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Decriminalizing sex work – fight crime, not sex

By Marie-Catherine Schaller
on April 13, 2023

I get up at 6 in the morning. I do 30 min of yoga and then have breakfast. I put on my make-up and head to work. I prefer the day shift because it has more of a chill vibe. My clients are office workers, students, and older clientele. They come, they shower, fun happens, maybe even a bit of kinky stuff for which I charge extra. The brothel charges $100 per hour, I get 60%. When I’m done working, I go home, I might watch some Netflix or meet my girlfriends for drinks. I like my job and I feel I am good at it. I often feel that other people look down on me but a gal gotta eat right?” (Composite impression inspired by accounts of personal acquaintances working in the sex industry).

Photo by Yohann Libot / Unsplash.

In 2002, the Prostitution Act (Prostitutionsgesetz) was passed in Germany, regulating sex work as a service and an act that is no longer punishable. Sex workers are entitled to social security benefits (e.g., health/unemployment insurance) and pension. In 2017, the Prostitute Protection Act (Prostituiertenschutzgesetz) was passed, adding certain regulations to the profession: Every individual wanting to earn a living doing sex work has to register and obtain a sex worker ID. They are obligated to have regular health consultation and to use a condom when working. Permits must also be issued for sex work sites (e.g., brothels) and only individuals without a criminal record can operate them.

Where sex work is criminalized, it is often performed without workplace regulations and therefore under unsafe conditions. When it is legal, sex workers can demand safe working conditions (e.g., usage of condoms) and their rights to be respected. When sex work generates an income and includes labor rights and social protection, safety increases. If a sex worker is unable to work for a while, they have social protection to lean back on (sick days, unemployment/parental benefits, etc.). They are compensated for potential injury occurring at work and receive a pension when they retire. Regular health checks and the obligation to use condoms increase safety and health benefits of sex workers as well as clients. Most importantly, if a sex worker’s rights are violated, they can turn to police, social services, and other authorities.

Within a labor framework, decent standards of sex work can be established, and exploitation can be addressed more easily. Sex workers are recognized as consenting adults and are distinguished from sex trafficked individuals. The obligation to register ensures that no underage or trafficked individual is coerced to work within the sex business and resources can focus on identifying exploitation and coercion. Furthermore, if sex workers do not fear authorities but rather trust in their protection, they will be able to report crimes committed against them, decreasing their vulnerability to violence and reducing harassment and violence by police and other authorities against them.

Sex workers are empowered when they can choose their profession and their form of employment (self-employed vs. employed; part time vs. full time) freely. Not everyone earning an income through sex work is a victim and not every sex worker needs protection. Sex workers are free of disposal of their bodies, of self-determination, and are fully able to express their sexual consent. They should be able to use the skills they developed in sex work (no, I am not talking about a well-executed fellatio but communication, branding, marketing, and selling skills) to be recognized and valued by other employers.

Despite the advantages of legalizing sex work, many still argue that sex work is inherently immoral and that women engaging in sex work are being oppressed and enslaved by men. The Scandinavian model targets only clients, meaning sex buyers are criminalized but not sex workers. Sex workers are treated as victims and are referred to as “people in prostitution” but not as “workers”. This only perpetuates stigma against them and increases the discrimination in social services and health care that they already endure. It is not reducing harm to sex workers, nor does it abolish/reduce sex work. Criminalizing clients only drives sex work underground and away from services, making it unsafe. For example, in France the legislation on sex work was changed in 2016. Law No. 2016-444, which was inspired by the Nordic model, sought to end sex work by criminalizing clients (opposed to directly targeting sex workers, as it did before 2016). However, instead of protecting sex workers, their situation worsened. Sex workers were forced to work under more risky conditions and were increasingly exposed to violence.

In my opinion, criminalizing sex work (both, selling and buying) is like criminalizing abortion: it does not abolish it (it does not even reduce it), it only makes it unsafe for the individuals involved.

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