When asked how the criminalization of sex work hurts sex workers, writer and dominatrix Mistress Matisse does not mince words.
“We all get arrested,” she says. “The idea that being arrested is helpful to someone – really, that people have been able to pull that idea off – is a masterful bit of sort of double speak. Because, no, no one is helped by being arrested.”
The Decriminalization of Sex Work
In August, Amnesty International voted that the best policy to protect sex workers is the full decriminalization of consensual sex work. While the recommendation was met with disapproval by many, including celebrities known for feminist activism such as Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham, it also served as a mainstream wake-up call about the dangers of the current legislation in the U.S.
“There is this big dragnet of laws that are seemingly intended to protect society or to protect even people engaged in the sex trade,” says Katherine Koster, communications director for SWOP-USA, the Sex Worker Outreach Project. “But what ends up happening is that these laws are often used to criminalize people involved in the sex trade themselves.”
The still-in-progress effort to legalize marijuana is grounded in similar beliefs. The argument, which has united libertarians and the left, is that purchasing marijuana should be a decision adults can freely make. The criminalization of this increasingly mainstream practice has been argued to drain police and government resources without results and disproportionately affect people of color. Right now, the use and sale of marijuana in the U.S. is still illegal under federal law, but can be made legal by individual states. Recreational pot is legal in four states – Colorado, Alaska, Washington and Oregon – and medicinal marijuana is legal in 20 others.
Current laws regarding sex work can be seen as the criminalization of an exchange between consenting adults. However, Nevada is currently the only state in the U.S. that allows for the legal exchange of sexual service, legalizing prostitution in regulated brothels (as opposed to decriminalization, as argued for by most sex work activists).