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Sex Work Should Be Legalized

Like many of the other bloggers on this network, I think it’s high time that sex work be legalized for both principled and pragmatic reasons. The principle is obvious — it isn’t the government’s, any government’s, business what two consenting adults want to do with each other in private. Here’s part of the pragmatic case:

On Tuesday, scientists at the annual International AIDS Conference in Melbourne, Australia, recommended decriminalizing sex work across the globe — arguing that legalization is the most effective way to reduce global HIV infection rates. According to new research — a series of seven studies recently published in the Lancet medical journal — scientists estimate that HIV infection rates among sex workers could be reduced by between 33 and 46 percent if the activity were not illegal. “Governments and policymakers can no longer ignore the evidence,” asserted Kate Shannon, an associate professor of medicine at the University of British Columbia and the lead author of the study.

The research, conducted in Kenya, India, and Canada, found that high rates of violence against sex workers, police harassment, and poor working conditions — all circumstances exacerbated by sex work’s illegal status — combined with lack of access to HIV prevention and care significantly increased the risk of infection among sex workers. According to recent data from the World Health Organization, female sex workers are 14 times as likely to have HIV as other women, yet fear of arrest and stigma often prevents them from seeking medical care. (A Kenyan woman quoted in the study added that when doctors at the health center she visited realized she was a sex worker, she was denied treatment.)

Additionally, many countries, including the U.S., use condoms — and the act of carrying multiple condoms — as evidence of prostitution. (Though a bill abolishing this distressing practice passed New York’s assembly last year, it seems the NYPD is still “reviewing” the legislation.) As a result, sex workers often stop carrying (and using) condoms out of fear of arrest.

The World Health Organization likewise has called for the decriminalization of sex work. But it won’t happen anytime soon and it’s almost entirely due to outdated religious beliefs.

Comments

  1. Loqi says

    We should add “it’s just the free market at work” to our arguments about sex work not being unethical. When it comes to morality vs. god, god usually wins (at least until activists get enough traction to make it a cultural movement ala gay rights). But when it comes to money vs. god, well, you don’t see any megachurch preachers selling all their possessions and donating the money to the poor.

  2. illdoittomorrow says

    “Governments and policymakers can no longer ignore the evidence,” asserted Kate Shannon…

    Why, sure they can! Especially since if we don’t keep “sex work” illegal, lazy girls and dirty slutz everywhere will have a free hand under your permissive amoral utopia*! Everyone knows girls only have the sex to get at men’s wealth anyways! And if they didn’t want to get any disease, they shoulda kept their legs crossed until they got married**!

    “it seems the NYPD is still “reviewing” the legislation…”

    Dafuq?

    *Excuse me while I go wash my hands after typing that.
    **And barf.

  3. smrnda says

    The people who object to sex work are typically religious types who promote a vision of marriage which is a pure economic exchange in which women exchange sex and subservience for… well, for what I have yet to figure out, so they’re promoting a vision of marriage which isn’t too different, and could be worse, than prostitution.

  4. Alverant says

    Even if it’s legal, there will still be a stigma attached to it so I’m not sure how much making it legal will help. Attitudes towards sex and sex workers needs to change as well and that’s harder to do.

  5. says

    Smmda:

    The difference between prostitution and their vision of marriage is that prostitutes don’t have to sign long term contracts with their johns.

  6. theoreticalgrrrl says

    No, it would just make abuse even more invisible for sex workers, especially the men women and children who didn’t freely choose it as a profession. This is a bullshit argument.
    http://rebeccamott.net/

  7. dingojack says

    “The research, conducted in Kenya, India, and Canada, found that high rates of violence against sex workers, police harassment, and poor working conditions — all circumstances exacerbated by sex work’s illegal status…”

    Prostitution:
    Canada – legal, not regulated.(Organised prostitution status uncertain, not illegal).
    India – legal, not regulated. (Organised prostitution illegal. Pimping, brothels and public solicitation illegal).
    Kenya – illegal.

    ‘…exacerbated by sex work’s illegal status…’

    Hmmm…. do I smell a faint whiff of bullshit?

    Dingo

  8. D. C. Sessions says

    Additionally, many countries, including the U.S., use condoms — and the act of carrying multiple condoms — as evidence of prostitution.

