Safer Sex Workers: How Decrim Can Save Lives
The criminalization of sex work is a human rights issue because it denies people who do sex work the autonomy to decide what to do with their bodies, and how to support themselves and their families.
The Black Lives Matter movement confronts systemic racism worldwide, with liberation and abolition at the forefront. Police violence towards Black people and sex workers has just recently caught the attention of feminists and allies, but these problems existed long before the world was watching. Still, in this moment we have the opportunity to transform society for the better. To do that, we need to understand how a system that’s supposed to protect us, harms us.
photo by River Gallo
When we talk about defunding the police we must also talk about decriminalization, specifically of sex work and drugs. Why? Crimes produce police, and police can use crime to justify the assault of oppressed people. The most criminalized people doing sex work are Black folks and Trans women, who are at a greater risk of sexual assault, poverty, unemployment, violent assault (sexual or physical) from the police and being murdered. Sexual violence is the second most reported form of police misconduct after force in America.
Many have debated whether sex work should or shouldn’t be a crime. Often, sex workers themselves are excluded from those conversations. Too frequently we have people speaking for us, which is why this article is written by a sex worker.
I want to help you get informed on why decriminalizing sex work is vital, especially now, by covering the four different approaches to sex work, as well as the key factors that contribute to its stigmatization.
The models of sex work:
When sex work is made illegal, anyone selling or buying sexual services is criminalized. When someone faces criminal charges, it makes it virtually impossible to get other work or access resources like government assistance, food stamps, and subsidized housing. Black sex workers and Trans sex workers are the most criminalized. The law in this case forces them to keep selling sex because they can no longer get a conventional job once they are criminalized.
Criminalization is dangerous and kills. Trans people and migrants face high death rates while doing street-based sex work because of both stigma and their lack of rights and protection. One American trans woman involved in the sex trade told Amnesty that “every night I’m taken into an alley and given the choice between having sex or going to jail.” This is just one of many accounts of women who have been forced to have sex with a police officer.
Sex workers who experience sexual abuse from clients, cannot report it out of fear of being charged or arrested. Clients know law enforcers won’t believe their story, and they capitalize off of that fear. It’s a dangerous situation for sex workers when a state or country criminalizes their work.
Artist unknown, prints available here
Criminalization also elevates rates of HIV for sex workers. In New York, the law criminalizes “loitering for the purpose of engaging in a prostitution.” So even if a person isn’t a sex worker, based on how they are dressed and the area they are in, they can be searched, questioned and arrested if evidence of being a sex worker is found. The evidence? Condoms. If you are walking around New York in a short dress carrying condoms you can get arrested by the NYPD, sex worker or not.
Trans women, especially Trans women of color, are disproportionately profiled as part of this walking while Trans ban. With this discriminatory and oppressive law, Trans women and sex workers alike are less likely to bring protection to a service, or even a date for fear of being caught. This translates to higher rates of HIV amongst the BIPOC SWer community.
Criminalization affects all women, not just sex workers. All of our liberties are tied with the liberation of sex workers.
The Nordic model
The Nordic Model seeks to create a prostitution-free society by criminalizing the client instead of the sex worker. Countries that follow this model are Sweden, Canada, Iceland, Norway and France. These abolitionists believe they are ‘’helping sex workers’’ by getting them out of the profession, as all sex work is seen as gender violence. For them, sex work is a “one-sided exploitative exchange rooted in male power”.
So somebody that doesn’t know me or other sex workers gets to decide if I am being exploited. Do they care when my boss at the restaurant wants to pay me 5 euros an hour? They want to ‘rescue’ us but offer no alternatives or support after this so-called rescue. Defining sex work as “gender violence’’ is of course by a white, heteronormative, ableist, cis standard. It erases people who are part of the LGBTQIA2S+ community who might want to hire a sex worker for a service, or a person who lives with a disability who might want to hire a sexual assistant. The movie ‘’Yes we fuck’’ is a great example of how people living with disabilities/diverse functionality can hire a sex worker to explore their desires.
The help on offer here is more deceiving than it sounds and is usually replete with ‘’radical’’ feminism and white saviorism. These organizations dedicate themselves to writing about oppressed women in the industry all the while silencing the voices of Trans folks and Migrants who share their stories of why they do sex work. For these radical feminists, it’s unthinkable that a woman would willingly choose this job.
“They want to make me ‘free’ from sex work – I’d like to access services that can actually help me and be free from their opinions.” An Australian sex worker tells SWOP
The Nordic model vows to end sex work by cutting demand, although this has never been proven to lessen demand nor the amount of practising sex workers. What it does do is it puts sex workers in vulnerable situations. Under the Nordic model, it’s difficult to screen a client (in case of abuse) since clients are unlikely to give their contact details for fear of being caught. It also erases vulnerable populations who rely on sex work for income without giving them other options to work.
art by Ashleigh Shackelford
The Netherlands, Germany and Australia are all examples of this model, where they aim to regularize sex work via specific labour laws. The government controls these laws and regulates the work and finances. They can count on sex work as a major part of their economy, bringing in tourism and taxes paid by sex workers. They profit MAJORLY off of this model. Sex workers who can’t comply with the laws dictating where, how and when sex work can take place, are faced with fines. It creates a two-tiered system where people who can afford to pay the license are granted access to this work, and those who can't still have to do the work in dangerous conditions with the threat of getting caught.
Neoliberals like this model of sex work because it bodes well for them to be ‘’pro-sex’’ at the same time as profiting off the revenues produced by sex workers. However, it ignores the structural barriers that BIPOC face while choosing to do sex work.
This model means that sex workers are able to work without threat of criminal sanctions. Criminal and administrative penalties on prostitution are repealed. Sex workers’ workplaces are regulated through employment law, enabling workers to hold their bosses to account and form trade unions.
“The principle of decriminalisation holds that sex workers are entitled to labour rights whether they enjoy, hate or tolerate their work”. DecrimUK
Decriminalisation is sometimes presented as at odds with anti-trafficking measures – but it should be obvious that giving workers rights is crucial to tackling exploitation. Though sex work and trafficking are often conflated by the media, DecrimUK reveals that less than 6 percent of migrant sex workers in the UK have been trafficked. Many said they prefer working in the sex industry to the “unrewarding and sometimes exploitative conditions they meet in non-sexual jobs”.
Decriminalisation increases sex workers’ power in their interactions with clients, managers, police and landlords. It gives sex workers autonomy. It makes the work safer. It reduces the transmission of HIV. There is protection for sex workers to seek legal justice if there is abuse. It helps dismantle stigma. It brings important conversations to the table about consent and rape culture. Sex workers can get together and work together without fear of being charged. We can have a network of protection with other sex workers when screening clients.
art by Jacq The Stripper
Our voices are heard and amplified. We are seen as an integral part of society that isn’t shamed for doing our work. We are respected and can shed the stigma of our work, which doesn’t define us or make us less desirable, worthy or intelligent.
After reading all these different models, I hope that you join me in the fight for decriminalization. I am posting some great organizations to learn about, follow, donate money to and volunteer with. Remember that you can have a part in our liberation that is liberation for women everywhere! We need more accomplices in our fight, and it’s never too late to support us.
‘’RIGHTS not RESCUE!’’
Organizations doing great work: