Understanding Sex Work in an Open Society

Who are sex workers?

Sex workers are female, male, or transgender 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 terms “sex work” and “sex worker” recognize that sex work is work. 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.

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 than other jobs. Others pursue sex work to explore and express their sexuality. And some do sex work as a result of circumstances like poverty or lack of other options. Regardless of the reasons, in an open society, sex workers should have the same rights to occupational health and safety as other workers.

Why shouldn’t sex work be a crime?

Criminalizing either the sale or purchase of sexual services puts sex workers at greater risk of abuse by driving sex work underground. Criminalization makes it harder for sex workers to access health services, safely negotiate with clients, and carry condoms without fear that they will be used as evidence of prostitution. A recent study in the Lancet found decriminalization to be the single most effective way to reduce new HIV infections among female sex workers over the next decade.

Sex workers in many settings report extreme levels of violence and harassment, including from clients, intimate partners, managers, and police. Criminalization makes it difficult for sex workers to officially report the rights violations they experience, especially from police because of fear of retribution. This perpetuates stigma, violence, and impunity that endanger their health and safety.

What is 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, like managers or brothel owners, but not sex workers themselves. This kind of criminalization, which is often referred to as the “Swedish model,” seeks to end demand for sex work while treating sex workers as victims rather than criminals.  

Not only does this model perpetuate stigma against sex workers, leading to discrimination in employment, housing, and health care, but it also suffers from the same fundamental problem as total criminalization: it means that sex work must be conducted underground, pushing sex workers away from safety and services.

The Open Society Foundations support the total decriminalization of sex work.  

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

Decriminalization and legalization of sex work are two different approaches to regulating sex work and sex work–related business. Decriminalization means removal of criminal and administrative penalties that apply to sex work, allowing it to be governed by labor law and protections similar to other jobs. It is primarily concerned with regulations that advance the health and safety of workers.

Legalization creates narrow regulatory regimes based on other concerns and objectives, such as the health of clients, taxation, or public morality. As a result, legalization may include regulations that limit sex workers’ rights and protections, such as mandatory HIV testing. These may further stigmatize sex workers.

Legalization could also create mechanisms for abuse by authorities. For example, in the Netherlands where sex work is legalized, law enforcement has raided sex workers’ homes without a warrant and conducted mass arrests of sex workers veiled as antitrafficking operations.

What is the difference between sex work and human trafficking?

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.

Sex worker organizations oppose exploitation, and the UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work recognizes that sex worker organizations can be well positioned to refer victims of trafficking to appropriate services.

Conflating trafficking with sex work can be harmful. Many antitrafficking initiatives regard all sex workers as victims, relocating or detaining them in so-called safe houses against their will. Other efforts, like those that have shuttered brothels, have deprived sex workers of their autonomy, income, and secure working conditions. Such efforts have fostered distrust between authorities and sex workers, pushed sex work underground, and made public health outreach more difficult.

Is sex work inherently harmful?

Sex workers, like most workers, have diverse feelings about their profession. Many sex workers find their work personally empowering and rewarding. Others view it simply as a way to make a living, while yet others dislike it. When critics claim that sex work itself is harmful, they ignore not only this diversity of opinion and experience, but also the autonomy and consent of the women, men, and transgender individuals selling sexual services.

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 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: