Sex Work Criminalization Is Barking Up the Wrong Tree

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Abstract
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There is a notable shift toward more repression and criminalization in sex work policies, in Europe and elsewhere. So-called neo-abolitionism reduces sex work to trafficking, with increased policing and persecution as a result. Punitive “demand reduction” strategies are progressively more popular. These developments call for a review of what we know about the effects of punishing and repressive regimes vis-à-vis sex work. From the evidence presented, sex work repression and criminalization are branded as “waterbed politics” that push and shove sex workers around with an overload of controls and regulations that in the end only make things worse. It is illustrated how criminalization and repression make it less likely that commercial sex is worker-controlled, non-abusive, and non-exploitative. Criminalization is seriously at odds with human rights and public health principles. It is concluded that sex work criminalization is barking up the wrong tree because it is fighting sex instead of crime and it is not offering any solution for the structural conditions that sex work (its ugly sides included) is rooted in. Sex work repression travels a dead-end street and holds no promises whatsoever for a better future. To fight poverty and gendered inequalities, the criminal justice system simply is not the right instrument. The reasons for the persistent stigma on sex work as well as for its present revival are considered.
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