Criminalization turns an act into a crime. Criminalization turns a citizen into a criminal. Criminalization turns a community into a target population.

In every state, patronizing of sexual services is a criminal activity. In some states, these laws are part of the solicitation statute (agreeing to exchange resources for sexual services, which can be applied to both buyer and seller), and in some states they are separate charges from the individual selling sex. This page is specific to the criminalization and policing of clients of the sex trades.

Example of a Patronizing Statute

§ 1343. Patronizing a prostitute prohibited, 2 DE Code § 1343 (2014 through 146th Gen Ass)
(a) A person is guilty of patronizing a prostitute when:

  • (1) Pursuant to a prior agreement or understanding, the person pays a fee to another person as compensation for that person’s having engaged in sexual conduct with the person; or
  • (2) The person pays or agrees to pay a fee to another person pursuant to an agreement or understanding that in return therefor that person or a third person will engage in sexual conduct with the person; or
  • (3) The person solicits or requests another person to engage in sexual conduct with the person in return for a fee.

(b) Patronizing a prostitute is a misdemeanor. The minimum mandatory fine shall be $500. This fine shall not be suspended.

(c) Whenever any vehicle, as defined in § 2321 of this title, has been used in, or in connection with, the offense of patronizing a prostitute, it shall forthwith be seized and taken into custody by the peace officer or officers having knowledge of the facts of such use.

(d) Vehicle seizure shall apply in the case of a defendant who has a previous conviction for the same offense in the previous 5 years. For the purpose of this section, “prior offense” shall be defined as a conviction of § 1343 of this title.

(e)(1) Any person found guilty of patronizing a prostitute and such crime has occurred on or within 1,000 feet of the property of any school, residence, church, synagogue or other place of worship shall be guilty of a class A misdemeanor. The minimum mandatory fine shall be $1,000. This fine shall not be suspended.

(2) It shall not be a defense to prosecution for a violation of this section that the person was unaware that the prohibited conduct took place on or within 1,000 feet of any school property, residence, church, synagogue or other place of worship.

Penalties for Patronizing Charges

In most states, patronizing charges are a misdemeanor offense, with jail times and financial penalties varying. There are some unique considerations that are specific to patronizing charge, which will be different in each state.

Patronizing of Minors. Because minors who exchange sex for resources are considered victims of trafficking, many states have taken different approaches to making higher criminal penalties for people who are arrested for patronizing or attempting to patronize a minor. Some states include “patronizing a minor” as a subsection of their patronizing statute (ie. In Illinois, Patronizing a Prostitute is IL. 11-18, and Patronizing a Minor Engaged in Prostitution is 11-18.1). Other states have opted to begin prosecuting this as a trafficking charge. Federal case law, or jurisprudence, has successfully prosecuted clients attempting to solicit minors for sexual services under the Federal Trafficking statute. In most states, patronizing a minor is a felony.

John Schools. Many states offer diversion classes, or “John Schools” for people charged with patronizing offenses. There is no standard for cost, length of time, efficacy or content of these diversion programs. Read more: Evaluating the Success of “John Schools” in Reducing Sex Crime, Rachel Lovell, Case Western Reserve.

Asset forfeiture. In some states, asset forfeiture, and especially vehicle forfeiture, is a required penalty for patronizing the sex trade. In the Delaware statute listed above, section (d) lists, “Vehicle seizure shall apply in the case of a defendant who has a previous conviction for the the same offense in the previous 5 years. For the purpose of this section, “prior offense” shall be defined as a conviction of § 1343 of this title.”

Felony Patronizing. In 2021, Texas became the first state to increase the penalty for patronizing a sex worker from a Misdemeanor to a state jail felony, punishable by up to two years in state prison, and an up to $10,000 fine.

What is the Nordic Model?

The United States’ approach to sex work is full criminalization, meaning the selling sex, buying sex, and all people and spaces which allow or facilitate commercial sex, are all subject to criminal penalty. Some anti-sex work advocates are pushing states to adopt a model of asymmetrical criminalization, also referred to as the Nordic Model or End Demand, which criminalizes and polices the purchasers of sexual services. While multiple countries have implemented this without explicit criminal penalties for selling sexual services, policing of the sex trade has still led to impacts on both buyers and sellers.

Note: The Nordic Model is described as criminal penalties for purchasers of sexual services, and in each country identified as having a “Nordic Model” of regulation, there are not explicit criminal penalties for selling sex. In the United States, all states criminalize both the selling and buying of sexual services.

