Sex work is one of the oldest forms of labour, yet, it is still demonised today as it has been through history. The hatred of sex work is as rooted in misogyny as it is cultural, religious and traditional beliefs. The criminalisation of consensual sex work is morality policing on an institutional scale and this policing is always targeted at the sex workers and not those who patronise them. This sort of ‘morality policing’ is what violently homophobic laws are built on as well.
Human Rights Watch, after extensive research, has shaped its policy on sex work in support of the full decriminalization of consensual adult sex work. They believe that a government should not have any say in the sexual affairs of consenting adults.
Countries like New Zealand, parts of Australia, Germany, the Netherlands, and parts of the US have legalised sex work, but in spite of this, the debate carries on.
The criminalisation of sex work doesn’t make sex work cease to exist. Rather, what it does is expose sex workers, an already vulnerable group to violence and deprive them of institutional protection. It leaves them vulnerable to exploitation and abuse by law enforcement officers.
In 2019, policemen in Abuja rounded up women they accused of prostitution and extorted, assaulted and raped them. Over seventy women were arrested in several parts of the city and Gajere Danjuma Tanimu, spokesman of the Police in Abuja, said the women “were hanging around nightclubs” as justification for the violence the police had perpetrated. The criminalisation of sex work made it possible for policemen to pick up random women simply for being outside at night, rape and assault them, and escape accountability for doing so.
When sex workers are harmed, they cannot turn to law enforcement for support and justice for fear of being arrested or even harmed further. This makes them susceptible to violence from people who know how society ostracises sex workers.
In a 2012 report, “Sex Workers at Risk: Condoms as Evidence of Prostitution in Four US Cities” Human Rights Watch found that police and prosecutors used a sex worker’s possession of condoms as evidence to support prostitution charges. This practice left sex workers reluctant to carry condoms for fear of arrest, forcing them to engage in sex without protection and putting them at heightened risk of contracting sexually transmitted diseases.
Decriminalising sex work means that sex workers will be entitled to legal protection. They will have access to justice and healthcare that is non-existent for sex workers in countries that ban sex work. Sex workers will not cease to exist because they are stripped of certain rights, instead, criminalising sex work is the government taking concerted effort to make life more difficult for them.