It is time to decriminalize sex work

I once had a class with a professor who was a former law enforcement officer, who told us about several incidents he had been involved in where individuals who had claimed to be raped instead turned out to be sex workers who had not been paid by their clients.  A sex worker not getting paid was not sexual assault in the eyes of the law was the idea. However, such incidents felt to me to be as clear cut case of rape by deceit as one could get.

Historically speaking, arguments against sex work would paint sex workers as sinful devils, leading godly family men astray. More modern narratives posit instead that sex workers are the ones being exploited by pimps and human traffickers.

Yet the problems with the modern narrative ignore how criminalizing sex work makes sex workers more vulnerable to being exploited and harmed. For example, if a sex worker is caught and prosecuted, it could harm their ability to find work in other professions. The law is, in fact,making it more difficult for sex workers to change careers, if they so wanted to.

Furthermore, criminalizing sex work often winds up harming the LGBTQ community, especially LGBTQ people of color, transgender and non-binary individuals, as well as LGBTQ homeless youth. Anti-sex work laws harm the LGBTQ community by forcing increased police surveillance on us.

The problem is that survival sex work is something that many in the LGBTQ community have engaged in. Many homeless LGBTQ individuals engage in survival sex work just to survive. Transgender and non-binary people often wind up engaging in sex work due to being discriminated against in more traditional professional careers.

This means that many in the LGBTQ community can wind up being surveilled and stereotyped by law enforcement, even those of us who are not engaged in sex work. This increased surveillance can be a particular problem for LGBTQ people of color.

There is little real evidence that criminalizing sex work actually leads to anything worthwhile. Criminalization does not protect sex workers from violence from clients nor does it protect them from being exploited. Instead, it can make them more vulnerable to both violence and exploitation due to the fact that the many sex workers are reluctant to go to the police out of fear of being arrested and charged with engaging in sex work.

Nor does criminalization of sex work do anything to prevent the transmission of sexually transmitted infections. Criminalization can make this problem worse due to the fact that carrying a condom can be used as evidence of intent to engage in sex work. Thus, individuals who are likely to be targeted or profiled as sex workers will often choose not to carry condoms to avoid potential prosecution.

Ultimately, sexual activity is a normal part of the human experience and there is little reason to restrict sexual activities between consensual adults, even if there is money being exchanged. I have seen no real compelling reason that the criminalization of sex work is based on anything other than outdated ideas around sexual immorality.

It is time that we recognize sex work as work and focus instead on ensuring that sex workers are able to be safe in their chosen career.

Header photo: Courtesy Flickr

Write to Jeremy Redlien at Jeremy.redlien@mnsu.edu

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