Debate has long raged about whether decriminalization of sex work leads to increased safety for workers, or increased exploitation and trafficking.

Sex work is any sexually relevant form of labor and can range from on-camera work to stripping to trading actual sex acts for money. Sexual exploitation occurs when anyone is forced to perform sex work against their will. Such forms of exploitation can include trafficking, robbery and rape.

The presence of adult entertainment sites like pornography stores, brothels and strip clubs may actually significantly reduce the incidence of sex crimes.

While people enter sex work for various reasons, new research from Princeton University and the Universidad Pontificia Comillas in Spain seeks to establish which side of the argument is correct — does decriminalizing sex work lead to increased or decreased sex crimes, labor exploitation and other health and safety concerns, or not?

Little is known about how to best prevent sex crimes including rape and trafficking, but lead researchers, Maria Micaela Sviatschi and Riccardo Ciacci, point out that the public health impacts of sex crimes are far-reaching and include unintended pregnancies, abortion and sexually transmitted infections.

Global events, such as the upcoming 2022 Olympics, typically attract not only sports tourism but also sex tourism in the host country. Many countries from Brazil to South Africa have grappled with how to handle the influx of sex tourism as another layer of safety and security issues inherent in hosting such a massive event.

By offering legitimate venues for accessing sexually charged content, the idea is that would-be perpetrators are less likely to commit sex crimes in the community. However, counter-arguments imply that the presence of these establishments reinforces sexist and objectifying views that encourage the attitudes that make sexual violence more likely.

This study found that the presence of adult entertainment sites like pornography stores, brothels and strip clubs may actually significantly reduce the incidence of sex crimes.

Using data from New York City’s NYPD crime database, researchers determined that the number of adult entertainment venues increased significantly during the period for which data were available — from 76 in 2004 to 280 in 2012. When they compared this data with the number of non-self-reported sex crimes (those officially recorded by law enforcement) committed nearby, they found that sex crimes in a given precinct decreased an average of 13 percent just one week after a new establishment opened.

Researchers also looked to see if sex crimes increased in neighboring precincts after an adult venue opened, with no evidence in the data supporting the idea that sex crimes just moved elsewhere to a nearby community. Other types of crimes were also shown to be unaffected by the presence or absence of adult venues, putting a damper on the argument that adult establishments become hotbeds of sin attracting other types of criminals.

Research such as this can be used to develop evidence-based policy designed to keep both workers and the general communities safe from sex crimes and labor exploitation.

If you or a loved one is suffering or think you may be suffering from sexual exploitation or abuse, contact RAINN, the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network or call the National Sexual Assault Hotline, available 24 hours a day, at 1-800-656-4673.

The study is published in The Economic Journal.