Decriminalizing Sex Work Will Save Lives

Decriminalizing Sex Work Will Save Lives

Today, International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, we stand with sex workers, their advocates, and allies to renew our call to end the criminalization of sex work, which breeds violence and perpetuates stigma based on outdated social mores.

The benefits of decriminalizing sex work are clear. Not doing so only pushes already marginalized people – many of whom are LGBTQ – further from the social safety nets and services that protect everyone else, increasing their exposure to violence.

Whether a personal choice or a necessity, sex work is work. But systemic discrimination can lead LGBTQ people in particular to sex work. LGBTQ people, especially those who are Black, trans, and women or femmes, are more likely to live in poverty and be unemployed and homeless than non-LGBTQ people. Because of these realities, transgender people engage in sex work at a rate ten times that of cisgender women. Among trans respondents to the 2015 U.S. Transgender Survey, those who faced family rejection, poverty, or unequal opportunities in employment, housing, and education were more likely to engage in sex work.

Because their work is criminalized and stigmatized, sex workers often face violence in the workplace, in public, and at the hands of unscrupulous law enforcement officers whose job it is to serve and protect. One study of New York sex workers reported that 80 percent had been victims of violence, including 27 percent at the hands of police. Twenty-three percent of LGBTQ murder victims on the 2012 Anti-Violence Project report were killed while engaging in sex work.

recent study reviewed data from 33 countries and found that sex workers in countries which criminalized their work – even if only criminalizing clients – were more likely to engage in risky encounters. Fear of the police also prevented sex workers from taking the time to talk to a client or negotiate terms in advance, leading them into more dangerous encounters.

Furthermore, reports indicate that the passage of federal anti-trafficking legislation FOSTA/SESTA earlier this year appears to have resulted in increased violence and risk of violence for sex workers, just as advocates predicted it would.

And over the course of 11 days in September, a Border Patrol agent attacked five sex workers, killing Janelle Ortiz (a trans woman), Melissa Ramirez, Claudine Luera, and Guiselda Alicia Cantu, and nearly killing Erika Pena. He recently told prosecutors that he killed the women to “clean up the streets,” illustrating the real threat of daily and deadly violence that continuing stigma causes sex workers.

As we have argued in court, the criminalization of sex work is counter to public policy goals because it reduces access to health care and increases violence against sex workers and victims of trafficking.

We will continue to stand with sex workers, their advocates, and allies to fight for sex workers’ right to be free from violence and unwarranted criminalization, and for their right to self-determination and autonomy.

Header image via Getty


Puneet Cheema

Puneet Cheema, staff attorney at Lambda Legal, the oldest and largest civil rights organization for LGBTQ people and people living with HIV.