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6 reasons it’s time to decriminalize sex work

Legalize it. Don’t criticize it.


EJ Dickson

Internet Culture

Earlier this month, Belle Knox, a.k.a. the “Duke porn star,” wrote an op-ed for Rolling Stone defending sex workers, advocating for the legalization of prostitution. “The time has come for the world’s oldest profession to be legalized in the so-called Land of the Free for public health, safety and opportunity,” Knox wrote.

Knox’s piece was impassioned, sensitively written, and well-argued, but it failed to make an important distinction between legalizing sex work, and decriminalizing sex work. Legalization of prostitution would likely entail sex workers working in licensed, heavily regulated brothels, as is currently the case in a select few counties in Nevada and nations like New Zealand, whereas decriminalization would not require sex work to take place under regulated conditions and would simply entail the abolition of laws criminalizing sex work.

Most sex workers support decriminalization over legalization, on the grounds that legalizing sex work would lead to the adoption of restrictive new laws that sex workers would have no part in authoring. In short, “legalizing means lots of regulation and decriminalization is subtracting the bad laws,” explains Audacia Ray, the head of sex worker rights organization the Red Umbrella Project. “To decriminalize means to chip away at those different laws and ensure they’re not replaced by something awful.”

Lorelei Lee, an adult performer and sex worker rights advocate, agrees: “The one problem with regulation is that there is almost zero empirical data on sex work and sexual health,” she told me on Twitter. “So regs are written based on supposition, stereotypes, and fear, while rarely taking the needs or concerns of workers into account.”

Despite the concerns over legalization, most sex workers recognize that “in any kind of reality, there will be laws that regulate the sex industry,” says Ray. “That’s not a bad thing, but people need to be involved in the process at arriving what these laws will be.” So what, exactly, would that reality look like? We’re not exactly sure, but here’s a list of reasons why we desperately need to change our laws—and, even more importantly, the cultural stigma—regarding sex work.

1) Arresting sex workers takes up precious police resources.

When people talk about decriminalizing marijuana, many of the central arguments focus on how smoking pot is a victimless crime, and that laws against marijuana possession implicitly target low-income people of color. If we decriminalize marijuana, the argument goes, people of color will no longer be targeted by police, which will free up valuable police resources.

A similar argument applies to decriminalizing sex workers, who are predominantly lower-income women of color and are regularly targeted by trigger-happy law enforcement officials eager to make an arrest quota. These women are regularly arrested and re-arrested over the course of their careers for relatively minor, non-violent infractions, taking up valuable law enforcement resources.

According to one estimate, there are between 70,000 and 80,000 prostitution arrests in the United States every year, with the overall taxpayer cost of prostitution arrests at $200 million, or approximately $2,000 per arrest. Were sex work decriminalized, police officers might at first have trouble meeting their quotas, but they would also be able to focus their energies and attentions on, violent criminals who pose a threat to the public good, including those who assault sex workers, rather than targeting women who are just trying to put food on the table.

2) Sex work is not inherently degrading to women.

There are many, many arguments to be made that sex work is inherently exploitative of and demeaning to women. (And many, many religious groups and SWERFs, or sex work exclusionary radical feminists, have already made them.) And it’s true that there are women who have engaged in sex work who report having worked under horrific and exploitative conditions. But there are also women who have done sex work and haven’t felt degraded by it. Some of them have even found it enjoyable, or even empowering.

“The fact of the matter is that most sex workers enter the industry via their own consent and genuinely enjoy their work,” Knox writes in her Rolling Stone op-ed, adding, “In porn, I can speak openly about my experiences without fear of punishment, work in a safe and professional environment and play a vital role in the creative process.” Sounds an awful lot more fun and rewarding than, say, working as an accountant, or operating a forklift at WalMart. (Hell, it sounds more fun and rewarding than blogging, in a way.)

