The topic of decriminalizing prostitution is tricky. It elicits a spectrum of responses from people based on their beliefs that translate into judgment of those who choose to participate in sex for money. The term sex work extends beyond prostitution to more broadly include the kinds of exchanges of sex-for-money or -goods commerce millions of people around the world are engaged in each day. (For most of this blog I will refer to prostitution but I think it is important to note the range of sexual experiences for sale include, but are not limited to: escorts, exotic dancers, sex surrogates, webcam performers, pornographic film actors, etc..)
Feminist perspectives on sex work tend to be either pro-prohibition (radical) or pro-decriminalization (liberal). Radical feminists believe sex work to be inherently violent. They believe that the choice to do sex work is merely an illusion of choice. According to their stance, only abolition will free women from the bondage of this patriarchal work that is a kin to the kind of slavery women have historically experienced. Liberal feminists disagree with radical feminists in that they believe that sex work is a viable choice people can make and that the real crime is the marginalization and stigmatization of those who choose this profession. They contend that harm occurs when the people who choose sex work must operate outside of daylight and decriminalization would positively affect their ability to achieve safe working conditions.
Though they disagree on the causes, both feminist perspectives agree that sex workers experience considerable harm. Due to the intimacy of their work the potential for harm is ever-present making sex work distinctly different from other kinds of work. I believe it is important to take note of the conditions that bring people to perform sex work. Some perform sex work as a result of negative primary sexual experiences that shape their relationship to intimacy and sex. Some perform sex work to support their addictions, while millions of young children and teens around the world are trafficked into sex work. Many transgendered people come to sex work because employment discrimination is rampant and few other work options exists for them. For these groups of people the issue of consent is complicated. For them, sex work is not a choice, sex work is survival. Should these workers need help from the police, they face re-victimization. A recent study of female sex workers in San Francisco found that 21% of the women interviewed received money in exchange for sex from a police officer while 14% had been threatened with arrest unless they had sex with an officer. Power abuse of sex workers is not new, but the ability to gather and disseminate knowledge of these occurrences is relatively new. Thanks to social media and 24 hour news cycles there is greater spread of news like the cases in Hawaii, Oakland, Oklahoma, and New York, for example.
So why advocate for decriminalization? Because sex work is still work and those adults who make concerted decisions to enter sex work deserve labor protections. Decriminalization of the industry could de-stigmatize workers and lessen the marginalization of their experiences. The advocacy group Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP) believes that decriminalization of sex work is a fundamental human rights issue. SWOP argues that negative social ideas about the respectability of sex work has allowed for increased criminalization and recidivism, and unanswered violence and death in their community. Speaking for sex workers is another way of marginalizing their experiences, even by well-meaning groups. Excluding sex workers from movements that purport to be about the elimination of violence against sex work, violence about their very bodies, keeps them powerless. Sex worker art movements have given sex workers platforms to express their views on how their work affects them and the space to turn their personal concerns about the injustices of their work places into political statements. Their work sparks conversations that lead to normalizing their work and towards addressing the ways that violence functions in sex work, how to truly help victimized workers, and ultimately, how to achieve justice for crimes committed against them.
New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act offers an example of what could happen if sex workers were allowed greater agency and controls over sex work. Its passage 14 years ago made New Zealand sex workers able to offer in and out call services and, in making legal prostitution, made illegal the actions of abusive and unpaid clients. Sex workers were able to call police for help and actually receive justice. This increased collaboration with law enforcement has also increased sex workers willingness to assist police in solving crimes against their community, another effect of legitimization of their work. It is still an imperfect system but it allows for the kind of agency, dignity and empowerment consenting sex workers around the world deserve.