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Should Sex Work Be Legal?
August 11, 2016

Photo courtesy of Shutterstock/EdOnly

The debate over the legalization of prostitution and how it affects trafficking

The debate over the legalization of prostitution is inextricably linked with the prevalence of sex trafficking. Many believe that decriminalizing sex work will improve the current state of sex trafficking and the conditions for sex workers, arguing that moving the sex trade above board will make it easier to regulate and thus provide protection to sex workers. However, it is a complex issue. As the research and writing intern for the summer, I have read and learned about the debate regarding the legalization of prostitution, and though people on all sides are fighting towards a common goal–rights for women and a higher quality of life–they do not all agree on how to get there.

While proponents of legalization believe that sex work is a form of empowerment, those fighting to abolish prostitution believe that there are life situations that force women into sex work—poverty, lack of education, and more—and given better options, no one would choose the sex trade. The group that sees the “empowering” side of sex work believe that women should be able to choose whatever profession they wish. They argue that women should be able to use their bodies in any way they like; their bodies are theirs and they have control over them. Ultimately, sex work, in their eyes, is a choice that many women make in order to pay their rent, their education, their children’s necessities, and their bills. They want to see more protections, health services, and rights for sex workers who are often subject to abuses from johns, pimps, and brothel owners as well as law enforcement and the state. Those who are against legalization believe that sex work is a form of bondage and slavery that was never a choice, rightly understood. The only reason women enter the industry is for the money they need to survive, which they can’t get through other means. These abolitionists don’t want to see sex work becoming a viable profession, normalizing this form of modern day slavery.

There is a full spectrum of opinions on how best to deal with sex work, ranging from criminalization (the current law in the United States, besides Nevada), to complete legalization. In a TED Talk, The laws that sex workers really want, Toni Mac, a former sex worker, claims that full criminalization of sex workers is less than ideal, and furthermore, ineffective. Full criminalization forces all people involved in the process—buyers, sellers, and third parties—to choose between obeying the law, and feeding oneself or one’s family. In desperate situations, most women will choose to break the law in order to survive or provide for their children. The women who are most vulnerable are those who are uneducated, live in poverty, or migrants. She points out that if sex workers are criminalized, it becomes increasingly difficult to earn a living any other way than sex work; the law necessitates checking the infamous box regarding criminal records on job applications. Even worse, full criminalization of sex workers drives the industry further underground. As one example, Mac explains that these women are fearful of carrying condoms, as it is evidence of selling sex. Therefore, more often than not, they leave the condoms at home, increasing rates of HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

There is also partial criminalization, which places restrictions on brothel keeping and soliciting sex. This model prohibits businesses from soliciting sex. An unintended consequence is that women who are trying to support themselves and their children often work alone or in more obscure places, increasing their vulnerability. Unfortunately, like full criminalization, it is a vicious cycle—if sex workers are fined, the easiest way, and sometimes the only way they know how to pay off the fine is to sell more sex.

The Swedish or Nordic model offers another option by criminalizing sex buyers versus sellers in an attempt to target demand. This provides protection for the vulnerable populations of women who feel they must sell in order to provide for themselves and their families. It reduces the potentially negative impact of sex work on their prospects of one day working a real job or pursuing a career. While this model has many advocates, it still has issues. As Toni Mac claims, the result is, again, often more dangerous working conditions for sex workers. As buyers demand secrecy and anonymity, the industry again moves underground, making sex work less safe for the sellers.

According to Toni Mac, decriminalization will result in collective working, accountable bases, and worker’s rights. Decriminalization will provide protections for sex workers if they are in trouble, without the fear of getting arrested. There have been various stories of sex workers being assaulted or abused by their clients; in those situations, because their work is illegal, they have nowhere to turn. If they tried to seek help, they themselves could be arrested and lose their form of survival. Therefore, the argument for the decriminalization and the legalization of sex work is the fact that these women need more legal protections so that they can stand up for themselves against abusers and managers. Mac believes that this would improve the lives of migrant women and women stuck in the cycle of poverty. She admits that sex work is a survival strategy for marginalized groups; nevertheless, they deserve to be protected.

There is often slippage in terminology. To be clear, decriminalization and legalization are not necessarily synonymous. According to Amnesty International, decriminalization “means that sex workers are no longer breaking the law by carrying out sex work.” In contrast, legalization means “the state makes very specific laws and policies that formally regulate sex work” which Amnesty argues “can lead to a two-tier system where many sex workers operate outside these regulations and are still criminalized–often the most marginalized street-based sex workers.”

On the other side, the abolitionists believe that prostitution is not a job, nor is it a choice. It’s a modern form of slavery. Abolitionists generally argue that decriminalization and legalization will increase the demand. Moreover, more people would likely go into the industry if it becomes a viable, legal, and even respectable prospect. The demand for pimps and brothel owners will increase. For example, according to this article, neither Germany nor the Netherlands saw a decrease in sex trafficking when both countries decriminalized sex work. In fact, the numbers of trafficked youth increased, as did violence directed at prostitutes.

Abolitionists doubt that there is much choice in prostitution. Like Toni Mac herself said, it’s a survival strategy. It is the last resort for those without quality education or opportunity. “Sex work” strips people of their dignity and often leaves them emotionally, mentally, and physically broken.

Obviously, this is a complicated debate. One of the most helpful and formative resources for my thinking about this issue was a workshop production of Sarah Jones’ Sell/Buy/Date that was performed at the Berkeley Rep in July. In this one-woman show, Sarah Jones personifies multiple different people of different ages, races, backgrounds, and identities. All of her characters weigh in on the prostitution and anti-trafficking debate. A common theme I gathered from the various perspectives was that we live in a highly globalized, capitalistic and individualistic society, where oftentimes life comes down to self-fulfillment, frequently at the expense of others’ pain. Our largely patriarchal and misogynistic culture creates vulnerability for the under-privileged. Women, racial and ethnic minorities, those without opportunity for education, and the poor are oppressed by those who hold power and privilege in society. Consumerism encourages us to view the world as possible commodities for our consumption, and this often comes to include our fellow human beings. It’s as easy as spending money. Sarah Jones’ performance was captivating and thought provoking.

Having only dabbled in learning about this issue for the last couple of months, I have had a difficult time comprehensively grasping the complexity of the legalization of prostitution, feminism, and trafficking. Personally, I think the most striking observation is the dehumanization of people. Both the buyers and the sellers use their bodies as commodities. This results in an alienation that attempts to turn human beings solely into physical objects. However, human beings are more complex than what they are physically. Humans are emotional, humans are spiritual, and humans have feelings. I think that above all, it is important to recognize the tragic condition of our human nature, together. The debate surrounding this issue only emphasizes the immense brokenness that pervades through all human societies in our world. Without poverty, without inequality, without oppression, without hate, the debate would not exist.

I believe that from this point, we must strive as communities to build up hope. We all must begin to recognize humanity once again. I am incredibly thankful to have worked with SOLD this summer because SOLD intentionally humanizes the children and youth we work with through storytelling. Storytelling is powerful because it allows human beings to connect on a more intimate and deeper level. The mission is to recognize that all of these students who receive scholarships have names, families, hobbies, talents, and passions. And once we realize the deep humanity of every single person, we can learn to respect, value, and love people, universally.



Sherry Luo is a Research & Writing intern with The SOLD Project. She is currently a student of Sociology at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, CA.