Today is Friday the 13th, a day sex workers’ rights activists have chosen to raise awareness for their cause. I sympathize with their cause, and although the laws and stigmas against sex workers don’t affect me personally, their struggle for individual liberties and against harmful and overbearing laws is one that everyone should care about. Consider this post me doing my small part.
As you probably know, almost every country in the world has laws against prostitution and other sex work, and the Land of the Free™ is no exception. In many states, getting convicted of paying or receiving money for sex is a felony and can land first offenders in jail for up to a year. In Louisiana, “Crime Against Nature” laws require some convicted prostitutes to register as sex offenders – grouping them with rapists and child molesters. Clearly, our country treats the voluntary exchange of sex for money as quite a serious offense.
But why? I’ll attempt to deconstruct the two arguments I see used most to justify criminalization of sex work.
Sex Work is “Immoral” or “Indecent” – But That’s Just, Like, Your Opinion, Man
Some form of this accusation gets used against many private, voluntary activities and it is completely without merit in every instance.
There happens to be a handful of major religions that view sex work as inappropriate, and many of their most zealous followers push for prohibition for that reason. Of course, those religions may also view extramarital sex, contraceptives, or masturbation as inappropriate. In fact, strict interpretation of the scripture of those religions may even forbid cursing, eating lobster, or cotton/polyester blends. Is any of this justification for prohibition of certain activities? If enough people found fabric material blends objectionable, would that be grounds for police to set up stings to sell people black-market fabric and arrest those that buy it?
Of course not. People whose religion or personal values disagree with prostitution are free to refrain from it, or even speak out against it. But they have no grounds to push for laws that criminalize it in a free country. The same goes for any other private, voluntary activity.
Sex Work Exploits Women – So We Should Throw Those Women in Jail
This is a slightly trickier issue. It typically goes something like this: “Sex work is exploitation of women by men, and many women are forced into sex work by poverty, human trafficking, or sex slavery.”
Viewing all sex work as exploitation touches on the previous issue of morality. As I see it, it is the woman in question who gets to decide if she is being exploited, not police or lawmakers. Almost by definition, a person who is completely voluntarily engaging in an activity is not being exploited. If a healthy adult woman wants to do sex work for her own reasons and motivations, where is the exploitation? Is she not able to consent to the ways in which she uses her body? Many people would never dream of doing sex work, but projecting one’s own values on others and then forcing them to abide by those values is not a legitimate way of helping people.
But what about women who really are forced into sex work against their will by others? Although the number of these incidents is often greatly exaggerated, this is a real possibility. Quite simply, this should absolutely remain illegal – although with no criminal charges for the women – and is not unlike other forms of slavery. When work is coerced, it is no longer work.
Furthermore, I suspect that decriminalizing voluntary sex work would only serve to reduce or eliminate sex slavery and human trafficking for purposes of sex work. When a black market exists for a certain good or service, unscrupulous criminals emerge to meet demand. Lawful alternatives can crowd out those criminals.
Ironically, some of the most ardent supporters of this claim are self-proclaimed “feminists.” I use scare quotes here because I find it hard to call anyone who would support increasing women’s restrictions and jail populations a feminist.
Only Bad Things Come From Prohibition
So now you know some of the common arguments for sex work prohibition and why they’re completely bogus. What about the consequences from the policies we have today?
There are many similarities between prohibition on sex work and prohibition on drugs. However, many of the most addictive and destructive drugs pose great threats both to society and to users. Certain drugs can stop people from functioning normally and cause long term health problems or even death. Reducing society’s use of certain drugs is a worthy goal with tangible benefits.
“I believe that sex is one of the most beautiful, natural, wholesome things that money can buy.”
― Steve Martin
I can’t say the same for sex work. Sex and the desire for sex is a normal part of being human. Safe sex is relatively consequence free, and is actually widely considered to confer health benefits. Most men crave sex, and society hardly thinks twice if men only interested in sex woo women with charm, fancy cars, or expensive jewelry. So where is the harm in allowing voluntary sex work to occur?
If one man pays a woman for sex, and another man promises a woman he’ll call her the next day if she sleeps with him but then never does, who has committed the greater misdeed? The first man engaged in an honest transaction that benefited both parties, while the second man deceived the woman he slept with and probably caused her some emotional suffering after the fact. Yet, society has decided to throw the first man – and the woman he slept with – in jail, while the second man is deemed a “player.”
Regardless, and much like the drug war, prohibition is woefully ineffective at eliminating that which it criminalizes. Rather, it fills our jails with non-violent offenders and pushes voluntary activities into the darkness. Meeting a stranger for sex in a private location could be considered dangerous, but it’s far more dangerous than it needs to be when whores are reluctant to go to the police for help out of fear that they’d be thrown into jail themselves. In fact, you don’t need to look hard to find multiple stories of police officers themselves threatening whores with arrest to extort sexual favors from them.
By now I hope you’re thinking “Well, gee, anti-prostitution laws seem really stupid and actually harm the people they purport to help.” It took me a while to come to this conclusion myself, and I spent most of my life hardly giving sex work prohibition a second thought. Anti-prostitution laws have existed and caused harm for centuries, and they won’t start coming off the books until public awareness about this issue increases. Please share this with people you know, and help sex workers get the attention and the rights they deserve.