Ever since the Supreme Court overturned the 50-year constitutional right to abortion access, the Republican Party has aggressively pushed for reversals of many other fundamental rights that have been hard fought for. In an era where reproductive and gender rights are under attack, it is pivotal to defend bodily autonomy, including decriminalizing sex work.
To be clear, sex work is not synonymous with human trafficking and the terms cannot be used interchangeably. Human trafficking is where adults and children are enslaved and/or forced to sell their bodies, whereas sex work is a profession in which adults willingly offer sexual services for the exchange of money and other goods.
Sex workers enter this career for a variety of reasons: limited opportunities offered to them, the appeal of the high pay and flexibility and to explore their sexualities. Decriminalizing sex work does not decriminalize human trafficking.
Lacy Bangs, an escort in Nevada, told The Statesman in an email how she originally entered the field on her own because she wanted to make “quick money” and continued to work since she “makes more in a couple of dates than [she] did at a conventional job in a week.”
Sex work is criminalized in most states and other parts of the world which furthers this prohibition of women having bodily autonomy. When sex workers are subjected to arrests, the process they go through to ensure the safety of a client is rushed. This typically leads to a higher risk of disagreements in negotiations. It can be harder for the sex worker to insist on the use of condoms, and clients can become violent. In these violent situations, sex workers are subjected to sexual harassment, rape and physical or verbal abuse. However, sex workers are not able to report the crime due to the risk of being arrested themselves rather than the perpetrator.
Department of Justice investigation of the Baltimore Police Department revealed that police enforcement sometimes exerts their power over vulnerable sex workers by forcing them to perform sexual acts in order for them to avoid arrests.
A 2019 study published in the American Journal of Public Health (AJPH) revealed that high rates of arrests and incarceration of sex workers correlate with extreme violence from both police and clients. These forms of violence are often amplified for marginalized sex workers such as those of color, living in poverty and those part of the LGBTQ+ community.
Criminalization not only affects the safety of sex workers but also their ability to access healthcare. Living in constant fear of arrests and displacements, sex workers have a higher risk of developing sexually transmitted illnesses (STIs), drug and alcohol dependencies and other complicated health issues. However, due to the stigma and belief that sex workers are vectors of diseases, sex workers are either misdiagnosed or choose to withhold their profession from their healthcare provider.
Rosa, a sex worker in New South Wales, told researchers that she was misdiagnosed with an STI because she went to the hospital and her doctors knew of her profession.
The most effective approach to decreasing their exposure to violence and improving the healthcare of sex workers is to fully decriminalize prostitution. This has already been implemented in New South Wales, Australia in 1995 and in New Zealand in 2003.
After New Zealand passed the Prostitution Reform Act (PRA), the extreme violence related to imprisonment decreased significantly while the relationship between sex workers and the authorities improved. In a sample with 772 sex workers, around 440 (57%) of them reported that police attitudes changed for the better and around 463 (60%) of them reported that most police cared more for their safety.
“We always have police coming up and down the street every night, and we’d even have them coming over to make sure that we were all right and that we’ve got minders and that they were taking registration plates and the identity of the clients,” Joyce, a street-based sex worker in New Zealand told University of Otago researchers. “So it was, it changed the whole street, it changed everything.”
As a result of the PRA, law enforcement shifted their focus to violence prevention rather than arrests, which led to a safer workplace environment. In addition to decreasing violence, the decriminalization of sex work led to the improvement of healthcare and increased safe sex practices.
The New South Wales government created funding for support programs, such as the Australian Prostitutes’ Collective (APC) and the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP), which were key instruments in persuading brothel managers and workers to adopt safe sex measures and encouraging sex workers to get regular health check-ups.
Due to these support programs, condom use in brothels rose from under 11% to over 90% between 1985 and 1989. The consistent use of condoms led to a steady decline in the transmission of STIs. Medical journal “The Lancet” found that full decriminalization actually reduces new HIV transmission by up to 46% globally.
In a sample of 200 sex workers, 166 (87%) reported that they get regular health check-ups. When they were tested for the four most common STIs, the “prevalence of these conditions was at least as low as would be found in women in the general population.”
Decriminalization is proven to be effective at improving the livelihood of sex workers. The criminalization of sex work falls under this umbrella of women and other marginalized people losing bodily autonomy, putting them at great mental and physical risk. As we continue to advocate for women’s rights and bodily autonomy, we must champion the rights of sex workers as well.
Additional resources can be found here:
SWOP (Sex Worker Outreach Project USA)