    Speaking as the father of a young woman, it puts a rather different perspective on the fatherly advice against counting on your date to have his own rubbers.

    I wonder if they also count having condoms on him as evidence that a man is either planning to hire a prostitute or working the other side?

  9. says

    Is there a difference between decriminalization and legalization for sex work?

    Decriminalization typically means that something is technically illegal but that the law is not enforced or that minor fines are handed out if it becomes a public nuisance. Legalization means it’s legal and can be regulated. It’s a subtle but important difference.

    There may be more specific uses of these terms as applies to sex work, but it’s not something I know much about.

  10. Azkyroth Drinked the Grammar Too :) says

    No, it would just make abuse even more invisible for sex workers, especially the men women and children who didn’t freely choose it as a profession.

    Not this shit again.

    Evidence. Fucking.

    Also, no one to my knowledge has proposed legalizing child prostitution.

  11. dingojack says

    “No, it would just make abuse even more invisible for sex workers, especially the men women and children who didn’t freely choose it as a profession”

    There are laws that cover those who are forced to work involuntarily (ie slavery), and those laws operate completely independently of laws governing the legal status of sex workers*. Since the latter is the issue at hand let’s not wander off down any red herring trails, OK?

    Dingo
    ——–
    * Laws decriminalising (or legalising) prostitution would have no effect on the operation of laws prohibiting slavery.

  12. Anton Mates says

    dingojack,

    Prostitution:
    Canada – legal, not regulated.(Organised prostitution status uncertain, not illegal).
    India – legal, not regulated. (Organised prostitution illegal. Pimping, brothels and public solicitation illegal).
    Kenya – illegal.

    ‘…exacerbated by sex work’s illegal status…’

    Hmmm…. do I smell a faint whiff of bullshit?

    According to the studies in question, prostitution remains illegal in Canada, even if enforcement is spotty and there are municipal-level attempts to make it more organized and safer in specific areas, e.g. Vancouver. Conversely, although sex work is technically legal in India, so many aspects of it are prohibited (including public solicitation and pimping, where “pimping” is effectively defined as “being an adult male that lives with a sex worker”) that most sex workers are under threat of prosecution.

    In both cases, sex work is not legal enough to keep sex workers from experiencing regular police harassment and violence, including condom confiscation. Full decriminalization, saith the authors, would reduce these effects and significantly help with the HIV crisis.

    I’m not an expert in the area, so I can’t tell you if the authors have their facts wrong, but the Lancet editors and reviewers seem to be satisfied.

  13. dingojack says

    It’s not the authors of the study I take issue with, but the reporting of their findings in the press.

    Canada has struck down laws against brothels and pimping as unconstitutional so they are not illegal in Canada (as of 2014). Individuals can engage in prostitution in both Canada and India legally. It’s only totally illegal in Kenya (of the three countries mentioned) which makes the press report certainly untrue (but not pants on fire).

    Dingo

  14. thebookofdave says

    @doublereed #2

    Is there a difference between decriminalization and legalization for sex work?

    Decriminalization only means the activity is not cause for arrest or prosecution, or is reclassified as a civil offense or minor infraction. Legalization would recognize prostitution as a profession, presumably with a full range of rights and responsibilities. This could affect tax status and reporting obligations, occupational safety and health codes, wage and compensation controls, and legal protection of employees from harassment and discrimination.

  15. Pierce R. Butler says

    “Governments and policymakers can no longer ignore the evidence,” asserted Kate Shannon…

    Dr. Shannon apparently knows a lot more about medicine and public health than she does about governments and policymakers.

  16. D. C. Sessions says

    Prostitution was legal in Rhode Island from 2004-2009. Forcible rapes declined 31%. In no other states did the rate decline, and no other crimes declined so drastically. So there’s another pragmatic argument.

    A marvelous example of the decay that follows allowing the whores to go unpunished — fine American traditions are lost.

  17. kenn says

    “Selling is legal. Fucking is legal. Why isn’t selling fucking legal?” — George Carlin

  18. mikekaye says

    All references to prostitution assume all parties involved are of age and capable of giving consent. Gender, when mentioned, is for the most popular form of prostitution: female provider, male client.

    Decriminalization of prostitution is the removal of laws that make prostitution a criminal offense.

    Legalization of prostitution would attempt to define and control those providing sexual services.

