Criminal Justice

Should prostitution be completely decriminalized?

Prostitution has been a polarizing debate for long, with both sides disagreeing to a varying degree on whether it is better to continue criminalizing sex work or instead decriminalize it altogether.

Rise of the Issue

With recent new legislation proposed regarding the (de-)criminalization of prostitution, this recurring debate reemerged on what measures would be best to tackle the issue of sex work. So far, the only state that allows prostitution is Nevada, and even there, it is only legal under specific conditions and in certain locations. In the rest of the U.S. sex work remains a crime. 

On the one side of the debate, we have those who believe that criminalization does more harm than good, arguing that decriminalization would greatly help sex workers gain rights, protection, and recognition for the high-risk work they do. On the other are those who emphasize on the dangers inherent to this profession, and who believe that decriminalizing it would further harm sex workers and benefit the broader sex industry.

Issue Timeline


The Page Act is Enacted

Congress passed the Page Act of 1875, which made it illegal to transport women into the nation to be used as prostitutes.


The Mann Act Becomes Law

To combat the prostitution of white women, in particular, Congress passed The White-Slave Traffic Act, or The Mann Act, prohibiting interstate transportation of women and girls for immoral purposes.


The Supreme Court Provides a Ruling on Mortensen v. the United States

The U.S. Supreme Court ruled prostitutes could travel across state lines without violating the Mann Act if the "sole purpose of the journey from beginning to end was to provide innocent recreation" without prostituting.


Congress Passes the FOSTA-SESTA Acts

The Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act imposed severe penalties on online platforms that facilitated illicit prostitution.


An Act to Promote the Health and Safety of People in the Sex Trade

A bill proposed by Lindsay N. Sabadosa in Massuchets for the expungement of some prostitution-related records.


Prostitution is Legal in Nevada

Since 1937, Nevada has remained the only state where prostitution is legally permitted in some forms in specific areas.

Micro Issues


Moral Values

While opponents of decriminalization argue that prostitution is a form of promotion of the objectification of women, proponents assert that decriminalization would normalize sex work in our culture and reduce the stigma that sex workers have to face.



Decriminalization proponents believe that the fact that prostitution is a crime exposes sex workers to higher risks because they have to work covertly, while opponents believe that the dangers are inherent to the profession and that criminalizing the profession deters people from exercising the profession in the first place.


Human Trafficking

Both sides of the argument disagree on whether decriminalization has a positive or negative impact on human trafficking, with those in favor believing it reduces trafficking, and those against affirming that it either doesn’t reduce it or that it increases some forms of trafficking.

Pro Arguments


Decriminalization gives rights to sex workers.

By decriminalizing the profession, sex workers who are working illegally and thus have no access to any form of protection or representation would now be able to have rights of their own.


Decriminalization reduces stigma against sex workers.

Sex workers, on top of the inherent dangers of their job, have to face discrimination and stigma which would gradually fade with the decriminalization and legitimation of their profession.


Decriminalization gives sex workers more security.

Decriminalizing prostitution gives sex workers a safety net, both because they can legitimately require the help of law enforcement without fearing retribution and because that in itself reduces the amount of violence that they face from their clients.


Decriminalization could empower sex workers.

Some believe that decriminalizing prostitution would give more freedom and security for sex workers to operate on their own, rather than having to use the intermediary of a procurer.


Decriminalization gives sex workers a better opportunity to take care of their health.

Because of the risks of being reported and arrested, as well as because of the stigma they face, many sex workers forego to healthcare altogether or the use of protection, which puts them at greater risk for sexually transmissive diseases.

Con Arguments


Prostitution could be seen as form of objectification.

With decriminalization comes normalization and legitimation of a profession based on the selling of one’s body, which some believe to be morally problematic.


Decriminalization might further expose sex workers to ‘victimization risks’.

Studies have shown that sex workers are often the targets of violence, especially rape and murder, and some worry that increasing access to the profession might expose more people to these forms of violence.


Decriminalization might increase disease transmission.

The rate of sex workers who have contracted sexually transmissive diseases being much higher than that of the rest of the population and access to healthcare being difficult for them, increasing access to prostitution might therefore expose more people to disease transmission.


Decriminalization could increase some forms of human trafficking.

Some studies based on the legalization of prostitution in the Netherlands have questioned the efficacy of decriminalization towards reducing human trafficking in general, and have even shown that in some cases child trafficking had even increased.


Not every aspect of prostitution should be decriminalized.

There is a distinction to be made between decriminalizing the selling of sex by prostitutes, the buying of sex by clients, and the involvement of third parties acting as intermediaries. Some argue that decriminalization should only happen for some or part of these three dimensions.