Sex work is a form of labor, a source of income and leads to economic security for sex
workers. Sex work is often subject to misconceptions, misrepresentation, stigma, stereotypes
and speculation. Sex work and sex workers are often framed in ways that erase the complexity
of their realities. The three common legal frameworks namely criminalization, legalization and
decriminalization that regulate sex work are often conflated and misunderstood.
This terminology guide is essential and is intended to debunk common myths about sex work
and to influence both internal and external stakeholders, encourage the use of rights-affirming
language around sex work and sex workers and increase understanding of concepts that are
The term sex work means that adults provide consensual sexual services or erotic performances
either regularly or occasionally for money or goods.
Sex workers are adults who receive money or goods in exchange for consensual sexual services
or erotic performances, either regularly or occasionally. Sex workers are women, men and
transgendered people who receive money or goods in exchange for sexual services, and who
consciously define sex work as a source of income.
Sex worker and not “prostitute”
The term “sex worker” recognizes that sex work is work. Prostitution, on the other hand, has
connotations of criminality and immorality. The people who sell sexual services prefer the term
“sex worker” and find “prostitute” demeaning and stigmatizing, which contributes to their
exclusion from health, legal, and social services.
Sex worker and not “Commercial sex worker”
The term commercial sex worker is derogatory and implies that the sex work industry is regulated
and sex workers are able to unionise. Additionally, it has a connotation that sex work is not just working, but an exploitative trade.
Former or retired sex worker and not a reformed sex worker
A retired sex worker is a sex worker who has stopped providing sexual services without being
coerced or ‘rehabilitated’. A sex worker may transition out of sex work to another alternative
source of income. Sex workers may also exit sex work due to their personal choices, health
conditions or even transition to buy sex. Others exit sex work due to old age since when old its
difficult to secure more clients and hence the need to source alternative sources of income.
The term ‘reformed sex worker’ has a connotation that sex work is inherently risky and harmful
and also points out to the ‘rehabilitation’ of sex workers in which the ultimate goal is for sex
workers to exit sex work entirely without providing them with an alternative source of income.
Abolitionists believe that sex work is inherently exploitative, violent and akin to slavery as well
as framing all sex workers as victims. They seek to eliminate sex work by all means including
through various regulations and prohibitions e.g a legislative model called “end demand.’’
Why sex work
Sex workers sell sexual services in order to earn a livelihood. The vast majority of sex workers
choose to do sex work because it is the best option they have. Many sex workers struggle with
poverty and destitution and have few other options for work. Others find that sex work offers
better pay and more flexible working conditions than other jobs. And some pursue sex work to
explore and express their sexuality.
Third parties are the people who work, provide services to, or associate with sex workers
including drivers, security, bookers, webmasters, business owners, receptionists of outcall
agencies e.g., escort agencies or in call establishments e.g., brothels and massage parlors.
Many sex workers are also third parties. Some run small brothels where they and a few
colleagues provide services. Others help out at their place of employment (e.g., answering the
phone and booking call for an escort agency, locking up a massage parlor at the end of a
night. These individuals are vulnerable to being criminalized under laws that make merely
helping a person to engage in sex work and materially benefiting in the context of a commercial
enterprise – essentially all sex businesses – a crime. Some third parties can be “manipulative, violent, and abusive”, while others provide safer
working environments for sex workers, recruit and screen clients, provide security, and mediate
A policy is a set of guidelines or rules that determine a course of action in governments,
organisations or companies. It is the outline of what governments, organisations or companies
are going to do and what they can achieve for society as a whole. The policy also means what a
government, an organization or a company does not intend to do. It also involves the principles
that are needed for achieving the goal. Policies are only documents and not laws, but these
policies can lead to new laws.
An act is a form of legislation passed in the parliament in order to change an existing law or to
make a new law.
An Act is originally a bill which is proposed by the Parliament first and when it gets approval and
consented by the President, it becomes an act.
In South Africa, sex work is criminalised under the Sexual Offences Amendment Act of 2007.
Laws are set standards, principles, and procedures which are made by government officials and
must be obeyed by all. Laws is mainly made for implementing justice in society. There are
various types of laws framed like criminal laws, civil laws, and international laws. A law is
framed for bringing justice to society while a policy is framed for achieving certain goals.
Bylaws are secondary or subsidiary laws made by a particular city, county or local authority for
the regulation of its affairs or management of the area it governs. e.g. loitering, public
indecency or public dress codes. Some bylaws are used to oppress sex workers. They also
broadly create conditions of criminalization.
Bylaws in Nairobi City Council Kenya have provisions that oppress sex workers.
Penal code/Criminal code
A Penal or criminal code is a set of laws concerning crimes, offenses and their punishment. The
Kenyan Penal Code sections 151-156 criminalizes aspects of sex work.
Criminal laws are the rules that apply when someone commits a crime, such as assault, robbery,
murder, arson, rape and other kinds of crimes. They punish actions or behaviour that
governments have determined to be harmful or damaging to society. After a person is arrested
and charged with a crime, that person goes to a Criminal Court.
