Chicago’s “Decriminalization” of Sex Work

Logan Sweeney

Associate Editor

Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2022

In the United States, according to a HG study, every year, between 70,000 and 80,000 people are arrested for prostitution related offenses, where roughly seventy percent of arrests are made against women sellers, twenty percent of arrests are made against men sellers, and a mere ten percent are made against buyers. In Chicago, the number of arrests are comparable, where according to a Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation study, in 2013, approximately seventy-four percent of prostitution-related arrests were for selling, and in 2017, ninety percent of prostitution-related arrests were for selling.

Following the enactment of similar laws in other states, in 2014, Illinois passed Public Act 98-1013 which creates a financial incentive for the enforcement of prostitution laws against buyers and traffickers, rather than sellers. However, the Chicago Police Department (CPD) continues to prioritize arrests of sex sellers over buyers. Criminalization of sex work disproportionately harms LGBTQ people, communities of color, and immigrants. At a local level, Chicago needs to decriminalize sex work and reallocate CPD’s enforcement budget to social welfare services.

Disproportionate effects of prostitution laws

American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) research has proven that the criminalization of sex work disproportionately harms LGBTQ people, particularly transgender women, as well as people of color and immigrants.

A 2015 National Center for Transgender Equality study found that approximately three in ten Black transgender women and multiracial transgender women reported that a police officer assumed they were sex workers. This assumption leads to an increased number of police stops, searches, and arrests. Further, a 2019 Federal Bureau of Investigations’ data studyfound that Black people account for approximately forty-two percent of adult prostitution arrests. Additionally, the Immigrant Defense Project found that Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents began to target noncitizens at human trafficking court after individuals were charged with prostitution.

Not only is being stopped or arrested by police traumatic and expensive, it can also cause housing, employment, and education instability. Individuals, including those who are not sex workers, have been stopped and searched and verbally or physically abused or arrested. Nationally, police departments have used possession of condoms as evidence to show intent to engage in prostitution. Criminalization of sex work can lead to decreased reporting of violence, increased stigmatization and social exclusion, and decreased access to health care and other services.

Current Chicago law

In 2018, the Chicago City Council passed Ordinance § 8-04-016 which empowered the police to designate areas of the city where sex workers can be ordered to disperse for an eight-hour period. If those sex workers return within the eight hours, they can be fined up to $3,000, have their car impounded, and can be jailed for up to six months.

This Ordinance is vague, provides CPD with wide discretion, only punishes sex sellers, and is in conflict with the State’s aim of enforcing prostitution-related offenses against both sex buyers and sellers. Members of the community and organizations alike voiced their concerns about the application and enforcement of this Ordinance. Organizations like the ACLU of Illinois spokesman Ed Yohnka stated the vagueness of the ordinance could lead to disparate application of enforcement. Yonhka further explained that a similar New York City ordinance led to arrests based on how people were dressed, where they were standing, and whether they had money on them. This Ordinance socially isolated and further criminalized sex workers, and it gave CPD additional means to arrest sex workers.

Chicago Prostitution and Trafficking Intervention Court

To address concerns of overcrowding in prison and combat recidivism, in 2015, the Office of the Cook County State’s Attorney created the Chicago Prostitution and Trafficking Intervention Court (CPTIC) as a deferred prosecution program. Through the program, once a defendant is able to complete program requirements, charges of prostitution may be dismissed. As part of the program, defendants are given access to resources including health insurance, substance abuse treatment, education options, and housing availability. As of 2019, the program has had 396 graduates and CPTIC continues to operate today.


In addition to programs like CPTIC, Chicago should consider alternatives to help address the disparate impact of policies and stigmatization on sex workers.

One suggestion is to reform local and state criminal codes to remove the criminalization of commercial sexual exchange between consenting adults. Decriminalizing consensual commercial sexual exchanges may reduce the number of people arrested, lessen the stigmatization of sex workers, and improve community health. Additionally, with less funding going to police enforcement of prostitution laws, that money can be allocated to social programs to help community members who rely on sex work for survival to access necessities, such as housing, food, employment, and health resources. A group of researchers found that decriminalization of sex work could result in the prevention of over one-third of projected HIV transmissions among female sex workers between 2014 and 2024. Additionally, it can reasonably be expected that decriminalization would enable sex workers to report incidences of violence and coercion.

Another recommendation is to increase funding for social programs and affordable housing, this includes but is not limited to, health care assistance, food stamps, unemployment compensation, secondary education, and assistance to families. Increasing funding for social welfare programs could help alleviate financial stress which has been a motivator for some individuals to engage in sex work.