trafficking.

Given most industries aren’t stigmatized to the same extent as the sex industry, you would be hard-pressed to find laws preventing consumers from buying a good or service but not preventing the offering of that good or service.

Yet, this is exactly what the “Nordic” or “End Demand” model does for the sex industry. Recently rebranded as the “Equality” model by certain prohibitionist feminist groups in the northeast, policies like these conflate sex work with sex trafficking and ignore the voices of the workers who are supposedly made more ‘equal.’

Open Society Foundations defines sex work as the exchange of money or goods for consensual sexual services or erotic performances.

Sex work and sex trafficking are not the same.

The “End Demand” model seeks to decrease the prevalence of sex work by decriminalizing the act of providing sex but not the act of purchasing it. However, a study from the United Kingdom shows that the continued criminalization of buyers does not necessarily reduce demand, and it has shifted the composition of demand towards more risky clients.

The “End Demand” model views sex workers as victims of their industry, when in actuality sex workers, and their communities, are becoming victims of the very policies meant to protect them — with research showing that banning the purchase of sex leads to increased levels of rape across the wider community.

When sex work was criminalized in one part of East Java, Indonesia, our study found that the prevalence of STI symptoms increased by over 50 percent, and children were less likely to stay in school, turning to work to supplement household income.

While this research on sex markets in Indonesia was published in 2020, sex workers have been voicing their concerns over the effects dehumanizing policies will have on their children for decades.

During the Saint-Nizier protest, workers hung a banner saying, “‘(Our) children do not want their mothers to go to jail.”

When sex worker autonomy and human rights are not respected, policies can have unintended consequences and harm the children and community-members trying to be helped.

Lawmakers and prosecutors are upholding the criminalization of the sex industry in spite of the evidence. The regulation of the sex industry intersects issues of racial justice and criminal justice reform — with the criminalization of workers coinciding with more arrests of people of color.

With 52% of American voters strongly or somewhat supporting the decriminalization of sex work, lawmakers have few excuses for ignoring years of research. Public opinion and data on community health amplify the requests that sex workers have been making for years.

On the 46th anniversary of the Saint-Nizier protest this piece is published with the hope that more attention and support will be given to the decriminalization of sex work. And it is not enough to stop arresting sex workers — we cannot just shift the arrests from sex worker to client.

Only when the community and leaders understand that sex work is work, can positive change at the local, federal and international level be achieved.

Thank you to the sex workers who, for the past 20 years, have entertained questions from me, let me collect data from them, and shared their lived experiences to help me better understand their work and lives.

Dr. Manisha Shah is Professor of Public Policy at UCLA and founder of the Global Lab for Research in Action. Shah is an economist whose primary research and teaching interests lie at the intersection of applied microeconomics, health, and international development. Shah is one of the leading global researchers on the economics of sex markets, with 20+ years of research in this field, and co-editor of The Oxford Handbook of the Economics of Prostitution with Scott Cunningham. The goal of her research is to identify more effective policies and programs to positively impact health and education outcomes globally.

Rachel DuRose is a Global Lab intern and Daily Bruin columnist. DuRose will be graduating from UCLA in June with a B.A. in Public Affairs and Political Science, and going on to join Insider as a careers fellow.

If you are interested in learning more about how the Global Lab transforms research into action, please contact us at global-lab@luskin.ucla.edu.

The Global Lab pursues evidence-based solutions to critical health, education and economic challenges faced by children, adolescents and women around the world.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store