Sex workers’ rights are just workers’ rights

February 8

Sex workers’ rights are workers’ rights and human rights — because sex workers are human beings doing work. That’s why the debate over sex work shouldn’t focus, as it usually does, on whether sex workers are "criminals" or "victims." Instead, sex workers themselves should have agency and a say in the policies that govern their practices.

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It’s surprising how controversial those statements are, but they are missing from virtually every discussion of sex work in the United States. The ideas do, however, form the core of Playing the Whore, a fascinating new book on the state of the sex work debates by Melissa Gira Grant. Grant is one of the most interesting policy thinkers in the country when it comes to sex work, and this short book introduces and outlines her thinking on the matter.

The book covers everything from the historical origins of terms like “red-light district” and “prostitution” to the intense intra-feminist debates about sex work as a feminist issue. But since Wonkblog is a policy blog, let’s look at the policy arguments on sex work. There are three big takeaways:

1) If your proposal for what to do about sex work involves “more policing,” you are likely heading in the wrong direction.

The recent wave of activism by sex workers started with demands for scaled-back police involvement. The group COYOTE was founded in 1973 to oppose criminalization. Then, in 1975, 100 sex workers took over a church in Lyon, France, to protest arrests by police.

Making sex work illegal doesn’t mean the practice goes away. It just means that the police become the de facto regulators. And often that sort of regulation can have harmful consequences.

For example: Many cities have passed ordinances saying that carrying condoms counts as evidence that a person is "loitering for prostitution." These laws often make sex workers less likely to carry condoms at all. In the end, laws that are intended to protect women and public health turn out to make things worse. (Indeed, Human Rights Watch argues that the HIV/AIDS death rate in New Orleans is twice as high as in the rest country, in part because of these laws.)

More generally, sex workers usually can’t go to the police with problems and expect a response. Instead, they have to worry about being threatened with arrest. The power differential here has historically led to many cases of abuse. Sex workers identifying themselves in public to seek redress — a fundamental part of any type of activism or democratic accountability — puts them at risk.

2) If your proposal for what to do about sex work involves “better policing,” you’re still headed in the wrong direction. 

These issues also exist when it comes to new campaigns designed to specifically target pimps or men who hire sex workers. Inevitably, no matter who the targets of police action are, sex workers end up in the crosshairs.

Some cities have passed laws signaling that they’ll go after those who hire sex workers instead of sex workers themselves. For instance, Chicago, under an "End Demand Illinois” campaign, passed an incredibly harsh law designed to do just that. But the city ultimately ends up throwing more sex workers in jail as a result. After the law passed, “felony convictions among sex workers increased by 68 percent between 2008 and 2011,” while “only three prostitution patrons have ever been charged with a felony.” (Those stats comes from the Chicago Reporter.)

Changing the focus to targeting demand is popular internationally as well. But as Grant points out, “sex workers face evictions from landlords who don't want run afoul of the law, surveillance by police trying to catch their customers, and arrests and detentions to secure their testimony against men who buy sex, all in the name of ‘protecting’ them.” Meanwhile, there’s little evidence that such policies actually do anything to change levels of prostitution.

3) Understanding sex work as work can help clarify the debate immensely. 

The sentence in Grant’s book that most changed my mind about the topic was this simple observation: “Sex workers should not be expected to defend the existence of sex work in order to have the right to do it free from harm.”

Like many people, I have a mix of conflicting ideas, thoughts and reactions when it comes to the issue of sex work. But that sentence was clarifying. We shouldn’t have to solve a Big Question to ensure that people are not subject to risks and threats from both the people who hire them and the state itself through its policing powers. Those simple labor-market issues aren’t new. And, historically, they’ve been best addressed through democratic accountability and action.

Most sex workers will have conflicting opinions about their work. But that’s true of all workers. And sex work exists within a larger labor market at all times. As Susan Dewey found in her ethnography of women working at strip clubs in the Rust Belt, it was the low-wage work outside strip clubs that the women found “exploitative, exclusionary and without hope for social mobility or financial stability.”

The debate over sex work isn’t going to go away anytime soon. But hopefully, with more books like this out there, it will move forward to a place where the workers under discussion are seen as people we are trying to empower to make decisions, rather than merely criminals to punish or victims to save.

Mike Konczal is a fellow at the Roosevelt Institute, where he focuses on financial regulation, inequality and unemployment. He writes a weekly column for Wonkblog. Follow him on Twitter here.

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