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International Perspectives on Sex Work Decriminalization

On October 17, 2019, the city council heard testimony regarding a proposed law that would decriminalize sex work in the District of Columbia. David Grosso, Robert White, Anita Bonds and Brianne Nadeau introduced the current version of the bill in June of this year. As written, Bill 23-0318, the Community Safety and Health Amendment Act of 2019, would make both the purchase and sale of sexual activity legal in D.C. A variety of organizations, including the Sex Workers Advocates Coalition, SWAC, have lent support to the bill. D.C. is not alone in its attempts to address the issues caused by and related to sex work. Countries around the world have adopted a variety of solutions from outright legalization to hybrid models that criminalize the purchase, but not the sale, of sex. 

The Netherlands, a small northern European country, legalized sex work in 2000. The 1911 Act Against Immorality criminalized the activity throughout the country. Dutch law enforcement authorities largely responded by refusing to enforce the law. Police, prosecutors and politicians soon determined that fear of criminal prosecution increased sex worker exposure to violence—sex workers seriously injured by clients often refused to press charges or cooperate in investigations.

The ban also increased sex worker vulnerability in the workplace and community discontent  by limiting the state’s ability to place restraints on the activity with health and safety regulations.

After decriminalization, local municipalities and the national legislature began regulating sex work, concentrating on the passage and enforcement of health and safety-related regulations. Local governments are free to require brothels to obtain permits and to limit the areas in and the times during which these businesses may operate.

Partial decriminalization, the so-called Nordic model, is another option many countries have adopted. The 1999 Swedish Sex Purchase Act decriminalized the sale of sex and criminalized its purchase—it essentially makes demand illegal. Data from various academic studies suggest the Nordic model does not result in less prostitution. It appears to reduce visible street-level sex work and push related activities online and into informal brothels. Street-based sex workers in Sweden have also reported increases in client violence and police abuse after the introduction of the Nordic model. 

France passed law number 2016-444 criminalizing the purchase, but not the sale, of sex in 2016. Preliminary data indicate trends similar to those experienced in Sweden, including a link between partial decriminalization and increased health risks for sex workers. After the introduction of the law, the number of clients attempting to purchase sex on French streets dropped. This, in turn, increased competition among sex workers and decreased the price of services. French sex workers have reported a striking rise in the number of clients requesting unprotected sex. The decrease in available clients has driven many French sex workers to accept requests for unprotected sex they would have declined before the reduction in clients related to the introduction of the Nordic model.

Reports suggest there is less condom usage among street-based sex workers in Nordic model jurisdictions—a fact that poses substantial risks for community members at large. Around the world, HIV is 13.5 percent more prevalent among female sex workers than in the general population, according to information released by the World Health Organization, WHO. Data regarding the HIV status of male and transgender sex workers are largely incomplete. The WHO supports the decriminalization of sex work as part of a comprehensive global HIV transmission reduction strategy.

Sex work is completely prohibited in most African nations. It’s legal and subject to various regulations in Germany, the Netherlands, Austria, Turkey and Switzerland. Sweden, Northern Ireland, Norway, Iceland and France practice the Nordic, partial decriminalization, model.

Lorre L

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