What You Need To Know About Sex Work

Sex work is the exchange of sexual services (sex, erotic dancing, pornography, etc.) for money or something of value. Sex workers all have different reasons for doing sex work. Some choose sex work among other well paying jobs; some are in circumstances where they resort to sex work even if it wouldn’t be their first choice; and some are forced into sex work and are survivors of human trafficking (a crime that occurs across many labor sectors).

Each state has different laws regulating sex work. Most states have a number of laws prohibiting prostitution. To make it more confusing, each jurisdiction has a different exact definition of what activities count as prostitution. In some states, BDSM, fetish, and other types of sexual play are explicitly included in definitions of prostitution, whereas in other states, they are not considered to be “sexual conduct” as defined by prostitution laws.

There isn’t a lot of good information in our education or daily news feeds about sex work. We hope these Frequently Asked Questions help to clarify decriminalizing sex work as you consider the issues before your state.


Frequently Asked Questions

A. The federal government reports that more than two-thirds of trafficking victims identified each year in the U.S. are trafficked into fields other than prostitution. They are never arrested, yet more of them are identified. Data shows that arrests do not lead to identification. Rather, trafficked women are arrested, saddled with a criminal record for life, and sent back to their traffickers. Trafficked people are successfully identified through community-based initiatives, where people in their locales and local NGOs with training in severe trauma work together to identify and assist them.
A. There are laws in place for sex crimes against children, and we support those laws remaining in tact. We are talking about consensual adult sex only. As a matter of fact, when consensual adult sex workers are decriminalized, they are in a better position to assist and report crimes they may encounter at work.
A. Many LGBT people work in the sex industry. In some cases, due to extreme and persistent discrimination often faced by transgender women, LGBT people turn to the sex industry for survival. These populations also face higher rates of assault and are often prevented from seeking help and reporting for fear of being arrested for prostitution.
A. The majority of individuals involved in the sex trade are consenting adults. Nearly 90% of the federal government’s $24 million “trafficking prevention” budget was used to arrest consensual adult sex workers rather than to detect traffickers or assist victims. The FBI reported 1,392 arrests for trafficking into sexual labor in 2018 — of those, 1,242 were adults engaged in consensual sex work.
A. As you probably know, people of color are targeted by police more often than white people for low-level crimes such as drug possession. The same is true for sex work. Women of color are especially targeted, harassed, and arrested for prostitution crimes at much higher rates than their white co-workers.
A. Even though prostitution is a low-level crime, it has a serious negative effect on immigration applications when people attempt to adjust their immigration status. Decriminalizing prostitution will ensure that otherwise eligible immigrants are not punished for their economic survival skills.
A. Numerous public health agencies have stated that decriminalizing prostitution is one of the most important policy shifts necessary to prevent HIV and STD infections. When sex work is illegal, police often use condoms in a wallet as evidence of prostitution, preventing some people from wanting to carry them in large numbers, even from the store to home. Also, as stigma is reduced, using and carrying condoms is known to increase.
A. Individuals with disabilities are often the consumers of professional sexual services. Some people with limited mobility or some mental health challenges depend on sex workers to fulfill their natural human need for sexual relationships. In the Netherlands, a disabled person can access the services of a sex worker once a month at the government’s expense as it is understood as a basic right. Under the current system in the U.S., a person with a disability would be arrested for paying for professional sexual services.
A. Although the well-being and human rights of sex workers is urgent, the passage of the federal laws, SESTA/FOSTA, is a threat to everyone’s liberty (including non-sex workers) and has made working conditions even worse for sex workers in this time period.
A. In most jurisdictions, tens of thousands of dollars are spent pointlessly arresting and processing nonviolent sex workers. This money could be better spent testing stockpiles of untested rape kits and using those police hours to prevent and solve dangerous crimes such as assault and robbery.
A. Sex workers are not guaranteed immunity from the criminal codes they have broken while working. As such, they put themselves at risk if they seek to report crimes or information they have about crimes. Decriminalization will allow sex workers to collaborate with law enforcement to the benefit of everyone’s safety.
A. Decriminalization of all adult sex work benefits everyone, including sex workers and the entire community. By allowing more choice for all workers, this will increase safety and support the ability to work indoors (which is safer).
A. We oppose coercion by human traffickers who force people into prostitution, and we believe it’s hypocritical to support coercion in an attempt to force people out of prostitution.
A. Both decriminalizing prostitution and getting rid of stigma are part of our strategy. These two prongs influence each other and are essential for making the world a safe and healthy place for sex workers.
A. The Nevada model falls short of full safety and health standards. There are stringent rules that make it difficult for many sex workers to work and live freely. For instance, those who work at brothels aren’t allowed to hang out at local bars. The rules also change county by county making them difficult to follow.
A. A lot of police support decriminalization. They see that their hard work is useless and doesn’t help anyone in the endless system of arrests and processing. In addition, they find websites and legal operations very helpful in criminal investigations. They are among the voices that cry out against the closure of sex work advertising sites such as Backpage and Craigslist, both American companies that were helpful to them in critical investigations.
A. We aren’t, but through decriminalization, the barriers to sex workers organizing will be far lower.
A. No. Consensual sex between adults is not regulated in the United States. You can think of it like the homosexuality laws. When we decriminalized gay sex, we didn’t then regulate it. A person's income from a small business source is required to be taxed by tax law and, just like people who do services like house cleaning, if you don’t claim and pay taxes on your income, you could get into trouble with the IRS. But just like in other unregulated personal care professions, the minute details of your work are not regulated.
A. Yes. Stormy Daniels has worked professionally in the sex industry as a porn star, porn producer, and dancer, among other jobs. She reports that she was able to make a good income and improve her life circumstances through sex work.
A. Although this is a common myth, the customers of sex workers are not predators. There are criminals who pose as customers with the intention of carrying out crimes. They are widely reported to pose as customers to get access to a woman to commit their crimes without detection, as the police often aren’t called or don’t thoroughly investigate violence against sex workers. Decriminalization will make it harder for criminals to pose as clients of sex workers and get away with crimes.
A. Sex work includes the entire field of sexual services, both legal and illegal, including pornography, exotic dancing, fetish work, web-based work, and prostitution. Prostitution is the kind of sex work most often criminalized, and it is the direct, in-person exchange of sex for money.
A. There is zero evidence that prostitution causes trafficking, domestic violence, or any other crimes against women.
A. We’re working to decriminalize behaviors that are criminalized. It doesn’t matter how you identify or what groups you fall into. We don’t think you should be arrested if you have to “sugar” — or if you do any other emotional or erotic labor that you want to do.
A. First, it is the term sex workers all over the globe have said they prefer. Second, the term sex worker helps us see that sex work is a job, not an identity.
A. Jesus’ best friend was a prostitute, and he spoke openly about accepting all people. This one is clear.
A. Ninety-six percent of victims were abused at home by somebody they knew. This is an important and critical issue that has nothing to do with sex workers.
A. Each person is different, but it doesn’t matter. What someone feels about their job is not grounds to arrest them. That would be like saying, “I heard Marge down at McDonald’s hates her job. Let’s go arrest her.”
A. Like every industry, there are numerous jobs and numerous levels of sex work. A sex worker could make comparable to minimum wage or she could make a six-figure salary.
A. Sex is a natural need of most humans. Humans will always seek out sex. Those who are inclined to seek out professional sexual services will be able to do so with increased health and safety tools if they so choose.

