Mapping sex work law: tendencies and trends

Published on 18 January 2017

In 2015 Cheryl Overs began developing a global map of laws on commercial sex globally. The Sex Work Law Map describes the law in each country and provides an index to enable users to locate and compare legal approaches to female sex work. Here she discusses some of the patterns that emerge from the Map.

Medical management of sex workers

Uruguay, Ecuador, Venezuela, Chile, Panama, Peru, Bolivia, Mexico, Curacao, Turkey, Tunisia, Hungary, Latvia, Ukraine, Netherlands, Guam, Indonesia, Lebanon, Kazakhstan, Curacao, Singapore, Australia, Germany Switzerland, Senegal, Czech, Nevada, Madagascar, Philippines, Tajikistan, Vietnam.

Since the beginning of the HIV epidemic the clearest and most widespread trend in sex work law reform is the expansion of medical control of female sex workers. At its crudest, medical control is achieved by requiring sex workers to submit to STI and/or HIV testing, usually by registering them and criminalising those who don’t comply. But there are other ways too, including harsher sentences or punitive detention for HIV positive sex workers or publicising their identities. In some countries it is illegal for brothel managers to employ women who have not been medically examined while in others it is illegal to buy and/or sell unprotected sex.

Increasingly clinics and NGOs register sex workers and, although not co-operating isn’t illegal, it can mean losing access to health services which is a powerful sanction in places where there are few feasible alternatives. In one particularly odious provision, Latvia has made a law that gives clients access to sex workers’ medical data. In addition, there are many countries that criminalise HIV positive people who have sex or require them to disclose HIV status to sexual partners.

As well as violating human rights, coercive measures limit rather than encourage access to health care. This is evidenced by so many such systems covering a minority of sex workers and then falling into disuse.

Interestingly, although medical/legal control gains some attention from sex work advocates it is the least discussed trend. This may be because such policies are relatively acceptable to sex workers and/or because sex workers’ rights advocacy is primarily funded by public health institutions that regard female sex workers as a group at high risk for HIV and STIs.

Criminalisation of Clients

USA, France, Sweden, India, Canada, USA, Egypt, Maldives, Norway, Lao, Saudi Pakistan, Vietnam, UK, Finland, South Korea, China, Kazakhstan, Mongolia, Cameroon, Lithuania, Iraq, Kuwait.

Conversely moves to make it illegal to buy sex have attracted a great deal of attention by activists since the Swedish government branded the idea and promoted it globally as the ‘Swedish Model’.

It is difficult to track the criminalisation of clients other than where legislation has been recently introduced. But the map shows it pre-dates Sweden’s enterprise. China, for example, has always criminalised clients. The UK criminalised ‘kerb crawling’ to buy sex and several other countries criminalise the purchase of sex from minors or women who are trafficked or sexually exploited. Laws that prohibit lewd behaviour and public nuisance can be applied to buyers of sex as can laws prohibiting debauchery or adultery. As well as new and specific legislation, existing law that has traditionally been used against sex workers can be extended to clients. Buying sex is illegal for all Muslim men, though few are prosecuted.

Conflation of Trafficking and Sex Work

Mongolia, Nepal, Philippines, East Timor, Croatia, Bahamas, Fiji, Norway, Sweden, Sri Lanka, Botswana, DR Congo, Bosnia Herzegovina,

Trafficking and sex work are increasingly conflated in law and policy. This happened in several ways. One way is to replace laws against brothel keeping, living off earnings, controlling sex workers etc (these are usually called third-party laws) with human trafficking laws that apply regardless of consent of the sex worker.

Another way is to add ‘sexual exploitation’ to law aimed at preventing trafficking. In all the jurisdictions for which I can find information, sexual exploitation means to profit from the prostitution of another. That means that any woman whose takings from sex work are shared with anyone else is classed as a victim of sexual exploitation.

Sex worker advocates often mistakenly read ‘exploitation’ to mean treating people badly, as it does in plain English. But this is a trap because it makes law against sexual exploitation appear to have the potential to be benign. In fact, criminal law doesn’t distinguish between good and bad pimps. Rather, by obliterating consent and agency both legal mechanisms turn the old third-party offences to very serious human trafficking crimes and casts the sex workers involved as victims which in turn justifies ‘rescuing’ them which frequently entails loss of livelihood violence and coercion.

Street Sex Work

Street sex work is the most visible commercial sex, both literally and legally. Very few countries don’t specifically prohibit public soliciting, and even then other laws are used against street workers. This tells us that while removing laws against street soliciting might help it will not in itself change much for street sex workers. That decriminalisation is necessary but not sufficient is also evidenced by continuing violence and abuse of sex workers in the many places where soliciting isn’t illegal.

The shift to soft policing or policing for ‘harm reduction’ is an interesting trend. This entails police addressing crimes against sex workers properly and performing other helpful tasks like providing them with information, social and psychological support and maybe even condoms. This usually only applies to women who work within a given area so soft policing is used to incorporate, and even formalise, containment.

By restricting access to safe places to work for independent sex workers and those who can’t afford to rent or buy their own properties, third-party laws encourage street sex work and liberalising indoor sex discourages it. There is some evidence that street sex work is in decline in some parts of the world, perhaps because where it is no longer wanted it is relatively easy for authorities to eliminate or move. Digital technology also appears to have a role in reducing street sex work by providing alternative ways to meet. For some sex workers this is an unwelcome development but my view is that although street vending (of anything) has advantages, streets are rarely a safe workplace for the vendors.

Another important trend that has important implications for millions of sex workers is illegal brothels being replaced by ‘entertainment’ venues in which sex workers and clients meet before going to other places nearby to have sex. While getting around the anti-trafficking laws, it also fails to create a safe place for women to work. In Cambodia for example, alcohol strongly features in this model with women paid to drink with customers until leaving, usually on a motor bike, for a hotel where she has no protection from violence. This is one of several reasons that replacing brothels with entertainment venues has a place in the history of bad ideas.

There’s more, much more

These are just a few examples of the information and issues raised by the map. It will be expanded and revised as a tool for tracking how complex political, social, economic and legal zeitgeists function to embed commercial sex in different communities throughout the world. Contributions to that process are very welcome and can be made through the Feedback form in the map.

Join us on 24 January to find out more: ‘Global and domestic sex work: what can and should Britain be doing?’ 18:00 to 20:00, The Marlborough Pub & Theatre, Brighton, UK.

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

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