‘Nothing about us, without us’: sex worker’s rights as human rights

Effective laws rely on thorough research, strong evidence and comprehensive consultation. In most areas of human rights discourse this is understood and fought for passionately. However, enter into a conversation about sex work[1], and more often than not, these principles go out the window in favour of individual opinions on what is in the best interests of sex workers – this is paternalism. Through this, sex workers are being systematically isolated and excluded from public discourse about their work and how they ought to live their lives.


The root of the issue here is that sex workers are often depicted as a homogenous group of people. Mainstream media portrays sex workers as victims, unable to make decisions for themselves. It is assumed they are engaging in sex work out of necessity, in the absence of autonomy. This viewpoint creates moral panic – emotions are high and responses are heavy handed and extreme as government officials and concerned citizens clamber over each other in a race to “save the women”. However, visit a sex worker organisation website (and there are many, from all over the world – links below) or talk to a range of sex workers and you will see that sex workers are far from a homogenous group of people. They include incredibly diverse groups of women, men and transgender people with unique voices, and with a variety of experiences and backgrounds who pursue sex work as a form of earning money or as a career like many others. If you listen they will tell you, as experts in their own lives, about what they need and what they want.


What politicians, policymakers and civil society says impacts the daily lives and safety of workers in the industry. This is dangerous when their comments are mostly ill-informed and based on moral panic rather than the experiences of people in the industry. As it stands today, most countries have some form of criminalization for sex work, forcing those within the industry to operate within the margins of society. This includes the criminalization of the ‘buyers of sex’ in what has been termed as the Nordic or Swedish model[2]. Because sex work (or aspects of it) is criminalized, sex workers are more vulnerable to abuse from authorities. They are unable to seek recourse for any violent or threatening actions that they might experience for fear of incriminating themselves in the process. When buyers of sexual services are criminalized, sex worker’s safety is also compromised. Within this model sex workers are more likely to have to work in remote and isolated locations and often have less time to negotiate the terms of their service, as their clients are fearful of being caught (see here for more information). When people, such as women’s abolitionist groups, call for the criminalization of sex work, including for criminalization under the Nordic model, they need to be aware of what criminalisation of any kind means for the safety of an already discriminated, stigmatized and marginalized group.


There is a lot of stigma surrounding sex work. Many people are judgmental about why someone may choose to work in this industry. As a result there is a lot of paternalistic talk about ‘saving’ and ‘rescuing’ people from the industry. There is often a concentration on the factors that drive people to engage with sex work and how these factors render people unable to make decisions. However well intentioned these arguments, without direct engagement with sex workers themselves, this rhetoric is very ‘top down’, and leads people to incorrectly see criminalization as the answer to protect “women in the industry” from pimps, clients and themselves. If organisations start with the premise that all sex workers need to be ‘saved’ they will alienate the people they aim to help. As the UN special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, Radihka Coomaraswamy stated “some women’s organisations are fuelled by a moral imperative of ‘saving’ innocent women. Thus some programmes derive from the perception that women need to be ‘rescued and rehabilitated’, rather than supported and granted rights”. It is ironic that these ‘rescue’ models objectify women as non-autonomous commodities.


Perhaps instead of talking about criminalization and moral arguments about whether people think sex work is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’, we could discuss the factors structural issues that lead some people to engage with sex work, such as, limited access to other forms of work due to discrimination experienced from inequalities including gender, race, socioeconomic background and immigration status. Lets offer people support to leave if that is what they want. Lets tackle structural inequality through grass roots, bottom up approaches which involve the very people that are being spoken on behalf of. If we could reallocate the resources supporting criminalization and the abolition of prostitution into addressing the needs as directed by sex workers themselves, and support stronger peer-to-peer education amongst sex workers, the results would be more effective. If the laws surrounding sex work were based on evidence and unbiased, non-judgmental research they would be a lot more effective in supporting the human rights of sex workers as autonomous beings.


Evidence suggests that where criminalisation of sex work exists, the industry does not decrease and trafficking does not stop. Data also shows that decriminalization does not increase trafficking or cause the industry to grow exponentially (see links below). This evidence is why Amnesty International recently changed their policy to support the full decriminalization of sex work in order to promote the human rights of sex workers. This is also why UNAIDS, Anti-Slavery International, Human Rights Watch support this model.


I come from a state in Australia that has recently celebrated its 20th year of decriminalization of sex work. Whilst there is still more to be done in terms of supporting the human rights of sex workers, my state has seen improved work safety, extremely low rates of HIV/STIs, increased transparency and better access to justice, health and services for sex workers.


Sex work is a complex, emotive and divisive issue, however, it is not inherently violent or degrading in and of itself. I hope that people begin to see past the stereotypes of sex workers as non-thinking victims and begin advocating for the creation of laws and policy that is actually based on consultation and well-developed research. Finally, supporting decriminalization does not support violence against women, nor does it support exploitation – despite misleading arguments from abolitionist groups. In fact, it is recognition that decriminalization, amongst other measures, is the best legal framework through which to address the human rights of sex workers.


If you would like to talk to me about anything in this article, I am more than happy to do so. You can comment below, contact me on facebook or in the flesh. Check out these websites if you are interested (there are many – I have just chosen a few)


Australian based sex worker network – including this video

Report about migrant sex workers in Australia

Thai empower project

Irish based sex work network (including the amazing report ‘realising sex workers rights’ – video of their press release here)

Queens University report on prostitution in Northern Ireland

Amnesty International

European Sex work network


African sex work union

Article about South Korean sex worker protests

Human Trafficking and sex work – see specifically “rescue missions and trafficking”


[1] I am using the term sex work as for many sex workers, as well as sex worker advocacy groups, prostitute is a stigmatizing term. Consciously using the term encourages us to envision individuals engaged in this kind of economic activity as people whose worker status is just one aspect of their self-identity using the term sex work. A sex worker is defined as a person who receives money or goods for sexual services. This includes outdoor street-level sex work, as well as those who work indoors in their homes, clients’ homes, or in commercial venues. The latter includes escorts, erotic masseurs, exotic dancers, BDSM practitioners.

[2] Unfortunately I don’t have space to go into the differences between forms of criminalization in detail (including full criminalization and the Nordic model which criminalises clients only). Please take the time to understand the differences, and their effects on the safety of sex workers. Check out the list of sex work organisations listed below and this document https://www.amnesty.org/en/qa-policy-to-protect-the-human-rights-of-sex-workers/


Disclaimer: Statements expressed on this website are not official statements of EIUC or EMA. They are written under the responsibilities of the individual author.

Jen Vallentine
About Jen Vallentine 1 Article
From Australia. Has worked in the community sector in Australia for the past decade in various roles including as a domestic violence support worker, refugee caseworker and most recently as a manager for the Australia Red Cross migration support programs. Passionate about many things including community development, gender, gender identity and sexual orientation, intersectionality and forced migration. Previously studied a bachelor of International studies and has a diploma in community management.

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