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International Sex Workers' Rights Day: Rights, not Rescue

“I was 14 and suddenly I was introduced to having sex with men, and I had to continue this through adulthood for money. You need the money to live, so you do it.” Along with Clara, who started working as a prostitute when she was 14, there are 40–42 million people worldwide working as sex workers, according to the European Parliament. On June 2, 1975, sex workers converged at Saint-Nizier Church in Lyon, France, to protest against criminalized and exploitative conditions, demanding an end to police harassment and an investigation into the murders of sex workers. This event marked the starting point of an international movement for sex workers' rights and led to June 2 being declared International Sex Workers' Day. Globally, various models of legislation impact sex workers differently.

Criminalization is the prevailing model in most of Africa, Asia, and North America, encompassing half of the global population. This approach prohibits all forms of sexual acts for payment, creating a stigma against sex workers by categorizing them as criminals and further marginalizing them from society. As a result, they become vulnerable to physical and sexual exploitation, as seeking help from law enforcement often leads to their prosecution rather than protection. Additionally, the presence of a criminal record impedes their ability to secure alternative employment, compelling them to remain in the sex industry.

Legalization appears promising on paper, with regulated health checks and registered workers. However, since its implementation in Ireland, the law has led to the arrest of only one man compared to 55 unlicensed sex workers who lacked visas, despite an 80% increase in violence against sex workers. This suggests that legalization is often leveraged as a means to deport immigrant sex workers rather than genuinely enhancing their safety.

Partial decriminalization, also known as the end-demand model, is employed in Nordic countries and criminalizes only the purchasing of sex work. This approach aims to empower sex workers and reduce demand. However, sex workers report that it has the opposite effect: negotiations are rushed due to clients' fear of arrest, leaving sex workers less able to identify and avoid potential dangers. Consequently, abusers often remain undetected.

New Zealand fully decriminalized sex work in 2003, which eliminated all laws against voluntary prostitution. 96% of sex workers report that they feel safer and healthier since the law has changed, even though they still need support from the community to erase the damage that was done by criminalization. New Zealand hasn’t seen an increase in the number of people doing sex work. In places where sex work has been decriminalized, not only are sex workers able to report instances of violence, clients too are able to report exploitative behavior like underage workers or human trafficking.

“Nobody wants a safer sex industry than sex workers themselves,” says Flower from the Prostitution Information Center in Amsterdam. Sex work has been a means of survival for various marginalized groups. Consenting adults engaging in sex work can only be protected by decriminalizing their jobs and identities. Restricting their ability to choose how they operate compromises their safety. It is incumbent upon the government to ensure the rights and safety of individuals like Clara and Flower, and others in the industry, through full decriminalization.


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