Understanding Sex Work in an Open Society

Who are sex workers?

Sex workers are male, female, or transgender adults who receive money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services, either regularly or occasionally.

Why use the term sex worker rather than prostitute?

Many people who sell sexual services find the term “prostitute” demeaning and stigmatizing. As a result, the term can also contribute to their exclusion from health, legal, and social services.

Do sex workers choose their line of work?

There are many reasons why people decide to sell sexual services. Some choose to do sex work because it offers better pay and more flexible working conditions. Others enter into sex work as a result of circumstances like poverty which, while regrettable, do not involve coercion or deceit. Regardless of the reasons, sex work is work, and in an open society sex workers should have the same rights to safe working environments as all other workers.

What is the difference between sex work and trafficking?

Trafficking and sex work are different.

Trafficking is an egregious human rights violation and is universally condemned by states and human rights activists. Trafficking involves the threat of force, abduction, deception, or other forms of coercion for sexual exploitation or forced labor. But sex work is done by consenting adults, where the act of selling or buying sexual services is not a violation of human rights. In fact, sex workers are natural allies in the fight against trafficking. The UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work recognizes that sex worker organizations are best positioned to refer people who are victims of trafficking to appropriate services.

What’s wrong with treating sex work as a crime?

Criminalizing the sale or purchase of sexual services puts sex workers at greater risk by driving sex work underground, making it harder to access health services, safely negotiate with clients, and carry condoms without fear that they will be used as evidence of prostitution. Because of this, sex workers are at increased risk of violence and health risks like HIV infection.

Sex workers in many settings report extreme levels of violence and abuse from clients, intimate partners, bosses, the general public, and especially police. Criminalization makes it difficult for sex workers to officially report the rights violations they experience, including from police, creating a cycle of violence and impunity that endangers their health and safety.

What is the difference between decriminalization and legalization of sex work?

The Open Society Foundations support the decriminalization of sex work. Decriminalization means removing criminal penalties that apply to sex work, allowing it to be governed by similar workplace laws and protections as any other job. Legalization of sex work involves bringing it under a regulatory regime in the way that tobacco and alcohol—for example—are controlled in many countries. Jurisdictions that choose legal and regulated sex work are likely to do so on public health grounds. But legalization can result in regulations that limit rights and protections, create mechanisms for abuse by authorities, and have other negative impacts on sex workers.

Doesn’t research show that prostitution is inherently harmful?

Some researchers and activists believe that prostitution is an institution of extreme male domination and exploitation of women that is defined by violence and abuse, regardless of individual, regional, or policy contexts. They use terms like “sexual slavery” and “paid rape” to describe sex work. These terms ignore any autonomy or choice on the part of women selling sexual services, which is paternalistic and stigmatizing.

How do the Open Society Foundations support sex workers?

The Open Society Foundations support sex worker-led organizations and advocates, and work to end police violence, ensure access to legal services, challenge and change laws and policies that harm health, and increase access to appropriate health services. For example: