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  • Writer's pictureAntonia Boorman

How Laws hurt Sex Workers: A Summary

[Sex Work Series] Paper 7: Summary & Conclusion


The current legal approaches to sex work in place in Western Europe prioritise prosecution over the protection of sex workers. Sex workers are often one of the most marginalised and stigmatised groups in society, who enter sex work for economic reasons, such as poverty, or political reasons, such as strict immigration laws and limited access to visas. To criminalise a profession that for many is a form of survival is unjust. Additionally, to further restrict the autonomy of people to choose a profession from a set of limited alternatives, based solely on certain ideologies is patriarchally oppressive and demeaning. Victimising or criminalising sex workers rather than respecting them as workers is harmful. This creates dangerous stigmatisation, increases social exclusion and justifies violence. There are numerous issues associated with each of the current legal approaches to sex work, as examined throughout this series and summarised within this paper, which is why legal and societal reform is necessary to ensure the dignity and safety of sex workers is protected and prioritised.

Throughout this series, I have explored the current legislative structures of sex work in place, analysing the causes of the formation and the effects of the implementation of these laws, and examining the societal and psychological perceptions that influence the laws. This paper will act as a conclusion to the overall series as I propose a legislative reform, through the lens of systems thinking and based upon my findings from the entirety of this series. This law reform proposal will aim to tackle the legal and societal issues that are currently harming sex workers by using relevant systems thinking tools to help create, implement and propose the policy.

I have identified 10 core takeaways associated with this series to be addressed in the policy reform. Many of these problems are intertwined due to the complexity of the system and each of these problems exists differently within the different legislative systems in which they appear. Yet, as a synthesise they are as follows:

Problem 1

Unsafe working conditions due to criminalisation ie. working discreetly in dimly-lit alleys, not being able to report violence, not using condoms for fear of arrest, not being able to access social and health services, being forced to work alone, etc. This increases the vulnerability of sex workers to abusers, makes them easy targets for violence and reduces the overall safety of sex workers.

Problem 2

Sex workers are portrayed both as victims and criminals. Policies frame sex workers in the same light as criminals, where attacks against sex workers are seen as justified. Feminists see sex workers as victims, where arrests of sex workers are deemed as rescues. Victimising sex workers and criminalising sex work reduces the respect for sex worker’s autonomy of choice to chose sex work. By both victimising and criminalising sex workers, this conflicts the perception of sex workers among society leading to stronger views (due to group polarisation and cognitive dissonance theory), propagating stigma. This leads to other negative consequences like homelessness, exclusion from other work, murder and suicide. Social exclusion can lead to many people not hearing sex workers’ points of view to understand these problems (ie. edge nodes in a social network).

Problem 3

Sex work, for many, is an economic necessity and many rely on survival sex. This is tied to wider economic, social and political issues that need to be addressed through the reduction of poverty, eradication of stigma against sex workers, increased social and childcare provisions by the state, decriminalisation of sex work and increased attention paid to immigration and citizenship laws.

Problem 4

The taboo and stigma surrounding sex work justifies violence, increases social exclusion and influences the creation of laws that prioritise prosecution over protection.

Problem 5

Many believe there is a direct causal relationship between sex trafficking and sex work, that reducing one will also reduce the other. This both victimises and criminalises sex workers, influencing ineffective policies, for example, the SESTA (S.1693, 2017) and FOSTA (S.1865, 2017) bills, which actually made reducing human trafficking harder. This is an incorrect portrayal of trafficking which is usually through psychological manipulation of sex workers and migration issues rather than kidnapping. This inaccurate association also redirects the conversation away from the real policy problems surrounding trafficking, such as migration, citizenship and border laws.

Problem 6

The high levels of violence against sex workers, including rape and murder, which is societally accepted or ignored. The lack of legal justice that sex workers receive from reporting attacks. The prioritisation of prosecuting sex workers rather than defending them in court reducing the incentive to report and increasing the targeting of sex workers for violent acts.

Problem 7

Police Brutality. That sex workers are routinely raped by police officers and arbitrarily arrested, all of which is disguised by corrupt legal systems and laws which incentivise sex workers not to report violence as criminalisation does.

Problem 8

Lack of exit strategies due to the economic, political and social barriers that exist.

Problem 9

Physical and mental health issues that arise from legal restrictions placed upon sex workers, such as the criminalisation and the stigma associated with sex work can increase the spread of HIV/AIDS through legal barriers (ie. rejection of funding to reduce HIV/AIDS globally as it was tied to the requirement of the criminalisation of sex work) or disincentivize to seek medical health checks or use condoms for fear of arrest.

