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  • Writer's pictureAntonia Boorman

The dangers of stigmas and taboos on modern-day legislation

[Sex Work Series] Paper 5b: The dangers of stigmas and taboos on modern-day legislation: Using Social Network Theory to examine the spread of stigma surrounding sex work.


How stigma and taboos becomes deeply ingrained in society

Sex work is highly stigmatised, and as a result, sex workers across the world are marginalised. To understand how this stigma has become so deeply ingrained in society to the point it has influenced legislation, it is important to address social psychology. Social psychology is the study of how human behaviour is influenced by other people and the social context in which it occurs (Tajfel, 1979). This includes examining social networks, assessing how information and influence spread, and how social networks can adapt attitudes.

Social networks are a branch of sociology that examines how people are connected and how these connections influence human behaviour (Lazega et al., 1995). Social networks are paramount to every interaction that involves people and are common in every society (Lazega et al., 1995). They shape how we interact on multiple levels: the personal level between friends, family, or neighbours; the societal level where we interact with institutions such as schools, workplaces, authority in the forms of police, doctors, etc: and lastly the national level where we interact with the government as citizens and voters. These different networks can create different social groups, constructed or naturally-forming, that have their own group identities.

Social network analysis is the examination of these social networks. It examines the networks by creating a graphical representation of the networks of people in different social circles, mapping how they are connected and analysing how information/attitudes spread between the networks. The connections within social networks have a huge impact on how we make decisions, the values we attribute and the information we have access to. How people are connected can affect how an entire society thinks, which translates into the political legislation that is formed and implemented today. If inaccurate information or a stigmatised view of a particular group within the social network spreads across the network and becomes ingrained in society this can have harmful effects such as marginalisation of that social group, and discriminatory laws. This is why it is crucial to understand them to address the social issues within international development today.

Social networks affect how people think and interact. Our opinions, values, political views, faith, and so on all come from the social networks in which we’ve existed. These social networks begin from birth and can form on multiple levels, such as when we exist within a family, a community, a country, etc. These social networks can change, and with them, our views on different things can change. When a person is exposed to more diverse networks with differing views this can alter not only their viewpoint but their friends, family’s and society’s views too by the connections within the network. This gaining of new perspectives and changing of our own, and by extension others’, is known as “Social Contagion” (Marsden, 1998). Social contagion theory describes the spread of a perception, attitude or value in a social network, where the perception, attitude or value becomes adapted by all affected agents in the network. It is a form of social influence (Marsden, 1998).

Many people tend to formulate their views upon and act in accordance with the views of their network. These people are known as conditional cooperators (World Bank, 2015). Self-sorting refers to people identifying strongly with a group based on a few issues and subsequently aligning their views with that group on most issues (Barber & McCarthy, 2015). Group identification might occur because of the need to belong, as it creates a clear group of people to identify with. This results in people changing their views to match the group. Self-sorting correlates Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1943) and Fiske’s (1995) Core Social Motives Theory.

According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, people feel a need to belong, and self-sorting contributes to that belonging by creating an in-group. Fiske’s Core Social Motives Theory also considers the need to belong as a core need. Self-sorting can enhance that belonging as it leads to closer association with an in-group, enhancing the sense of self (Searle-White, 2016). Group affiliation gives people a framework for coherently engaging with the world, enhancing understanding. Therefore, to enhance cooperation or to increase participation in a campaign or movement, you must influence the attitude of the entire network rather than just the individual. This is crucial to reducing the stigma against sex workers. For example, the influence of Christianity on developing a branding of sex work as immoral has shaped the view of many who follow the religion and has influenced the creation of faith-based NGOs that fight to eradicate sex work, further propagating the stigma. To influence any agent involved in this network, the entire network’s views must be influenced.

Grouping can foster positive connections through a sense of shared culture and solidarity ie. celebrating nationality during the World Cup or Eurovision, and ignite social movements ie. how the #MeToo uniting many women to fight for social change. However, grouping can also have negative consequences as in-grouping may unite those who belong to that group, yet it also excludes those who don’t (out-grouping) (Tajfel, 1979). This can be particularly dangerous as it fosters an “us vs them” perception that can spark wars and direct hatred towards outcasts (Tajfel, 1979).

