What does full decriminalisation of the sex trade mean in practice?

This article explains briefly what “decriminalisation of prostitution” or “decriminalisation of sex work” means in practice. This supplements the bullet points on our RCN Congress 2019 flyers (and the white flyers we have given out elsewhere) with further information, links to research studies, etc.

We refer to “decriminalisation of prostitution” as “full decriminalisation” to distinguish it from the Nordic Model which decriminalises those (mostly women and girls) who are engaged in prostitution but not the other actors.

It decriminalises pimps, punters and brothel keepers

Many people consider New Zealand to be the best example of full decriminalisation. It was introduced in the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA) 2003. If you follow the link and read the Act, you will see that the PRA decriminalises punters (sex buyers), brothel keepers, and pimps (people who profit from other people’s prostitution and often control and arrange clients for them).

It normalises the sale of women and girls for sex

One of the primary purposes of the criminal law is to make it clear what society considers unacceptable and to discourage people from doing those things. So when something that was previously illegal is no longer a criminal offence, it sends out the message that society now considers that to be acceptable. For example, when gay marriage was made legal, it sent out the welcome message that gay relationships make a positive contribution to society.

So when a country decides to decriminalise the sex trade, it sends out the message that buying sexual access to other people and profiting from other people’s prostitution are now considered normal, legitimate, and acceptable things to do.

In the sex trade, the commodity being sold is sexual access to predominantly women and girls. This is treating them as an object or commodity rather than as a whole, complex human being. The pimps and brothel keepers profit from this reduction of women and girls to objects and commodities.

This inevitably affects how all men see all women and girls, and how women and girls see themselves.

Germany has a legalized sex trade that (until recent changes in the law) was not dissimilar to New Zealand’s so-called decriminalised one. Two journalists, Soliman and Kennebeck, spent two years researching the prostitution system in Germany for a documentary. A Die Welt article explains:

“Soliman and Kennebeck reach the conclusion that the good intentions to strengthen the position of prostitutes through legislation in fact achieved the opposite. ‘Women have become a resource, to be used as efficiently as possible,’ they say.”

It fails to recognise the inherent harms of prostitution

We have explained elsewhere how full decriminalisation of the sex trade means that prostitution is treated like any other business, such as hair dressing, food distribution, or factories, which means there’s no recognition of its specific harms. But prostitution is inherently violent, and Health & Safety regulations can never bring it to an acceptable standard of safety.

meta study conducted by UCL found that violence is a prominent part of the lives of prostituted individuals in almost all settings and that “social exclusion is the leading cause of entrance into [prostitution] and exclusion is often deepened as a result of engaging in it.”

German study based on medical examinations of 1,000 prostituted women found that:

  • Most suffer from chronic lower abdominal pain caused by inflammation and mechanical trauma.
  • Most show signs of premature ageing, a symptom of persistent stress.
  • Most had injuries caused by the overuse of their delicate sexual organs and orifices.
  • Most had injuries deliberately inflicted by punters.

Prostitution also often has a profound negative impact on mental health. In order to endure the undesired groping and sexual penetration by multiple strangers on a daily basis, many women describe needing to “split off” from their conscious selves and/or to take alcohol or drugs in order to endure it. This can lead to addictions and long term psychological difficulties.

Not surprisingly given the prevalence of violence, prostituted women experience high levels of post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). For example, in a study of 854 people in prostitution in 9 countries (including Germany where it is fully decriminalised), 68% of the respondents met the criteria for PTSD. This is in the range found in war veterans. Other studies have had similar results.

Canadian commission estimated the death rate of women in prostitution to be 40 times higher than that of the general population. Women in indoor prostitution in particular have a very high rate of suicide. In one study, 75% of women in escort prostitution had attempted it.

It makes prostitution into welfare for poor women

Currently in the UK, women are turning to prostitution in increasing numbers out of financial desperation due to the Government’s austerity measures. Full decriminalisation of the sex trade means that the state sanctions that, and women are implicitly expected to turn to prostitution when they fall on hard times. As a result prostitution becomes institutionalised as the financial safety net for women, and the Governments loses motivation to address women’s poverty and fix the broken benefits system.

