Does Legalizing Prostitution Help or Hurt Women?

By Sonny Abesamis (Red Umbrella) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Editor's Note: Talya De Fay is a sex worker and activist from Australia. She is founder of Scarlet Academy-- "a central resource hub and a gateway to accessing practical sex industry information on increasing the well being of sex workers." This post was initially published as an answer on Quora. In addition to Quora, De Fay's work has also been featured on Huffington Post's "The Blog." 

Legalisation hurts women, Decriminalization helps women.

But criminalization hurts women the most.

Legalisation and decriminalisation are two different things. Legalisation means instead of removing laws criminalizing women, other laws and policies are introduced. Women who can’t meet the new laws then become criminalised again. The abuse that is currently happening then continues. The women who are most affected are the women who need the most protecting. Tunisia is an example of this. Legalisation also allows police to keep using current laws to target women, as Amnesty found in countries that have the nordic or similar models.

Photo Credit: Sonny Abesamis (Red Umbrella) [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons HT

Decriminalization isn’t a magic wand whereby all the problems will disappear as soon as it's implemented. This is not because it doesn’t work, but because of everybody’s biases, judgments of others, and lack of empathy towards their fellow humans. Decriminalization is the framework which supports the change that helps people see past their personal biases and work together for the benefit of all.

Here, Charles LeRoq explains the difference between Legalisation and Decriminalisation.


Myth: Decriminalisation means women are turned into objects for men's sexual use.

Fact: In fact it’s criminalisation that encourages objectification of women. When sex work is criminalised, men know they can treat women in sex work like objects and the women have no recourse, or options to stop it. Then men grow bold. They feel it becomes their right to treat any woman this way.

  • Example: In this Reddit profile, you will see a client’s heinous comments, where he publicly exploits criminalisation laws to use women in sex work as objects. He writes about women who don’t do sex work in the same manner, objectifying them as well.
reddit profile

Photo Credit: Reddit


Fact: With decriminalisation, the power and respect is with the women. If a man treats a woman in sex work like an object, often the woman will take action to stop it. A few ways she may do this is to refuse the booking, speak up during or pause the booking to reiterate do’s and don’ts, finish the booking early with no refund, or in a few rare known cases, grab him by the scrotum and very strongly discuss with him the error of his ways.

These women often speak up in their private lives to their friends advising not to let a man disrespect them, or take advantage. They are advocates for women, showing them that a man needs to bring more than an offer of sex or looks to the table if he wants a date. The reason this is possible is because the law is applied objectively as its suppose to be, rather than subjectively on personal feelings.

  • Example: Under decriminalisation, if a man is not respectful they won't get far. They can’t threaten us with the police. If anything the opposite is true.
Photo Credit: Twitter ((@shitpunterssay)

Photo Credit: Twitter (@shitpunters)


Photo Credit: Twitter ((@shitpunterssay)

Photo Credit: Twitter (@shitpunters)


Sexual Assault

Myth: Decriminalisation encourages and increases sexual assault towards women.

Fact: Again, it is criminalisation that encourages assault towards women. If we look at America as an example, due to sex work being criminalised, members of  the public feel entitled to take the law into their own hands and assault these women. Even the police feel safe assaulting these women, which again sends the message that ‘abuse is ok’ to the public. Assault never just stays in one area. As people get more confident in assaulting female sex workers, they get more confident in assaulting females in general.

  • The most recent case involved Oakland police trafficking a minor who potentially had sex with dozens of police officers, beginning when she was 16. When police do it is called a "sex scandal." Then there was also Gary Ridgway, who felt he was doing the police a favour by killing women doing sex work. Not all of his victims were sex workers. Marcus Rhodes raped women who did sex work because he knew they were less likely to go to the police.

Facts and Examples: By pure accident, Rhode Island became a study proving that decriminalised sex work showed a reduction in rape (and STIs) amongst women. This doesn’t mean the abuse moved to the sex workers. It means those men who were socially awkward, who society shunned have somewhere they could still get affection and attention, a ‘substitute girlfriend if you will. So the desire most likely never developed.

