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Should Sex Work Be Legalized?
Advocacy groups debate over how best to help sex workers, many of whom are survivors of abuse and violence
- Jul 12, 2021
Leaving abuse can mean that while survivors may be safer, some also face limited options when it comes to viable employment. Many abusive partners work hard to isolate survivors from any support system; forbid them from completing their educational plans, or getting or keeping a job, before ruining their credit, running up debts under their name or bankrupting them all together. They may also attempt to ruin a survivor’s reputation by spreading lies about how the survivor is “unstable” or “crazy”—another barrier to finding work. Some survivors are prosecuted and spend time in jail for using self-defense against an abuser, and finding work with a misdemeanor or felony conviction presents even more challenges.
This might explain why some enter sex work as a way to get by and to pay their bills. But is it as simple as that? Is sex work just another job? Advocates arguing against decriminalizing it say no.
What Defines Sex Work?
Sex work is any type of work in which an individual receives money in exchange for sexual services. This includes prostitution, pornography or live sex shows, but also services that don’t specifically involve sexual contact, such erotic dancing or phone sex operators. The term “sex work” is typically implemented to avoid the stigma that comes from the word “prostitution.” A sex worker can also be considered a victim of sex trafficking or human trafficking if she (or he) is being controlled, coerced or forced into the work by someone else, usually called a pimp or madame.
There has long been a debate over whether or not all types of sex work should be illegal because of their exploitative and dangerous nature. Advocates to criminalize sex work say that the profession was created to oppress and degrade vulnerable individuals and is often tied to violence, abuse and human trafficking.
Yet some who choose sex work argue that they do so voluntarily, to make a living or because it gives them a personal feeling of sexual empowerment—sometimes both. Sex workers’ rights groups, such as sexworkersproject.org, say sex workers are vilified and condemned for reaching out for help when facing things such as abuse or health issues. The criminalization of sex work, they argue, doesn’t consider sex workers’ needs, such as addressing the economic reasons they entered sex work in the first place, but rather “focuses on the perceived moral failings” of sex workers.
A Modern Take on Sex Work
There is the stereotypical idea of a sex worker—the down-on-their-luck prostitutes portrayed in movies and television—and then there is today’s modern version of that, which appears online for a monthly subscription fee. The site OnlyFans.com launched five years ago and has already registered 450,000 content creators who can charge anywhere from $5 to $50 a month to the 30 million users who have signed up to watch.
It’s not just adult material though—OnlyFans is an outlet for anyone with a talent to post images, videos or LiveStream in order to engage with an audience. But the uncensored site has quickly become a home for sex workers to post X-rated content that would otherwise be banned on social media, netting them a sizable income boost. The most popular accounts on the site can make upwards of millions of dollars each year.
A California mom was recently told her children could no longer return to their Catholic school after administrators were made aware of the racy pictures she’d posted on her OnlyFans account. The woman says she began the account in cooperation with her husband as a way to rekindle their marriage, and that she brings in $150,000 a month.
The Danger of Sex Work
For many, the income sex work can bring in is alluring. And while that can be a reason to turn to sex work, those who do are also putting themselves back at risk for abuse.
A 2012 study funded by the U.S. Dept. of Justice found that deregulation and legalization of sex work does not reduce the amount of overall harm or the instances of sex trafficking.
“Sexually exploited persons typically enter the illicit sex trade as minors, are frequently coerced or forced to engage in prostitution by pimps or traffickers ... and are frequent victims of violent crime committed by pimps, traffickers, and sex buyers,” reads the report.
A study that same year published in World Development looked at 116 counties where prostitution had been legalized and how this had affected human trafficking. Not surprisingly, they found higher human trafficking inflows than in counties where prostitution was not legal. Yet criminalizing prostitution didn’t seem to be a panacea either.
Reads the report: “While trafficking inflows may be lower where prostitution is criminalized, there may be severe repercussions for those working in the industry. For example, criminalizing prostitution penalizes sex workers rather than the people who earn most of the profits (pimps and traffickers).” On that note, many advocates will argue it is a myth to call sex work a financially viable profession when it isn’t primarily the sex workers, mostly women, earning money from the majority of their own sex work, but rather the pimps and traffickers, the people who run the strip clubs, escort businesses and online sites.
