When I first began to read stories about sex work, I could not imagine how anyone would allow themselves to take part in such a morally degrading job.
What could possibly make them so desperate that they felt this was their best option? I can’t pinpoint exactly where I acquired this negative perception of sex work, but I definitely didn’t see it as work, let alone something that should be decriminalized. Before being introduced to this topic I had already mentally decided sex work was wrong. This is a very common misconception for many. However, through research and better comprehension, I realized that the situation is more complicated then I had previously thought. With time and understanding, my previous beliefs seemed to subside and turn into understanding and acceptance, that this work, like any other job, and is legitimate. Sex work can be like any other work and once we start seeing it for just that, work, and the process of “decriminalization” can begin, and many people will greatly benefit.
Before that ever takes place, we need strong central organizations that will lift up and support those who do not always have the ability to speak up for themselves against the stigmas of sex work. Even within the profession of sex work, which is already heavily stigmatized, there exists a hierarchy determining which types of sex workers are “acceptable.” There are some “sex workers” who are credentialed, and work with doctors, hospitals and mental health centers. Then, there are also sex workers who are “sex sellers” with common synonyms such as: streetwalker, whore, tart, hooker, hustler and prostitute. Just about anyone can look this up and these are the results that they will see, immediately casting a negative light over this word, ‘sex work.’ However, to be clear, the sex workers discussed in this report, are the so called hookers, street walkers, and prostitutes engaged in sex work. The first impression most will have in regards to this line of work is that “hookers, street walkers or prostitutes” are considered criminals, rather than self employed sex service/care workers who are just trying to make a living. It is true they are badly maligned, although, can we really blame people for encompassing a negative outlook on this line of work when all we see as a society are constant negative prejudices? The commonality many people share is a lack of understanding and education that would allow them to peel through the layers of stigma to see a regular person.
In this paper I will explore the sex work industry and the violence against the women who engage in this line of work. We will explore the stigma that is mainly portrayed though a lack of knowledge about this misunderstood industry. Based on the strategies that various cities and countries have employed, decriminalization is the best option to protect sex workers and end stigma against sex work.
One of the biggest difficulties that sex workers face is stigma against their profession. The danger is that the stigmatization can be life threatening, so if we were to derail that stigma and project it in a new light, then it may capture a different meaning and evoke a stronger vision of being like any other line of work. The reasoning behind why this line of work is looked down upon or not considered legitimate is due to the wide variety of harm these workers are subject to. When something is criminalized, it shapes the publics perception. Laws have the power to shape your outlook, whether it is sex work or drugs, if it is criminalized then it must be harmful, right? It is “under prohibitionism, that those involved in commercial sex are criminalized, which directly reproduces stigma. In this regime, the woman who sells sex is a deliberate outlaw” (Agustin, 2013). Because it’s easier to control the weak minorities than to work with them, how cowardly.
We must ask ourselves, how do we define what is legitimate work? Many don’t see sex work as a job that would entail basic skills and qualities that you would otherwise find in jobs such as hairstylists, food service and drink service, when actually that is the case. Sex workers share many important components with hairstylists, food and drink services when looking at what their jobs entail. Most sex workers are ” ‘feminized’ service/care workers in that they involve direct labor that enhances the well-being of others or support the day-to-day operations of their lives. They are performed face-to-face, and require relational skills such as listening and communicating” (McCarthy 2014). Although, the one big difference is that in many places sex work is illegal, even though these workers share just about every other commonality that other service workers must provide. If sex work were to be decriminalized, many risks that sex workers are subject to would cease.
This criminalization, of course, also creates the stigma that is carried around and used to harm those who work as sex workers. The fact of the matter is half of the world has full criminalization for those engaged in sex work. This means the seller, buyer, and third parties are all charged. The mentality here is simple, if you criminalize all parties people are less likely to do it, right? Wrong. When you add in the factor of either doing the work to support yourself/family or, risk becoming homeless, the answer for many is simple. With not having many options this leads the majority to continue with sex work, regardless of the repercussions. Although, what happens if you do get caught? A criminal record makes it even harder to get a job, causing women to continue selling sex. Which is exactly what criminalizing sex work is supposed to stop.
Criminalization also ‘leaves you exposed to mistreatment from the state itself’ (Mac 2016), this is a major factor and contributor to the consistent dangers. In many places, women are subject to paying off the law enforcement or even engaging in sexual activity to avoid arrest. If police catch you with condoms, or even just walking down the street they can use that as evidence of selling sex. For many, this is a good enough reason to go without condoms: to lower the risk of arrest. But, in doing so you choose between arrest and unprotected risky sex. All of the reasons for criminalization actually create more harm and danger, which is the opposite of its intended effect. Then we have partial criminalization, where the act of buying and selling of sex is legal.
What is criminalized is the ‘brothel keeping or soliciting.’ The intention is to keep sex workers quiet saying, do what you are going to do, but keep it behind closed doors where no one else can see. However, if two or more sex workers are caught together this can be criminalized, which results in many women having to work on their own. Working alone can subject these workers to assault and harassment, but if you decide to work together you run the risk of arrest. It’s a double-edged sword. Under partial criminalization, soliciting, also known as street work, is also illegal. Under this system, street work is just as risky as brothel keeping, if not worse. Women who choose to work on the streets are forced to not only work alone, but work in remote and sometimes dangerous areas.
However, if you are caught you pay a fine, but, what happens when you don’t have the money to pay that fine? You are forced to return to the streets. It is a vicious cycle that these sex workers are thrown into. With no choice and limited opportunities, women continue to work under these dangerous conditions. Criminalizing sex work is essentially labeling this behavior as deviant, or wrong.
