If, as it is often said, sex work is the world’s oldest profession, then what to do about it has to be one of humanity’s most long-standing sources of angst.
The debate – legal, philosophical, religious, societal – has been sparked anew by Amnesty International’s call to decriminalize sex work involving consenting adults. The human rights group argues that criminalization makes it more likely that the rights of sex workers will be violated. Making the buying and/or selling of sex illegal pushes the practices underground, and results in more discrimination, harassment, rape and violence, not to mention compromising sex workers’ access to basic health, housing and legal services.
Unsurprisingly, Amnesty’s stance sparked angry reaction. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women said abolishing laws against prostitution would lead to more rights violations against women and girls, including the expansion of human trafficking and child abuse, and would “in effect support a system of gender apartheid.”
Human trafficking and child rape are abhorrent practices – which Amnesty condemns, and laws exist to curtail these activities.
While there are women and children sold into sexual slavery, they are not sex workers – they are victims of crimes.
We need to distinguish between coercive and consensual sex.
Catch-all laws that criminalize all sex work solve nothing.
For many – probably most – sex work is just work.
Of course, it’s not that simple. Many sex workers, especially the small minority who work the streets, live on the margins of society. They are often driven to sex work through desperation: poverty, homelessness, addiction, the trauma of abuse. But turning sex workers into criminals exacerbates those problems more than it resolves them.
If you approach the issue pragmatically, from a public health perspective, you need to accept that prohibition never has worked, and never will. The priority needs to be on protecting the vulnerable, on minimizing harm.
What two consenting adults do with each other should be of no concern of the state, but that hasn’t stopped the flourishing of anti-prostitution laws. Worldwide, the dominant approach is to try and eradicate the commerce of sex. Some countries ban the sale of sex, while others ban the purchase. Neither works particularly well.