Legalizing Sex Work: The Polarizing Debate
Some advocates say legalizing sex work would create the perfect environment for sex traffickers. While others believe that outlawing sex work only brings more danger and risk.
So, what’s the scoop? Should sex work be legal?
Legalizing Sex Work? Yes? No? Maybe so…?
It’s interesting that science and research is generally upheld as the most reliable way to make decisions, especially when it comes to decisions affecting the general public. This is true for most things. Except when it comes to enacting policy and laws…
And, when it comes to sex work, the pattern is no different. Policy and debates are rooted in morals, not evidence or research.
As with most things political, asking the question “Should sex work be legal” is quite polarizing.
On one side, we have abolitionists who advocate for abolishing sex work.
This camp takes the stance that sex work is the epitome of male domination and degradation of women.
In the words of a prominent abolitionist, Gunilla Ekberg, sex work couldn’t exist without “men’s demand for and use of women and girls for sexual exploitation.” That without male demand, “global prostitution would not be able to flourish and expand.”
The opposing camp, however, taking a neoliberal stance, sees sex work as a legitimate form of labor. This camp asserts that the government has no right to negate nor deny sex workers their right to labor.
Instead of viewing sex work as a continuous supply to fulfill male demand, this camp’s attitude can be compared to “my body my choice.”
Well, this is a feminist blog… So my body my choice! Right? Well, it’s a bit more complicated than that.
Legalizing Sex Work: A Band-Aid Solution?
Yes, absolutely, my body my choice!
Everyone should have the right to determine their livelihood, within reason, and I believe that sex work is within reason.
But, before we dive into legalizing sex work, it’s important to keep in mind that some communities and individuals are more likely to engage in the sex trade industry.
With an intersectional perspective, we then begin to ask why and who?
The answer is that marginalized communities are more likely to engage in sex work. These communities are faced with weak social safety nets and weak social institutions.
Thus, getting to the root problem would be strengthening social support systems.
The Political Debate
Now, back to legalization…Lawmakers and abolitionists, while advocating against sex work, often use rhetoric rooted in morals to justify their stance. But, should morals really be guiding our policy? And, more importantly, by whose standards are these morals set?
While abolitionists maintain it’s to end sex trafficking, Weitzer argues that it’s a hidden moral crusade to combat sex being normalized in culture.
In his critique, Weitzer makes three points establishing how abolitionists have engaged in this moral crusade:
1. Inflation of the magnitude of a problem for example, the number of victims, harm to society), assertions that far exceed the available evidence;
2. Horror stories, in which the most shocking cases are described in gruesome detail and presented as typical and prevalent;
3. Categorical conviction: crusade members are adamant that a particular evil exists precisely as they depict it and refuse to acknowledge any grey areas.
However, this crusade isn’t just a mere debate without real life impacts. In an effort to criminalize sex work there are serious consequences.
In other words, the crusade is not confined to mere debate or sabre rattling, as it has attained a measure of success in criminalizing sexual services, mani- fested in new penalties, increasing arrests, and growing official demonization of commercial sex.
I cannot claim the true intentions behind the abolitionist camp. Whether those intentions be to end sex trafficking, to fight the normalization of sex on the grounds of morals, or maybe both. But, however, I can talk about the impacts of these arguments.
Propaganda: Understanding Fact vs. Fiction
Weitzer calls out the abolitionist camp on several points. One of them being the misuse of statistics and information to overrepresent the problem.
Don’t get me wrong, human trafficking is a global threat to human rights, and sex trafficking rings in the highest amount of profits out of all of the trafficking sectors.
But, as I mentioned earlier, as large as the problem is, the amount of research to understand sex trafficking is not comparable. Meaning, unfortunately, while we have some idea of who, what, when, and why. We don’t know the exact numbers or statistics of the who, what, when, and where of sex trafficking.Yet, the abolitionist movement, is known to cite large statistics, that are not exactly factual, to scare people into action. Even scarier, is that the American government cited these statistics uncritically, and has even used them to create important legislation.From 2000 to 2004, the Bush administration reported a wide range of statistics representing the number of victims of trafficking.