The Four Basic Types of Prostitution Laws

DSW Supports the Decriminalization Model for Prostitution (and Sex Work Generally)

With prostitution laws, decriminalization is preferred, where criminal and civil penalties have been eliminated for both the consumer and the provider, regardless of whether the sexual services are provided by solo entrepreneurs in hotel rooms or private residences, or in licensed businesses known as brothels. With legalization, very often only brothels or regulated locales are permitted, which means sexual services can be legally provided only in specific locations by specific individuals and is therefore limiting to both workers and clients.

1. Decriminalization supports the health, safety, and rights of all. This ideal policy would remove penalties for independent contractors (solo practitioners who are akin to housekeepers, caregivers for elderly or disabled people, or home-based hair stylists) as well as businesses (which have owners, waged employees, and discrete locations).

2. Criminalization promotes exploitation. Except for the regulated brothels in rural parts of Nevada, prostitution and related acts are criminalized everywhere in the U.S. This widespread criminalization keeps the sex industry underground; removes the ability of workers to exert their rights or redress wrongs/violence committed against them; and places people in a cycle of arrest and incarceration.

3. “Legalization” doesn’t solve the problem. A law that allows only brothels (licensed businesses at specific locations only) is called the “legalization” model. This policy, which describes Nevada’s law, represents a partially good law that should nevertheless be avoided, because prostitution in the privacy of hotel rooms or bedrooms should not be criminalized. The partial approach of “legalization” is akin to arresting your hairdresser neighbor who styles your hair in your home instead of her salon, or allowing alcohol consumption in bars but criminalizing it in your kitchen.

4. The “Nordic” model is harmful. Another type of partial measure is the so-called Nordic or Swedish model, which imposes criminal penalties on clients but not sex workers. This isn’t even a compromise but rather a thoroughly bad policy, as it’s akin to allowing a store to sell alcohol but criminalizing the customers. The result is that customers continue paying for sex in the criminal arena, jeopardizing the liberty of both parties and the safety of the community.