Protestors at the Sex Workers Rights March in London in 2011 holding up a sign that reads, “We demand sex workers rights.” In the United States, the Mann Act of 1910 criminalized sex trafficking as well as consensual sex work. MSMORNINGTON/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS VIA SA

Fanni Frankl is a sophomore journalism major and political science minor.

In a society where sex workers often get discriminated against, the question of decriminalization of sex work should be highly considered. Sex workers often face violence in their field including physical, sexual and psychological violence. They have also been denied Airbnb accounts, got suspended from their PayPal accounts and even got banned from advertising their work. 

The Mann Act of 1910, the law that criminalized sex trafficking as well as consensual sex work, makes it difficult to regulate the number of people who have acquired immunodeficiency disease (AIDS). AIDS, caused by the sexually transmitted disease (STD) human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), weakens the body’s cellular immunity and can be terminal. Sex workers are also less inclined to go to clinics to treat STDs where sex work is illegal for fear of punishment and shame. AIDS has the chance to be significantly reduced once admitting sex work becomes legal and more acceptable. In essence, by decriminalizing sex work, the government has the opportunity to save lives by increasing medical attention to sex workers.

According to a case in Rhode Island where sex work was legalized between 2003 and 2009, the number of rapes reported to police declined by a third. Additionally, the number of women infected with gonorrhea, a sexually transmitted disease (STD), also declined by 39%.  

Women, Gender, and Sexualities Studies professor at Stony Brook University (SBU), Nancy Hiemstra, commented on the potential effects that decriminalizing has on sex workers.

“It makes it much easier to go to clinics for the people that feel comfortable coming forward for assistance,” Hiemstra said. “Sometimes these people are targeted if they are trying to get contraception or treatment for things like STDs. They don’t really have resources so they fear going out and getting them. Decriminalizing makes that help much more available.”

The stigma behind sex work is a critical issue that can also limit sex workers from feeling confident and asking for help.

Lecturer in the Women, Gender, and Sexualities Studies Department at SBU, Cristina Khan, specializes in sex work research and voiced her belief that criminalizing sex work makes these workers “less inclined to come forward” because of the belief among the public that prostitution goes “against their morals.” Once it is decriminalized, sex workers can then “feel more empowered and be able to advocate for themselves.”

Social perception of sex work includes the thought that prostitution is a mark of disgrace and that it is against moral values. Sex workers have been often construed as “undesirable” and “disposable victims.”  Newspapers, like The Age and The Herald Sun, identified Tracy Connelly, a murdered sex worker, as a prostitute in their headlines. Both articles spoke about the inherent danger of her work, including her understanding of this danger and her preference not to work in sex work. These social perceptions against sex work need to be addressed in order to create a more compassionate society that are concerned with the health and safety of sex workers instead of being among the causes of sex workers not coming out for help.


Decriminalizing sex work would be the first step in addressing the discrimination that sex workers go through in society. Sex workers would then be less afraid to report crimes committed against them to the police, more comfortable going to see a health professional to treat sexually transmitted infections and diseases and be less likely to be denied purchase of goods or services for personal use, such as insurance. However, just decriminalizing sex work is not the only hurdle we have to overcome. Addressing the social stigma is also imperative to protect sex workers and make them feel more accepted in a society that has labeled them as “less than human.”

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