Sex work and Criminalization: 10 Harms of Criminalization

Some of you (those who follow me on facebook, you poor souls) may have heard me agitating about Amnesty International’s draft proposal to decriminalize sex work. This week, a variant of that proposal was voted into policy. This changes nothing for sex workers immediately, however Amnesty’s support enables sex worker rights organizations and other groups to apply pressure to countries to change individual laws that infringe on the rights of sex workers.

In celebration, let me break down 10 ways criminalization and stigma harms sex workers, trafficking victims, and marginalized communities. For those who got bored by my massive post, with links, on the terms that define the sex industry. Visit that post for links on this one; I don’t have another 50+ link research paper bibliography in me. Not when I’ve still got stories to tell, and books to share with you. Also, this is far from a complete list; this issue is exceedingly complex. If you want more information on it, Amnesty’s draft proposal is great, too, containing a plethora of new research.

TW: sexism, racism, abelism, transphobia and homophobia, sexual assault and violence, exploitation, police violence.

#1. Uneven policies based in bigoted narratives, leading to trans women of color disproportionately arrested on suspicion of prostitution, and women of color at increased risk of the same. The whack-a-mole nature of a sex worker avoiding law enforcement, and law enforcement trying to get a broader range of things to charge a sex worker with means that in some areas, simple things like sitting outside on the wrong block, carrying condoms, or talking to strangers can be enough to show “manifesting prostitution” or intent to commit the crime. And these types of policies hinge on the beliefs of individual officers: who they think looks most like a sex worker, rather than any unbiased proof.

#2. Criminalization turns law enforcement against people they suspect of being engaged in sex work. This can have disproportionate effects on the investigation of crimes against marginalized people who may not even be sex workers, but who law enforcement assume are, due to class, homelessness, ethnicity, state of dress, visibly nonconforming to a gender identity, and a host of other things. Justice should not be dependent on whether you “look” like a wholesome victim.

#3. Stigma creates increased opportunity for those exploiting sex workers and trafficking victims to lever it against them. This might include threatening to out a SW to their family or employer, unless they give you their earnings, at which point, you’re considered to be trafficking them. A trafficking victim reporting their trafficker is just as likely to be arrested for prostitution, drug abuse, or any number of relevant offenses that the cop can prove they had a part in, and to not see any consequences come to the person exploiting them, as a result of the complaint. It’s easier to prove that they’re guilty than to take the report, follow up and investigate it, and maybe get enough proof to charge their trafficker based on their account. The trafficker is also likely to use that as a way of further isolating them. “You think anyone’s gonna listen to you? They’re gonna arrest you if you talk.” Or, in countries with the Nordic model, evict or deport you. Only by investigating crimes against sex workers fully, and without institutionalized bias, can we be assured victims will trust law enforcement enough to come forward.

#4. A criminal record, sometimes including sex offender registration, coming from time spent in the sex industry, however you entered it, may be a sizeable barrier to getting non-sex work related work. For instance, people in many fields, including teaching can be fired for starring in (legal) pornography, and migrant sex workers may find their occupation held up as proof of them “not comporting themselves honestly”, and may risk being deported. Background checks are ubiquitous, and this kind of record can limit someone to jobs which pay “under the table,” exposing them to increased risk of wage theft, fraud, and other illegal labor practices. And that’s assuming that they’re physically fit enough for the “under the table” work, and aren’t simply driven back into the sex industry to survive.

#5. Denial of other social services based on occupation. For instance, in many areas, sex workers are not entitled to victim’s compensation for violent crimes such as rape or assault. These crimes can result in the survivor being unable to work, and being saddled with surprise medical bills or other expenses (Like moving out of the home they were attacked in, for their safety, or replacing goods confiscated by police as evidence). The aforementioned sex offender’s registry may affect a worker with a record’s ability to utilize social services like homeless shelters, as can their identity as an LGBT individual, most notably trans or nonconforming people. I’m sure I don’t need to say that this is kicking someone when they’re down. Everyone deserves access to these resources; the measure of our society is in how we treat those we look down on.

#6. Criminalization creates an underground industry based in a lack of community support to weed out unsafe or exploitative practices. Only when sex workers communicate as a community can full service sex workers pass along tips on bad dates, document where other sex workers are going or with whom, call the police if a worker is gone on a transaction longer than planned, or stand up to management (in the case of strip clubs, and other legal venues) about unfair labor practices. Without that, many workers are kept in the dark, guessing at the best ways to stay safe, or whether they have legal recourse against exploitative management.

