Back in June, the New York Senate introduced a sex work decriminalization bill. The bill, still without an eye-catching name, remains in committee. It has been there for several months due to its highly controversial nature. As it stands now, it covers everything from public health to property and domestic violence. If it passes, the bill will need to be water-tight in order to evade the bipartisan firing squad ready to shoot it down every time it comes to a vote. But regardless of its security, it would likely face a flurry of combatants based on so-called principles.
But what are these principles? Unlike what many people think, the governing bodies who oppose decriminalized sex work do not just come from the stereotypically sexphobic Republican party. Likewise, the people supporting sex work decriminalization are not just stereotypically socially liberal Democrats. Both opponents and supporters alike span the political spectrum.
The primary argument opponents of sex work provide is that sex work as an industry is a danger to women’s health and safety. Who, they ask, could possibly support something so dangerous? According to those against sex work, it is the advocates of the New York bill that hold such a dangerous position.
Sex Work Decriminalization and Legalization
In this debate, some people conflate the terms legalization and decriminalization; the differentiation of these two words is incredibly important. In American law, legalization refers to the state regulation and non-criminal availability of an object or service. On the other hand, decriminalization refers to a downgrade of offenses from felony to misdemeanor status. In the NY bill, which decriminalizes many aspects of sex work, those acts would still be illegal, but no longer felonious.
This too brings up the difference between something being legal in the way that, say, T-shirts are legal (minimally regulated) compared to how firearms are legal (severely regulated). Despite the fact the New York bill only seeks to decriminalize some aspects of sex work, those against it seem to tout that proponents of the bill seek the “T-shirt legalization” of prostitution.
But that is not the case at all. Decriminalization is not the same as regulated legalization and it is certainly not the same as market legalization. When most people argue for the legalization of sex work, they usually mean legal with regulations. Many of those in favor of sex work decriminalization, therefore, hardly rail against the norm. Decriminalization can still mean sex workers or associates get hefty fines or jail time if someone catches them.
The rallying cry around protecting women’s health and safety, as well as those of the public, is noble. Not only is abuse rampant in the field, but so too are drug use, trafficking (of children especially), and disease—sexually transmitted and otherwise. It is not out of malice that people hold this position, but nonetheless, the view comes from a place of authoritarianism or ignorance.
Lack of Knowledge
One part of the problem of perception is due to the organization of academic material on the subject. Some media outlets often equate sex work and sex trafficking but in academia, they are rightly separate. This leads to newscasters, journalists, and commentators looking at a study about sex trafficking and applying the numbers to sex workers.
Forced and not, there are currently one to two million prostitutes in America. For obvious reasons, the exact number is difficult, if not impossible, to determine. Including forced sex workers in the count, though, is a mistake.
Ultimately, sex work is an industry like farming or many others, in which people sell their labor for money. What separates work from slavery is consent. When people are sold and forced to work on cotton and chocolate fields and in fisheries, they are not farmers or fishmongers; they are slaves. Voluntary labor is not the same as forced labor. A sex worker, using the definition we use for other professions, is a person in the adult industry participating voluntarily, with full knowledge of his or her rights. The victims of sex trafficking are not sex workers: they’re slaves.
Further, the people who operate farms, fishmongers, and the like are business owners. But when they are kidnapping people or forcing them to work, we call them human traffickers or slave owners. This is the same with sex work. If pimps or producers operate their businesses with enslaved people, they are slave owners and deserve to be treated as such.
Changing the Discussion
The reason discourse around sex work is so difficult to conduct is the fact that researchers are aware of this difference but the public is not. Reliable researchers rarely include statistics about sex work and sex trafficking in the same study as a direct result of this difference. A lot of research about sex workers also doesn’t include all areas of sex work, such as pornography and stripping. This skews the data quite significantly.
This is all not to say that sex work is a perfect industry, even among voluntary sex workers. In the same way a factory owner can provide unsafe conditions for work, so can a brothel keeper. A grocer can smack around his bagging boy, and so too can a pimp abuse his prostitute. But this is actually another reason to legalize sex work.
People working in illegal fields often have a legitimate fear of going to someone about poor working conditions. This endangers sex workers and empowers abusers to continue hurting innocent people. Sex work decriminalization and legalization would improve the working conditions of millions. Even more importantly, it would liberate tens of thousands of sex trafficking victims.
The goal, ultimately, is unregulated legalization. But sex work decriminalization and then regulated legalization are important stepping stones. Before we can get there though, we need to have an honest and accurate conversation about sex work. This means calling out sources and commentators that do not distinguish sex workers and trafficking victims. It means talking to people who have worked in the sex industry. Becoming educated about the sex industry and sex as a commodity will remedy the situation to a significant degree. Just as education opened up the public to the idea of legalized marijuana, so too will it relax people to the idea of legal prostitution.
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