    For all concerned decriminalization is better. “Providers” would be free to hire and fire a “business manager”, formerly known as “pimp.” The police, at least those who could be trusted, could go after abusive business managers. Their telephone contact person would not be guilty of a crime. Ditto the motel that rents rooms to streetwalkers.

    Those ladies traveling across local or international boundaries of their own accord for the purpose of providing sexual services should not be guilty of a crime. Nor should parties involved in assisting those travelers be guilty of a crime. Unless assistance turns into abuse. Ladies should not be afraid of going to the police to report abuse.,

    And a note to the feds: there would be no gain in shutting down a popular social networking site where most of the participants were either offering sexual services or looking to obtain reliable sexual service at a known price.

  19. Rick Pikul says

    According to the studies in question, prostitution remains illegal in Canada, even if enforcement is spotty….

    Actually prostitution itself was legal, it was just impossible to engage in prostitution without breaking other laws.[1] These laws got struck down as unconstitutional.

    Right now, the Reformatories are pushing through a new set of laws which are pretty much the same as the old ones except that there are a few places where the prostitute doesn’t get arrested. Everyone involved in the case that struck the old laws down has said they are going right back to the courts just as soon as the new laws take effect[2].

    [1] The way I always described it: You can sell widgets but you can’t have a store to sell widgets from, you can’t advertise that you have widgets for sale, you can’t talk to your customers about buying widgets and you can’t spend the money you make selling widgets.

    [2] Given that the new laws have the _exact same problem_ that caused the old ones to be struck down the result is predictable. Especially when you remember that the Canadian Supreme Court _HATES_ having to repeat itself.

  20. dingojack says

    “For all concerned decriminalization is better [than legalisation]” .
    Why? What is your reasoning for this bald assertion?
    Dingo

  21. lochaber says

    Oh, for fuck’s sake people, do you realize why prostitution is a dangerous occupation?

    wait for it…

    Because it’s fucking illegal.

    If a prostitute is assaulted, robbed, or raped, they can’t file a report with the police, because odds are, the fucking dirty cops will just arrest the sex worker and ignore her complaints (hey, why bother trying to go out and prevent or solve crimes when ‘criminals’ walk up to you).
    Agressive, predatory types are more likely to target sex workers since they know their victim doesn’t have the option of seeking police help (or, if they do, of actually being treated like a human).

    As with any other illegal activity, if someone is wronged, their only real options are to either absorb it (frequently known as “taking it like a bitch”) or to get violent about it. There is no legal or civil options available where suits for damages can be made.

    If nothing else, decriminalizing it allows those involved to seek the same legal rights afforded to everyone else.

  22. says

    I’m for legalization of sex work, but I really don’t think it will have nearly as much beneficial effects as legalization has in other lines of business.

    When alcohol or weed is illegal, people buy and use it in secret primarily for that reason — to avoid prosecution. And when such drugs are made legal, most people will start buying and using them more publicly, because they no longer have enough reason to hide their preferences. But it’s not the same with sex work: sex is, and always will be, a very PRIVATE activity; and people who want to buy any kind of sexual services will always seek to do so in private, in the dark, away from any public attention, no matter what the law says. This means that even if the law doesn’t force sex-workers into the dark, the demands of their clients will continue to do so; and that will continue to limit their real recourse to the protections of law.

  23. jesse says

    I think Raging Bee is right. Legalization/ decriminalization isn’t by itself necessarily helpful. After all, hiring a nanny is legal but that doesn’t stop all kinds of abuses of the overwhelmingly female workforce in that profession. The same goes for hotel maids and such. It’s all legal, but absent significant other worker protections things get dicey.

    In a more perfect world, sex workers could organize, and there would be mandated health and safety rules. I think the Netherlands takes this approach but even there it’s not always the world of the happy hooker.

    I find it interesting that possession of condoms is considered evidence of prostitution. Does that mean possessing a gun is evidence you plan to murder people? Puts concealed carry laws in a whole new light…

  24. innkeeper says

    Nits to pick:

    If you are going to legalize prostitution as a profession and regulate it, then yes, it actually is the government’s business what 2 consenting adults do with themselves, in exchange for goods and services.

    If you want to decriminalize/legalize it and leave it as a “2 consenting people doing whatever”, then you still open the door to police involvement as bad transactions happen all the time. I can see far too many bad endings with this one.

    R/

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