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Publications Explainer

Understanding Sex Work in an Open Society

People holding signs and banners at a demonstration
Sex workers demonstrate against discrimination in London, United Kingdom, on March 8, 2019. © Wiktor Szymanowicz/Barcroft/Getty

Who are sex workers?

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

Why use the term “sex worker” rather than “prostitute”?

The term “sex worker” recognizes that sex work is work. Prostitution, on the other hand, has connotations of criminality and immorality. Many people who sell sexual services prefer the term “sex worker” and find “prostitute” demeaning and stigmatizing, which contributes to their exclusion from health, legal, and social services.

Why do some people do sex work?

Sex workers sell sexual services in order to earn a livelihood. The vast majority of sex workers choose to do sex work because it is the best option they have. Many sex workers struggle with poverty and destitution and have few other options for work. Others find that sex work offers better pay and more flexible working conditions than other jobs. And some pursue sex work to explore and express their sexuality.

Why shouldn’t sex work be a crime?

Criminalization of sex work compromises sex workers’ health and safety by driving sex work underground. Criminalization includes everything from criminalizing the sale and purchase of sexual services, to blanket prohibitions on management of sex work. Criminalization makes it harder for sex workers to negotiate terms with clients, work together with other sex workers for safety, and carry condoms without fear that they will be used as evidence of prostitution.

Sex workers in many settings report extreme levels of violence and harassment in connection with their work, including from clients, managers, and police. Criminalization makes it difficult for sex workers to report rights violations, especially by the police, because they are vulnerable to incarceration, further abuse, and retribution. This perpetuates stigma, violence, and impunity, which further endanger sex workers’ health and safety.

What’s wrong with laws that target only the clients of sex workers?

Many opponents of sex work acknowledge the harms that result from criminalizing sex workers and support a system that criminalizes buyers and third parties—such as managers or brothel owners—but not sex workers themselves. This kind of criminalization, which is often referred to as the “Swedish” or “Nordic” model, seeks to end demand for sex work while treating sex workers as victims rather than criminals.

This model perpetuates stigma against sex workers, leading to discrimination in social services, housing, and health care, and does not address the fundamental problem of criminalization, driving sex work underground and pushing sex workers away from safety and services. 

Criminalization of clients and third parties hasn’t been effective in achieving its intended goal of abolishing—or even reducing—sex work. In France, for example, the purchase of sexual services was criminalized in 2016 and two years later a study demonstrated that the impact on sex workers was severe, including major deterioration in living conditions and greater exposure to violence. In Sweden, where criminalization of the purchase of sexual services was introduced in 1999, online advertisements for sexual services has increased exponentially in the past decade. 

What is decriminalization of sex work?

Decriminalization means removal of criminal and administrative penalties that apply specifically to sex work, creating an enabling environment for sex worker health and safety. For decriminalization to be meaningful, it must be accompanied by a recognition of sex work as work, allowing sex work to be governed by labor law and protections similar to other jobs. While decriminalization does not resolve all challenges that sex workers face, it is a necessary condition to realize sex workers’ human rights.

The Open Society Foundations support decriminalization of sex work as the best way to protect the health and human rights of sex workers.

What is human trafficking, and how is sex work different?

Human trafficking is an egregious human rights violation involving the threat or use of force, abduction, deception, or other forms of coercion for the purpose of exploitation. This may include forced labor, sexual exploitation, slavery, and more.

Sex work, on the other hand, is a consensual transaction between adults, where the act of selling or buying sexual services is not a violation of human rights. Conflating trafficking with sex work can be harmful and counterproductive.

Sex worker organizations oppose exploitation, and many argue that the most effective way to address exploitation, including human trafficking, is to strengthen workers’ rights and address economic injustices. Precarious work, restrictive migration policies, and gender inequality all contribute to greater vulnerability to exploitation.

Is sex work inherently harmful?

The fact that sex work is work does not mean that it is good work, or empowering work, or harmless work. However, sex work is not inherently harmful, but criminalization and stigma do make sex work circumstantially harmful.

Sex workers, like most workers, have diverse feelings about their work. Some sex workers dislike their work but find that it is their best or only option to make a living. Some are agnostic about their work but find that it offers flexibility or good pay. And some enjoy the work and find it all around rewarding or fun. Regardless of what sex workers think about their work, they deserve workplace health and safety and human rights.

How do the Open Society Foundations support sex workers?

The Open Society Foundations support sex worker–led organizations and other advocates to advance the health and rights of sex workers. Our grantees work to address violence against sex workers; ensure access to health, social, and legal services; change laws and policies which harm sex workers’ health; and challenge destructive narratives. For example:

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