Case #2244.0

Work or Exploitation? Debating Whether to Decriminalize the Sex Industry

Publication Date: August 12, 2022
Current Stock:

Educator Access

A review copy of this case is available free of charge to educators and trainers. Please create an account or sign in to gain access to this material.

Permission to Reprint

Each purchase of this product entitles the buyer to one digital file and use. If you intend to distribute, teach, or share this item, you must purchase permission for each individual who will be given access. Learn more about purchasing permission to reprint.

As traditionally written and enforced, laws regulating the sex trade in the United States and abroad have disproportionately penalized the least powerful players in the industry—the people, mostly cis- and transgender women, directly engaged in exchanging sex for pay. In the last 30 years, activists have successfully pushed to reform these policies in many countries. As of 2022, such efforts had made little headway in the United States, where the sex industry was mostly regulated at the state and local level. But, especially in politically progressive states, a debate was intensifying.

The reformers fell into two fiercely opposed camps, both internationally and in the United States. One group favored fully decriminalizing the sex industry for all consenting adults—those who bought, sold, procured, managed, or profited from the sale of sex. (Sex trafficking and the sexual abuse of minors would remain serious crimes.) The other group viewed the sex industry as inherently exploitative for those who exchanged sex for pay. This group favored the “end-demand” approach, working for the elimination of the sex-for-pay industry by prosecuting the people who bought, procured, managed, and profited from the industry, while decriminalizing the sellers.

This case explores the many complexities of that debate through the lens of Rhode Island’s idiosyncratic policy history; indoor prostitution was effectively decriminalized in the state between 2003 and 2009, providing an unusual opportunity for evidence-based research, reporting, and argument. This case package includes a richly detailed written case and three compelling videos that bring the debate to vivid life, featuring people on both sides of the debate with direct experience selling sex, past and present. The first video (28 min) introduces eight people telling their stories; the second (4 min) focuses on the dangers confronting those who sell sex; and the third (15 min) provides multiple perspectives on the policy debate.

The written case and videos include mentions of assault and abuse (sexual and otherwise). The second video (“Dangers”) contains references to individuals experiencing or observing assault, sexual violence, rape, and police abuse.  

Learning Objective:
This case package supports analysis of the competing arguments for full decriminalization versus the end-demand approach. For example: Is the sex trade, by its nature or as practiced, inherently violent or oppressive? Or is it best seen as a service industry that would be safer if it were fully decriminalized? What role should data/evidence and first-person narratives play in analyzing the question? This may be a useful case to consider alongside the recent history of the decriminalization of marijuana. 

Other Details

Teaching Plan:
Available with Educator Access
Case Author:
Pamela Varley
Video Producer:
Patricia Garcia-Rios
Faculty Leads:
Dara Kay Cohen and Zoe Marks
Pages (incl. exhibits):
United States