The National Harm Reduction Coalition defines sex work as the provision of sexual services by one person (the “sex worker”) for which another person (“client” or “observer”) trades money or any other markers of economic value. While there are all sorts of reasons why people may engage in sex work, we believe that all sex work falls on a spectrum from choice (i.e. someone chooses to do sex work, regardless of whether they have other options) to circumstance (i.e. someone may not choose to engage in sex work under different circumstances, but is sex work is providing them with something they need right now) to coercion (i.e. someone is being forced by someone else to enage in sex work). The National Harm Reduction Coalition believes any sex work done against the sex worker’s will and without consent is trafficking, and does not condone sex work that is not explicity consensual.
The National Harm Reduction Coalition is committed to creating real space and resources for sex workers, and highlighting the important intersection in our work. We’re the first to say that we haven’t been doing enough to support the sex work community. Until then, we’re sharing the resources we do have and using this space to curate and uplift organizations and groups that have been showing up for people engaged in sex work and doing it best
How does sex work intersect with harm reduction?
Sex workers and their communities were at the forefront of the harm reduction movement in the U.S. and globally, because there are a lot of similarities between drug use and sex work. Both are a stigmatized and criminalized activity, and, much like people who use drugs, people who engage in sex work are marginalized and criminalized for the choices they make about their bodies. The realities of poverty, class, racism, social isolation, past trauma, sex-based discrimination and other social inequalities impact people who are engaged in the sex trades’ vulnerability to and capacity for effectively dealing with sex work-related harm. However, the unique risks and harms associated with sex work can be reduced through harm reduction strategies like using barrier methods and birth control, working in pairs, and distributing Bad Date Sheets.
What everyone needs to know
Sex work is work. Period. Trading sex for money is not inherently harmful, but the byproduct of it being criminalize and intersecting oppressions create the harm.
Decriminalization not legalization – The National Harm Reduction Coalition supports decriminalization, not legalization of all forms of sex work. Legalization would impose a number of restrictions and regulations around where, when, and how sex work could take place, putting the most marginalized sex workers, like Black trans sex workers, street-based sex workers, and undocumented sex workers, even more at risk. By contrast, decriminalization would prohibit the state and law enforcement from interfering with sex work activity and transactions entirely.
When talking about sex work, it is important to not use gendered language. People of all genders and orientations can be, and are, sex workers, and are all exposed to unnecessary risks, including interactions with the criminal legal system, violence and assault from clients, and stigmatization from family, friends, and others
Some people who trade sex, like many other people, also use drugs. Many people who trade sex who also use drugs — especially those who work on the street, those who are houseless, and those who trade sex for drugs directly — may be stigmatized multiple times over, even by others in the sex working and drug using communities. People who trade sex who use drugs may also have a harder time making appointments and accessing groups and services (including harm reduction services) due to their schedules. It is vital to visit venues where people trade sex in order to do comprehensive harm reduction outreach.
Sex work is both a racial justice and a gender justice issue. Black and Latinx sex workers, trans sex workers, and especially Black/Latinx trans sex workers report disproprotionate rates of arrest, and assault as compared to their white and cis counterparts. Meaningful Work found that forty percent of Black and Black multiracial trans folks who trade sex experience constant harrassment, violence, and arrest; and of SWOP USA reports that of the 41 sex workers killed in 2015, 17 were Black and 12 were trans.
Show Up for Sex Workers
Want to stay engaged? You can check back to this page and the pages linked below for more resources! In the meantime, some concrete things you can do to support sex workers include knowing your local SWOP chapter, and supporting it, either financially or by showing up to actions and events open to allies; become a penpal to an incarcerated sex worker via SWOP Behind Bars; donate to local sex worker bail out funds; talking with your loved ones about why sex work decriminalization matters; and of course, supporting your local sex workers by paying for their services, expertise, and time.
Learn More / Community Partners
- Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) — resource page
- Decrim Now
- St. James Infirmary
- Positive Women’s Network
- Whose corner is it anyway?
- Third Wave Fund and Sex Worker Giving Circle
- What this Male Sex Worker Wants You to Know
- The Laws that Sex Workers Really Want
- Meaningful Work: Transgender Experiences in the Sex Trade
- HRI: Where Sex Work and Drug Use Overlap
- SWOP Behind Bars Pen Pal Project
- Sex Worker Explains the Difference between Legalizing and Decriminalizing
- National Sex Worker Bail Fund