top of page
  • Writer's pictureAntonia Boorman

A Sex Work Policy Proposal using Systems Thinking

[Sex Work Series] Paper 6: Incorporating Systems Thinking to create effective policy reform of sex work policy in Western Europe.


Within my proposal, I advocate for the details of the decriminalisation policy to be formulated through collaborative governance, where systems thinking is used to ensure that all the interconnected problems associated with sex work law are addressed.

Collaborative governance is when representatives of all the agents involved in an issue work together to solve the issue. Since sex work is a form of morality politics this seemed appropriate and necessary to do. During the collaborative governance sessions, the information in this capstone can be present in order to advocate for decriminalisation, the most optimal approach, using accurate information rather than ideology-based arguments. In the collaborative governance sessions, the government, sex workers, sex work NGOs, opposing NGOs (abolitionists, end demanders, faith-based NGOs, etc), and any other relevant representatives of community and private sector members (a health sector representative as HIV/AIDS is high in the sex work industry) will be present.

Systems thinking will be used to enhance communication and understanding among actors in order to ensure the effective formation and implementation of decriminalisation policy. Collaborative governance will also ensure many different social networks understand the policy in an effort to address and reduce the stigma towards sex workers, as well as reduce the risk of social protest and media backlash. Once the decriminalisation policy is established, I propose the details of how and why the policy was reformed be explicitly spread across multiple networks by the use of media, governance and NGO involvement, to further reduce the stigma. Not only will this proposal attempt to aid the enhance the safety of sex workers and lessen the problems discussed in previous posts, yet I argue that it could also aid the efforts to reduce sex trafficking rates in Western Europe.

My proposal to change the societal and legal restrictions currently directed towards sex workers follows the following steps, based upon David Peter Stroh’s “Four stages of leading systemic change” model (Stroh, 2015) illustrated below.

Figure 1: Stroh’s “Four stages of leading systemic change” model. Note: Except from “Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results” (Stroh, 2015).

STEP 1: Shifting From Conventional Thinking To Systems Thinking Through Collaborative Governance.

Collaborative governance brings social networks together reducing polarisation and groupthink. Through facilitated discussions, agents can talk together and understand each other's perspectives. Considering sex work is a form of morality politics where many strong and conflicting ideological-based opinions are held, accurate information must be withheld. This is why I propose that Amnesty International, the previously identified central node and internationally respected NGO, be a facilitator and moderator of the event to ensure that all information (that is to influence policy formulation and implementation) within discussion be evidence-based and fact-checked rather than ideological based. Through collaborative governance all agents in the system can understand their role to reduce harm against sex workers ie. the media can share accurate information, the government can introduce effective policy and the community work to reduce the stigma of sex work. As suggested by Stroh (2015), by engaging key stakeholders and establishing a common ground ie. harm-reduction for sex workers, this will encourage collaboration which can be maintained to ensure the end goal, of social and legal reform to reduce the harm against sex workers, is achieved.

Albert Einstein once said, “You can’t change a problem with the same thinking that created the thinking in the first place” (Living in Community, 2019, para. 1). This is exactly why I propose the use of systems thinking, an innovative approach to problem-solving, to reform sex work policy. Current approaches towards sex work in Wester Europe (Legalisation, Criminalisation, the Nordic model and Partial Criminalisation) were all created with good intentions yet they failed to address the problem accurately. This is because the problems associated with sex work are complex, and thus cannot be solved by looking at it linearly (the conventional approach). Instead, the entire system must be examined, ie. understanding how within a partial criminalisation approach, criminalising brothels can lead to homelessness due to the vagueness and broadness of the specific legislation. This can only be fixed through a systems thinking approach.

A systems thinking approach is a set of tools that can be used to analyse complex systems. It examines the multiple agents in a system, how they are interconnected through networks and how their interactions may cause ripple effects, emergent properties and feedback loops within a system. Systems thinking uses multiple components that are appropriate for tackling the adapting dynamics and intricate network connections, such as a root cause analysis, causal network diagrams, leverage point identification and social network analysis (Goodman, 2016). All of which can be used to identify leverage points of where and how a system can be altered, ie. through policy reform, to obtain the desired effect which in this case is the reduction of harm to sex workers.

When policymakers do not use systems thinking to tackle the issues associated with sex work this can potentially lead to ineffective policies that do not achieve their goal of reducing sex work and instead harm sex workers further such as the Criminalisation or Nordic models. These policies have succumbed to the common pitfalls such as addressing the surface symptoms of the issue (ie. sex work occurring) rather than underlying problems (why sex work is occurring), and prioritising fixing short-term problems rather than analysing their long-term consequences (ie. criminalising sex work to stop it from happening but not taking into account the increasing crime and homelessness rates this creates). This has produced unintentional emergent properties within the system that have made the issue worse through reinforcing feedback loops ie. the legalisation approach creating two-tier segregation that has not solved the issues associated with criminalisation but has also segregated sex workers by socio-economic class. Stroh identified (Stroh, 2015) that policies that do not use a systems thinking approach often fail to realise that these unintended consequences have come directly from the inefficient policies and thus are unable to solve them.

