Sex worker criminalization is about controlling women’s bodies.
Lux Alptraum is the author of Faking It: The Lies Women Tell About Sex — And the Truths They Reveal.
In spring 2016, the human rights advocacy organization Amnesty International took a bold step: It officially endorsed sex work decriminalization as the most effective and humane political response to sex work. The decision was controversial — the summer before the policy paper’s release, a number of prominent feminist activists, including Gloria Steinem, signed an open letter warning the organization that if it supported decriminalization, its reputation would be “severely and irreparably tarnished.”
Yet there is good reason to believe that decades from now, we’ll see this time period as the beginning of the end of a long chapter of oppression, abuse, and the vilification of a highly misunderstood profession.
In many circles, sex work is seen as a social ill. For moralizers, the exchange of sex for money poses a threat to “family values” that emphasize the importance of sex within marriage and promote modesty among women. For some feminists, sex work amplifies the oppression of women, both by presenting female bodies and sexuality as commodities available for sale and through the exploitation of women sex workers, who are presumed to despise their jobs and only do them under duress.
But for many sex workers — in particular, the transgender, nonwhite, and other marginalized sex workers who often find themselves shut out of other employment opportunities — sex work is simply a job, and one that pays well enough to cover their bills while offering a flexible enough structure to accommodate caregiving duties, chronic illness, and other issues that might pose a problem at a typical 9-to-5 office job.
The decriminalization of sex work is not an endorsement of sex trafficking or any exploitation or abuse that sex workers experience on the job. To the contrary, decriminalization merely gives adults the freedom to choose this line of work, and makes it vastly easier for those who are victims of trafficking, or experiencing abuse within the workplace, to seek assistance without fear of being thrown into jail.
“Decriminalizing sex work [makes] people who are selling sex, right now and tomorrow, safer while they are doing what they need to do in order to survive,” write sex workers and activists Molly Smith and Juno Mac in their book Revolting Prostitutes.
In New Zealand, where sex work is decriminalized, one of the major impacts has been an improved relationship between sex workers and the police. When sex work itself is no longer a crime, sex workers experience reduced harassment from law enforcement; equally importantly, they’re more willing to go to the police when they are the victims of crimes like rape and robbery.
Sex work decriminalization remains a fringe stance within American politics. Only a handful of politicians — including New York state Sen. Julia Salazar and New Hampshire state Rep. Elizabeth Edwards — have officially endorsed the policy. And anti-sex work policies like Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act still receive broad, bipartisan support in Congress.
Yet announcements like Amnesty International’s — which is one of several major human rights advocacy organizations to endorse decriminalization — along with a news media that’s increasingly friendly to sex workers’ rights suggest that it won’t be long before discussions of sex work decriminalization move into the mainstream.
When they do, we’ll be forced to reckon with how much harm the legacy of sex work criminalization has done to women, trans people, people of color, and other marginalized groups — the very people whom anti-sex work activists claim to want to protect.