SPOKANE, Washington — Prostitution exists worldwide and is criminalized to varying degrees by a minimum of 39 countries. In many other nations, the criminalization of sex work is enforced according to existing laws or discriminatory social codes. Debates about regulating prostitution often look to the industry at large, in its ties to human trafficking and the spread of HIV, leaving out the voices of those in the industry and essentially sidelining sex workers’ human rights.
The Stigma Linked to the Sex Industry
Sex worker-led collectives consistently report punitive laws as the largest threat to sex workers’ human rights. The stigmatization of the sex industry through the criminalization of its workforce leaves sex workers without legal recourse or access to basic healthcare services. A research study assessing “more than 130 studies in 33 countries” found that criminalized sex workers “were three times more likely to experience” violence and other forms of abuse. In addition, sex workers who did not face criminal repercussions were 50% less “likely to contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.”
Rights to Health and Safety
UNAIDS, the United Nations Joint Programme on HIV/AIDS, spoke on the imperative to provide equal access and care to sex workers to end the HIV/AIDS epidemic, citing HIV as 10 times more common among sex workers. A major factor in the prevention of HIV is addressing violence against sex workers. UNAIDS estimates that, in some countries, infection rates among sex workers could drop by 25% with a reduction of discriminatory violence.
Where prostitution is illegal, sex workers usually have to conduct business in isolated meeting places. In these back-alley exchanges, sex workers lose the authority to negotiate with clients. In these circumstances, sex workers also become more vulnerable to physical and sexual violence along with HIV.
Sex Work and the Law
In countries with laws criminalizing sex work, violence goes unreported or unmonitored as sex workers are without legal standing. The stigma surrounding the inherent criminality of sex workers often exonerates the perpetrators of violence. In many cases, those in law enforcement are the perpetrators. UNAIDS references statistics relating to sex workers in Russia indicating that two-thirds of sex workers experienced rape and more than 33% experienced sexual coercion by the police.
Only a third of nations across the globe provide some form of HIV risk reduction for sex workers. Most nations expect sex workers to rely on standard access to healthcare from discriminatory institutions. Oftentimes, healthcare workers refuse to provide services to sex workers with the same bias whereby police neglect to protect sex workers.
Sex workers prioritize their health when possible. The vast majority of sex workers in Europe and Central Asia — more than 80-90% — use condoms with their clients. However, under some laws, possessing condoms is in itself evidence of sexual criminal activity. For this reason, sex workers sacrifice their own well-being, risking exposure to HIV and STIs to avoid detection.
The issue lies not with the willingness of sex workers to engage in safe practices but rather with systems that discriminate and criminalize the industry, restricting, and in some cases, even barring access to condoms. The elimination of punitive laws empowers sex workers to access resources that the nature of their work necessitates and allows for legal protection from violence.
Progress in the Netherlands
Prostitution became legal in the Netherlands in 1999. It has since been regulated for workers’ health and safety along with the protection of their legal rights. Still, in a country where sex work has been legalized and regulated for more than 20 years, there remain barriers to sex workers’ human rights.
The government ultimately struggles to connect sex workers to resources due to institutionalized prejudice from law enforcement, financial institutions, health services and government agencies. In response, the Netherlands is implementing a digital portal that allows sex workers, both those with and without permits, access to information to assist them in understanding their rights and provide support for filing complaints.
Organization and Visibility
The Global Network of Sex Work Projects (NSWP) is an umbrella organization that amplifies the voices of sex workers worldwide. In addition to speaking to the important distinction between self-determination and coercion, the NSWP also advocated within the U.N. for the usage of the term “sex worker” over “prostitute.” Additionally, the NSWP emphasizes the serious need to encourage and support safe practices in order to prevent HIV.
NSWP is a resource for connecting smaller, regional groups of sex workers to rally around four annual milestones in the history of the sex workers’ human rights movement:
- September 14. Sex Worker Pride Day will be the second annual celebration of inclusion and self-determination within the industry.
- December 17. International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers reflects on violence toward sex workers and the criminalization of sex workers on the anniversary of Seattle, Washington’s Green River Killer conviction in 2003.
- March 3. International Sex Workers’ Rights Day will commemorate the 2001 gathering of 25,000 sex workers in India despite discriminatory action to revoke their permit.
- June 2. International Sex Workers’ Day will bring a reminder of the 1975 protest in France against the criminal justice system’s treatment of sex workers.
Prostitution regulation varies from country to country, but the reality remains that sex workers’ human rights are a worldwide concern. Organized efforts like the NSWP are giving a voice to sex workers and advocating for the protection of their human rights.
– Angela Basinger