When sex workers are marginalised and stigmatised by society, this “us vs them” attitude not only reinforces the stigma directed towards them but can be used to justify their suffering. Prejudice can create a “just-world phenomenon” (Cherry, 2019), where both those condemning them and those being condemned believe that this is what they deserve. The criminalising of sex work, both legally and socially, reinforces the stigma by creating an ‘othering’, and an “us vs them” mentality (Cherry, 2019). This in-grouping and out-grouping can be seen throughout history, through the separating of citizenship rights in Ancient Rome, to the segregation of just and unjust women in the suffragette movement, to religious framing of moral and immoral people, all of which has strengthened the hatred towards sex workers.

Within a social network, the degrees of connectivity, aka the degrees of separation, can illustrate the rate of contagion. For example, a study by sociologist professor Nicholas Christakis examined how the connectivity between clusters affects the spread of obesity (Christakis, 2010). Christakis mapped the connections between 2,200 people in the US in 2000 and created a social network visualisation (below). On the graph, every dot represents a person with the size of the dot representing the person’s weight (which becomes yellow once the person’s weight was characterised as clinically obese) (Christakis, 2010). From the visualisation, Christakis was able to discover that the degree of connectivity impacted a person’s risk of obesity: one degree of separation resulted in a 45% risk, two degrees a 25% risk and 3 degrees a 10% risk (Christakis, 2010). This example illustrates the predominance of contagion within networks.

Figure 1: Degree of Separation and Body Size (Christakis, 2010). Retrieved from:

Figure 2: Obesity Clusters (Christakis, 2010). Retrieved from:

It’s important to note that obesity isn’t a contagious disease, yet these results did illustrate the spread of obesity among the networks. This is due to the contagion of attitudes, which is also why stigma can spread so easily. Christakis pointed out three reasons why attitude change could be spread so easily: Induction, when the attitude change is directly causal ie. when a professor tells a student that sex workers are the cause of the spread of HIV and the student accepts this information and incorporates it into their own opinion because the professor believes it; Confounding, when a common exposure leads people to similar ideas ie. we both attend the same church and our religion tells us that sex work is immoral and so we both believe it; and Homophily, when people specifically bond together due to their shared opinions ie. attending an anti-sex work rally and forming a relationship with people there (Christakis, 2010). These different types of contagion are how sex work stigma is spread.

Regarding confounding contagion specifically, this can lead to damaging effects, such as group polarisation. When a group of people sharing similar ideas and views forms within a network, and haven’t many connections to outside nodes, these groups rarely hear differing perspectives, which can make their views stronger (Lelkes, 2016). This is a sociological concept known as Group Polarisation (Lelkes, 2016). Group polarisation can also be reinforced by a sense of identity and belonging once these groups have labels (Lelkes, 2016). This is seen in many different political spheres ie. conservative vs labor, republican vs democratic, etc. This applies to sex work as feminists have started to group based upon their views upon the legal structuring of sex work, for example, Abolitionists, those who support full criminalisation, vs End Demanders, those who support the Nordic model. By grouping, this just segregates and deepens the conflicting views of feminists, all of which believe their view is the most logical.

Furthermore regarding sex work, not only does grouping make Abolitionists’ and End Demanders’ views stronger and more emotionally-charged, but the current conflict in the stigma towards sex workers as both victims and criminals also strengthens their views through cognitive dissonance theory. Cognitive Dissonance theory describes when we have conflicting viewpoints on a subject which creates discomfort. This discomfort becomes almost impossible to endure when it is tied to identity, as the self-sorting ensures, meaning that people tend to reject the conflicting view and become more emotionally invested in their previous viewpoint (Festinger, 1989). With sex work, when sex workers are considered both victims and criminals, this creates a conflicting narrative which creates psychological stress resulting in advocates assigning them as a victim OR a criminal, not both. This view then is emotionally invested in and reinforced, with the person avoiding conflicting information to avoid future cognitive dissonance. This leads to advocating for particular legislation and creates political polarisation.

When a group within a social network is too closely knit, such as the Abolitionists' and End Demanders’, they are less open to outside beliefs. Social psychologist Irving Janis coined the term “Groupthink” to describe this (Janis, 2008). Groupthink is very common concerning the issue of sex work law as the taboo nature of the subject prevents people from talking about it with others and thus social groups are usually less inclined to hear other perspectives. This is further propagated by the media only focusing on one side of the story (Ellis, 2018).

