ACLU Analysis Finds Decriminalizing Sex Work Improves Public Health and Public Safety

Wednesday October 21, 2020

The American Civil Liberties Union today released "Is Sex Work Decriminalization the Answer? What the Research Tells Us", a comprehensive review of more than 80 studies on the decriminalization and criminalization of sex work.

In addition to finding that decriminalization will improve public health and safety while increasing economic stability for sex workers, the studies reviewed do not indicate a clear link between criminalizing sex work and stopping human trafficking.

The studies included in the review looked at three models of decriminalization: full decriminalization, which removes all laws and criminal penalties specific to sex work; "end-demand" or "Nordic" models that criminalize buying but not selling sex work; and legalization models that require sex workers to register or impose other regulations. The research reviewed by the ACLU shows that full decriminalization has the greatest benefits for public health and safety.

"Right now, millions of people are asking what we can do to reduce abuse by law enforcement, racial disparities in our criminal justice system, and our overall jail and prison populations," said LaLa Zannell, the ACLU's Trans Justice Campaign Manager. "One policy that can achieve all of these goals — particularly for Black trans women and immigrants — is to recognize that sex work is work and treat it like any other industry. Sex workers have been saying they face significant violence from police and clients for decades and it is time that we all listen to these voices when determining how to improve safety for sex workers."

ACLU offices around the country have been engaging with local sex worker-led groups to support calls to district attorneys to decline to prosecute sex work related offenses and to repeal state legislation criminalizing sex work. At the federal level, the ACLU has opposed laws that prevent sex workers from screening clients online, such as SESTA/FOSTA, which the research reviewed by the ACLU suggests has increased violence and harassment faced by sex workers.