Difference Between Prostitution and Sex Work

Written by Selene Candace

Updated: November 16, 2022

sexwork sexworker decrim decriminalization sexworkiswork

This is a heavily loaded topic, so I’m just going to touch the surface in this blog post.

Why use the term ‘sex worker’ rather than ‘prostitute’? The term ‘sex worker’ recognizes that sex work is work. Prostitution, on the other hand, has connotations of criminality and immorality.

Sex workers sell sex in order to earn a livelihood. There are many kinds of sex workers, ranging from fssw to online sex work. The reason why people get into sex work are limitless. Some find that sex work pays better than civilian jobs and provides better working conditions due to disability and mental health issues, while others pursue sex work to explore and express their sexuality.

‘Sex Worker’ vs ‘Prostitute’

Those who sell sexual services prefer the term ‘sex worker’ and find the term ‘prostitute’ demeaning and stigmatizing, as it contributes to their exclusion from health, legal, and social services. I can attest to this.

Human trafficking is a horrific 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 consenting adults, where the act of selling or buying sexual services is not a violation of human rights. Conflating trafficking with sex work can be harmful and counterproductive. However, the two terms are often used interchangeably which creates great confusion. In addition, the terms ‘sex work’ and ‘prostitution’ have been used interchangeably, which also leads to great confusion, as well as consequences to sex workers. By conflating terms, sex workers argue that Canada’s existing adult prostitution laws are unconstitutional and violate the rights of sex workers.


Decriminalizing and destigmatizing sex work are important goals of the sex workers’ rights movement. Advocates suggest that decriminalization has the potential to make the activity of prostitution safer.

There is a clear distinction between so-called forced prostitution (trafficking) and free prostitution (sex work). Advocates suggest that people have a right to choose sex work as an occupation, and that if they choose that occupation, they have the right to engage in it without violations of their human rights. That is why decriminalization is important.


Criminalization of sex work comprises sex workers health and safety by driving sex work underground. Criminalization includes everything from criminalizing the sale and purchase of sexual services, to blanket prohibitions on management of sex work. It makes it harder for sex workers to negotiate terms with clients, work together with other sex workers for safety, and carry condoms without fear that they will be used as evidence of prostitution. For example, I had a friend of mine, who was advised not to carry condoms across the border when she was going to meet a client of hers for a FMTY, and instead advised to purchase them upon arrival. Of course she did, but the fact that she couldn’t carry them with her raises several issues.


Sex workers in many settings report extreme levels of violence and harassment in connection with their work, including from clients, managers, and police. Criminalization makes it difficult for sex workers to report violations (such as stolen time/ money, rape and abuse) especially by the police, because they are vulnerable to incarceration, further abuse, and retribution. This perpetuates stigma, violence, and impunity, which further endanger sex workers’ health and safety.

Nordic Model

Many opponents of sex work acknowledge the harms that result from criminalizing sex workers and support a system that criminalizes buyers and third parties—such as managers or brothel owners—but not sex workers themselves. This kind of criminalization, which is often referred to as the ‘Swedish’ or ‘Nordic Model’, which seeks to end demand for sex work while treating sex workers as victims rather than criminals.This model further perpetuates stigma against sex workers, leading to discrimination in social services, housing, and health care. It does not address the fundamental problem of criminalization, driving sex work further underground and pushing sex workers away from safety and services.

Criminalization and stigma do make sex work circumstantially harmful.

Way Forward

The only true answer is decriminalization, which means removal of criminal and administrative penalties that apply specifically to sex work, creating an enabling environment for sex workers health and safety. For decriminalization to work, it must be accompanied by a recognition of sex work as work, allowing sex work to be governed by labour 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.