Prostitution, or the more correct term, “sex work”, is defined as “the consensual provision of sexual services for money or goods” by the World Health Organization. Sex work is a complex social issue that is constantly changing in terms of social perceptions and legal frameworks. While men are in sex work as well, women are typically the onee’s in focus for policies and arguments against it. Before reaching conclusions about this issue, it is important to understand and realize sex worker’s circumstances and the repercussions they face from criminalisation. Nationally, the criminalization status is the dominant legal policy of sex work, with Nevada being the only state in the US where sex work is currently legal.
In 2004, the federal government of the US said that it “takes a firm stance against proposals to legalize prostitution because prostitution directly contributes to the modern-day slave trade and is inherently demeaning.” They also claimed that it resulted in increased cases of human trafficking. However, the case for the prohibition of sex work seems to be backed mostly by policy makers trivial ideologies rather than hard evidence, essentially making this issue more of a social issue rather than a legal one.
Keeping sex work illegal is typically done in the name of women. People who are against decriminalization claim that the legalization of sex work essentially validates the objectification of women by demeaning them to “commodities” that can be bought and sold. However, this is based on the social construct that sex work is inherently immoral and objectifying. The stigma that society has created surrounding sex, and especially sex and women is what perpetuates this negative connotation with sex work. Criminalisation, by declining sex workers’ worker’s rights, further perpetuates the social stigma surrounding sex work as it fuels the stigma that frames sex work as immoral, illicit, and unlawful.
This leads way to the common notion that sex work is a result of a character or moral flaw, rather than a means to an end (which it usually is), which leads to further discrmination and abuse against sex workers. Unfortunately, women in this industry typically have too few options to begin with, criminalizing their means of survival leaves them with even fewer options. People are allowed to enter into professions where their body is the main tool of the trade. The use of one’s body to support oneself is not a crime, nor does it have to be demeaning. The knowledge that a woman has the ability to support herself and survive with what she inherently has, her body and sexuality, can be an extremely empowering realization.
The prohibition of sex work is supposedly meant to benefit the general population by limiting disease transmission, specifically sexually transmitted infections, as well as bringing an end to the marginialisation of women. By depriving sex workers, workers rights and essentially characterizing them as criminals, sex workers are left isolated and deprived of protection under regular labor laws. In addition to this, criminalisation directly associates sex workers with criminals, and since sex workers are “criminals”, communities are led to believe that the abuse against them is justified.
Sex workers under the criminalization frameworks also have very limited access to health services, which leaves them at an even higher risk than their profession already has them in, which as a result leaves the general public more at risk. While those who oppose the decriminalisation of sex work claim that that the legalization could lead to an increase in sexually transmitted diseases, legalizing sex work could actually improve public health by making health services more available to sex workers.
Decriminalization could also reduce crime and violence against sex workers. The illicit nature of sex work under criminalization, forces sex workers to work in any and whatever coditions that are available to them, whether or not those conditions are unjust or dangerous. In the case that a sex worker is taken advantage of or abused under a prohibition framework, they have no justice services available for them to turn to, and even if they do, they won’t approach the authorities in fear of being prosectued themselves. However, under decriminalisation, violence in the sex industry often decreases, as sex workers feel more entitled to have more control over their work and feel safe to report incidences of violence against them.
People for the prohibition of sex work also claim that sex workers are all forced into their profession, and compare it to human trafficking. Sex work by definition is “consensual”. While sex work and human trafficking are often portrayed with simmilar connotations-- they couldn’t be more different. The key distinction is consent and coercion. Human trafficking can be in the form of sex work, but sex work isn’t always a result of human trafficking. While people argue that decriminalization would increase sex trafficking, there is no concrete evidence for this. In a controlled system, where sex work operates just as any other occupation, protected by labor laws, that would not happen.
Poverty is the driving force behind the prevalence of sex work, and while some sex workers in a sense may be “forced” into their occupation by circumstances, they are essentially consenting adults who have chosen their occupation to support themselves. Plus, 34% of sex workers enter the field because they actually enjoy their work. Decriminalization actually creates a safer environment for sex workers throught the regulation of sex work like any occupation. Under proper laws and policies, sex workers can be given the choice to enter and also exit the industry.
Human rights is an abstract concept that is difficult to define. The United Nations defines human rights as “the rights inherent to all human beings regardless or race, sex, nationality, ethnicity, language, relgious, or any status”. Human right “the right to life and liberty, freedom from slavery and torture, freedom of opinion and expression, the right to work and education, etc.” However, by criminalising sex work the government is refusing a woman’s right to her professional, sexual, and bodily agency.
In this sense, criminalising sex work is a violation of one’s inherent rights by taking away the right to work, while also refusing sex workers their labor rights. Sex work is essentially that-- work. Therefore, criminalising sex work can be viewed as a human rights violation. In a perfect world, sex work would be criminalized and there would be no sex work. However, the decriminalization framework keeps in mind the reality of today. The true goal of decriminalization is not to advocate or push for sex work, but to rather protect sex workers and their rights and keep them safe on the basis that sex work cannot be completely abolished even with strict prohibition laws in place. Criminalization only seems to perpetuate violence against sex workers.
Under criminalization, they’re refused access to legal and health services, leaving them even more susceptible to STDs, as well as abuse. From the human rights perspective, criminalization takes away the right to sexual autonomy, free choice of work, freedom of association, and the right to the highest attainable standard of health. Adults of consenting age have the right to “exchange” sex for many reasons-- adding the commercial aspect to sex should not be banned by the government due to cultural or moral views. Legalising sex work is the right thing to do for sex workers.
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