To date, no laws of any government anywhere in the world have been able to stop people from engaging in sex work. To be clear, sex work refers to people who consensually trade sexual acts for money or goods. For many women and men, sex work is simply work. For some, engaging in sex work gives economic freedom otherwise not possible.
Earlier this year, I researched how New Jersey’s laws perpetuate HIV in marginalized communities, and part of my research looked at how it affects the sex worker community. In the article, “New Jersey, HIV, and the Law” in the journal Righting Wrongs, I cite a study conducted by Human Rights Watch that found law enforcement in major U.S. cities prosecuted women who bought large amounts of condoms and used it as “evidence” that they were engaging in sex work. Workers then expressed their fear and reluctance to buy condoms for this reason, and some even reported using plastic bags. Additionally, I discuss how the lack of any legal protection for and criminalization of the trade drives the entire system far away from society making it more dangerous and more violent.
After doing research on the topic, I came to realize just how harmful it is to criminalize sex work from a public health perspective. I want to express my grievances on the topic from a general human rights perspective. Currently, the International Labour Organization, the United Nations Development Programme, the World Health Organization and other organizations have all called for the decriminalization of sex work. Similar to drug policy reform discussions, one line of reasoning to decriminalize sex work would be to raise the system out of the shadows, allowing for sex workers to report crimes against them — beatings, theft and murder are all to common against sex workers — and decrease the reliance for third-party security measures like pimps. I also believe an argument can be made that the practice of sex work is intertwined in human sexuality. In New Brunswick, there is an undeniable community of sex workers, and it would not surprise me to know that there are students engaged in the practice. By keeping the practice illegal, something that seems to be occurring naturally in all societies is reduced to something in which even the right to life is not guaranteed. Based on the current legal and social conditions, it is not a far stretch to say sex workers barely have rights.
While some argue decriminalization would result in further exploitation of women’s bodies by society, such as in porn industry, or that the supply of sex work could be stopped by taking women out of poverty, many sex workers see this as a paternalistic argument, and I agree. Like I mentioned, sex work is seen as work. It is a choice to sell sex. Just because some do not see this as a legitimate job does not mean they should impose their beliefs through the law. As for the poverty argument, people are hired to be sanitation workers — where more die on the job than in police or firefighting positions. Yet if we are so concerned about the poor taking on “dangerous jobs,” what measures are being taken to prevent people from sanitation work? There is a clear double standard that is at play in this argument.
Finally, I think it is also important to address the fundamental difference between sex work and human trafficking. Human trafficking is a human rights violation at face value and is nothing less than slavery. While human trafficking is done without people’s consent, sex work is the consensual sale of sex. Unfortunately, many advocates involved in preventing human trafficking have done a great disservice of confusing human trafficking and sex work by ignoring the value in a choice being made. Instead, many anti-human trafficking advocates lobby to have all sex work criminalized under the argument that all sex workers are trafficked. A quick glance at organizations such as the Sex Workers Project in New York or the Global Network of Sex Worker Projects provide evidence that there are sex workers demanding the recognition of their work. Openly conflating the two separate entities perpetuates bad public policy resulting in further marginalization of sex workers.
Sex work is work, and it is time that we, as a society, recognize the implications of our laws.
Derek J. Demeri is a School of Arts and Sciences junior majoring in general history and African area studies