The political/legal environment of the sex industry varies from region to region. However, throughout the variety of legal landscapes, sex workers agree that the industry should be decriminalized. Whenever sex work is criminalized and/or partially criminalized, it not only reinforces the stigma of being a sex worker but it also directly impacts the safety and working conditions of sex workers.
In the following TedTalks video clip, entitled The Laws that Sex Workers Really Want, sex worker and activist Toni Mac discusses the various legal frameworks in the sex industry. Without question, it is the best resource available. Below, I have summarized the main points of her presentation, but I highly recommend that you watch the full video clip.
FULL CRIMINALIZATION: In this model, buyers, sellers, and third parties are criminalized. Sex workers are under constant threat of getting a criminal record which will impact all of their future employment options. Within this controlling environment, there is the potential for state mistreatment. In some regions, sex workers have been compelled to pay a bribe and/or coerced into having sexual relations with a police officer to avoid a potential arrest. In some regions where there is full criminalization, condoms are used as evidence against sex workers. As such, many sex workers forego condom usage, thus putting them at increased health risk.
PARTIAL CRIMINALIZATION: In this model, the purchasing and selling of sex is legal; however, certain activities surrounding sex work is illegal. Often, that includes solicitation, running a common bawdy house, and living off the avails. The provision against solicitation impedes the ability of sex workers, especially street sex workers, to adequately screen clients because of pressure for hurried negotiations. To avoid detection from law enforcement, street sex workers are forced into less populated areas which make them vulnerable to violence. The provision against running a common bawdy house impedes the ability of sex workers to work indoors with other sex workers which is a safer work environment. Lastly, the provision against living off the avails impedes the ability of sex workers to hire security personnel, thus making the industry less safe. Because the legal environment marginalizes sex workers, it is difficult for them to go forward to the police, thus empowering potential predators.
THE SWEDISH/NORDIC MODEL: This is a partially criminalized model of sex work wherein the purchasers of sex are criminalized, not the sellers. Because clients are criminalized, they are hesitant to provide adequate screening information to sex workers, thus making the industry less safe. On the streets, sex workers might feel pressured for hurried negotiations which, again, puts them at increased safety risk. This model of sex work often means that some sex workers must lower their prices and/or engage in unsafe services in order to get adequate business. In some instances, sex workers have sought out third party managers to help them find customers, thus supporting would-be predatory pimps. It is important to note, that statistics have shown that this model of sex work has not reduced the demand for sex work.
LEGALIZATION: In this model of sex work, legal sex work can only occur in designated areas determined by the state. To comply with the law, sex workers are subject to registration and/or mandatory health checks. Because the legal regulations are often expensive, some sex workers are shut out of working legally, thus creating a two-tier system of legal and illegal sex work. The most vulnerable sex workers are forced to work outside the legal framework and, as such, are subject to the increased safety risks as described above in the criminalized environment.
DECRIMINALIZATION: This is the model of sex work advocated by sex workers wherein laws which penalize sex workers are removed. Not only do employers have obligations to sex workers but the labour rights of sex workers are protected. In the New Zealand model of decriminalization, the entire approach to sex work is centered around the right of sex workers to a safe work environment. In this model, sex workers insist upon using protection with clients, both condoms and dental dams. In New Zealand, decriminalization coupled with entrenched labour rights empowers sex workers. This is the ideal model of sex work.