As the saying goes, sex work is the world’s oldest profession. Yet, sex work is no ordinary profession, as its legality and morality remain deeply contentious in modern society. As much as we would like to avoid the subject, though, Americans continue to be confronted with issues faced by sex workers. In the past few weeks alone, sex work has garnered significant headlines, following both the raid of gay escort site rentboy.com by U.S. Government officials and the historic vote by Amnesty International in favor of the full decriminalization of sex work. With these stories in the news, many have expressed strong opinions on the issue of sex work, all espousing the best way to handle an industry widely seen as exploitative and abusive. Despite all of these opinions, however, few seem to be paying attention to the opinions of those whose voices actually matter most: the voices of sex workers themselves.
Today in the United States sex work is criminalized in all but eight counties of Nevada, where brothels are legalized and regulated. This current nationwide system of treating sex work as a criminal act has done nothing but hurt sex workers. Deemed less deserving of the law’s protection, sex workers are instead prosecuted themselves, and at much higher rates than their patrons. As a result, sex workers are unable to advocate for their own safety in a model of criminalization, and therefore are highly vulnerable to sexual abuse by their clients. The main reason that criminalization continues to exist is that so many people see sex workers as inherently bad people. In the United States, prostitution is considered a misdemeanor, whereas purchasing services from a sex worker is considered only a violation. This uneven punishment is enforced by police and other members of the state, who patrol areas where sex workers operate and even use their possession of condoms as proof of prostitution. This level of law enforcement, of course, only encourages workers to not carry safe sex supplies with them, compromising both their safety even further.
In contrast, sex workers overwhelmingly support the decriminalization, but not legalization, of sex work. In a system of decriminalization, sex workers are labeled as independently licensed businesses in which women can give consent. While this is by far the best option for the vast majority of sex workers, very few nations have even considered it. Though many regions of the world have begun rejecting the criminalization of sex work, nations are insistent on using alternate legal methods than the one that sex workers are asking for. Sweden and the Netherlands are two prime examples of this, although the two nations have gone in completely different directions. In Sweden, the purchase of sex work, but not the sale of it, is criminalized, while in the Netherlands sex work is legalized completely. While both of these options might seem like better alternatives, a closer look reveals that neither one is actually helpful to sex workers at all.
Sweden’s model of dealing with sex work is based off of the idea that sex workers require protecting from what is seen as an inherently exploitative and abusive system. Based off of this problematic assumption that sex workers are unable to have any agency over their own lives, this method does nothing but make sex workers’ lives even more dangerous. Even if they are being exploited, Sweden’s legal model doesn’t make it any easier for sex workers to gain a job in another industry. Due to legislation that is causing them to have fewer clients, sex workers are forced to lower their prices in order to compete in the now smaller market. In fact, while both the number of buyers and the number of sex workers in Sweden has decreased substantially, the price per customer has also reduced significantly in such a way that sex is actually being sold more frequently. In addition, under Sweden’s model sex workers are also forced to work in more discreet, dangerous locations in order for their clients to avoid arrest.
In contrast to Sweden’s system, the Netherlands has completely legalized and regulated sex work as an industry. While this may seem like the perfect alternative at first glance, in reality, legalization still proves to be dangerous to sex workers. Legalization creates a framework in which sex work is allowed in certain types of situations. For example, sex work in brothels might be legal, but only if the brothel and those who work in it meet certain standards of what is deemed “acceptable” by law enforcement. As a result of this creation of arbitrary standards by the state, law enforcement is therefore required to monitor the movements and actions of sex workers. This might not be a problem for more privileged workers, but for those who are most vulnerable, legalization proves dangerous.
A framework of legalization requires sex workers to be licensed, for example, but obtaining this licensing can be an incredibly complicated and expensive task. Undocumented workers, for example, or workers who have a history of drug use, will be unable to obtain licensing from the state, and will therefore continue to be forced to work illegally in order to survive. Additionally, legalization has led to institutionalized violence against sex workers, in the forms of everything from the requirement of invasive and unnecessary medical exams to making a worker’s sex working history public in such a way that future employment outside of the industry becomes virtually impossible due to stigma.
Alternatively, with decriminalization, sex workers enjoy the benefits of legalization, as they are able to unionize, they have the ability to advocate for their own safety, and they are able to exist in public spheres without fear of arrest. However, all of these benefits are able to occur without the state sanctioned violence and surveillance necessitated by legalization. Instead, this model puts all of the agency of the labor into the hands of sex workers, so that even in such an exploitative industry they can have the best control possible over their own safety and ability to exist in this difficult world. Between 1980 and 2009 the state of Rhode Island had decriminalized sex work, albeit accidentally. Importantly, during that nearly 30-year period, public health and public safety were found to be at an all-time high, with the lowest recorded rates of reported gonorrhea and reported rape. Rhode Island’s experiment with decriminalization is further proof that it is not only the best option for sex workers, but that it can also work in the United States.
Ultimately, the recent government raid and shutdown of rentboy.com has made it clearer than ever how necessary it is for sex work to be decriminalized — but not legalized. Decriminalization is the only way for us to ensure the ultimate safety of all people who trade sex, as it greatly empowers both those who are willingly doing sex work and those who are being trafficked or otherwise coerced. Criminalization, whether fully or only partial, does nothing but silence sex workers and endanger them, and while legalization is certainly better, it still disempowers workers and exposes them to the state violence that always occurs when law enforcement is given too much power over a vulnerable population. It’s time we listen to the voices of sex workers themselves and demand the full decriminalization of sex work in the United States.
Photo courtesy of U.S. Pros Collective