Sex work* is the consensual exchange of sexual services between adults for some form of compensation. Sex workers are people who engage in sex work, and they often face a myriad of human rights abuses and violence, exacerbated by the criminalization and stigmatization of sex work.
The criminalization of sex work infringes upon the rights of those consensually engaging in this line of work. More specifically, sex workers face barriers when it comes to exercising their rights to: privacy, bodily autonomy, freedom from violence or discrimination. In addition, sex workers often face difficulty accessing health, legal, and other social services due to the criminalization of sex work. Sex workers with intersecting identities face compounding discrimination on the basis of their gender, sexual orientation, race, caste, ethnicity, migrant or other statuses.
Sex work is work. Sex workers must have full and quality access to health, reproductive, legal, and social services, and be free of arrest, discrimination, exploitation, harassment, and abuse, especially at the hands of police.
Amnesty International’s Policy on State Obligations to Respect, Protect, and Fulfill the Human Rights of Sex Workers calls on governments to protect, respect, and fulfill the rights of sex workers, including:
It also calls for the decriminalization of sex work based on evidence that criminalization makes sex workers less safe, by preventing them from securing police protection and by providing impunity to abusers.
Current laws that criminalize sex work – such as bans on buying, solicitation, and general organization of sex work – serve to deny sex workers support and/or protection and can make sex workers less safe and provide impunity for abusers. The criminalization of sex work undermines a wide range of sex workers’ human rights and contributes to the negative perception of sex work, which reinforces discrimination and stigma.
The decriminalization of sex work entails the removal of all laws and policies that make sex work a criminal offense and that target both sex workers and people who purchase sexual services. This includes lifting bans on buying, solicitation, and general organization of sex work.
Laws on sex work should focus on protecting people from exploitation and abuse, rather than trying to ban all sex work and penalize sex workers.
*Wait, why not say “prostitution”?
The terms “sex work” and “prostitution” are sometimes used interchangeably. Many sex workers feel the term “prostitute” is demeaning or misogynistic, and organized sex worker groups generally prefer the term “sex worker” or “person in the sex trade.” Others use the term “prostitution” to reclaim and de-stigmatize the term and practice. Where possible, Amnesty International uses the term “those engaging in sex work” or the prevailing terminology used in a particular context; in more general discussion of this issue, Amnesty International uses the terms “sex work” and “sex worker.”