Of course, there are many people who have attempted to invalidate Knox’s account of feeling empowered by the sex industry by claiming she’s delusionalbrainwashed, or too privileged and idealistic to be speaking the truth about sex work. I am not Belle Knox, nor am I close to her, so I can’t say for sure whether this is or isn’t true. (I have, however, met her a few times, and she seems like an incredibly smart and extremely driven young woman.) What I can say, though, is that any woman who claims another woman is lying about her own feelings and experiences really isn’t much of a feminist at all. 

3) Men benefit from sex work being decriminalized—and either way, they’re paying for it anyway.

If you asked someone to imagine what the typical john looks like, the answer usually falls into one of two categories: Either they’re unattractive, lonely, hygienically questionable middle-aged men who are forced to pay for sex because they can’t find anyone to sleep with them otherwise, like Steve Buscemi in Fargo; or loutish, abusive brutes with no respect for women, like Bill Sikes from Oliver Twist.

But the truth is, the vast majority of men who pay for sex don’t fall neatly into the Steve Buscemi/Bill Sikes dichotomy, in part because paying for sex is far more common than you’d think. According to one study, nearly 15 to 20 percent of American men have patronized a sex worker at some point in their lives, or anywhere between 21 and 30 million men.

Because buying sex is illegal, and therefore highly stigmatized in our society, many men who pay for sex are too afraid to speak openly about it. And on the rare occasion when they do, they’re usually roundly derided by their family and friends, or by researchers who have an anti-sex work bias. (This study polling johns, for instance, which promotes the view that men who buy sex view sex workers as subhuman, was authored by the notorious anti-pornography and anti-prostitution activist Melissa Farley.)

But if we look at personal accounts we have from johns talking about why they buy sex, it seems the vast majority of them don’t see sex workers as nameless, faceless objects of sexual gratification, but as something akin to therapists, with whom they can discuss their intimate thoughts and sexual desires. The therapeutic benefits of buying sex have led sociologist Teela Saunders to dub sex work a form of “emotional labor,” much like nursing, nannying, or even psychotherapy.

“If these men [johns] are anything like me, they might simply feel more comfortable with prostitutes,” comedian Jim Norton wrote in an op-ed defending buying sex in Time. “I never pick them up to be abusive. I always feel extraordinarily loving and close to them.” One cam performer I spoke with earlier this year told me she’d singlehandedly encouraged one of her clients, a man who had lost the use of his legs in an accident, to start dating again.

Of course, not all men who buy sex fall into this category; according to other studies, some hobbyists see paid sex as a quick, no-strings-attached form of sexual release, while others view it as an opportunity to sexually experiment in a way they can’t with their wives or girlfriends. But regardless of their motivations for buying sex, men have been doing so for centuries, and will likely never stop, even if soliciting prostitution continues to be illegal. (For instance, the so-called “Swedish model” of prostitution in Nordic countries, where buying sex is illegal but selling sex isn’t, has been widely thought of as a failure by advocates for sex workers.)

In the end, regardless of the legal status of sex work in the United States, one central point remains undisputed: There will always be women selling sex, because there will always be men interested in buying it. Arresting these men and attempting to ruin their personal and professional lives by posting their photos on the Internet or sending their license plates to their wives and employers, as many police departments have been doing to johns across the country, might serve as a temporary deterrent to keep men from buying sex. But either way, it does absolutely nothing to help them with the very real psychological, emotional, and sexual problems that sex workers help them with on a daily basis.

4) It would be easier to differentiate between sex workers and trafficking victims.

One of the most common misconceptions in any debate about legalizing sex work is that prostitution is synonymous with sex trafficking, or women and girls being coerced into selling sex. We can all agree, obviously, that sex trafficking is bad, and women being forced to do things without their consent is bad. But when policy-makers and anti-trafficking activists start conflating consensual sex work with sex trafficking, bad things happen.

Under the guise of “rescuing” trafficked women and girls, for instance, the FBI will often conduct nationwide crackdowns on escort boards and websites. Some of these crackdowns will be successful, in that the FBI will recover women and children who have been coerced or violently threatened into selling sex. Other times, adult women who are just trying to make a living on these sites by selling sex of their own volition will get caught up in the fray. Often, these crackdowns will result in the closure of communities and websites that make sex workers’ jobs much safer, as was the case with the FBI’s seizure of the escort directory MyRedBook last June, which allowed sex workers to vet clients and post names of blacklisted ones.

