By Brianna Turnbull
Sex work is a very controversial issue in the United States, capitalizing mainly on the ideologies of either ethics or choice.
For some, their opposition to sex work is based off a religious standpoint. Strict Christians argue that prostitution should not be legal because it falls outside of what is considered a moral sexuality.
There are also other non-religious oppositions to the act of prostitution. There are certain feminists who argue that we should condemn sex work because it is degrading and unsafe for women. In Kimberly Klinger’s article, “Women Have the Rights to be Prostitutes,” she implies that this type of feminist ideology is widely attributed to the second wave feminists of the 70’s revolution.
However, there are a select few modern third-wave feminists, who consider themselves more sex-positive, who believe that working in the sex industry is a choice that everyone has the right to make for themselves, and can also benefit society as a whole.
While these groups seem to be on opposite sides of the spectrum, they do share common ground. For example, from either perspective you take, there is a concern for women and the violence they face. People who oppose sex work believe that the way to help sex workers is to save them from their profession which they believe to be inherently unsafe, but those who oppose the criminalization of sex work believe that legality does not affect the number of women who are sex workers, and that we should instead attempt to make the dangerous profession as safe as we can through regulations.
Feminists who are in favor of decriminalizing sex work focus more on the contentious principle of harm reduction.They tell of the horrors perpetrated against sex workers, and argue that this would diminish if sex workers could report their abuse without the fear of going to jail themselves because of the legal status of their profession. Prostitution Research states that, “95% of those in prostitution experienced sexual harassment that would be legally actionable in another job setting.”
( This infographic shows different aspects of violence against sex workers, such as where violence rates are higher, police involvement, and criminality.)
Also with legalization comes regulation of the practices, such as health inspections to insure no outbreaks of STDs, and also banning ‘street-walking,’ or the practice of outdoor prostitution, which in American society is seen as the least desirable form of prostitution.
However defining which aspects of sex work should be regulated amongst pro-sex work circles, is just as controversial as debating on whether or not sex work should be legal. The argument revolves around whether we should legalize prostitution, or simply decriminalize it.
The organization Amnesty International, or simply Amnesty, have called for “decriminalization of all aspects of consensual adult sex,” as opposed to legalization. In their Q&A on sex work, they explain they are not calling for legalization because with the legislation that is necessary to legalize prostitution, there are ways in which legislators can too strictly regulate the profession, harming sex worker in the process. “If sex work is legalized, it means that the state makes very specific laws and policies that formally regulate sex work. This can lead to a two tier system where many sex workers operate outside these regulations and are still criminalized.” And while organizations with pro-sex work stances are the minority, they are not alone
The U. N. is also petitioning for a global decriminalization of sex work. They use the study “Sex work and the Law in Asia and the Pacific” which shows, contrary to popular belief, criminalizing sex work does not decrease risk of an HIV epidemic. This incorrect conception on sex work is why the Bush Administration cut fundings from organization that tolerated or were pro-sex work, which hurt sex workers in India. In Sarah Stuteville’s article “Prostitution Alliances Can Combat Human Trafficking,” she quotes a second-generation sex worker who responds to the Bush administration’s tactics, “We are the gatekeepers. If you eliminate us then HIV and AIDS will spread to the whole of society. Eventually it will even spread to the society of George Bush himself.”
(In the graph above red represents countries where sex work is illegal, blue represents where sex work is legal excluding brothels, and green represents complete legality.)
Furthermore, the U. S. is one of the only first world nations where sex work is criminalized entirely. Sex work in at least some form is decriminalized in over 100 countries. The U.S. is notoriously known for being “behind” in progress, however , notice that the U.S. is not completely red. That splotch of green represents the state of Nevada which legalized sex work in 1978.
The New York Times article on brothels in Nevada states that the legality has made sex work safer for women. “Of the brothels we surveyed, 84% said that their job felt safe.” They present the story of a sex worker who was able to end the relationship between her and an abusive pimp. One of the benefits of decriminalization is that it diminishes the need for pimps, out of the sex workers surveyed, most women worked independently. This is great for sex workers because many pimps, that many feel are necessary in illegal street sex work, use violence and exploitation to control sex workers. Decriminalization ultimately leads to sex workers seeking refuge in independence that is near impossible when working under laws that criminalize their profession.
While decriminalizing sex work in the U.S. is still an unpopular opinion due to societal morals, there are obvious benefits such as eliminating the abusive trade of pimping out girls and decreasing violence against women. Decriminalizing sex work would lead to positive change in sex workers lives and would have almost no effect on those not involved in the sex industry.