Between Her and Her Rights: Criminalization of Sex Work is the Barrier

Posted on December 16, 2016  |  Related Issues:

by Beirne Roose-Snyder, Director of Public Policy; Preston Mitchum, Policy Research Analyst; and Devan Shea, Senior Policy and Partnerships Associate

Around the world, criminal laws on sex work prevent sex workers from accessing the health and legal systems that should serve them—and that must change. Criminalization has a profound and costly impact on sex workers’ sexual and reproductive health and rights (SRHR). Female sex workers, in particular, bear a disproportionate burden of HIV and also experience significant unmet needs related to family planning, safe pregnancy, safe abortion, and gender-based violence

Criminalization threatens sex workers’ ability to protect their own health. Sex workers in China, South Africa, and New Orleans, for example, risk arrest and extortion by police when they carry condoms. Police in South Africa have been reported to confiscate sex workers’ anti-retroviral medication, or withhold medication from detained sex workers. Police abuse puts sex workers in an untenable position – either carry condoms and medication to protect their own health and the health of their clients, or forgo protection out of fear of abuse or exploitation by law enforcement. 

Criminalization also perpetuates stigma and marginalization. Sex workers, already vulnerable to abuse and violence from police, often face barriers to accessing a host of health services. Health providers are not immune to the widespread stigmatization of sex work – in a survey of more than 200 health care providers in Laos who offered sexually transmitted infection (STI) services to female sex workers, more than half expressed negative attitudes about these workers. Public health conversations about the health needs of sex workers are too often limited to the prevention of HIV and STIs. But sex workers – especially female sex workers – are also people with health needs beyond HIV, from immunization to antenatal care to basic pediatric care for their families.

By perpetuating abuse, marginalization, stigma, and discrimination, criminal laws on sex work effectively cut off sex workers from legal protections and health systems. These barriers can’t be brushed aside as a matter of an individual police officer or provider’s bad attitudes or behavior. Criminal laws work in concert with social and legal systems to erect a wall between sex workers and their human rights. When it comes to the SRHR needs of women, sex workers are often left out of the conversation, as if they are not also women.

The public health evidence is clear - decriminalizing sex work could avert HIV infections by up to 46%.  But decriminalization is about more than preventing HIV – it’s about breaking down the barriers between sex workers and the systems and institutions that are supposed to protect their human rights. Removing criminal laws would allow sex workers to do their work under safer conditions, protect their health on their own terms, access services and social safety nets, and demand justice when their rights are violated. In Australia, for example, decriminalization enabled sex workers to organize and address risk factors in their workplaces. And, in India, collectivization allowed for the establishment of health services

Decriminalization is a vehicle to ensuring that the health and human rights of women and girls everywhere are upheld and protected. The SRHR of sex workers will not be protected without decriminalization. As a global community of advocates, we must remember that all women’s rights are human rights. Decriminalization is a human rights issue and all women, sex workers included, are entitled to the full enforcement of those rights so they can live fulfilling lives.

This post is part of the All in for #Decrim Blog Carnival to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Read all of the posts at and share using the hashtag #decrim.
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