#7. Cross pollination with other narratives rooted in racist, classist, ableist ideas. And this is a big one, that encompasses a wide range. For instance, “all sex workers were raped as kids, and are too broken inside to take care of themselves properly.” Or “All sex workers are junkies who only suck dick to get their next fix.” “Sex workers have low self esteem, and just need to find Jesus.” Or “all sex workers are public health threats, because of the STIs/STDs.” Or “Trans woman sex workers deceive straight men.” Or “All prostituted children have violent pimps.”

This has the double effect of labeling sex workers who don’t fit these narratives outliers, who don’t “belong”, and thus shouldn’t try to advocate for other sex workers, and labeling sex workers who do fit those narratives as having no agency in their lives and choices, thus also unworthy of advocating for themselves, though they deserve a good savior to speak for them. Note how in neither of these scenarios do the people directly affected have any support in speaking for themselves.

It makes them a nuisance to be managed and planned for, and a public health threat. And it makes it easier to brush off violence against these people as being somehow deserved, for not being the person you think they should be, or making the choices you think they should make. This goes double if they’re a street-level worker, who tend to identify as a member of more marginalized groups, and have even less ability to protect themselves because of the public nature of the transaction, bearing the brunt of both law enforcement and community eyes. But it’s easier to police people’s choices than to provide them options. It’s just not effective. But who cares how many lives you ruin so long as you don’t have a *insert derogatory epithet here* driving down property values?

It goes without saying that these judgments can make it difficult for sex workers to maintain close friendships, relationships, or to be seen as professional, if their employer is aware of their work in the sex industry. And these kinds of narratives can be amplified in child custody proceedings, to label a woman who works in the sex industry an unfit mother, rather than considering that she might not be able to afford childcare on another job’s wage, and her family might suffer from her not having time to manage her children’s care and day-to-day personally. Even that’s without even considering that she still might be a better choice than the father, even if you’re taking judgments about her occupation at face value. I wish I was making this shit up, but this is exactly what the Swedish state said about Petite Jasmine, before she was  murdered by her children’s father in the middle of a mediated visit after the state took her kids from her. In their judgments giving the kids to their dad, over her protests, they ignored her testimony about his abuse, and his own police record, and instead labeled her work “self-harm”. And when she finally won back the right to visits, he refused to allow them to happen, and assaulted the social workers mediating. The culmination of his escalation was him murdering her and stabbing the mediator present, with one of their children there. Please, someone, tell me in what realm of reality a man with this kind of record of violence and that (#*$&% parade field of red flags is a better parent. Also, tell me if I’m the only one in here queasy.

These kinds of snap judgments from those who are unfamiliar with the sex industry affects what types of services are provided by anti-trafficking organizations and courts that feed into their programs. These services don’t conform to what the person states they need, but what the organization thinks they need, based on these stereotypes. A sex worker might find themselves sentenced to unwanted mental health interventions, art therapy or yoga for “rebuilding self-esteem”, substance abuse treatment, when what they’re asking for is space in a domestic violence shelter while they wait for a restraining order against their abuser or trafficker to go through. No one’s saying those services aren’t good and valuable, when the recipient wants them, but they don’t exactly target the real needs that can keep someone going back to the work, even when they don’t want to be.

In the case of an underage person engaging in survival sex, it assumes that what you’re rescuing them from is worse than what they left, which might not be the case if they come from an abusive family, or a family who is intolerant toward their identity or who has already kicked them out, or if they are in the foster system or juvie, and have experienced exploitation or abuse there. The solution for these kids isn’t sending them home, but encouraging them to state what’s needed to help them not rely on survival sex work. In many cases, that answer’s gonna be more beds at LGBT friendly homeless shelters, access to steady employment that doesn’t discriminate based on their identity, access to ongoing mental health services if they are suffering from PTSD or a mental condition that affects their ability to get other jobs, and reassurance that they won’t be sent back to an intolerable living situation.

#8. Criminalization encourages abuse from law enforcement. By framing sex workers as hardened criminals, cops and communities give law enforcement a wide leeway in handling sex workers. This means that workers frequently face violence or extortion from law enforcement, who know they have no one to report it to. A cop might tell them to hand over all their money, or to screw him, or else he’ll arrest them or beat them. Even where sex workers are supposed to be seen as hapless victims, the way to saving them is still arresting them, trying to “get them in the system.” I’m sure I don’t need to elaborate on how traumatizing this is.

