Give us a reason why the U.S. should continue to criminalize sex work and we’ll tell you why you’re wrong

This article was co-authored by Haley K.

Sex. No matter what underlying motivations exist for people having it, it’s a part of the human experience (for most people) and it happens on a massively broad scale. Like, seriously HUGE-everywhere-all-the-time.

People are totally getting it on. Right. Fucking. Now.

Sexual pleasure comes in all different forms, and as long as it happens between consenting adults, the majority of sexual encounters are within the limits of “legal” activity.

  • One-night-stand sex? Legal.
  • Just-bored-and-want-something-to-do sex? Legal.
  • Orgy-sex-club sex? Legal.
  • Getting-tied-up sex? Legal.
  • Cheating-on-your-girlfriend sex? Legal.
  • Married sex? Legal.
  • Single sex? Legal.
  • Sex-with-coworkers sex? Not advised, but … Legal.
  • Sex after sushi? Legal.
  • Sex AND sushi? Legal.
  • Sex WITH sushi? Legal.
  • Brony fantasy sex? Legal.
Pony time

Found on on a thread claiming My Little Pony is Satan’s newest recruiting tool

Unless you’re in public view, all sorts of consensual sex in all sorts of situations is totally fine – UNLESS at least ONE motivation involves the exchange of money for that sex (talking about children and their (in)ability to consent is beyond the scope of this writing; all arguments discussed herein refer to consensual sex acts between adults).

Not sex in exchange for jewelry, that’s fine. Not for financial ‘support’ (bills, rent, groceries, etc.) – that’s fine. Not within the confines of a marital contract (even a “mail-order bride”), that’s fine.

Just cash. As soon as cash enters the picture, the act of having sex is immediately criminal.

And it isn’t in the way people have sex, or where, or for how long, or how often they do it that is actually illegal, but specifically the reason why they’re doing it. There is no specific physical act that is ANY different from the myriad of ways people have sex that is criminalized, but simply the motivation (the thought-process) for why they are doing it.

That’s a thought-crime. It’s not the sex act that’s technically illegal, but the thoughts and motivations of the individuals participating in that sex act. In legalise, it’s called mens rea. And that’s super problematic – to charge individuals with a crime based on perceived intent, or the assumed thought process that led up to the situation at hand. For those in power to determine the thought of another as “criminal” risks all sorts of misunderstandings, and also a culture where dominance is sustained – in other words the morals, values, and beliefs of the dominant class are inflicted and pressed upon others. Sex workers are not victims, but they certainly are on the receiving end of this continued dominance. To criminalize the intent behind otherwise legal or (more or less) socially acceptable acts risks all sorts of issues, like here and here.

And the fact that what a person is thinking is criminalized is just one reason why there are greater implications for all of us – not just individuals who buy or sell sexual services. Imagine if going to the movie theater was only legal if you plan to watch the movie, but if you plan on taking a nap there, that’s criminal. Silly, right? What if you have sex with a friend and then for a completely separate reason that friend gives you cash – who, exactly, is determining why that person gave you money and what if it is decided that you actually had sex for cash? Who gets to determine if that “separate” reason is indeed “separate”? Does that change what you did? Who gets to decide where the line from legal to illegal occurs?

Here are some common arguments against sex work:

“It’s against my religion.”
Zzzz …. SNORE – Facebook God says, “Don’t use a book hundreds of years old as an excuse for being a dick today.”

In other words, don’t expect everyone to conform to your beliefs. Jesus had friends that were “prostitutes”. You should, too. And as a friend, listen to what they have to say. If they ask for prayer, by all means, get down on your knees. Help those who ask. Don’t inflict your help in a violent, oppressive way. Not all sex workers need saving. Not all sex workers need prayers. In fact, it turns out what they need is often the exact opposite of saving or prayer. They need rights. They need support. They need to be able to call the police if violence is inflicted on them (and receive assistance instead of being arrested). Prayer doesn’t do a whole lot in those situations.

“I don’t want my husband /boyfriend to sleep with a prostitute so it should be illegal.”
If your husband wants to have sex with a sex worker, he’s going to do it. Prohibition is funny that way – declaring something is against the law does not, in fact, make it disappear. Unfortunately, due to the illegality of sex work, standard STI screening and other protective measures for the clients and workers themselves are largely unavailable. This means that if your husband does visit a sex worker, there’s a higher likelihood that he’ll be robbed or injured (or arrested, obviously). Additionally, there’s a chance that he’ll come home and infect you with an STI because the industry is unregulated.

In addition, you might consider the fact that if you don’t want your boyfriend/husband to sleep with a prostitute, and you are either nervous or suspicious that he will, your relationship is already doomed. Consider polyamory. Consider hiring a sex worker yourself, or for your relationship. Or, if that’s too much, consider having a conversation with your husband/boyfriend where you express your concerns. Keep in mind of course, that your concerns having to do with your own relationship should be kept within the confines of that relationship. Because what works for you and your relationship does not determine universal morality.

