The truth about decriminalising prostitution

Does removing all criminal sanctions make the sex industry more or less safe for its workers?

A sex worker rests in a brothel in New Zealand
(Image credit: Hannah Peters/Getty Images )

Sex workers have long called for prostitution to be decriminalised, arguing that it would reduce levels of violence committed against one of the most marginalised groups in the world.

But opponents claim the opposite is true - that removing criminal sanctions from the sex trade would make prostitution more dangerous and lead to a rise in trafficking.

Both sides cite the example of New Zealand, the only country in the world to have fully decriminalised prostitution. So who is right?

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What do sex workers and their allies say?

Sex worker-led organisations argue that full decriminalisation - the removal of all laws relating to the consensual sale and purchase of sexual services - is the only way to ensure the safety of those working in the industry.

This view differs significantly from that informing UK legalisation, under which sex work is controlled by the government and only legal under certain strict conditions and at specific locations.

Decriminalisation, by contrast, would allow sex workers to work anywhere, and with other prostitutes, without breaking the law, says research scientist and former sex worker Dr Brooke Magnanti.

“Legalisation gives the employers the balance of power; decriminalisation returns rights to the workers, making them free agents,” Magnanti, previously known as Belle de Jour, wrote in a 2015 article for The Daily Telegraph.

Rights groups say decriminalisation would help lessen stigma and discrimination, reduce exploitation and violence, and make it easier for sex workers to report abuse and access medical care.

The push for decriminalisation has been backed by major organisations including Amnesty International, the World Health Organisation and UN Women, which campaigns for gender equality.

What do opponents of decriminalisation say?

The Coalition Against Trafficking In Women accuses groups such as Amnesty International of ignoring “growing evidence of the catastrophic effects of the decriminalisation of the sex industry”.

The coalition, which opposes the distinction between voluntary and forced prostitution, claims that the removal of laws relating to the sex trade would lead to a rise in trafficking and sexual exploitation.

Julie Bindel, an author and feminist activist, argues that prostitution is inherently abusive. “There is no way to make it safe, and it should be possible to eradicate it,” she says.

“Any government that allows the decriminalisation of pimping and sex-buying sends a message to its citizens that women are vessels for male sexual consumption,” Bindel wrote in an article for The Guardian in April.

She also claims that promises made by the New Zealand government – that decriminalisation would result in less violence, regular inspections of brothels and no increase of the sex trade – have not materialised.

What impact did decriminalisation have in New Zealand?

“To make policy that truly benefits sex workers, we must separate myths from facts,” said Dr Lynzi Armstrong, a lecturer in criminology at the Victoria University of Wellington, in an article for The Independent last year.

New Zealand became the first country in the world to decriminalise sex work in June 2003, with the passage of the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA).

The legislation is designed to safeguard the human rights of sex workers, protect them from exploitation and promote their welfare, health and safety.

It allows street-based sex workers to operate without any restrictions, and for up to four sex workers to work together without needing a brothel operator’s certificate.

Five years after its implementation, New Zealand’s Ministry of Justice ordered a comprehensive assessment of the PRA’s impact on sex work in the country.

The 2008 investigation by the Prostitution Law Review Committee concluded that “the vast majority of people in the sex industry are better off under the PRA than they were previously”.

Contrary to what critics predicted, the researchers found little change in the number of sex workers and no increase in levels of trafficking following decriminalisation.

“However, it was noted that progress in some areas had been slow,” the investigation report noted. “For instance, many sex workers were still vulnerable to exploitative employment conditions.”

But research submitted to the review committee by the University of Otago and New Zealand’s Prostitutes’ Collective (NZPC) found that the majority of sex workers “articulated increased power” in their negotiations with clients and management post-decriminalisation, and felt more supported by the legal system.

Of the sex workers who responded to the NZPC survey, 96% said the law made them feel safer.

The researchers concluded that decriminalisation had resulted in “few, if any, negative consequences” in terms of the health and safety of sex workers, and had not led to an increase in their numbers.

“Despite the oft-repeated claims of its shortcomings, the academic evidence that has been gathered so far clearly supports the New Zealand decriminalisation model as an ideal starting point,” says criminology expert Dr Armstrong.

“No law is perfect, but this is the best approach we have so far for supporting sex worker rights and facilitating access to justice,” she adds. “There is no alternative worth pursuing.”

Who is right?

There is no evidence that decriminalisation has led to an increase in the number of people working in prostitution in New Zealand, nor in the number of people trafficked into the sex trade. Research suggests that, overall, sex workers feel safer and more empowered as a result of decriminalisation.

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