Sex worker explains the difference between legalizing and decriminalizing prostitution




Many people have argued for years that legalized prostitution will make the trade safer and fairer for sex workers.

But legalized prostitution may have unintended consequences, a European sex worker wrote in the New Republic on Monday.

Writing under the pseudonym Molly Smith, the sex worker pointed out that many countries that legalize prostitution leave sex workers tangled up in a mess of burdensome regulations.

Smith's article proposed an alternative to legalizing prostitution and regulating it heavily - merely decriminalizing it.


In many countries with legal prostitution, like Germany, prostitutes are hampered by bureacratic regulations that turn them into criminals if they don't comply, Smith argues.

The alternative is a model like New Zealand's, which has a big focus on protecting workers' health without as much bureacratic red tape. Smith refers to this approach as "decriminalized" sex work rather than legalized sex work.

If the distinction between legalized prostitution and decriminalized prostitution seems confusing, this definition from University of Rhode Island professor Donna Hughes might provide some clarity:

Legalization would mean the regulation of prostitution with laws regarding where, when, and how prostitution could take place. Decriminalization eliminates all laws and prohibits the state and law-enforcement officials from intervening in any prostitution-related activities or transactions, unless other laws apply.

Here are some of the problems with the legalization model, Smith argues:


Widely presented as a more tolerant and pragmatic approach, the legalized model still criminalizes those sex workers who cannot or will not fulfill various bureaucratic responsibilities, and therefore retains some of the worst harms of criminalization. It disproportionately excludes sex workers who are already marginalized, like people who use drugs or who are undocumented. This makes their situation more precarious, and so reinforces the power of unscrupulous managers.

The US has actually had some experience with both models. Nevada has a highly regulated legalized prostitution system. Rhode Island also decriminalized prostitution in 2003.

According to University of California researchers, instances of reported rape and sexually transmitted diseases plummeted after Rhode Island stopped policing prostitution. Nevertheless, Rhode Island outlawed prostitution again in 2009.