Making something illegal because it doesn’t fit within the confines of what you or your partner or family define as “acceptable” won’t work. There are thousands who don’t agree with you. Perhaps millions. Increasing surveillance and criminalizing any aspect of consensual sex will perpetuate a flawed criminal justice system that targets the poor, the Others, the immigrants, and the marginalized. With a criminal record, then, individuals are essentially left with even fewer options for employment and are often “forced” back into a lifestyle that sex work prohibitionists aim to abolish.

There are a number of activities that were illegal in the past that aren’t anymore -homosexuality, alcohol, marijuana, interracial relations, etc. With changing cultural values, it’s time we decriminalize sex work.

“Sex work is immoral.”
According to whom? If all the people involved want to be there, and no one is injured or psychologically damaged, what, exactly, is immoral about it? Commodifying a service isn’t new. We pay people to cut our hair, cut and paint our toenails, massage our muscles, remove body hair (even the hair that grows near or on our genitals!!) Creating a sacred and untouchable bubble around how people are allowed to mutually touch each others’ genitals is completely arbitrary. It is about controlling other peoples’ bodies and restricting female sexuality based on the archaic practice of treating humans as property.

“Sex work is icky and it makes me feel uncomfortable.”
OK, no one actually says this out loud, but it’s basically what all the other arguments boil down to. Alright, it makes you uncomfortable. That’s fair. If you’re at the point where you’re trying to identify what those emotions mean, you’re in a good space. What about it makes you feel uncomfortable?

Does that feeling necessitate the control and legislation of what other people do with their own bodies? If you’re not sure, or if you answered “yes” please take a moment to really examine your reasons, and ask yourself if you do things in your own life that other people might not approve of (such as drinking alcohol, watching pornography, playing violent video games, hunting, drinking coffee, shopping at Walmart, eating McDonalds, the way you parent your children, premarital sex, masturbation)?

While there is still a stigma around paying for sex (or providing sexual services for cash), much like the arguments against alcohol consumption, premarital sex, homosexuality, and cannabis use, the puritan views against sex work are losing ground among the general population.

As we all become less injured to the idea of people having a good time, those holding on to the view that sex work is IMMORAL had to re-craft their message; enter the MORAL PANIC arguments:

“Sex work is degrading.”
Without a doubt, there are people working in the sex industry that agree with this argument 100%. However, there are plenty of people who LOVE what they do. This difference in opinion about one’s occupation is certainly present in all different lines of work. Cleaning toilets and disposing of human waste is a pretty degrading job. Frying french fries for minimum wage can be pretty degrading. Washing other people’s feet, cleaning up after dogs, and a myriad of other occupations can be mentally and physically degrading. Those jobs can also be just that: jobs. So if any type of work can be degrading, why is sex work more degrading?

Again, it goes back to controlling female sexuality: sex outside of socially sanctioned situations is dirty and bad; sex in the confines of socially sanctioned arrangements is sacred and special. When women were considered property, any situation where they could potentially collect profits from their own bodies (and not divert those funds to their male ‘owners’) was bad for business.

As long as we all continue to accept the message that sex is special and sacred, but only in specific heteronormative monogamous situations, we will continue to place a greater emphasis and value on when and how women touch other people’s genitals, or allow other people to touch their genitals. It’s only more harmful and degrading than other service work if we all keep saying it is.

“Sex work is exploitative.”
Certainly forced labor is exploitative, in any form. Sex work is no exception – the forced or coerced sex labor does exist, and it is exploitative. But conflating this small percentage to the larger population is harmful. A woman who chooses to enter this work, who is making six figures a year in the sex industry, would not agree that she is being exploited. YES, there are women being exploited, but that is only exacerbated by the criminalization of the work.

If sex work was decriminalized in the United States, the workplace would be regulated like any other workplace. You know those regulatory industries like OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) and L& I (Department of Labor & Industries) and DoH (Department of Health) that are the thorn in the side of every manager and business owner? (“Why do we have to do safety training? What do you mean I have to pay my employee who was injured on the job?”) Those organizations make jobs safer and healthier for hard working Americans, and if sex work is decriminalized, sex workers will have access to similar protections, thus decreasing the likelihood of exploitation.

“No one would ever choose to be a sex worker.”
Many sex workers have chosen their line of work. Many have entered out of financial need, a fascination with the illegality of it, an enjoyment of sex, or a host of other reasons. Whatever those reasons might be, anti-sex radicals will claim that the work is degrading, that individuals are traumatized and forever scarred because of it. Therefore, according to this line of reason, sex workers (read: women) are unable to make their own decisions, they are always influenced or otherwise manipulated by either their horribly traumatic environments (sexual abuse, physical abuse, addiction, poverty, etc.) or the “imagined” violent male trafficker. The moral panic that exaggerates these situations equates all sex workers as victims: helpless, lacking agency, completely at the whim of male physical and sexual violence – these reports are frequently anecdotal and rarely include stories from individuals in the industry. When actual sex workers are interviewed, however, reports and studies demonstrate that many men and women choose this line of work, often in lieu of lower paying jobs such as retail or food service work.