Problem 10

Legal systems prioritise prosecution and eradication, rather than the protection of sex workers. This is counterintuitive as criminalising sex work without fixing the systematic issues that cause it, can actually create more sex work happening. Furthermore, it can increase stigma, which can increase homelessness, exclusion from other work, murder, and suicide.

In terms of legislative reform, I advocate for the decriminalisation of sex work due to it being the optimal approach of the current legislative systems in place, in conjunction with the creation of sex work unions across Western Europe which is essential to protect sex workers’ labour rights. Sex work must be recognised as a legitimate form of work and have labour laws reflecting it as such. 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 detailed above are addressed.

My goal from this series was to understand why inefficient legislation exists and to assess the real-world impact of different legal frameworks on sex workers to propose more effective legislation that will better protect sex workers.

  • Paper 1 examined the definitions of sex work versus sex trafficking to illustrate how the inaccurate assumption that they are synonymous can create harmful legislation.

  • Paper 2 elaborated upon Paper 1 by examining how the perceptions of human trafficking differ from realities and how border, immigration, and citizenship laws affect levels of human trafficking.

  • Paper 3 explored a philosophical debate into the ethics of sex work, considering multiple conflicting viewpoints into whether or not it was ethical to legalise sex work.

  • Paper 4 then went on to examine the different forms of legalisation and criminalisation in place in Western Europe, specifically analysing case studies of countries using the Criminalisation, Partial Criminalisation, the Nordic Model, Legalisation, and Decriminalisation approaches. From my analysis, I discovered that criminalising sex work is unjust, partial criminalisation creates a trade-off between abiding by the law and ensuring safety, and legislation results in two-tier economic segregation of sex workers. Examining each legislative system led me to conclude that decriminalisation of sex work, the removal of all laws concerning sex work, was the most effective legislative approach to protecting the safety and human rights of sex workers.

  • Paper 5 used historical analysis to identify where the stigma against sex workers arose, as well as insight into the social and psychological theories explaining why this stigma becomes impactful enough to influence legislation.

  • Lastly, Paper 6 builds upon the information gathered in each of the previous five papers to propose a policy reform that takes all of the gathered knowledge about legislation, stigma, and misconceptions into account to propose a systems-thinking based legislative reform to introduce decriminalisation and unionisation of sex work in Western Europe as identified as the most effective policy of protecting the safety of sex workers.

To reiterate the aim of this project was not to propose a solution to fix the industry of sex work or to reduce/increase the number of people performing, yet was to analyse the legislative systems that exist currently and propose policy reform that will not further harm the people involved, which is what each of the current legislative approaches does. Within this series, I looked at the different legislative approaches to sex work in Western Europe; the historical influence of taboos and stigmas on modern-day legislation; whether or not it’s ethical to criminalise sex work; the relationship between sex work and sex trafficking; and how common misconceptions influenced by the media creates inefficient legislation.

The issue of whether or not to decriminalise, legislate or criminalise sex work has many more intricacies and problems associated; stigma, the economy, and political sphere, the patriarchy, racism, the criminal justice system, gender roles, class divides, global poverty, migration, and borders, to name a few. For the scope of this project, I focused specifically on reforming the legislation of sex work in order to provide a “bandaid fix”, ie. a short-term solution that improves the current situation, rather than a final solution that incorporates and solves the complexity of the problem. To elaborate, I recognise that changing the legislation surrounding sex work will not change the associated problems (racism, poverty, lack of social welfare, stigma, etc) that surrounds it, but my argument is that these things already exist in the system we live in and therefore we must work within that system and change the legislation (which is easier to do than tackling the systemic problems) to make it less difficult for vulnerable people who are already struggling.

I end this series with a policy proposal, and my recommendations of decriminalisation and unionisation implemented through the use of collective governance, based upon my two years of research from my capstone project. To restate my thesis of this capstone, many people who pursue sex work do so as a form of survival and have a limited set of alternative options. Even though sex work is considered to be an undesirable trade, it is a realistic and relatively common way for women, faced with economic, political and social constraints, to earn a living. Due to this, sex workers’ autonomy should not be restricted or undermined. It is unjust to criminalise sex work, due to the lack of alternative options, as this further reduces the options available to those most vulnerable and restricts the individual’s autonomy of choice. Therefore, the ineffective legislation surrounding sex work that currently exists is a human rights issue.

As outlined in this series, there is a clear need for legislative reform based on protecting the human rights of sex workers, which is why I advocate strongly for the immediate decriminalisation and unionisation of sex work.

I hope to use the knowledge gained from this series, coupled with my career prospects of pursuing human rights law, to advocate for this legislative reform in Western Europe.

Thank you,



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