Forty-two years ago, a group of sex workers in Lyon, France, occupied a church and declared a strike to protest their working conditions and persecution by the police. Since then, June 2 has been celebrated as International Sex Workers Day, commemorating one of the founding moments of the sex workers’ rights movement.
But sex workers in France—and around the world—are still fighting to secure those rights. Last year, France passed a law making it a crime to pay for sex, reflecting the growing popularity of policies that aim to “end demand” for sex work. In February, Ireland became the most recent European country to adopt such legislation, and similar laws exist in Canada, Northern Ireland, Sweden, Norway, and Iceland.
Advocates for this approach, sometimes called the Swedish or Nordic model, claim that it helps sex workers because it targets the market for sex work, not the sex workers themselves. Reduce the demand, the logic goes, and sex work will go away, along with the human rights abuses many sex workers experience. Unfortunately, the evidence suggests that things are not so simple.
Exempting sex workers from prosecution doesn’t exempt them from the negative effects of criminalization if the transaction itself remains a crime. Research from Canada suggests that police crackdowns on clients actually increased the vulnerability of sex workers by making it harder for them to screen clients or trust the police.
In many countries, these laws have expanded the scope of criminalization—so the landlord renting the premises where a sex worker does business, for example, may be breaking the law against brothel-keeping. In Norway, Amnesty International found that this led to sex workers being evicted from their homes, while the fear of eviction kept others from reaching out to police when they were the victims of crimes.
Sex workers also reported that the law made it harder for them to protect themselves by working together or hiring security, because those actions could be interpreted as “promoting prostitution” or running a brothel, which are against the law.
The end-demand model is also supposed to include social services to help people leave the sex trade. But in practice, the emphasis is always on law enforcement; the promised services are an afterthought. When services do exist, they are often underfunded and vulnerable to budget cuts.
In France, more than a year after the new law was passed, the proposed package of services—such as financial and housing support, legal and medical services, and temporary residency permits for migrant sex workers—has yet to be funded. Sex workers have reported that services often come with strings attached—from pressure to commit to leaving sex work to receive help, to the stigma they may experience interacting with service providers. Criminalization also creates obstacles to harm-reduction services, like condom distribution, because such measures are seen as facilitating or legitimizing a trade that the law aims to eradicate.
While reliable data on the prevalence of sex work is limited, evidence from Norway and Sweden suggest that end-demand laws haven’t actually destroyed the market for sex work—they’ve just pushed it further into the shadows. The Swedish government’s own data [PDF] shows a moderate decline in street-based sex work over the past 20 years, but also an enormous rise in online advertisements for sexual services; a more than 20-fold increase in the past eight years alone.
Meanwhile, Sweden found no significant reduction in the number of people paying for sexual services during that period. This failure to actually reduce the demand for sex work reveals the false promises of the model: it neither achieves its stated goal of destroying the market for sex, nor solves the harms of criminalization. For this reason, the Open Society Foundations—along with Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International, the World Health Organization, and UNAIDS—support the full decriminalization of sex work.
Decriminalization is not a magic bullet, but it’s a better way to protect sex workers’ health and human rights. Decriminalization would allow law enforcement to focus on stopping exploitation and abuse, rather than policing consensual sex work. In New Zealand, for example, relations between sex workers and the police have improved since decriminalization was introduced in 2003. It could also free up more resources for health and social services. Most importantly, it would make it easier for sex workers to protect themselves and organize.
As Kate McGrew of Sex Workers Alliance Ireland says, “We have to be realistic about things that are occurring and protect the people involved. And that means not criminalizing the purchase or the sale, because the reality is that we get squeezed. It’s the worker who compromises.” By recognizing sex work as work, decriminalization enables sex workers to defend their labor rights—just as those who went on strike in Lyon more than 40 years ago demanded.