It leads to an increase in demand for prostitution from men

Decriminalising the sex trade broadcasts the message that buying sexual access to (mainly) women and girls is acceptable and this inevitably leads to more men doing it more often. This inevitably leads to an expansion in the size of the sex trade.

An economic analysis showed that legalisation/ full decriminalisation causes an expansion in the sex trade. A German study found that the prostitution market is demand led and any liberalisation of the prostitution laws inevitably leads to an expansion in the sex trade. And in New Zealand there was an increase in numbers of prostituted women following the PRA.

This inevitably leads to more vulnerable children and young people being drawn in

“When I was fifteen I was FAR more in demand than I was at twenty-two, even though at twenty-two I was slim, pretty, and an extremely youthful woman; but therein lay the problem. I was a woman.” – Rachel Moran

The majority of punters prize the youngest and least experienced girls. Rachel Moran was prostituted in Ireland for seven years from the age of 15. She spent time answering brothel phone lines, and says one of the commonest questions was, “What age is the youngest girl you’ve got?” This has been confirmed by other women, such as Jacqueline Gwynne, who was a receptionist in an Australian brothel.

It stands to reason that anything that leads to an expansion in the sex trade will therefore lead to an increase in vulnerable children and young people being drawn in. This is borne out by experience in New Zealand. A recent New Zealand media article said:

“There is a rising demand for the young, developing adolescent as the ultimate sex object.”

The prostitution of children is recognised to be a major problem in New Zealand. Mama Tere Strickland, a community worker, said: “At least the old law kept a lid on the numbers, but with no law on the streets, the pimps and gangs have moved in.”

The US government recognises that New Zealand has a problem with child sex trafficking.

It leads to increased sex trafficking to meet the extra demand

Full decriminalisation of the sex trade leads to an increase in sex trafficking to meet the increased demand. This was confirmed by a study of 150 countries, which found that legalisation / full decriminalisation of the sex trade causes an increase in sex trafficking.

It leads to lower prices & increased expectations from men

Women who have experienced the decriminalised sytem of prostitution in New Zealand have written about how it has lead to lower prices, increased competition and increased expectations from punters.

  • Sabrinna Valisce’s evidence about her experiences in prostitution in New Zealand before and after the PRA
  • Another woman writes about her experiences in a New Zealand brothel
  • Alice Glass interviews survivors of prostitution, including Chelsea, who was also in a New Zealand brothel.
  • Olivia writes of her experiences of prostitution in New Zealand.

It contradicts binding human rights treaties

Full decriminalisation of the sex trade is in clear contradiction to the binding obligations placed on the UK through ratification of the CEDAW and the Palermo Trafficking Protocol human rights treaties.

  • CEDAW – the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women – is a UN bill of rights for women. Countries that have ratified it are legally bound to put its provisions into practice. One of its provisions is to suppress the “exploitation of prostitution of women” – in other words, pimping, brothel keeping, and other forms of profiteering.
  • The Palermo Trafficking Protocol – the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, especially Women and Children – also places a binding obligation on ratifying states to take measures to crack down on the exploitation of the prostitution of women and children by third parties and to take measures to discourage the demand for prostitution that drives sex trafficking.

It is an obstacle to equality between the sexes

“Prostitution exists because inequality exists.   At the same time, prostitution embeds into society the very inequality it feeds on; thus perpetuating the subordination of women.” – Dianne Post

It is opposed by leading women’s organisations & many survivors of prostitution

These links provide the names of many leading women’s organisations that oppose full decriminalisation and that support the Nordic Model. Note these lists are not exhaustive.

Many survivors of prostitution vehemently oppose full decriminalisation and support the Nordic Model, as indeed do many of those who are currently in prostitution. There are many reasons why it is difficult for many to speak out openly.

“I have experience within the sex industry – both ‘choice’ and forced. There are many of us. I have friends I used to ‘work’ with on the streets and in brothels who are still stuck and none of them want full decriminalisation. It would mean the end of exit opportunities.” – British woman who contacted us on social media.


A fully referenced version of our flyer about the Nordic Model is available here.

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