Legalizing prostitution lowers violence and disease, report says

LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sex workers in countries where selling or buying sex is illegal are more likely to face violence, not use condoms and contract HIV, researchers said on Tuesday, calling for prostitution to be decriminalized.

Nations have been divided over the best way to deal with prostitution. Many outlaw it; some, including Canada and Sweden, punish clients and others, like Germany and New Zealand, legalized it or decriminalized it entirely.

Now an international team of researchers have analyzed the effects of different laws on sex workers, in what they say was the first review of its kind, and found repressive polices increased health and safety risks.

“Where some or all aspects of sex work were criminalized, concerns about their own or their clients’ arrest meant that sex workers often had to rush screening clients,” said Lucy Platt, the lead author of the university-led study.

Fear of police meant sex workers had little time to negotiate services and tended to work in isolated areas, added Platt, an associate professor in public health epidemiology at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine (LSHTM).

This increased their vulnerability to theft and violence, she said.

The research, published in journal PLOS Medicine, reviewed data from more than 130 studies on 33 countries - from Britain to Uganda - published in scientific journals between 1990 to 2018.

It found sex workers who had been exposed to repressive policing like arrest or prison were three times more likely to experience sexual or physical violence by clients, partners and other people.

Those who had not been exposed to such practices were instead half as likely to contract HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases and 30 percent less prone to have sex without a condom.

“Decriminalization of sex work is urgently needed,” said study co-author Pippa Grenfell, an assistant professor of public health sociology at LSHTM.

The English Collective of Prostitutes, a pro-legalization group said the study confirmed sex workers’ experience.

“Those of us who work on the street are running from the police, pushed into more isolated areas because clients are fearful of arrest,” Niki Adams a spokeswoman for the group told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

It is legal to buy and sell sex in England and Wales, but related activities such as soliciting and kerb crawling - drivers cruising the streets for prostitutes - are illegal.

“We hear from sex workers in France and Ireland that attacks have gone up since clients were criminalized there,” said Adams.

But Tsitsi Matekaire, of women’s rights group Equality Now, said it was wrong to look at prostitution solely as a health issue, adding decriminalization was not the best way to protect women.

“Prostitution in itself is inherently violent,” she told the Thomson Reuters Foundation, adding that laws aimed at curbing demand by punishing clients without criminalizing those who have been driven into prostitution were a better solution.