At one point, the government even used a figure that was largely based on one government analyst’s review of a newspaper clipping to justify new law and policy.In 2004, the US Department of Justice called out these fishy reports, and asked for an explanation for the disparity in statistics. Misreporting and sharing the horror stories of sex trafficking has been done to make the public aware of the problem, and to justify the criminalization of sex work. Large numbers tend to scare people into action.
Yet, fear-mongering never seems to elicit a great, or even good, outcome.
The Ideal Victim
And, the same is true here. By misusing data and painting a picture of kidnapping, violence, and basically worst case scenarios, advocates and politicians have created a public image of what sex trafficking looks like, and who it happens to. This image is commonly known as the ideal victim.
The public notion of what sex trafficking looks like often includes a white, female victim, under physical bondage and entrapment forced into sex trafficking, and again under the worst circumstances possible.
While this is the case for some victims of sex trafficking, this is not the circumstances for the majority.
Thus, those who do not fit this trope find themselves vulnerable: at risk of prosecution from the law for sex work charges and displaced from help as they may not see themselves as victims of trafficking and neither may society.
If an individual has been convinced into trafficking by a boyfriend pimp, whom they love, they’re not very likely to identify with the image of a girl being kidnapped and forced into trafficking. Meaning, when anti-trafficking advocates and social services are offering help and support, they’re not going to think that it applies to them.
Would Making Sex Work Legal Help?
Today, in the USA, under the Trafficking Victim Protections Act (TVPA), victims of sex trafficking are defined as anyone engaging in sexual acts in return for money, goods, or services under the conditions of force, fraud, or coercion. What’s more, anyone under the age of 18 engaged in the sex trade industry is automatically labeled a victim of sex trafficking due to their minor status.
If it were possible to examine every charge of sex work within the United States, we would undoubtedly find that many individuals who have faced legal consequences, due to laws criminalizing sex work, are actually legally considered to be victims of trafficking. While, they themselves might not identify as a victim of trafficking, understanding their circumstances in the eyes of the TVPA, these individuals should be put in contact with proper resources and support. Something that’s not happening.Consider, for instance, a transgender minor who is targeted and harassed by police, and ultimately is charged and prosecuted. This is not a “what if,” but a depiction of reality. Individuals who don’t meet “ideal victim” notions are at a heightened risk of facing legal consequencesOr, consider Cyntoia Brown.
Under current criminalization policies, cases like this are often overlooked. Individuals are not receiving the support they are due, and what’s more, their human rights are being violated, both at the hands of their trafficker and the state.
Could Legalizing Sex Work Create Safer Conditions?
While some maintain that legalizing sex work will only encourage trafficking, there is not enough research to substantiate this claim. Further, let’s consider the flip side. Regulating the sex trade industry seems to be much more feasible than eradicating a form of labor that has existed for centuries. Not only more feasible, but also more beneficial to those involved.
Let’s think about alcohol…Or abortion.As the age old argument goes, if outlawing it simply pushes it into the underground markets, where conditions are ten times more dangerous, wouldn’t it be smarter and safer to legalize and regulate it?If sex work were to be legalized, then regulations like cameras both inside and outside of buildings, social networks of support, health care, oversight and accountability for the standards of operations could save and help many sex workers.
Legalizing Sex Work: Let’s Get Real
Outlawing sex work on the grounds of morals is a dated and simple minded response. Criminalization forces individuals and circumstances into a black and white narrative that simply does not exist.
While, legalizing sex work, on the other hand, leaves room and protections for the many shades of grey that real life consists of.
What is Consent?
Consent can be a tricky and confusing subject. Everyone knows we need consent, but what exactly is it? How do we get consent from our partner(s)?
Check out this post, and let’s explore!