Figure 3: Diagram illustrating group polarisation. Created using:

Figure 4: Diagram illustrating “GroupThink”. Created using:

The main issue here is that this can influence policy. The law of a country reflects the views and values of a society, meaning that how social networks spread and suppress information is very important to understand when forming, implementing and reforming policy. Social attitudes spread through social contagion can be self-reinforcing and can create a balancing feedback loop where the law affects perception and perception affects the law. For example, when the stigma of sex work, influenced by religion or gender inequality, is rife then people will advocate for it to be criminalised, and when sex work is criminalised, this increases the stigma of sex work as sex work is illegal so therefore is perceived as wrong and immoral. This reinforcing effect makes the social network very resistant to change.

Conformity to societal norms is another social phenomenon relevant here, especially conformity in the presence of authority. For example, citizens following laws, obeying teachers and taking the advice of doctors. Conformity, as explored by Cialdini (1990) can be automatic and unconscious ie. replicating body language, or can require conscious decision-making ie. Zimbardo (2004). Both active and passive conformity illustrates how people’s actions can be altered to fit in with societal norms. The reasons for societal conformity come mainly from respect for authority, fear of exclusion or rejection from society, and a desire for approval and acceptance as a member of society. The last one, complying to be approved and accepted, is known as normative social influence and builds upon the inherent psychological need to belong (Maslow, 1943). Conformity leads people to simply accept the law on sex work without questioning it or its effects, especially if the effects are hidden or not impacting the majority of the population. Stigma impacts the formation of the law, the law then affects the perception of sex work by society as they accept the authority of the laws and conform, which over time makes the views deeply ingrained into their own beliefs making it harder to reform sex work policies without a social outcry.

Understanding conformity is relevant for the discussion of the spread of stigma surrounding sex work as conformity can lead to social loafing. Social loafing is when grouping leads to the reduction of individual accountability (Shepperd, 2001). This can result in de-individuation, the loss of self-awareness and restraint occurring through grouping (Shepperd, 2001). When groups tend to band together and comply with the group’s values, rather than their own, based on de-individuation and normative social influence, this influences the movement of arguments from being rational and evidence-based to being emotionally charged. These emotionally charged views are then strengthened by group polarisation and not questioned by others if they come from a place of authority ie. a government due to conformity.

A recent study conducted by Professor Hendrik Wagenaar (2017) illustrates how this stigma against sex workers can manifest into inefficient policy. The study consists of a two-fold comparison examination, the first study compared the formulation, implementation, and effects of sex work laws in twenty-one European countries over 150 years, and the second study focused analysis into detailed local level sex work policy in Austria and the Netherlands (Wagenaar, 2017). This approach incorporated the breadth and depth of study to assess the true impact of these laws.

From Wagenaar’s research, they found that sex work policy is a form of “morality politics”, which they define to be legislation that is based upon a particular moral outlook or ideology, such as laws banning abortion, gambling, alcohol, homosexuality, and euthanasia (Wagenaar, 2017). When policies are based on ideology and social norms, rather than empirical and factual evidence, it can have harmful effects as exemplified through the harmful effects of the criminalisation of sex work. Wagenaar describes morality policy as “lay policy” where everyone has a strong opinion on it regardless of their knowledge or expertise (Wagenaar, 2017). These strong opinions are morally-based and emotionally charged, which as Wagenaar points out can be problematic as it fosters a “dialogue of the deaf” (Wagenaar, 2017) where neither side of the debate is listening to the other (Wagenaar, 2017). The strength of their emotion towards the subject acts as the legitimisation of their views, which, if involved in a group, is just further legitimised through group polarisation. Due to these strong emotions, politicians and legislators have to be very careful to align with the majority of their citizens to avoid uncontrollable riots and protests.

The current stigma surrounding sex work, as reported by Wagenaar (2017), fuels these strong emotions and intense opinions about the legal approach to sex work. Wagenaar (2017) found that sex work stigma, specifically is reinforced by a fear of contagion, both physically in terms of STDs (HIV and AIDS specifically) building upon the 19th-century association of sex workers as disease-spreaders, and morally in terms of the “moral contagion” of spreading the sexual objectification of women and acceptance of sex outside marriage (Wagenaar, 2017). Terror Management Theory, the idea that people may act defensively due to their awareness and fear of death (Greenberg et al., 1997), is particularly relevant regarding the physical contagion fear. If people think that sex workers are spreading deadly diseases then they will oppress and try to eradicate them. The moral contagion is more linked to the group polarisation reinforcement of the view of sex workers as immoral and dangerous. Lastly, Wagenaar (2017) found that the stigma was fuelled mainly by a need to control female sexuality (Wagenaar, 2017). This need to control was associated with the criminalisation policies, yet also in the legislation policies through intense regulations like licensing, health checks, curfews, etc (Wagenaar, 2017). This aligned with other morality politics policies such as abortion and homosexuality, which were based upon a patriarchal influence and acceptance from the societal studies (Wagenaar, 2017).

