Conversations about sex work don’t always contain much nuance. Not every sex worker is a victim, exploited because she has no other options. Not every sex worker is an empowered feminist owning and profiting from her sexuality. But the responses to sex work are too often blunt instruments that lack pragmatism and ignore the voices of sex workers.
Emily Bazelon has a great piece in New York Times Magazine looking at the debate within feminism about how we should respond to sex work. It’s been in the news lately as human rights organizations like Amnesty International have moved toward support of decriminalizing sex work, facing backlash from various corners, including some feminists, celebrities and other nonprofit organizations.
As with other issues like drug use, it’s clear to me that the evidence points toward decriminalization for the safety and well-being of everyone involved. Here are 6 reasons why:
Keeping sex work underground invites abuse. Bazelon talks to a former sex worker who is now an advocate of decriminalization. She dealt with blackmail from an ex-boyfriend because the illegal nature of her work put her in an impossible position: “At first, she told me, he asked her to pay to get his car back after it was towed. Then he started demanding more money and dictating when she worked and which clients she saw.” If sex workers are raped or assaulted, it’s highly unlikely they’ll report it, or that they’ll be taken seriously, because they are engaging in illegal behavior and exposing themselves to even more risk by seeking help.
Decriminalization allows better access to health care. Sex worker collectives in India “have helped to increase condom use from zero to 70 percent in their district, and to reduce H.I.V. infection rates to 7 percent — compared with rates as high as 66 percent among sex workers elsewhere.”
Criminalization further marginalizes oppressed people. As with most crimes in the United States, people of color are the ones who bear the brunt of law enforcement crackdowns on sex work. In New York, 84% of women arrested for prostitution were women of color, and 93% of men arrested for patronizing a prostitute were men of color. Law enforcement isn’t knocking down doors to go after the likes of Eliot Spitzer. As Michelle Alexander explains so well in The New Jim Crow, a criminal record can make access to employment, housing or government aid nearly impossible, perpetuating a vicious cycle. Trans women are also more likely to perform sex work because of employment discrimination. Bazelon notes that “in Louisiana five years ago, 700 people, many of them women of color and trans women, were listed on the sex-offender registry for the equivalent of a prostitution misdemeanor,” until a group successfully sued to have them removed.
Only targeting men for solicitation still puts sex workers in danger. A compromise measure advocated by some groups is to move away from arresting sex workers, but prosecute men who pay for sex. But putting sex workers on one side of an illegal interaction still puts them at risk. Sex workers report men wanting to take them to more remote places to avoid law enforcement, jeopardizing their safety. While sex workers may not get arrested, law enforcement may use that interaction to check their documents, or it could result in sex workers’ being evicted or losing custody of their children. You can’t hold two people in this scenario accountable by different standards and expect to successfully bring sex work out of the shadows.
Other crimes perpetrated against sex workers will still be illegal and can be prosecuted. Opponents of decriminalization complain that decriminalization lets traffickers off the hook. But the crimes people are worried about–trafficking, promoting underage prostitution, assault, rape–are still crimes and can and should be prosecuted. In fact, these crimes are more likely to be taken seriously when stigma and fear around sex work are reduced.
It’s working in other countries. This problem isn’t simple, and it requires careful study of what has worked and what hasn’t. Shifting to decriminalization won’t prevent every problem, but it’s hard to imagine a scenario in which it’s worse than the system we have now. Bazelon looked at the results in New Zealand and the Australian state of New South Wales after they decriminalized: “But the number of sex workers stayed flat, at about 6,000 in New Zealand and somewhat more in New South Wales. Condom use among sex workers rose above 99 percent, according to government surveys. Sex workers in brothels in New South Wales report the same level of depression and stress as women in the general population; rates are far higher for women who work on the street, who are also often intravenous drug users.” Amnesty recognizes that this system, rather than more tightly regulated markets in other countries, puts “greater control into the hands of sex workers to operate independently, self-organize in informal cooperatives and control their own working environments.”