Mapping sex work policy across the globe

21 September, 2015


A guest blog by Amy Hall, Institute of Development Studies

Sex work is an issue which has divided feminists for decades, with the debate often focused on the law and how it should apply in the safest way. It is argued, including by sex workers’ organisations, that the best way is through decriminalisation. Some favour regulation, others full legalisation. Others support the ‘Nordic model’ which criminalises clients or the purchasing of sex, but not sex workers themselves.

Understanding the law is complex because the way in which laws in different countries are enforced is affected by policies and regulations, and by practices and conventions that are not mandated or even acknowledged by the law. According to the authors of the map, “sometimes very harsh law is not enforced and in other cases more benign law may be enforced in ways that are unfair or even abusive.” This makes the search for accurate, up to date information on sex work laws on the internet extremely difficult.

“Where correct information is missing, myths and misinformation flow in.” says Cheryl Overs, founder of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects and a visiting research fellow at the Institute of Development Studies (IDS). Working with the IDS Sexuality, Poverty and Law Programme she has led the creation of a new interactive Sex Work Law Map which provides summaries of the laws, regulations and policies on female sex work in over 75 countries.

The Map was launched in London on Tuesday 15 September, at an event chaired by activist Samantha Roddick. The audience also heard from Ntokozo Yingwana of the Sex Workers Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) in South Africa, Daughtie Ogutu, Director of the African Sex Workers Alliance (ASWA) and Sojna Dolinsek, a researcher in the history of sex workers’ rights.

Overs explained that as an activist for sex workers’ rights for many years, a resource like the Sex Work Law Map was what she had been looking for and it could be a useful tool for sex workers campaigning for better rights. “Law very rarely tells us what is legal” explained Overs. “Criminal law makes offences and tells us what is illegal – it doesn’t tell us what we can do…In an ideal world, if it’s not illegal to do X then you can do it no matter what it is and the constitution protects your right to do it, but that doesn’t always work out in practice.”

When Amnesty International’s Council voted in support of a policy for the full decriminalisation of adult consensual sex work in August – after a lengthy consultation with sex workers, international research and using evidence from the United Nations, World Health Organization and other international bodies – the debate was back in the headlines. A landslide of opinion pieces, petitions and open letters in support of and against the idea followed from across the world. Explaining its Policy to protect the human rights of sex workers, Amnesty International writes, “when sex workers are no longer seen and treated as ‘criminals’ or ‘accomplices’ they are less at risk of aggressive police tactics and can demand and enjoy better relationships with and protection from police.”

Advocates for decriminalisation argue that it has the potential to place more control into the hands of sex workers if they are not forced to operate outside of the law. There is more space for self-organisation, including forming unions.

“It’s really important that we start to think about taking it from an illegitimate industry, to decriminalisation, to legitimacy, to ethical,” said Roddick, arguing that more legitimacy would mean that sex workers are protected, have increased financial independence and the opportunity to develop their own paths through the industry.

“The criminalisation of sex work amounts to structural violence towards sex workers,” said Yingwana, explaining that in South Africa selling sex is made illegal by several laws and municipal regulations. She called for more research done in collaboration with sex workers, highlighting a report from the Women’s Legal Centre in which 70 per cent of sex workers in the study had experienced some form of abuse by the police, including sexual assault and the denial of access to food and water.

A recent policy briefing from IDS supports decriminalisation as a strategy to alleviate poverty, saying “criminal law forms the single greatest barrier to sex workers attaining justice and dignity.”

A lot of the debate around sex work and the law revolves around the agency and empowerment of sex workers. But Dolinsek raised a question on this, pointing out that laws that target sex workers often actually attribute ‘excessive’ sexual agency to sex workers who are seen as a danger to families and societies. “If you’re a sex worker that chooses, people think you can’t be victimised” said Dolensek, pointing to recent comments from Chicago Sun-Times writer Mary Mitchell on a case in the US where a man (who had a gun) is accused of raping a sex worker. “It’s tough to see this unidentified prostitute as a victim,” wrote Mitchell. “When you agree to meet a strange man in a strange place for the purpose of having strange sex for money, you are putting yourself at risk for harm.”

“Decriminalisation is not an end result in itself – we’re just getting started,” said Ogutu who has worked with Amnesty in their campaign. “It creates an avenue for us to have an entry point to dialogue and to conversations with the stakeholders who have an influence in our lives…It’s about creating an environment where we are able to engage with policy, engage with law enforcement, engage around health and other legal elements that really affect us as sex workers, affect our families and our society.”

Explore the full Sex Work Law Map at the IDS Sexuality and Social Justice Toolkit


From the Blog Editor – a selection of RHM papers on sex workers law, policy and practice:

Speaking of sex workers: How suppression of research has distorted the United States’ domestic HIV response

Criminalization, legalization or decriminalization of sex work: what female sex workers say in San Francisco, USA

Count me IN!: Research report on violence against disabled, lesbian, and sex-working women in Bangladesh, India, and Nepal

HIV criminalisation and sex work in Australia

Government regulation of sex and sexuality: in their own words

A glimpse into 30 years of struggle against prostitution by the women’s liberation movement in Norway

Searching for Justice for Body and Self in a Coercive Environment: sex work in Kerala, India