Figure 2 : Table showing when conventional thinking versus systems thinking applies to problem-solving. Note: Except from “Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results” (Stroh, 2015)

Figure 3: Characteristics of Conventional Thinking vs Systems Thinking Note: Except from “Systems Thinking for Social Change: A Practical Guide to Solving Complex Problems, Avoiding Unintended Consequences, and Achieving Lasting Results” (Stroh, 2015).

Within the collaborative governance sessions, potential systems thinking tools that could be incorporated into activities within the sessions include causal network analysis and a root cause analysis. Examples of activities are explained below. By engaging people in a problem-solving task, such as this, it will aid their understanding of the complexity and dynamics of the system.

A causal network diagram could be used to show the relationship between agents and effects on policies (Lannon, 2018). Causal network diagrams are used to highlight the causal relationships between agents and illustrate how any emergent properties of feedback loops occur. Each node within the diagram represents a variable and each line represents a connection that illustrates the relationships between the variables in reality (Lannon, 2018). They can be used to highlight emergent properties that naturally result from these connections, feedback loops which may either balance or reinforce a problem and identify leverage points which are places in the system where a change in the system can be equipped to intentionally alter the rest of the system (Lannon, 2018). The main aim of a causal network diagram is to synthesise the complex network into simple understandable components and connections.

For example, using causal network analysis in a legalised sex work in a democratic country; the Netherlands. First, the representatives would start by identifying all the agents ie. the consenting sex workers, the victims being sex trafficked, the companies, the customers, the Dutch government (the components of the Dutch political system, constitution, cultural norms, the emergent properties of this system eg. economic growth, corruption). Then identify the nonlinear causal interactions in dynamic networks between all these agents and how a change in one could have positive or negative ripple effects on another due to the feedback loops involved. Then plot these interactions on a causal loop diagram incorporating the system dynamics such as attractors, phase spaces, transitions, etc (ie. incentives used for coercion to employ these workers, how they exist and why). Lastly, the representatives would need to identify the root cause and the leverage points where policy reform should be implemented. This process could be repeated for each legislative system practice in order to gain both qualitative understandings about the effects of legislation on the sex industry. The causal networks would illuminate how each policy has multiple implications due to the complex networks present, and how these connections are dynamic.

Next, a root cause analysis can be done to illustrate the interconnectedness of the problems identified above. A root cause analysis is a systems-thinking tool that is used to identify the main or core causal factor within a complex problem (Galley, 2018). The analysis can be used to identify why there is a gap between the current situation and the ideal situation and used to identify the primary source that maintains this gap. The root cause analysis will analyse the causal factors of this gap and identify the core problem, which can be addressed through policy reform. To conduct a root cause analysis, representatives will first define the problem that needs to be addressed and the specific symptoms of this problem. Next, representatives will identify the causal factors and their relatedness by examining the conditions that allow the problem to exist (the phase space), the sequence of cause and effect events that contribute to the problem, and any other coexisting interrelated problems. Representatives must link each together as they work backward to identify the root cause of the problem. A way of differentiating between a causal factor and a root factor is that removing a causal factor could reduce the problem, but removing a root cause would eliminate it. Once the root cause is identified, this helps to craft ways to eliminate it and find relevant policy proposals or amendments that may impact the entire system by tackling the root cause. This can also be used as a preventative measure or for a risk assessment as by understanding the linked causal factors, this can be used to assess how any change to the root will affect the rest of the system. Conducting a root cause analysis will aid representatives to analyse each of the current problems; how they arise, how they are connected to the specific legislative policies in the system, how they relate to other aspects (ie. what emergent properties and feedback loops they give way to) and will aid identification of potential leverage points that will help reduce or eliminate the problem.

An accompanying analysis by Amnesty International after the causal diagram analysis and root cause analysis have been conducted could be presented to elaborate and explain why the network and causal relations exist and to show how a change in policy, specifically decriminalisation, will have ripple effects on the system and alter other variables due to the dynamic nonlinear nature of the system.

STEP 2: Implementing Decriminalisation and Unionisation.

After analysing the four current legal systems in Western Europe, (Legalisation, the Nordic Model, Criminalisation and Partial Criminalisation), and comparing them to the Decriminalisation approach in New Zealand, I propose that decriminalisation, coupled with unionisation, is the most effective legal approach towards sex work at protecting the legal rights and safety of sex workers.

Decriminalisation will allow sex workers to report violence and make them less of an easy target for abuse (NSWP, 2018). It will respect their autonomy as individuals and their rights as workers. It will exemplify to society that sex work is not wrong, that sex workers are neither victims or criminals, just people. This can help to reduce the stigma against sex workers, and the issues that come with it. Unionisation will allow sex workers to manage and maintain their labor rights as workers (NSWP, 2018). It will allow for sex workers to have legal representation in court, partner with health and social services, and organise when necessary. Lobbying will become easier as sex work will be recognised as a legitimate profession. As explained by Ava Caradonna, a current sex worker in the UK, “Decriminalisation alone, however, will continue to leave us at the mercy of the market. By itself, it is not enough. We need the collective mechanisms of unions to ensure that workers get a decent share of the profits, employment rights like sick pay, pensions, and regulated hours, and adequate health and safety standards” (Caradonna, 2020, para. 2).