Criminalization of sex work
Criminalization of sex work means that buying and selling sex, third parties e.g brothel keeping
and living off the proceeds is a criminal offence.It refers to a legislative framework that has laws
making sex work or activities associated with sex work (such as brothel keeping) a crime. This
model leads to the legal oppression of sex workers.
Most African countries have criminalised all aspects of sex work.
Partial criminalization of sex work
Partial criminalization of sex work means sex work and sex workers aren’t criminalised but
clients and third parties e.g brothel owners are criminalized.
In Angola,the new penal code, which came into force in February 2021 there are no offences
against selling sex. It is unclear whether this law could be used to criminalise all third party
relationships or only those that involve exploitation or coercion of some kind.
Decriminalization of sex work
Decriminalization means the removal of criminal and administrative penalties that apply specifically
to sex work, creating an enabling environment for sex worker health and safety. For
decriminalization to be meaningful, it must be accompanied by a recognition of sex work as
work, allowing sex work to be governed by labor law and protections similar to other jobs.
While decriminalization does not resolve all challenges that sex workers face, it is a necessary
condition to realize sex workers’ human rights.
Partial decriminalisation means that sex workers are not criminalized but criminalises the
buying of sex and the third parties e.g operation, ownership of brothels. It still means a
refusal in law to accept sex work as legal work, which promotes violence. Sex workers would
still face discrimination. Partial decriminalisation aims at ending the demand for sex work.
ASWA and its members reject the idea of ‘partial decriminalisation’ and see any ‘end demand’
framework as criminalisation, an approach that also fuels and exacerbates stigma towards sex
The term full decriminalisation is the term that most clearly reflects the ASWA’S core value to
which all our member groups sign on – opposition to all forms of criminalisation and other
legal oppression of sex work and sex workers. Full decriminalization means that sex workers,
their clients and third parties e.g operation, ownership of brothels are not criminalized.
ASWA and its members call for full decriminalisation of sex work which encompasses the repeal
of both the criminal laws and administrative offenses/public order/public health laws that
are used against sex workers.
Why does ASWA support full decriminalization of sex work rather than the “Nordic model?”
The “Nordic model,” first introduced in Sweden in 1999 and followed by Norway, Iceland,
Canada, Northern Ireland, France and the Republic of Ireland, make buying sex illegal but does
not prosecute the seller, the sex worker. Proponents of the Nordic model see “prostitution” as
inherently harmful and coerced; they aim to end sex work by killing the demand for
transactional sex. But the Nordic model actually has a devastating impact on people who sell
sex to earn a living. Because its goal is to end sex work, it makes it harder for sex workers to
find safe places to work, unionize, work together and support and protect one another,
advocate for their rights, or even open a bank account for their business. It stigmatizes and
marginalizes sex workers and leaves them vulnerable to violence and abuse by police as their
work and their clients are still criminalized.
ASWA supports full decriminalization rather than the Nordic model because full
decriminalization is a more effective approach to protecting sex workers’ rights. Sex workers
themselves also usually want full decriminalization.
ASWA supports full decriminalization of sex work as the best way to protect the health and
human rights of sex workers.
Difference of decriminalization and legalization of sex work
Decriminalisation refers to the removal or absence of criminal or other laws that oppress sex
workers, whereas legalisation means that sex work is regarded as a legal occupation but is
subject to special laws and licensing for brothels which still violate basic human rights, impedes
access to health care and perpetuates violence. The state regulation is designed to control and
limit sex work and is often enforced by the police. The regulations include working only in
defined areas; working only in licensed in the provision of health care, local planning laws that
restrict the number, location and rules of operation for sex work businesses, or public health
laws that require mandatory registration and/or the compulsory STI or HIV testing of sex
There is no country in Africa that has decriminalised sex work.Selling sex is legal in Senegal but
only if sex workers register and have regular medical checkups. Only about a quarter of sex
workers are registered in Senegal. The rest are working illegally. In addition, it is illegal to solicit.
Difference of Human trafficking and Sex Work
Human trafficking is a gross human rights violation involving the threat or use of force,
abduction, deception, or other forms of coercion for the purpose of exploitation. This may
include forced labor, sexual exploitation, slavery, and more.
Sex work, on the other hand, is a consensual transaction between adults, where the act of
selling or buying sexual services is not a violation of human rights. Conflating trafficking with
sex work is harmful and counterproductive.
Sex worker organizations oppose exploitation, and many argue that the most effective way to
address exploitation, including human trafficking, is to strengthen workers’ rights and address
economic injustices. Precarious work, restrictive migration policies, and gender inequality all
contribute to greater vulnerability to exploitation. Sex work is not inherently harmful, but
criminalization and stigma do make sex work circumstantially harmful.
ASWA’s Theory Of Change (T.O.C) works towards the vision of a world free of stigma and
discrimination where sex work is recognised and protected. One of the problems cited in the
T.O.C is weak support systems and a low capacity of national networks and grassroots sex
workers led organisations. One of the Inputs to address that problem is to foster learning and
exchange visits to enhance the skills, abilities, and knowledge of individual sex workers to allow
them to be change agents at local, regional, and continental levels.
ASWA has created a learning platform and also engages in an in-depth consultation process
with ASWA members and technical expertise to provide updated and accurate information on
key issues that affect sex workers in the continent.