#9. Criminalization of sex workers’ families, landlords, coworkers, and social circles. According to many regions’ laws on pimping, advertising, brothel running, and “third party” services related to sex work, two sex workers working from a hotel room and watching each other’s backs is considered a brothel. A landlord may be accused of trafficking for living off the proceeds of a sex worker’s trade. This leads to many sex workers getting evicted, both from personal homes and professional workspaces. Obviously the same applies to family members. It even applies to those who work with sex workers in tangential ways, such as those who drive them to appointments, note license numbers of cars they get into, or who help a sex worker with the scutwork of the job: answering emails, vetting clients, helping them code a website or get pictures for it. The sex workers call it working safely, the law calls it a trafficking ring.

#10. Demonization of clients. Especially in the Nordic model of policing commercial sex (you can sell it, but you can’t buy it), you see a huge shift toward blaming the people who’ll pay for sexual services for people being willing to sell sexual services. Verbally putting them on the same level as a trafficker who coerces a woman into working in the sex industry.  But, same as a sex worker’s desire for self-determination in offering those services, the buyer has a right to self-determination in buying them. And before you give me any of that “guys buy sex just to have someone they can abuse with impunity,” or bring up trafficked children, remember, that crap’s already illegal. It’s the criminalization that makes it difficult for a worker to protest the treatment with the force of the law behind them, and in the case of the second, makes it difficult for the client to give the police all the information he has, saying he encountered someone he suspects was being trafficked or coerced. But we’re not talking about crud that’s already criminal, like rape, assault, statutory rape. Because again, that’s already criminal. It just lives in the underground because those who’re exposed to it fear further exploitation and lack of support from law enforcement and the community around them, should they seek help for themselves or someone else.

Clients might prefer the companionship of sex workers for many reasons, ranging from disability limiting access to sexual partners, social awkwardness or a history of abuse making seeking out a partner and negotiating their relationship/casual sex needs difficult, or insecurity over their sexual performance and the desire to remove it from the pressure of a relationship, or a sexually disinterested spouse, a fetish or kink not shared by a spouse, or a couple wanting an impartial party to participate in a threesome, or any number of other reasons. Chances are, you have sympathy for at least one of the types of clients described up there. And do you really want to be the poor schlub charging into people’s bedrooms demanding to know why they’re choosing to have sex, in this way, and checking to see whether their reason is good enough for the sex worker servicing them to accept? No. Adults are adults. Whether he ain’t getting any at home, or his wife can’t hear his fantasy without laughing but he just can’t get it out of his head, it’s not anyone’s business. Whether he can only handle social contact in the confines of the transaction, and freaks out trying to actually tell a fuck buddy what he wants until she leaves without him getting any, it’s not our business. Whether he’s out of town, knows no one, and just doesn’t want to jack it? Not my (@*#&% business. And just like that, I’ve got a lot of unwanted dong on my brain.

Point is, sex workers’ lives, and those of their families, clients, and support systems, are complex and made all the more difficult to navigate safely because of stigma and criminalization. The best thing you can do to help is listen to them without jumping to conclusions, or broadcasting your own morals onto their choices. When you notice yourself making snap judgments or flip assumptions about the lives of sex workers, ask yourself why. Did you see it in a movie, or in a story or joke about a dead hooker? Or see it on a website talking about “the new slavery”? Did you pick it up from an anecdotal friend who’s that kind of hot mess, and who totally proves the stereotype? Ask yourself whether it makes you feel better about the exploitation present in your own life to assume that sex workers have it worse, and need your help. Ask yourself whether any animosity toward clients comes from your own fears of infidelity, and whether there would be any other situation in which you’d be comfortable demanding someone justify decisions that personal.

And if, after doing all that, you want to help make the live of sex workers better, support decriminalization. Support social services, like inclusive homeless shelters, needle exchanges, health clinics, substance abuse treatment, domestic violence shelters, and programs that target potential domestic violence fatalities for warning and counseling. Advocate against police brutality and racial targeting. Advocate against transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, and racism. Advocate for better processing of rape and sexual assault cases, and support survivors who come forward. Advocate for a base living wage, or whatever means you feel are best for combating generational poverty, and lack of upward mobility. Advocate for better treatment for mothers and women in the work force. Advocate for immigration reform, and more resources and options for undocumented immigrants who report exploitation. Advocate for harsher penalties against companies found to use trafficked labor. Advocate for sex education, to better equip people with the tools to navigate consent and sexual needs, and identify abusive or exploitative behavior before it becomes life threatening. Support organizations like Planned Parenthood who provide women with health services that may save them from an STI, or dispense contraceptives to cut the likelihood of them being faced with a child they can’t afford, but will feel trapped into going into sex work to keep. Attend town hall meetings demanding cities plan fair housing, with enough residences for lower income levels. This is how you give sex workers and trafficking victims alike options and a better quality of life. But for god’s sake, stop pretending that sex work is the problem.

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