The “deviance framework” further describes how criminalizing sex work marginalizes sex workers. “The deviance framework” is ‘based on the traditional stigmatization of sex work and highlights the ways in which actors (participants) are subjected to social control and discriminatory treatment’ (Weitzer 2009). This can be seen in customers ripping them off by paying less or not paying at all, or even subjecting them to sexual harassment and sometimes assault. Sex workers also face discrimination from the police. In reality, they are supporting themselves through sex work. Partial criminalization is not the answer- however, this doesn’t mean sex work should be legalized. Germany, the Netherlands, and Nevada all have legalized sex work. Shouldn’t this be the answer, it can’t be worse, can it? Well, it does sound better than full and partial criminalization, ‘but it isn’t a great model for human rights’ (Mac 2016).
Legalization can be defined as “the action of making something that was previously illegal permissible by law” (Dictionary). State-controlled prostitution is only subject to occur in a few legally designated vicinities, while also requiring sex workers to obey restrictions such as health checks and expensive registration. At first glance this sounds wonderful however with that being said registration is deliberately made to be incredibly hard as well as very expensive. Known as a “backdoor criminalization” it is a two-sided system: legal and illegal (Mac 2016). For the well-off it is not a problem, but for those who are desperate and need the money tonight to either pay rent or feed themselves, this is not an option. Look at history, it is a repeating occurrence that if you prohibit something that some people either want or need for their well being or just for pleasure, whether it be immigration crossing boarders, alcohol, getting an abortion, or sex work; this only causes more challenges and problems than it actually solves.
Prohibition is defined as “the action of forbidding something, especially by law,” (Dictionary) and is known to target those of the lower class. The whole ideology behind these laws is that the government has political leverage, because they prey on people who the majority of voters don’t wish to see or even know about minorities, LGBTQ, people of color. Through exploring full, partial criminalization, and even legalizing sex work we see that under all these systems, sex workers are subject to a mass amount of violence.
However, what we haven’t discussed yet is the decriminalization of sex work. The first country in the world to decriminalize sex work was New Zealand back in 2003. Decriminalization can be defined as “to eliminate criminal penalties for or remove legal restrictions against: sex work” (Dictionary).
In New Zealand, sex workers are able to work with the government to ensure safety, without the risk of punishment, while also holding the employers of sex workers liable for any notable actions. Also, under decriminalization, sex workers hold the right to refuse service to anyone no matter what the reason may be. When asked ‘96% of sex workers in New Zealand felt as if the law protected their rights’ (Mac 2016) making it very clear that decriminalization is the smartest answer. The reason why this is working so well and they see a steady, safe result is because when creating this law they went to sex workers themselves and asked what do you want? The biggest argument against the institution of sex work is that sex work and sex trafficking are inextricable. This is a very impactful misconception that truly contributes to the stigma, which then negatively affects those involved in this line of work. It is unfair to put both within the same categories when in reality, they are not, “…people choose sex work as much as they choose any other line of employment: they view sex work as a way to earn a living given their economic and social needs, marketable skills, employment options, and any constraints imposed by particular characteristics” (McCarthy 2014). This is why the Sex Workers Project (SWP) is so important, because they are ‘working to create a world that is safe for sex workers and where human trafficking does not exist.
‘ It is no secret that force labor does occur. However, the answer to eliminating sex trafficking does not lye in destroying the whole sex work industry. Not all sex workers are trafficked and no one who is trafficked is a sex worker. The Sex Workers Project, as noted previously, has done so much for those individuals who are engaging in sex work, disregarding whether they did so by choice, certain circumstance, or persuasion. They fight against the stigma, and against all odds, to try to make safe places for sex workers, where people can come when in need.
‘The Sex Workers Project has pioneered an approach grounded in human rights, harm reduction, and in the real life experiences of our clients. Our professional service providers are multi-lingual, non-judgmental and bring more than ten years of experience’ (Sex Workers Project). Gaining the knowledge and understanding through organizations such as SWP has enlightened and uplifted my spirits while encouraging me to fight as their ally. Another incredible organization that is in the long haul for the decriminalization of sex work is the Saint James Infirmary. SJI participates in all aspects of health, ran by and for sex workers, ‘since SJI is a multi-service clinic, it challenges centuries of beliefs pertaining to the perceived health needs of the sex worker population’ (Lutnick, 2006). Their work has made groundbreaking achievements, such as producing a resource guide that provides sex workers with the necessary information for all their wants and needs, not only in the U.S.
but worldwide. We need to tackle the problems to create solutions by decriminalizing and protecting sex work. Because sex work does not have to be your choice, but that doesn’t mean it can’t be someone else.—Sex work is work— Organizations like Sex Workers Project and SJI work day and night to fight for those who are unable to fight for themselves. In hopes that one day workers will have enough legal protection so they have the right to resist abuse without the fear of assault and/or arrest.
It is the lack of legal support and negative stigmas that cast a shadow over this line of work. The violence that is imposed on sex workers due to their choice of work is still on-going today. The “stigma” holds them in a place of disgrace, while feeding into peoples ideas about what they think this job really is.
While the laws continue to reinforce hatred and the over arching stigma of sex workers. By allowing an image to overrule and shape an idea or understanding of a topic is much too common. In this case the image of sex work is looked upon as nothing more than a last resort. And for some it might be, but if you had to make the decision to either engage in sex work to feed your children, or let them starve, what would you choose?