This form of criminalizing the sex trades began in 1999 when it was introduced in Sweden. Since 1999, six additional countries have implemented this model, despite the protests and push back from sex workers who would be impacted by these laws. The assumption of End Demand legislation is that all experiences in the sex trade are inherently exploitative and violent, undermining the autonomy and basic dignity of sex workers, and the laws promote vulnerability, stigma and exacerbate existing rifts between people in the sex trades and law enforcement. Which countries criminalize the purchase of sexual services?

Importantly, even in countries where there are no criminal penalties for prostitution itself, interaction with law enforcement still exposes people in the sex trades to arrest for other charges. Sex workers in countries with this model regularly see charges such as possession of substances or paraphernalia, irregular documentation or in countries which criminalize organization of prostitution, sex workers who work collectively. Read more about two migrant sex workers who were arrested and held for nine months for “brothel-keeping” – because they were working together.

Why does it still hurt people in the sex trades?

The criminalization of clients of the sex trade continues to rely on policing of the sex trades in order to enforce laws, and replicates or exacerbates the same harms. Sex workers from the many countries where it has been implemented have consistently reported the following impacts:

  • Increases in interpersonal violence: After three months of increasing policing of local strolls in Montreal, local group “Stella recorded dramatic increases in violence experienced by sex workers working on the street,” leading “the local police prefect [to acknowledge] that the targeting of clients had been an ineffective response to sex work in the community.
  • None or negative changes in working conditions overall. In Canada, 72% of workers reported no change in their working conditions, while 26% of sex workers reported negative changes in working conditions.
  • Decreases in income: In France,  78% of sex workers reported a drop in income, as well as the increased competition leading to a drop in prices, compounding the loss.
  • Less trust in law enforcement for sex workers: Increases in policing and surveillance have led to “feelings they cannot trust or turn to the police for assistance.”
  • Less trust in law enforcement for clients: This feeling is pervasive to both sellers and buyers of sexual services, and “clients who would have previously helped to report violence, coercion or other abuse towards a sex worker are now much more reluctant to go to the police for fear of their own arrest.
  • Decrease in access to services: In Canada, sex workers reported a 41% decrease in access to health services and a 21% reduction in access to community-based resources and services since the passage of the PCEPA. This may be partially attributed to contract restrictions on service provider funding which prioritizes exit-based services.
  • Increases in stigma: After implementation, sex workers have reported “increase in stigma from service providers…, anti-prostitution activists, and the general population.”

See the Impact of Criminalization.

Further Reading on the Impact of Asymmetrical Criminalization

Attacking Demand, Escalating Violence: The Impact of Twenty Years of End Demand
Implementation on People who Trade Sex
. Reframe Health and Justice. Sept 2021.

Policy Guide on The Impact of End Demand Legislation on Women Sex Workers. Global Network of Sex Workers’ Projects’.

Why End Demand Exacerbates Peoples Vulnerability to Trafficking

While many of these policies are sold under the auspices of fighting trafficking, there is no evidence that these policies decrease exploitation, and instead extensive evidence that it causes sex workers increased harm. Trafficking is the exploitation of a person by another through force, fraud or coercion. Legislation which makes sex workers more precarious and more dependent increase vulnerability to exploitation by third parties – especially who can help a sex worker find clients. Additionally, when resources are put to arrest clients of the sex trade and not towards exploitation or trafficking, victims in all industries suffer. Finally, despite its implementation in multiple countries in the last two decades, there is no country which can point to a decrease in trafficking and exploitation as a result.

Read Freedom Network’s End Demand Fact Sheet.

Read Freedom United’s Response to Scottish Government’s ‘Equally Safe: challenging men’s demand for prostitution’ consultation.

Read Moving Beyond Supply and Demand: Assessing the Uses and Limitations of Demand-Based Approaches in Anti-Trafficking from the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women.

Impact on Migration

Under all End Demand regimes, selling remains criminalized for non-citizens. Anti-prostitution legislation has a long history of being interwoven with immigration regulation, both domestically and abroad. End Demand implementation has also reflected this by continuing to subject migrant sex workers to police profiling and deportation. Migrant workers in Sweden have reported that not only are they subject to deportation, but also inform landlords in order to force eviction. One migrant sex worker in France described the impact on finding clients, saying, “Now I do not have time to analyse which is the good and the bad customer, as soon as someone offers me something I say yes to everything. So it increases the risk of finding myself in a violent situation.” In multiple countries, migrant sex workers describe racial profiling and targeting by law enforcement.

Read more: This thread from migrant sex worker-focused Red Canary Song on housing and the Nordic Model.