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Published June 12, 2024

Clarke: Call off your old, tired ethics

Decriminalizing sex work is hardly as controversial as we think.

In Minnesota, prostitution is considered a gross misdemeanor, punishable by up to a year of jail time. Assuming that both parties are consenting adults, customers face a $1,500 fine with community service. One might hope that the historical intent of anti-prostitution laws would have the interest of vulnerable populations in mind. However, true to conjecture, 17th Century lawmakers favored less valiant intentions and were more concerned about venereal disease among troops. Today’s anti-prostitution laws, which apply to most American states, neither protect vulnerable populations nor slow the spread of disease.

The most notable argument for overturning laws that criminalize sex work is rooted in safety concerns for workers in the industry. Unfortunately, the statistical evidence clearly abates that sex work itself is dangerous. In the ‘90s, researchers Melissa Farley and Howard Barkan surveyed 130 San Franciscan prostitutes. Their findings spoke magnitudes to the state of the industry. Of the participants, 82% reported physical assault at work, and 83% had been threatened with a weapon at work. A study done in 2012 by the American Public Health Association found that at a minimum, 45% of sex workers had been victims of workplace violence. The APHA supplements that sex workers are at increased risk of workplace violence, assault, rape and even murder.

But workplace violence may not have to be a granted risk in the business, as opponents of decriminalization might argue. In fact, the criminalization of sex work perpertrates the problem at hand. According to a study done at Yale, 51% of sex workers report a relationship of distrust with the police, either as a result of their own criminal status or previous experiences. Around 30% of the participants in Alaska believed that they would be at personal risk of arrest if they reported a crime, thereby allowing conditions in the business to intensify.

Unfortunately though, the relationship between sex workers and police has an even deeper, darker history. In instances in which sex workers have made formal complaints to report violence, they have often been met with skepticism and forced to relive trauma. Furthermore, crimes committed against sex workers are rarely treated with the same earnest intent as others. A study that surveyed speed of arrest in the United States found that in 41% of prostitute homicides, an entire year passed before an initial suspect arrest.

In tragically ironic form, sex workers are commonly mistreated, harassed and sexually assaulted by law enforcers themselves. Officers posing as clientele to achieve an admission of guilt from prostitutes have used the position to berate and physically abuse the worker in question. Transgender people, LGBTQ people and people of color are particularly subject to harassment by police. In 2010, a Black, gay man working in the industry in Washington, D.C. reported that an officer strip searched him on the sidewalk for drug possession. Testimonies from New York to Los Angeles tell the same story: officers aren’t above privacy violations, enforced acts of public nudity and inappropriate physical contact. The Sex Workers Project of the Urban Justice Center in New York City found that 17% of sex workers had been sexually harassed, abused or even raped by police officers.

Decriminalizing sex work may also decrease the prevalence of sexually transmitted diseases and infections. The World Health Organization (WHO) officiates that social marginalization and criminalization of the industry limits the control sex workers have over their workplace environment. According to the WHO, legalizing sex work and empowering contributors to the industry will encourage sex workers to regularly, voluntarily test themselves. The regulated market will then organically become safer, as workers are less often coerced into participating in unprotected sex.

One of the most common misconceptions about legalizing sex work is that it may also increase sex trafficking. The apalling prevalence of human trafficking in the United States and around the world is undeniable; however, it is unrelated to sex work performed by consenting adults. The misconception which relates sex work to sexually exploited chidren and other vulnerable populations is proliferated by unverified evidence, an example being pornography as a causal impetus of human trafficking. On the contrary, significant data suggests that decriminalizing sex work and regulating the industry helps reduce human trafficking. In San Francisco, anti-sex work laws enacted in 2012 caused human trafficking to increase by 170%. Sex work decriminalization is supported by numerous global organizations for human rights and anti-trafficking, such as the WHO, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women and Freedom Network USA, which works directly with trafficking victims.

The results are in. Decriminalizing sex work defends the health and safety of workers in the industry, of which there are almost a million in the United States. It improves tenuous, often unsafe relationships with law enforcement and reduces human trafficking. But despite overwhelming evidence that decriminalization is both ethical and judicious, the subject is still controversial due to antiquated social codes. COYOTE, an organization for the decriminalization of sex work, may have said it best: call off your old, tired ethics. Revel in radical humanitarianism.

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