Editor’s note: This article is part of our collaboration with Point Taken, a new program from WGBH which next airs on Tuesday, May 31 on PBS and online at pbs.org. The show features fact-based debate on major issues of the day, without the shouting.
It seems that almost everyone has an opinion about prostitution and sex work.
But with Amnesty International’s recent unflinching policy recommendation to decriminalize all adult consensual sex work – including their take-down of the Nordic model which claims to punish only clients – it is becoming increasingly difficult for naysayers to ignore the well-documented ways that sex workers are harmed by criminalization.
While much of the debate on sex work focuses on what is best for “women,” an enormous diversity of individuals trade sex at some point in their lives. This includes not just cisgender women from a range of age, racial, religious, dis/ability and sexual identities, but also transgender women, cisgender men and GLBTQ youth. Yet even when taking into account the diversity of individuals involved and the many settings in which sex is traded and policed, Amnesty studied the accumulating body of evidence and concluded:
to protect the rights of sex workers, it is necessary not only to repeal laws which criminalize the sale of sex, but also to repeal those which make the buying of sex from consenting adults or the organization of sex work (such as prohibitions on renting premises for sex work) a criminal offense.
As Amnesty explains:
Such laws force sex workers to operate covertly in ways that compromise their safety, prohibit actions that sex workers take to maximize their safety, and serve to deny sex workers support or protection from government officials. They therefore undermine a range of sex workers’ human rights, including their rights to security of person, housing and health.
Will Amnesty’s recommendation lead to a change in U.S. policies?
Beliefs versus empirical evidence
The answer to how U.S. lawmakers respond to Amnesty’s call will depend in part on their level of courage to fight other institutional and cultural pressures to maintain and even increase criminal penalties for clients and other individuals connected to the sex industry. But their reactions will also depend on their own personal beliefs.
As someone who has researched and taught about sex work and human trafficking for more than two decades, I know that for some individuals, no amount of evidence or logic will change their opinion that sex work is intrinsically wrong. For them, decriminalizing any form of sex work – including adult consensual encounters – would send the unacceptable message that sex work is a legitimate form of income generation. And it is in this emotional territory where the decision to decriminalize or not rests.
Because of the difficulty in evaluating evidence on emotional topics, my first assignment for students in my Sex Work, Human Trafficking, and Social Justice class is to document their current reactions to the issue of sex work.
I ask students to honestly reflect on how their life experiences might shape the way they approach the issue of exchanging sexual services for pay. At the end of the course I ask students to revisit their feelings. I have found that when given the opportunity to make space for their feelings and to evaluate the best empirical evidence (such as Alexandra Lutnick’s “Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains”), most students conclude that adult consensual sex work should be decriminalized. They come to this conclusion even if they still personally do not “believe” in it.
Furthermore, students report that they understand how decriminalization can be one arm of a larger set of strategies to assist victims of structural and individual harms. These harms may including poverty, neglect, police violence, sexual assault and human trafficking.
I wish that I could also give this assignment to all policymakers and anti-sex trade activists.
This includes organizations such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), which described Amnesty’s move toward decriminalization a “willful and callous rejection of women’s rights and equality,“ and Hollywood celebrities such as Meryl Streep and Kate Winslet who have joined CATW in their opposition to decriminalization. While I have previously written that “it is no longer acceptable to prioritize the opinions of celebrities over those of sex workers and the scientists who advocate for them” – the belief systems underlying these opinions are still important to address.
Prostitution as a trope
As Barb Brents and I point out in our introduction to a special section of Sociological Perspectives on sex work and human trafficking, there has long been a serious decoupling between reliable empirical evidence and sex work policies in the U.S. While there are complex historical and institutional reasons for this disconnect, the answer in part is because sex workers have long served as a trope – a symbol for other people’s agendas.
Of course, sex workers have long been used as punchlines for misogynist jokes. But the symbol of the sex worker is also used by anti-prostitution activists who purportedly want to “help” them. For example, in a recent article discussing sex workers rights in The New York Times Magazine, Yasmeen Hassan, global executive director for Equality Now, expresses the following opinion about sex workers:
They’re sexual objects. What does that mean for how professional women are seen? And if women are sex toys you can buy, think about the relationships between men and women, in marriage or otherwise.
In Hassan’s statement and others like it coming from prohibitionists, a central “problem” of sex work is not what the best empirical evidence says, but what they believe sex workers symbolize. And when one is focused on one’s own symbolic interpretation, it is difficult to listen to conflicting evidence.
Listen to sex workers
Sex workers have long argued that criminalization and policing practices cause and/or exacerbate the worst harms to their well-being. Scientific evidence, as found in Amnesty’s reports, confirms this.
But changing the laws requires policymakers (and to some extent, the larger public) to respect and humanize people who are currently both stigmatized and criminalized.
Sex workers have made some progress in bringing attention to the harms of criminalizing sex work policies. One example is the practice of police using the carrying of condoms as evidence of prostitution. With growing global momentum behind the sex workers’ rights movement, I expect many more successes to come. Yet now is also a critical time for everyday citizens both to check in with their own feelings about the issue and to read and evaluate for themselves the best available empirical evidence.
U.S. history is full of examples of public beliefs and norms lagging behind progressive institutional change. Examples include civil rights for African-Americans, voting rights for women and marriage rights for same-sex couples. Most individuals in the U.S. now believe that upholding the civil rights for those groups was the right thing to do.
Decriminalizing sex work will not on its own fix misogyny, racism and other forms of systemic oppression. But decriminalization of consensual sex work is one key step toward social and sexual justice.
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