What’s the Difference Between Sex Work Decriminalization and Legalization?

Sex work is illegal almost everywhere in the United States, and that’s part of the reason it remains so dangerous. One study in San Francisco found that 82 percent of sex workers had been assaulted and 68 percent had been raped while working. Another study found that sex workers were 18 times more likely to be murdered than non-sex workers their age and race. Eighteen times.

All too often, sex workers are afraid of going to police and reporting violence, because they don’t want to get arrested themselves. No victim of violence should have to fear legal consequences from reporting a crime to the police.

Regardless of anyone’s individual feelings about sex work itself, hopefully we can all agree that reducing the risk of sex work and violence against sex workers is a worthy goal. But how do we do that? The question is more complicated than most of us realize, but an important step is understanding the difference between decriminalizing sex work and legalizing it.

Legalizing Sex Work

Making sex work legal would hopefully mean that sex workers wouldn’t have to fear police. Legalizing sex work means regulation with laws about where, when and how sex work occurs.

Some parts of Nevada have done this and only allow sex work in licensed brothels where sex workers are regularly tested for STDs. Legalization could also mean requiring sex workers to use condoms, a practice that’s less likely under an illegal model due to pressure from customers.

On the other hand, some people believe legalized sex work involves too much bureaucracy and doesn’t protect the most vulnerable sex workers. Undocumented sex workers or those who can’t meet the legal requirements would become further marginalized.

Decriminalizing Sex Work

Decriminalizing sex work means that it won’t be illegal and that police can’t arrest sex workers for doing their jobs. It also means there’s also no interference through government regulation. Unless other laws are being broken, law enforcement cannot intervene in sex work.

Some people see decriminalization as the best option for sex workers, because it would be safer and they wouldn’t have to pay the costs of regulation. Others believe decriminalization will make it easier for traffickers to commit crimes.

Rhode Island decriminalized sex work for several years and saw a dramatic decrease in reported rapes and STDs before they once again made sex work illegal.

Obviously, rape and the trafficking of minors remains illegal under both of these models.

There’s also something called “the Nordic model,” which makes it legal to sell sex but illegal to buy it. This is theoretically a good idea, but in practice it still results in sex workers having to operate “in the shadows” and doesn’t necessarily lead to an increase in safety.

Above all, what’s most important is that we listen to sex workers. They know what’s best for them. Not all sex workers agree on the best course of action, of course. They’re just as diverse and have just as many different opinions as any other group of people. But far too often laws are made about their profession without their input, and it makes their lives more dangerous.

Last year, Trump signed into law a bill called FOSTA-SESTA, which was supposed to reduce sex trafficking. The bill was hailed as a huge victory in the fight against sex trafficking and gained bipartisan support. In reality, the law puts sex workers as further risk, because they can’t use the online tools that make their jobs safer. But nobody asked them. Or nobody cared.

Sex work is a very complicated issue. To learn more, check out Sold in America, an investigative podcast that sheds light on the topic.

Correction: We originally reported that when Rhode Island decriminalized sex work, reported rapes and STDs increased. They actually decreased.

Photo Credit: Getty Images


heather g
heather g3 months ago

Legalising it is much safer for everyone.

Kevin B
Kevin B3 months ago

thank you for sharing

silja s
silja salonen4 months ago

corrupt system..many of the lawmakers themselves use the services of sex workers.

Leanne K
Leanne K4 months ago

Sex work is legal in most states if Australia. I think it's not an ideal job but a job nonetheless. The government and the police are wrong to charge participants. And nobody wants human trafficking. But many sex workers believe we should have decriminalised rather than legalised. Apparently it's bad for business and there are still illegal brothels because they don't have to pay such high licence fees. It's a crazy world

Teresa W
Teresa W4 months ago

interesting, thank you

Eric L
Eric Lees4 months ago

Like the war on drugs the solution is legalization as that is the only way to get rid of the black market.

Black markets lead to violence and human trafficking in this case. Disputes are handled through violence since you can't take someone to court over a dispute in an illegal transaction.

This is basic Liberty and humans rights issue as well as common sense.

Dr. Jan Hill
Dr. Jan Hill4 months ago


Debbi W
Debbi W4 months ago

Legalizing it would make it safer for both the women and men.

Lesa D
Past Member 4 months ago

thank you Lauren...

Loredana V
Loredana V4 months ago

I feel for the victims :( They risk their life because too many males (not men, simply males) are brutal criminals.