You also can go to the police for helpThis sends another message out to potential predators-the RIGHT message. Do not abuse women unless you want to go to jail. Under decriminalisation in Australia, if improper conduct is experienced with a policeman, you can report him to the Ombudsman and your case will be handed over to someone else.

  • Example: Murder Investigation under Decriminalisation in NZ

14–15 May 2016 Renee Duckmanton, who worked as a sex worker was murdered in New Zealand.

Listen as Ms Pickering from the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective talks on TV about how prostitutes work closely with police, how they record aggressive client details and hand them over, as needed, to police and how stigmatization decreases safety of women.

Footage courtesy of New Zealand Prostitute Collective.


26 May 2016 Man was Arrested and Charged for Renee’s Murder

Arrest in Renee Duckmanton case | New Zealand Police Press Release

Murder arrest 'bittersweet' for family.

Angry note shows trouble with journalists objectifying sex workers | NZ Catholic Newspaper - Support even from Catholic Newspaper.

Since 2005 - 2016 there have been 4 murders of sex workers.

Sexual Slavery and Sex Trafficking.

Fact: Both criminalisation and the Swedish/ Nordic Model not only increase harm to women, they increase harm on women who are ALREADY victims or are in some way marginalised.

Example: In Norway, nine sex workers living together were victims of a home invasion. The man robbed them at knife point. He then went on to rape each one. The police took 2–3hrs to show. The women were taken to hospital and then a hotel for 2 nights, BUT on arrival home the women found police had used those 2 days to pressure the landlord to evict them. They were given 12 hours notice, then thrown to the streets 2 days after being rapedAnother incident saw a sex worker deported after reporting a crime. The Nordic Model made the women legal but kept everything else illegal so authorities could continue the abuse.

Norway has had the Nordic model since 2008.

Eight years.

Fact: A majority of anti-trafficking groups (who often are also anti-consensual prostitution groups) put figures out all the time. They are not correct.

Example: The authors of one of the most popular figures quoted clearly states PLEASE DO NOT CITE THESE NUMBERS.

Fact: In the United States, non trafficked sex workers are often added to the trafficking numbers. Sometimes other methods are used.


  • Jenna Torras , a 17 year old single mum, did sex work by her own choosing. When arrested, the police didn’t believe her and labelled her a trafficked victim with no proof.  She was forced to identify as a victim to get of the charge, forced to go to trafficking court, forced to drop out of college, and forced to attend yoga or else she would be charged. Her struggle for a better life just got harder. The U.S just got 1 more ‘trafficking victim for their books. Sex workers were the ones who actually provided proper help and she now works as part of a sex worker organisation.
  • The 2014 U.S Traffick In Person (TIP) Report 2015 had mass changes to countries trafficking tier levels that had nothing to do with trafficking or were based on an independent expert's advice. The 2016 TIP Report seems to be more of the same. Trafficking victims are a tool for the U.S to hold over other countries for better trade deals.

This may look good on the books, but it does nothing to help the real victims of trafficking.

Decriminalisation removes the non-trafficking sex workers out of the nets. The trafficking laws are not affected by decriminalisation so more attention can be given to the real victims and fewer women are harassed due to their job.

The Swedish model only serves as a vehicle for  human rights violations. There is nothing good about it. This is because it is designed to eradicate the industry regardless of how many women experience increased violent and abusive situations. The reality of women being abused under the Swedish model is seen as acceptable.

Screen cap from Amnesty International Article, "Amnesty International publishes policy and research on protection of sex workers’ rights" (Photo Credit: Amnesty International)

Excerpt from "Amnesty International publishes policy and research on protection of sex workers’ rights." This is discussing female sex workers life under the Swedish/ Nordic Model. (Photo Credit: Amnesty International)


And yet throughout all of this, people still think their personal moral views being upset is more important that a woman’s human right to safety and protection from abuse and violence.

Interesting Data

  • JA

    Yes, Full decriminalization is the way to go. It is a necessary step before we will be able to fight the stigma associated with sex work.