Criminalizing adult and consensual sex – including the commercial exchange of sexual services – is incompatible with the human right to personal autonomy and privacy. In short – a government should not be telling consenting adults who they can have sexual relations with and on what terms. Today, I wish to conclude my two-part series with an argument for the liberation of sex workers via decriminalization.
What is Criminalization?
Criminalization is the act of making something a crime. This means that the purchase and selling of sexual services are against the law. However, while criminalization keeps prostitution under wraps, it does not keep its workers safe from harm. In my previous article, transgender respondents reported experiencing inappropriate touching, sexual harassment, humiliation, and violence more so at the hands of police officers. A study of transgender community members in Queens, New York, primarily people of color and immigrants, found 51% experiencing verbal harassment, 46% reporting physical harassment, and 37% experiencing both.
So if criminalization is not safe, what is?
What is Legalization?
Legalization is what Nevada practices: the direct regulation of prostitution by the government. This regulation may include an array of methods. These include zoning requirements and advertising restrictions to mandatory tests for sexually transmitted diseases.
It’s true that current efforts by various European countries and Nevada to legalize prostitution are far from perfect. However, certain components of the legislation, such as requiring sex workers to register, drive more sex workers to illegal markets. Not only that, but studies indicate that legalizing prostitution can increase human trafficking.
What is Decriminalization?
Decriminalization is the removal of laws and regulation; under this model, prostitution is treated just like any other occupation. Sweden takes a partial decriminalization approach, under which the sale of sex is not illegal, but its purchase is. New Zealand, on the other hand, has decriminalized both the purchase and sale of sexual activity.
The main argument in favor of decriminalization – that it can improve public safety and health – has been backed by some of the best research into prostitution. A 2014 paper, found that rates of rape and gonorrhea dropped dramatically after Rhode Island decriminalized indoor prostitution in 2003.
The study came after a surprising court ruling. A state court in 2003 ruled that an old law had decriminalized prostitution in Rhode Island. It took until 2009 for state lawmakers to reinstate the ban. In the meantime, there was a 31% decrease in rape offenses and 39% fewer cases of female gonorrhea — and no extraordinary drop in other kinds of crime.
So, What Now?
Now that you are aware of the issues with criminalization, what should you do next? What can you do to help improve the lives of trans and BIPOC sex workers? Several recent attempts in certain states, including New York, Vermont, and even the District of Colombia, to pass legislation. So, there is hope, but we need to do more than just wait for hearings; we must be heard.
Sexual violence is the second most reported form of police misconduct, after use of force. The DC Trans Coalition found that 23% of Black transgender people were physically or sexually assaulted by police because they were perceived to be transgender and involved in the sex trade. Another report, Meaningful Work, found that nearly 40% of Black and Black Multiracial transgender sex workers were subjected to pervasive harassment, violence, and arrest. With these statistics in mind, I ask you to connect the dots with the current protests against police brutality.
In August of 2019, the Movement for Black Lives released a policy agenda visioning Black power, freedom, and justice—including sex work. In an interview, Charlene Carruthers, the National Director of Black Youth Project 100, asserted the importance of centering issues faced by Black sex workers.
So if you want to help, I suggest you take up a sign, and get marching.