What Does it Really Mean to Decriminalize Sex Work?

Maggie Connolly, ’21

Chief Opinions Editor

The Anti-Asian shooting at the spa in Atlanta in March were, in the eyes of many, a crime against sex workers as well as against Asian-American women more generally. Although there are claims that there was no evidence these women were sex workers, the man who targeted the massage parlor said he was not racially motivated, rather, motivated to dispose of the temptation the women and the business represented.

Bee Nguyen, a representative in the state legislature, commented on the crime. She said, “Regardless of what the alleged suspect in custody says or claims, the truth is it was three Asian businesses. It was targeted. It did result in six Asian women dying. And you simply cannot separate the misogyny, the sex industry piece from the racism piece,” (NPR). The truth is, this hate crime is multi-faceted, and it targets communities of people who must be protected in this country. It likewise represents a specific fetishization and commodification of Asian women. Massage parlors are often associated with sex work, and their lack of protection is glaringly evident in this hate crime committed last month.

The conversation about decriminalizing, or at bare minimum, protecting, sex workers did not begin after the horrible events of the Atlanta shooting in March. But these conversations have been around for years, and it is one many people are conditioned to not want to have.

Society, particularly American society, often refuses to see sex work as outside of the lens of human trafficking and the exploitation of children. This widespread refusal to reframe sex work outside of the lens of what many still call prostitution is an immense problem. Most of the people I have spoken to about sex work do not even know how to define it outside of an unsafe, unempowering, anti-human rights lens.

On the contrary, sex work for many people is completely empowering. (And consensual!) It allows those who participate in the industry to value their livelihood as work. There are a multitude of reasons people participate in sex work but decriminalizing the work will protect these individuals as working members of our society. Human Rights Watch describes the decriminalization for sex work as “incompatible with the human right to personal autonomy and privacy.” 

HRW also identified that in environments where sex work is criminalized, like much of the United States, police officers often harass, extort, and even rape sex workers. Without things like proper healthcare and some form of protection under the law, these women are robbed of their identity and their livelihood by police officers. Likewise, their lack of trust in law enforcement may force them into unsafe locations and circumstances.

A lack of healthcare for sex workers is one of the most salient arguments for the decriminalization of sex work. Oftentimes because of abuse from the police, sex workers are forced into poverty and even homelessness. Tamika Spellman, a sex worker in Washington DC, told Vox that abuse, rape, and extortion by police officers have pushed her to poverty and at the time of the publication of the Vox piece in 2019, she was homeless. Spellman’s situation is certainly not unique, as she points out.

Sex workers are vulnerable to health issues, among other things, because many of them are impoverished. Likewise, their trade lends itself to potentially contracting sexually transmitted infections, especially after a Human Rights Watch 2012 report found that “Police and prosecutors used a sex worker’s possession of condoms as evidence to support prostitution charges.” This naturally led to sex workers to tend to have more unprotected sex. Of course, this is only one policy, but the trade more generally lends itself to a need for proper, quality health care. Any ability to seek personal of medical justice after an encounter with a client is greatly inhibited by the criminalization of sex work. If sex workers were protected, the industry would lend itself to more regulation and less of an opportunity for abuse and exploitation.

Sex work is work. And it is feminist work, at that. It is an opportunity for a woman, or any person, to empower themselves and their sexuality through their line of work. It is an industry, like many other industries, that requires protection and safety precautions, but those are impossible to access without a path to decriminalization.

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