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Sex Work: Decriminalize It!


Back in August, Amnesty International threw down a gauntlet. After significant pressure from different sides along with a lengthy (and sometimes heated) public debate, the global human rights organization adopted a policy and series of positions regarding the treatment of sex workers.

If you’ve never heard the term “sex worker” before, you probably aren’t alone. The profession is more commonly called “prostitution,” but due to that word’s negative connotations, sex workers prefer not to be described thusly. I will therefore stick with “sex work” and “sex workers” for this post.

In the US, sex work is illegal almost everywhere. A handful of counties in Nevada permit and regulate it; outside of that, it is illegal. How severely it is treated varies. Perhaps the most extreme example is Louisiana, where sex workers are targeted by a “crime against nature by solicitation law” which requires them, if convicted, to register as sex offenders. In many other jurisdictions, sex work is considered a misdemeanor. Spending time in and out of jail, paying fines, and even giving free services to law enforcement officers are often considered part of the cost of doing business. Despite its illegality and the frequency of crackdowns, sex work stubbornly refuses to disappear–and, more and more, sex workers themselves refuse to be silent.

In many ways, efforts to stomp out sex work in the US mirror the (largely failed) War on Drugs. Instead of reducing any harm that result from sex work or drug use, harm is exacerbated through punitive policies that overwhelmingly impact the most vulnerable. Sex work itself needn’t be harmful in the first place–it is entirely possible for two (or more) consenting adults to exchange sexual services for money without any harm resulting. Sexually transmitted diseases, assaults, and other abuses are not necessary consequences of sex work. Rather, they are the consequences of sex work forced to occur in the shadows, away from accountability, oversight, and regulation. Moreover, the criminalization of sex work poses the greatest risk to the health–even the very lives–of sex workers themselves. According to at least one study, sex work has the highest mortality rate of any occupation, and this is not because sex work is inherently dangerous. It is, instead, due to a combination of factors:

  * First and foremost, the criminalization of sex work means that sex workers abused on the job are unable to safely seek legal recourse against their abusers.
  * Raping a sex worker is commonly not viewed as rape, but "theft of services." Though it may be legally considered rape, prevailing social attitudes make convictions virtually impossible.
  * Most violence committed against sex workers strikes those who are on society's margins for broader structural reasons. Most sex workers are women of color, who already suffer statistically higher rates of violence (sexual and otherwise) due to complex racial factors. Many are also transgender, and transgender women in particular have extremely high victimization rates.

Can you spot the common theme here? These are all issues of dehumanization. Issues that predominantly affect women tend not to be taken seriously. Sex work–despite being enjoyed by somewhere between 15-20% of American men–is viewed as unsavory and degrading, and thus those who engage in it (but only on the supply side) are considered unsavory and degraded, themselves. Women of color are similarly devalued in the first place, and transphobia is so rampant that national-level politicians face no consequences for openly stating that trans women are simply men who dress up as women in order to commit sex crimes against women. It is not hard to imagine how such attitudes would translate to the treatment of transgender sex workers.

We turn a blind eye to laws that make criminals out of people who are only trying to make a living, some of whom may have few other options. Curiously, little effort is spent cracking down on high-priced escorts, who offer essentially the same services but whose clients tend to be well-to-do businessmen and politicians. That is, the sorts of people who wouldn’t care to have their personal gratification interfered with, and who possess the political clout to (usually) avoid any serious trouble.

There is an attitude that sex workers know what they are getting into and, essentially, deserve whatever they get, as if choosing a particular line of work dooms you to have all legal protections and even basic human respect withdrawn. Many professions are dangerous, of course, and it is rarely suggested that people who willingly entered into a hazardous occupation deserve to be maimed or killed. But since sex is involved, and the sexuality of women is viewed as a precious commodity–so long as it is adequately controlled by men–women who “debase” themselves by selling sex have broken the basic contract of society. A woman who sells her body isn’t considered a woman–or even human–anymore.

A common red herring invoked when discussing the decriminalization (and even legalization) of sex work is that it will give sex traffickers a free hand to press people–especially underage girls and young children–into sexual slavery. This is obvious nonsense, as if both laws and enforcement agencies are incapable of distinguishing between people who are performing sex work willingly and those forced into the trade through coercion and other punitive means. That the two are impossible to separate is a meme largely attributable to the so-called “rescue industry,” which holds that all sex workers are being exploited and trafficked, whether they know it or not. This is insulting and infantilizing, and sex workers have not hesitated to say so. As many sex workers themselves point out, there are a panoply of reasons that an individual might choose it as a profession, whether temporarily or permanently, and to discount those reasons–to universally reduce sex workers to the status of exploited victims who need rescuing–is just as much in denial of their humanity as the policies that keep sex work outlawed and dangerous in the first place. For that matter, rescue organizations also want to keep it illegal–how could they do otherwise, if they assume that all sex work is coercive?

Sex work’s legal status varies around the world, as you can see here. A key principle that has been effective in combating the worst side effects of sex work is that of harm reduction. The concept is simple: by treating sex work as a public health and worker safety issue rather than a criminal one, sex workers themselves become instrumental in minimizing the riskier aspects of their profession. Decriminalization helps ensure that, where harm reduction methods are inadequate, concerned sex workers can pursue legal recourse rather than face harassment and abuse by authorities. Importantly, as Pye Jakobsson states, sex work is not inherently harmful. Per Rachel Thomas, the “harm” being reduced is not part of sex work itself but rather the “repressive, criminalized environments where sex workers lack access to appropriate services and face widespread human rights violations.”

In many ways, Amnesty’s adoption of a sex work platform is the culmination of years’ worth of advocacy by sex workers to be treated with human dignity and respect. It is not the end of a struggle by any means, nor even the beginning. It’s more of a signpost somewhere along the way. As harm reduction strategies prove their effectiveness and sex workers continue to raise their voices and impact the discussion, hopefully we will see more and more change in the direction of decriminalization–and finally, to stop treating sex workers as less than human.