At this point, you might be wondering: “Wait, but sex trafficking is a huge problem in the United States. I know, because I heard Ashton Kutcher and/or Nicholas Kristof say it once. Aren’t there something like 600,000 to 800,000 women and girls trafficked across international borders each year?”

The answer to that is: We don’t know. We have no way of knowing exactly how many women and girls are trafficked every year, because trafficking takes place underground, so there’s no reliable means of tracking how common it is. What we do know is that many of these statistics about how many girls or women are trafficked each year don’t come from unbiased third-party research organizations, but from anti-trafficking organizations like the Polaris Project, which obviously have a vested interest in plumping up their figures. These figures are then repeated ad nauseam by the media, who don’t have much interest in vetting their sources or taking the time to consider exactly how accurate and unbiased they are.

Because many of these stats come from law enforcement sweeps and FBI crackdowns, which don’t differentiate between trafficking victims and garden-variety sex workers, these numbers also often include women who very well might be selling sex of their own volition. When it comes to sex work and sex trafficking, most law enforcement agencies have no interest in grey areas; they simply see all women as victims.

Sex trafficking is a bad thing, and the government should be doing its part to fight it. But too many people conflate trafficking with sex work, which results in a narrative where all women who sell sex are viewed as victims, and all men who buy sex as villains. If sex work were decriminalized, it would be easy to see that the reality of sex work in the United States is not nearly so black and white.

5) Making sex work legal would reduce the risk of violence against sex workers.

It’s a commonly cited fact that sex work is one of the most dangerous professions in the country, ranking somewhere alongside fishermen or loggermen. And it’s true that sex workers are far more at risk for violence than people outside the profession. According to one study, 82 percent of Bay Area sex workers have been physically assaulted while on the job, and 68 percent had been sexually assaulted.

Unfortunately, because sex workers have (justifiably) learned to fear and suspect police, that leaves those who have been the victims of violent assault with little to no legal recourse. A friend of mine who works as a sex worker in Florida was recently raped by a client, and she later told me she saw no point in reporting her assault to the police. Although this woman knew her assailant’s full name and contact details, she told me it was too risky to report him to the police, as they would likely not believe she had been raped and would likely arrest her for selling sex. “Sex workers do not enjoy even the meager protections of law that non-sex workers get when it comes to violence,” she said.

If you find this hard to believe, consider how often female rape victims who are not sex workers fail to report their assailants to the police for a wide range of reasons: Because they’re scared, because they’re worried no one will believe them, because they’re under familial or societal pressure not to do so. For a woman who is a sex worker, these fears about reporting sexual assault apply tenfold. If sex work were decriminalized, perhaps beautiful, vibrant, intelligent, self-reliant women like my friend would finally have justice.

6) We would all have healthier attitudes toward sex.

Sex work is a form of labor, just like any other; it’s not inherently any more or less empowering than, say, blogging, or doing someone else’s taxes for a living. Not all women would enjoy doing sex work, just as not all women would enjoy working as a tax accountant. But I do strongly believe that if sex work were decriminalized, all women’s sex lives would directly benefit from it.

We live in a world where women are still not considered active agents in their own sexual destinies, where five-year-olds are blamed for tempting men to molest them, where rape can be “accidental” or “legitimate” or simply a product of being in the wrong place with the wrong guy at the wrong time.

Were sex work legalized, that world would not change overnight, but it would send a loud-and-clear message that women are active agents of their sexual destinies, that they have control over their own bodies, that their sexualities can’t be neatly packaged and policed and controlled. And from the perspective of men who solicit sex workers for whatever reason, be it loneliness or anxiety or simply because their sexual proclivities fall outside the established norm, they would no longer have to feel confined to the shadows; they would no longer have to live their lives in shame. 

Photo by Quinn Dombrowski/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0)

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