We should all want to fight exploitation and human trafficking. Yet some of the current, popular methods of disrupting sexual labor are highly abusive, and waste resources.
I’m talking about partial criminalization and full criminalization of consensual sex work.
Both derive from a “tough-on-crime” stance, which is both archaic and inhumane. Criminologists know that punitive measures against “vice crimes” often reinforce extortion of individuals, and trap poor people in cycles of incarceration and recidivism.
Scientists, public health experts, and researchers have noted the benefits of full decriminalization for decades.
The spread of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STI) is lower, victim reporting is high, and all types of sex workers are safer in places where consensual sex work is decriminalized.
The facts don’t support criminalization. Yet police departments and government officials insist it is the perfect intervention to prevent victimization. Perhaps some officials don’t want to lose their funding or authority.
To get back to basics, let’s examine some of the terms of the debate.
Full criminalization of sex work refers to the arrest or punishment of sellers and buyers.
In practice, it often takes the form of prostitution stings, where authorities use taxpayer money to fund operations in which an officer pretends to be a client, may even have sex with the target, and then arrests that target.
This can be dangerous and traumatic, as one individual who experienced it recalled in an interview with me. (She requested anonymity.)
“I answered an ad and started doing my thing, and then doors bust open and I thought I was gonna be raped,” she said. “It was scary.”
Then she was led to another hotel room, where other officers sat with their surveillance equipment and planned their next sting, which she was forced to watch.
I also spoke with another individual, who recalls working sex from the ages of 17 to 22, while living with her boyfriend, whom she later regarded as her pimp.
The relationship was abusive, he had isolated me from any friends, and I had no family. When I finally left him, I realized I could still do sex work, because I had clients that I liked, I knew how to meet people and be social, and do the work, but now I didn’t have to answer to him.
The only reason I never left him sooner was because he repeatedly told me that what we were doing to make money was illegal, and if cops got involved [over domestic violence charges] we would both go to jail.
In a decriminalized state, she could have fled her abuser a lot sooner.
It’s important to note that sex workers are vulnerable to police violence when they live in places that criminalize their labor, whether or not it’s consensual.
Full criminalization prevents sex workers from reporting crimes against them, and labels them as criminals too.
Sometimes called “The Nordic Model” or “Swedish Model,” partial criminalization of sex work refers to the arrest and punishment of clients, aka buyers. What are the problems with partial-criminalization models?
Some states and police departments do decoy stings, like in the case of Portland, Oregon which used 85 percent of its Human Trafficking Unit funding to hosts decoy stings last year. Would-be clients believe they are interacting with consensual sex workers like me and my friends, and are looking for some pleasure.
Instead, police show up, and the would-be client is sometimes incorrectly labeled in media as engaging in “sex trafficking”.
It is irresponsible to falsely label people as perpetrators of human trafficking. It can endanger their lives and subject their family and friends to harassment and violence or ostracization from their community.
Victims arrested in prostitution-related stings often are required to pay for and complete multi-hour programs which misinform participants about how sexual exploitation happens: that consensual buying of sex directly exacerbates human trafficking.
This is also false.
Many police departments and predatory officers around the U.S. are enabled by bad laws to use use taxpayer funding to trick and to trap people in cycles of poverty and recidivism, rather than fund programs for resources, rights or rehabilitation.
Youth, unhoused, immigrants, and poor people are most targeted by criminalization of consensual sex work.
Intervention Beats Criminalization
Full criminalization and partial criminalization of consensual sex work prevents people from reporting to police when they need intervention
Safe Harbor provisions are not an adequate fix for victim’s reporting. Some states, like Alaska, require the victim to be able to show proof of coercion from their trafficker. 19 states still arrest minors for prostitution related charges, even though by true federal definition they are victims of trafficking and couldn’t legally consent to the acts or labor.
Decriminalization of sex work means that people could no longer be arrested, fined, jailed, or extorted for working or buying consensual sexual services. Any actions relating to force, fraud, fear, coercion, or with minors, would remain a crime.
Sex workers have explained for decades why they chose their labor; in books, interviews, and now online. Sex workers have reported enjoying being able to choose a flexibility of hours, have more time to spend with their children, and the potential to pay off emergency expenses like healthcare, debt more quickly.
STI transmission is lower, victim’s reporting is higher, and consensual sex workers are safer in places where consensual sex work is decriminalized.
New Zealand police and sex workers can attest to the positive impacts of The Prostitution Reform Act in 2003.
Why Not Legalization?
A logical next step, some might argue, is simply to legalize sex workers — But some people will not qualify for the requirements that legalization might create: permits, applications, background checks, IDs, a tax ID number, a permanent address.
Runaways, for instance, won’t necessarily have those documents. People living in extreme poverty won’t either.
As an Oregon stripper, I can show up to a venue with my state-issued ID to prove I’m 18-plus and work a couple of shifts if I need to make some money. Other states require lengthy background checks, permit and application fees. Fingerprinting-heavy regulation of consensual sex work can be a barrier to the marginalized people that decriminalization is designed to protect.
In Nevada, brothel-keeping is legalized. The only places where folks are not arrestable for selling or buying sex are in the few, sparsely located brothels in low population counties. If you can’t get hired or transport there as a client, you’re not awarded those legal protections.
Anti-porn people have correctly cited this in their arguments: Legalization is not a way to reduce harm and prevent human exploitation, even as it gives more power to managers, property owners, and privileged workers like myself.
Decriminalization’s Soft Footprint
What would decriminalization look like in practice? The fiscal impacts are potentially very low: cities and states and can stop funding decoy stings and prostitution stings, and instead budget for resources like safer reporting hotlines, transportation assistance, food, shelter, job-training, childcare assistance, and other basic human rights.
If someone wants to leave an abusive pimp, partner, parent, give them ways to do that. Most non-profits currently only call the police.
The federal government has repeatedly declared war on “vices”, such as alcohol and drugs. Historians and crime experts know that these were not effective methods of combating overuse, violence, or trafficking
Instead they created or reinforced underground networks of trafficking, and empowered organized crime and police corruption.
The “War” on consensual sex work has already had a similar impact. It has empowered those who will benefit most from the exploitation of sex workers.
As a method of major harm-reduction, it is time that we proactively support decriminalization of sex work. Elle Stanger is a certified sex educator with the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists (AASECT), a longtime adult entertainer, and co-chair of Oregon Sex Workers Committee. Read their work at ellestanger.com