Manipulating thresholds, the “level or point at which you start to experience something, or at which something starts to happen” (Cambridge Dictionary, 2020, para. 2), of the individuals within the social network, is necessary to create change in a resistant social network.

Thresholds are different for every person, and the number of connections a person has can affect their thresholds (Granovetter, 1978), meaning that they are very sensitive to change. For example, if a person is connected to many people who have a stigmatised view of sex work, and by extension, they do too, they will have a very high threshold to change meaning that they must meet and connect with more people who do not have a stigmatised view of sex work for the interactions to change their perspective. This is known as a ‘complex contagion’ as every individual in the network has a threshold higher than zero (Colchester, 2020). To tackle complex contagions the change in perspective from a different agent must be introduced in the right place, somewhere central to the network so that it can have ripple effects across the network changing perspectives. A central node supporting decriminalisation must be introduced.

Regarding sex work stigma, due to its taboo nature and the high amount of people who believe in criminalisation people have a very high threshold and thus need to have more connections with people who think differently ie. decriminalisation. The marginalisation and social exclusion of sex workers prevent them from connecting with others in the network. Most sex workers support decriminalisation yet could not be the central node due to the stigmatisation pushing them to the edge of the network. A central node must be connected to most if not all of the network. Amnesty International, a very well respected global human rights advocacy NGO has connections with many agents: the media, various international governments, and other NGOs. Amnesty International recently announced that it supports the decriminalisation of sex work on the basis that it is the most effective legislative system to protect the human rights of sex workers (Amnesty International, 2016). By coming out openly in support of sex workers, Amnesty lost some connections (Amnesty International, 2016) yet has been able to change the minds of millions to now support the decriminalisation of sex work and has encouraged many to address the stigma directed towards sex workers (Amnesty International, 2016). Therefore, Amnesty International is a central node in terms of the reduction of the stigma.

Figure 5: Digram showing sex workers as edge nodes (blue). Created using:

Figure 6: Diagram showing Amnesty International as a central node (yellow). Created using:

To Conclude

To enact social change, there needs to be an understanding of social networks to influence the spread and acceptance of new ideas. Social Network analysis can be used to map segregation and clustering. By understanding how people are connected this can be used to adapt or work within the network to try to spread ideas. Polarisation and segregation can create groupthink, which is dangerous as it can reinforce inaccurate or harmful beliefs. Social network theory can be used to illustrate the connections of people and introduce new agents into a system to alter these deeply ingrained beliefs by targeting the people who act as central nodes in the network and those with multiple connections and a low threshold to changing beliefs. Furthermore, social network analysis can illuminate where, in the network, ideas overlap or conflict and target these points to influence the spread of more positive information. This is where a central node can alter thresholds and change the beliefs of people in the network. This is how to reduce the stigma of sex work and the marginalisation of sex workers.

The stigma of sex work creates prejudice which can lead to active discrimination through the form of denial of housing, social exclusion, and laws that prioritise prosecution over protection. This is why stigma must be addressed to reform the social and legislative systems around sex work to better protect the human rights of sex workers.



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  • Cambridge Dictionary. (2020). THRESHOLD | meaning in the Cambridge English Dictionary. Retrieved 27 February 2020, from

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  • Christakis, N. (2010). Transcript of "The hidden influence of social networks". Retrieved 27 February 2020, from

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  • Ellis, E. (2018). Social Media Is Reshaping Sex Work—But Also Threatening It. Wired. Retrieved 27 February 2020, from

  • Granovetter, M. (1978). Threshold Models of Collective Behavior. American Journal Of Sociology, 83(6), 1420-1443.

  • Janis, I. (2008). Groupthink. IEEE Engineering Management Review, 36(1), 36-36.

  • Lazega, E., Wasserman, S., & Faust, K. (1995). Social Network Analysis: Methods and Applications. Revue Française De Sociologie, 36(4), 781.

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