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Changing the Debate on Sex Work

Should sex work be legal? The news that Amnesty International is considering supporting the decriminalization of sex work has intensified the debate around this question.

This same debate has been ongoing for several years in Europe and in other regions of the world, where two models are being pitted against each other. The so-called Swedish model seeks to reduce sex work by penalizing the buyer, although the seller is not penalized. On the other side is the approach Amnesty is considering: full decriminalization of sex work, in which neither buying nor selling of sex is a crime (except, of course, in cases of trafficking and the sexual exploitation of minors).

As an activist and researcher working on gender equality—and specifically on men and masculinities—my view has been that sex work first creates and then feeds the vulnerabilities of the women (and sometimes men) who carry it out. But when I weigh the research against the hyperbole on both sides of the debate, and listen to sex workers describe their own experiences, my views of the issue become more complicated.

The one thing that is missing from the debate over decriminalizing sex work: the bigger picture. Neither side is asking the right question: why do men buy sex in the first place?

First, it’s important to understand the limitations of both sides of the debate. Arresting clients is not the magic bullet, as I learned in 2006, when I spoke at a UN-sponsored meeting on sex work and HIV that included representatives from nearly 30 sex-worker associations from countries around the world. Margareta Winberg, the architect of Sweden’s sex-work policy who was at the time the Swedish ambassador to Brazil, also attended and argued for global application of the Swedish model.

Yet all the sex-worker associations told the Swedish ambassador in very direct language that she should keep her recommendations and policy in Sweden.

These were not representatives of brothels who had a financial stake in keeping women in the trade. They were former or current sex workers whose lives and bodies were affected by these policies, and who lived in parts of the world where the realities of poverty and repression make a “one-size fits all” solution impossible when it comes to addressing sex work and protecting women. Their argument was one of power and rights. The sex worker representatives argued that without police reform and adequate protection of their rights, the clients nearly always got off, while sex workers were abused by police or went underground to continue their trade.

While I share the perspective of many women’s rights advocates that sex work often is exploitative, it seems unreasonable and unethical to ignore conclusive evidence of health and safety benefits associated with bringing it above ground—such as the UN’s analysis of HIV prevention programs, published and reviewed by the Lancet, which concluded unequivocally that criminalizing sex work increases the health risks, particularly of contracting HIV and AIDS, to sex workers. Globally, female sex workers bear a disproportionate burden of HIV infection, and their ability to assert control over their working environment, and insist on protection, can significantly reduce their HIV risk.

Debates over decriminalizing sex work are indeed complicated and lacking in a clear-cut solution—but they also obscure the question of who buys sex and why.

They also deflect the deeper stories about masculinity that live in the answers and potential new pathways to healthy sexuality we can derive from them. Representative household surveys conducted by my organization, Promundo, and others in multiple settings in Latin America, Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa find that men who admit they have paid for sex are more likely to hold negative views or misogynistic attitudes about women, and are more likely to have reported carrying out rape than men who say they have never paid for sex with a sex worker.

Men who have paid for sex with sex workers also report that they are less satisfied with their sexual relations with their stable partners. Too many seek out under-age girls, and sometimes boys, to compensate. In one household survey we carried out in three cities in Brazil, men who had paid for sex with girls they thought were under the age of 18 said they do so because they believe younger bodies are more attractive and because having sex with younger girls makes them feel younger.

Being unhappy with one’s sex life is not reprehensible, of course, but we might question whether paying for sex—particularly with under-age girls—is the only viable remedy. The bigger point is that if we started early with young people and taught healthy relationships, pleasurable sexuality and consent, the number of men who choose to pay for sex might decline. Yes, some men (and women) might still choose to pay for sex, and some women (and men) might choose to work as sex workers. But the numbers would likely come way down from the one in ten to more than half of men who told us in our surveys that they have ever paid for sex with a sex worker.

What might prevention look like when it comes to sex work? Most existing efforts that seek to “prevent” sex work stigmatize both the buyer and the seller, even if they don’t criminalize them. Or they see prevention as arresting men who pay for sex. True prevention requires looking upstream to how we educate young men and women about what healthy sexuality looks like. We seldom in our sexuality education or HIV prevention programs encourage young people to talk openly and frankly about their bodies in relation to sexual desire, consent, the diversity of consensual sexual experience, or erotic negotiation. This silence, coupled with ubiquitous access to pornography or erotic media—and there are differences between the two—means that children struggle to educate themselves without guided and frank discussions about sex and pleasure.

In the US, we are even squeamish about discussing the history of sexuality in our classrooms. In my daughter’s high school in suburban Maryland, for instance, during a history class when they were studying ancient Rome, the existence of concubines came up and one boy asked: “What’s a concubine?” The teacher replied: “That’s a woman in an illegal profession.” Here was a chance to open up a debate for teens about sexuality in the context of an historical example of sex work, and the teacher avoided it altogether.

Teachers can’t do it alone of course. But this example is emblematic of how tentative parents, teachers and all of us adults feel when discussing sex with children and adolescents.

As we continue to debate decriminalizing sex work, we must try harder to talk more about healthy and pleasurable sexuality that seeks consent, and doesn’t include exploitation and violence. Let’s train teachers and parents to do so. Let’s create spaces to talk about desire, sex, bodies, and pleasure in ways that are respectful and not degrading. Maybe then we could move toward reducing some of the demand for sex work before it starts.


Gary Barker is the director of Promundo, an international organization that works for gender equality and engaging men as full and equal caregivers.