When we talk about sex workers’ rights, the language and words that we use matter. People get especially confused by the difference between “decriminalization” and “legalization.”

So here’s a quick an easy rundown for you!

What the heck is the decriminalization of sex work?

Decriminalization means literally “take it out of the criminal justice system.” It means that we don’t want any laws specific to sex work, including both the selling AND buying of sex. Sex work would fall under existing regulations, which govern ALL industries.

What the heck is the legalization of sex work?

Legalization means that you make new, special regulations to govern sex work. So instead of the criminal justice system, a different bureaucracy takes its place, specific to sex work. In places that have legalization, sex workers must buy special licenses, submit to mandatory STIs testing, etc.

What the heck do you call it if you want to decriminalize the sex workers, but continue throwing their clients and other people in prison?

You believe in something called “asymmetrical criminalization.” That is not decriminalization OR legalization. You believe that the justice system is bad for some people, but still a-ok for others.

Who the heck believes in what?

  • Decriminalization is supported by these folks: Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada, Amnesty International, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network, Canadian Public Health Association, Canadian Union of Public Employees, Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, Global Commission on HIV and the Law, Human Rights Watch, The Lancet, Open Society Foundations, UN Women, Winnipeg Regional Health Authority, World Health Organization.
  • Legalization is supported by very few people. Legalized sex work exists in Nevada, certain Australian states, Germany, and a smattering of other countries.
  • Asymmetrical criminalization is the law of the land in Sweden, Norway, France, and Canada. It is supported by the Conservative Party of Canada (which made it the law), and by both the Manitoba NDP and the Conservatives.