“All sex workers are sex slaves.”

Wrong again.

Unfortunately, this argument is prominent in dominant discourses, government policies, and media representations. The moral panic surrounding human trafficking tends to focus on sex slaves. This is inaccurate. Trafficking humans is despicable – without argument. However, because sex is regulated so heavily, and largely influenced by religious morality, we see a disproportionate focus on the small percentage of human trafficking that involves sexual labor. According to the National Human Trafficking Resource Center (NRTRC):

  • Sex trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purposes of a commercial sex act, in which the commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act has not attained 18 years of age, (22 USC § 7102).
  • Labor trafficking is the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for labor or services, through the use of force, fraud, or coercion for the purposes of subjection to involuntary servitude, peonage, debt bondage, or slavery, (22 USC § 7102).

Without delving too deep into an analysis of the government language used here, we can see that policies implemented differentiate between sex and labor. Without asking why this is (which is actually a really important question to ask), we can see that the ideas are merged into one dominant narrative that portrays “human” trafficking as “sexual slavery” which perpetuates an idea of white slavery.

In sum, don’t worry because based on these panics created, you can rest assured Liam Neeson might enter your life to save you or your children.

Or rather, Liam NeesYUM

Or rather, Liam NeesYUM

Unfortunately, despite evidence to the contrary, organizations made up predominantly of religious saviors and antisex feminists perpetuate this message, and disperse their message to incite a reaction. We hear about sex slavery all day. We hear about it in documentaries. We hear about it in Hollywood films. We hear horrible news stories. In Seattle alone, there are numerous organizations dedicated to ending the demand, to rescuing fallen women, to providing religious rejuvenation for those straying from God’s path, and to help those recovering from immorality.

Human trafficking is a pervasive issue that needs to be addressed. It needs to be addressed in ways completely unrelated to the criminalization of consensual sex acts, and human rights advocates working to end human trafficking will not accomplish their goal if they continue to conflate consensual sex work with the horrors of trafficking and sex slavery. Addressing the issue of human trafficking should not include attacks on already criminalized and marginalized populations whose members choose a line of work that is portrayed as deviant, immoral, illegal. Human trafficking is wrong. Receiving compensation for a service provided is not.

So who are we to have a stake in this conversation? One of us has never had sex for cash, and never plans to. One of us has and continues to.

Answer #1: I’m a woman who has sex. I have intercourse for a myriad of different reasons, sometimes multiple reasons at the same time. In the past, I’ve had sex after enjoying a nice night out. I’ve had sex in order to accompany someone on a weekend getaway. I’ve done it when I was scared to be alone and wanted someone to stay with me. Sometimes I was ‘turned on’ and sometimes I wasn’t. Sometimes I had motivations beyond a human connection, and sometimes I didn’t. In my socially sanctioned monogamous marriage to a heterosexual man, I have all sorts of sex. I believe that the fight to end sex work prohibition and restore reproductive rights and protective services to sex workers has enormous implications for all women.

Answer #2: I’ve been selling sexual services for 10 years, more or less. That’s taken place in many different geographic and digital locations – from walking the streets of 99, to Craigslist (RIP), Backpage, and now more lucrative “classier” (so I’ve been told) online escorting boards. And those services have ranged from dinner dates, bachelor parties, companionship, fetish, and full GirlFriend Experience (GFE). Yes I sell sex, I do NOT sell myself. I am still whole. So who am I to have any say in this? The same as my co-author- I am a person who has sex – albeit for different reasons, but who doesn’t have different reasons for the various behaviors we exhibit? I am also a person who has been raped and been unable to report it. I am a person who has fallen in love with more than a few of my paying customers. I am a person with agency. I’m sex positive, a sex worker, feminist, a student, and mother – all of which contribute to my ongoing dedication to human rights – to women’s rights, LBGTQ rights, to sex worker rights. In my not-so-unique position of being both marginalized and privileged, from my position of battling both external and internal conflict, from my struggle to balance a “professional” demeanor while actively hiding who I truly am – fighting against trafficking while advocating for sex worker rights emerges as the most logical – by far the least conflicted activity I’ve ever embarked on.

*Today we are publishing our thoughts on sex work. Today, on International Trans Day of Remembrance, we also remember the hundreds, if not thousands, of trans men and women who have had violence inflicted upon them. There is no hierarchy of oppression. We are not comparing one marginalized population to another, but we are writing this in recognition of the fact that many trans individuals are so far excluded from society that sex work is their means of survival.

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