Since the passage of SESTA/FOSTA there has been a growing awareness that the criminalization of sex work is dangerous and deadly. Under the guise of protecting children and trafficking victims, these laws punish vulnerable workers.
Sex work is work.
When we were at the 2019 California Democratic Party Convention in San Francisco we saw how much energy many different groups brought. There were demonstrations by Sunrise Movement, by Healthcare for All, and by the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP).
The demonstration by current and former sex workers was probably the bravest. Today we stigmatize sex work and criminalize workers. Women and men face constant harassment by the police and IRS, who do not think they do legitimate work.
Workers are not only threatened while working. An arrest or conviction can make it harder to get housing, maintain a career in another industry, or access benefits. Since much of this work cannot be legally reported as income, workers can’t contribute to their own Social Security or provide proof of income to access tuition assistance or job training. It can become a cycle of entrapment.
This stigma has been around for centuries even though we still call sex work “the world’s oldest profession.” Despite advances in sexual education, sexual health, and moves towards inclusivity, workers in this industry are left out of the conversation.
And this has deadly consequences.
Former California Attorney General Kamala Harris is very proud of her record as a prosecutor. During her time in office she made it a priority to identify and shut down online communities that advertised sex work. Time and again she would couch this in terms of protecting trafficking victims and minors. She targeted websites like Backpage and Seeking Arrangements. What she did not mention was that many of these websites provided a safe place for sex workers.
Backpage allowed workers to vet their clients, to share information on dangerous individuals, and to organize to protect themselves. What’s scary is that we can actually quantify how dangerous closing Backpage was. And not just to sex workers, but to all women.
According to a 2017 study by Scott Cunningham and John Tripp of Baylor University, Gregory DeAngelo of West Virginia University, when Backpage opened in a new city the overall female homicide rate dropped by 17.4%. That’s an astounding number.
The study not only provides concrete evidence that criminalizing sex workers is dangerous, it also leaves us with some uncomfortable questions to grapple with: How can the government provide protection for minors and trafficking victims? What role can the internet play in providing a safe environment? Is there a cohort of violent men in our society that will kill if they don’t have access to sex?
None of these questions can be easily answered, but what’s more troubling is that we aren’t even trying to answer them. Instead, our politicians and prosecutors are focused on putting people in jail for sensationalist headlines.
SESTA/FOSTA has a body count.
On a federal level legislation to criminalize sex work is incredibly popular. SESTA/FOSTA was sold as a way to curb trafficking and protect minors from abuse. And while these are both laudable goals, the legislation doesn’t achieve those aims. SESTA/FOSTA made it easier to crackdown on websites were services were sold and that drove many workers underground.
Now, instead of a community that was able to protect each other, there was no safety net. Men and women has to trust that their clients would not harm them while knowing that if they were harmed they could not go to the authorities. Police aren’t trusted and adding new ways to throw someone in prison will not build trust.
LGBTQ workers are especially at risk for houselessness and violence. Without support many young people are left without the basics that they need to build a stable life. We know that trans women face disproportionate risk and are per capita the most vulnerable people in America. Any policies that criminalize sex work will make their lives even harder.
There are legitimate concerns that not everyone who engages in sex work is totally consenting. Survival sex work is not seen as a first choice, but rather a necessity. Victims of trafficking are often seeking escape from terrible situations and are willing to take whatever chance they can for a better life: be this leaving home or trying to emigrate. What is missing from our current conversation is the notion that no one should be in that position in the first place.
A society that has a robust social safety net, that provides housing and food and education would leave no one behind, and put no one in a position that compromises their autonomy to earn a living.
On a policy level our politicians can only speak and think in terms of criminalization. There is no discussion about the dignity of doing work that you enjoy, as a consenting adult. The news is dominated by stories meant to paint all sex work as dangerous and dirty. Our puritanical attitudes towards sex have painted us into a corner.
When we criminalize sex work we rob people of their basic dignity. We hamstring our ability to provide real safety and security. We further traumatize victims. The solution to trafficking is not to drive an entire industry underground or to take away the agency of every consenting adult.
Every worker deserves dignity and protection. Sex workers are workers.
We can build a better future for everyone by building a society that provides healthcare, education, and protection for everyone.