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New study: Sex work and the law in Latin America


Aids Alliance

A new study, designed and carried out by the network of female sex workers in Latin America and Caribbean (REDTRASEX), has documented legislation that affects sex work - as well as detailing what this means in practice.

The study looked at national laws in 15 countries†. It’s the first time information on sex work legislation in the region has been gathered in this way. The study was launched by REDTRASEX at a press conference in Buenos Aires in early April.


One of the main findings of the study is that autonomous and independent sex work is not prohibited in any of the countries studied. What is criminalised, in all countries studied, is proxenetism (or ‘pimping’) and broader rules and legal codes that criminalise ‘immoral’ behaviours or disturbances to the peace or public order are applied in relation to sex work.

Furthermore, sex trafficking is criminalised, but often mistakenly blurred with sex work. Confusing sex workers, who have chosen to engage in this area of work, with trafficked persons who have suffered some form of coercion, silences the legitimate voices of sex workers and actually blocks discussions on how to end human trafficking.

This creates a framework of legitimacy for police repression and state violence. The study finds that this results in a culture of secrecy around sex work, increasing stigma and the vulnerability of sex workers, and it compounds a lack of access to basic health services, including care and treatment of HIV and AIDS.


A deeper understanding of the regulatory framework on sex work helps to identify opportunities for advocacy. The current laws – or application of them – are threatening to hinder the HIV response, as Elena Reynaga, Executive Secretary of REDTRASEX, explains:

“Laws against trafficking and the lack of legislation recognising sex work means that we are becoming more clandestine every day. If this continues, it risks all the work that we have achieved as organisations of women sex workers in terms of reducing HIV prevalence amongst sex workers, during the 30 years of the epidemic. As sex work becomes more secretive, so the vulnerability of the human rights of sex workers increases.”

†Argentina, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua, Panama, Paraguay, Peru, Dominican Republic and Uruguay.

Elena believes that the new study provides “a plan to improve and create laws that recognise sex work, and derogate the penal codes which are still used to criminalise sex workers in our countries.”

“For this reason we ask that different issues [sex work, sex trafficking, proxenetism] are treated separately, that we are included in working groups on these issues, and that measures are taken within police forces.”

Elena explains that beyond the legislation itself that the “biggest problem faced by sex workers is that we have terribly violent and corrupt police forces”.


In Central America, the study found repeated instances of abuse against sex workers both at the hands of the police as well as gangs. Conversely, aside from the organisations of sex workers themselves, no organisations protecting or defending the rights of women engaged in sex work were identified.

Haydee Lainez, representative of REDTRASEX in Central America, says it is important "to find strategies and measures aimed at reducing violence against sex workers". She stressed the importance of empowering women and creating a culture of reporting human rights violations when they occur. “The study provides arguments and tools to defend the rights of women and we realise that we must act to ensure that the study is taken off the paper it is written on, and into practice.”


You can download the study in Spanish here, and we’ll add the English translation to this page during April 2013.

    As sex work becomes more secretive the vulnerability of the human rights of sex workers increases