But it’s the violence that’s the most alarming—research shows that 45 percent to 75 percent of sex workers around the world experience sexual violence on the job, and that number is likely higher. Many sex workers are reluctant to turn to police to report violence because of the risk of their own arrest or further assault from the perpetrator.
Sex workers are also more vulnerable to being targeted by an abuser who is then likely to exploit the sex worker through the following tactics, according to the National Domestic Violence Hotline:
- Threatening to report the sex worker to police or to immigration authorities if the sex worker is not a U.S. citizen
- Threatening to “out” the survivor as a sex worker to family and friends
- Demanding a percentage of the sex worker’s earnings or withholding their pay, punishing them for not earning enough or denying them the right to use their money as they see fit (aka, financial abuse)
- Sexual coercion (e.g. “You have sex with people for money so you should have sex with me.”)
- Denying the survivor medical care, including STI testing or access to birth control
According to Women’sLaw.org, sex work can also be the result of an abuser’s coercion. Abusers may force a partner to participate in sex work as a form of sexual abuse. This can also result in the survivor becoming financially dependent on the abuser, who has now become something akin to a pimp. Or, the survivor may feel indebted to the abuser, who has likely gaslighted the survivor into believing the abuser is responsible for providing financially for her through her own forced sex work.
Do Sex Workers Actually Choose It?
Robert Brannon has been a professor of social psychology since 1971, now semi-retired from Brooklyn College, whose decades-long studies focused on violence against women and, in particular, pornography and prostitution. He disagrees that there’s anything empowering about the current sex work industry. In fact, even calling these women “sex workers,” he says, is disingenuous, basically a public relations attempt to fancy up what is essentially prostitution.
“Money for sex is not really what it sounds like,” he says. “It’s sexual slavery.”
If it was simply a matter of women exchanging sex for money, says Brannon, “I would shrug. I wouldn’t want my daughter to be doing it, but on the other hand, I don’t have any moral problems with it … if that’s what it was.”
However, he argues, sex work is far more problematic than that. The pimp complex, as he describes it, is largely responsible for promoting the idea that prostitutes want to be sex workers, that they’re making good money and that some of them feel empowered.
“The reality is, based on my research, there are no women who want to be engaged in sex work. That’s a myth that comes from this … gigantic industry and these people who make big money, the pimps.”
It’s a type of brainwashing, in other words, or a gaslighting of women—no, you want to do this. “Do they” asks Brannon, “or do our feminist selves just want to believe this is true?”
He’s says the decriminalization and legalization of sex work would be dangerous.
“That would be great for the johns [patrons],” he says. But the sex workers would be put in a much more vulnerable spot.
“Women used in prostitution are very vulnerable to abuse from johns and even more from pimps who totally control their lives. You never know if the next man who comes in the door is going to be an abuser or a psychotic. There are tremendous health hazards from being used in prostitution.”
But with very limited data to show the risk for abuse and violence against sex workers—like domestic violence, sex work violence is thought to be vastly underreported—it’s hard to make a case for the danger of the industry, especially to young women who enter it with limited other options for employment due to homelessness, abuse or lack of education.
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What Sex Workers Say They Need More Than Jail
If decriminalizing sex work is not the answer, is criminalizing it any better? According to the SexWorkersProject.org, reforming the sex work system would be more effective if its policies focused less on jail time for the victims and more on the following:
- Enforcement of laws against assault, extortion and other human rights abuses committed against sex workers
- Access to health care, job training, education and opportunities to make a living wage for those who need them
- Education on ways to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS
- Training to help sex workers identify and aid victims of human trafficking
- Training in business and money management
- Reduction in social stigmas that often prohibit sex workers from moving into other forms of labor if they want to do so.
To Get Out of the Sex Industry
Transitioning out of sex work can be complicated, much like leaving an abuser. It’s better to have a plan and a support system in place, if possible, when making that change.
Consider reaching out to an advocate at the National Sexual Assault Hotline, 800-656-HOPE, to talk options and safety planning. You can also speak to a domestic violence advocate near you—find one by visiting the Find Help page on DomesticShelters.org, entering your ZIP code and shelters near you—most with 24-hour hotlines—will appear.
You can find support and mentoring group through Treasures.com, an LA-based nonprofit focused on helping women in the sex industry feel empowered and valued.
Also check out the tips for transitioning out of the sex work industry on PositivePeers.com.
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