The World Charter for Prostitutes Rights is an example of a legal document that could be used when designing the details and legalities associated with the decriminalisation policies. Again, decriminalisation is not to be confused with legalisation. It is the removal of laws rather than the introduction and regulation of them. For example, the World Charter for Prostitutes Rights states "it is essential that prostitutes can provide their services under the conditions that are determined by themselves and no one else" (Sanders et al., 2009, p. 96). This can be maintained and monitored via unionisation.

Decriminalisation most importantly will protect the physical safety of sex workers (Bachlakova, 2020), which is why the reform is necessary and urgent. Decriminalisation will increase access to health and social services which could reduce the spread of HIV/AIDS and reduce suicide numbers among sex workers (NSWP, 2018). Furthermore, by bringing sex work out from underground, this can help authorities, sex workers and clients locate victims of sex trafficking and help them get the resources they need (Bachlakova, 2020). Decriminalisation prioritises the protection of all, over prosecution based upon inaccurate misconceptions.

STEP 3: Addressing Sex Work Stigma

From my Capstone analysis, I have explained how the stigma directed towards sex workers has originated, adapted throughout history and spread across social networks. Stigma has a direct effect both in the formation of laws and enforcement of them. Stigma leads to social exclusion, meaning that not many people have regular interactions with sex workers and as a result do not understand the issues current legislation creates. This stigma and social exclusion lead to mental models, in the forms of stereotyping of sex workers, to form. To reduce the stigma surrounding sex work, these mental models must be reformed.

Due to the interconnectedness and complexity of the problems associated with sex work, analysing system dynamics can aid to reform these mental models. I identified that a central node, such as Amnesty International, has the power to alter thresholds and change the beliefs of people in the network, which can be used to reduce the stigma of sex work and marginalisation of sex workers. Amnesty International could use its sociological network understanding, in their distribution of information to increase societal acceptance of decriminalisation.

The introduction of decriminalisation will change the cultural norm that sex work is wrong as it will no longer be an illegal criminal activity. Decriminalisation will encourage sex workers to not work secretively which will reduce social exclusion and encourage discourse among different social networks. Shifting the mental models of the representatives would have ripple effects across the multiple social networks they are involved in. The distribution of accurate information from Amnesty International will increase understanding of the benefits of decriminalisation, all of which will increase social acceptance. The phenomenon of thresholds will also rapidly increase the social acceptance of sex work throughout the network as exemplified through the social contagion theory. Once a certain threshold is reached this will result in a regime shift where the societal acceptance of sex work will create a reinforcing effect to secure both the implementation of decriminalisation legislation in society and the shift in cultural perspectives towards sex work. This would aid the effective changing of beliefs about sex work and reduce, and eventually eradicate stigma.

STEP 4: Monitoring and Adapting

In order to maintain the decriminalisation and unionisation model, and the reduction and eradication of sex work stigma, there must be effective monitoring and evaluation set up. Through the collaborative governance session, these metrics can be discussed and decided upon. Sex work unions will be responsible for providing data for monitoring and evaluation, and the collaborative governance representatives can set up recurring meetings after 5-10 year intervals to examine the effects of the new legislative approach on society. By engaging the key stakeholders and explicitly clarifying metrics, this will aid the implementation and long-term effectiveness of the policy reform. Evaluation can be used to gather both qualitative and quantitative data that can be used to reinforce the social acceptance of the decriminalisation of sex work, as well as identify any potentially problematic emergent properties that may arise due to the dynamic nature of the system. As the problems associated with the legalities of sex work are complex, they will adapt nonlinearly. Thus, continuous evaluation and reform are necessary to provide optimal protection for sex workers.


My policy reform proposal for the countries of Western Europe is to implement the decriminalisation of sex work coupled with the establishment of sex work unions that can advocate for the legal and labor rights of sex workers, as well as collect qualitative and quantitative data to monitor and evaluate any problems that may arise. The formation of the policies should be done through collaborative governance where a representative of all agents involved in the sex work system come together to discuss the new reform. These collaborative governance sessions should use systems-thinking based activities to explain why decriminalisation is being implemented and influence the changing of mental models to support decriminalisation. Due to sex work is a contentious issue and form of morality politics (Wagenaar, 2017), a neutral and well-respected facilitator should be there to meditate and focus the sessions. Shifting mental models to support the decriminalisation of sex work across agents will have ripple effects of social acceptance across various social networks which will reduce the risk of uprising or protest once introduced as well as help to maintain the policy throughout time (and changes of office). Decriminalisation and unionisation is the most optimal approach to protecting and prioritising the safety of sex workers, yet it must be coupled with a reduction in stigma towards sex workers to be truly effective and long-lasting.



Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page