Sex Workers’ Rights are Human Rights

In April, President Trump signed into law a pair of bills, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (FOSTA-SESTA), that passed nearly unanimously in the House and Senate. The bills aim to prevent sex traffickers from profiting online by holding website publishers responsible if third-party users post ads for prostitution, including consensual sex work. Legislatures attempting to protect sex trafficking victims consider FOSTA-SESTA a victory. With unanimous bipartisan support rallied around the newly implemented laws, it seems that the U.S. government has found a way to help victims of sex trafficking with virtually no cost. However, the most vocal opposition to the passage of FOSTA-SESTA comes from the population the bills are purportedly designed to protect: sex trafficking victims and sex workers.

In the age of the Internet, sex workers have been able to take more precautions while advertising, vetting, and choosing clients. By removing sex workers’ ability to take advantage of safety procedures and advertising, they are forced to the streets without protections. While FOSTA-SESTA was designed with good intentions, the bills incorrectly conflate consensual sex work with sex trafficking.

The stigma surrounding sex work and the rights of sex workers is nothing new. Politicians consider it a taboo topic, with even the most progressive candidates skirting around any sort of discourse related to the subject. However, the passage of FOSTA-SESTA and the growing abuse and discontent of sex workers are sparking a fervent discussion about what can be done to simultaneously help those consensually engaged in sex work while combating sex trafficking.

Advocates of sex work believe the answer is clear: sex work must be decriminalized. According to sex workers’ rights advocates, the ultimate goal of decriminalization is to protect both sex workers and trafficking victims. The A.C.L.U. explains that those who have been forced into sex work “are vulnerable because they often work in jobs that are hidden from the public view and unregulated by the government.” [1] In consensual sex work, laws that criminalize and punish sex workers do far more harm than good by creating conditions in which consensual sex workers are stigmatized, discriminated against, and forced into violent and dangerous situations. Decriminalization also helps victims of trafficking. Amnesty International reports that “When not threatened with criminalization, sex worker organizations have collaborated with police to identify women and children who have been trafficked, and refer them to the necessary services.” [2]

An example of effective decriminalization policy is New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act, passed in 2003. This act removed criminal penalties for both sex workers and their clientele. Its approach recognizes that the best people to advise sex worker’s working conditions are sex workers themselves. However, to allow them to do this, there needs to be a transparent environment in which sex workers can report their experiences without the risk of facing a criminal report. Through empowering sex workers themselves instead of expanding state power over sex work more broadly, the balance of power shifts in favor of sex workers, and holds those who seek to exploit them accountable. A study of the effects of the Prostitution Reform Act in New Zealand found that more than 60 percent of the 772 sex workers who participated felt more able to refuse service to certain clients, and 90 percent of sex workers believed that the act gave them employment, health, legal, and safety rights. [3] Decriminalization of both the sale and purchase of sex is incredibly important for enabling access to justice when crimes are perpetrated against sex workers. They can report to police, and they can take their time and assess potentially dangerous situations instead of making hasty decisions for fear of getting arrested on the street.

Criminalization of sex work is rooted in moral opposition to its dehumanizing nature. It is not only religious or conservative groups that oppose decriminalization, but even radical feminist groups argue that sex work perpetuates harmful patriarchal hierarchies and increases violence. Even if an individual is not forcibly coerced into sex work, their socioeconomic status may make them feel as though they have no other viable options. It is true that sex workers are vulnerable to increased risk of violence. Globally, sex workers have a 45 to 75 percent chance of experiencing sexual violence [4]. However, in criminalized countries like the United States, sex workers, and even victims of trafficking, are often arrested when they report sex work related violence, and are often not protected by rape shield laws. When there is a legal framework for sex workers to operate, they are more able to collectively work together and with government officials to combat sexual violence and trafficking. Despite personal inclinations or opinions regarding sex work, it is clear that decriminalization is safer than internet legislation.

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[1] https://www.harpersbazaar.com/culture/politics/a20067359/why-prostitution-should-be-legal/

[2] https://www.lambdalegal.org/blog/20160526_cut-violence-against-our-communities-decriminalize-sex-work

[3] https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/sex-workers-decriminalisation-of-prostitution-new-zealand-new-law-works-research-proves-sex-workers-a7761426.html

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24625169

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Camille Cressman

CAMILLE CRESSMAN is a senior from Southern California. She studies Political Science and English and served a mission in Sweden. Her academic interests include critical theory of literature and class structure, political economy, and grassroots mobilization. Her normal interests include embroidery, pretentious films, sewing, and angry political podcasts. After graduation, Camille plans on attending law school and working in either labor protection or family law

Camille Cressman

CAMILLE CRESSMAN is a senior from Southern California. She studies Political Science and English and served a mission in Sweden. Her academic interests include critical theory of literature and class structure, political economy, and grassroots mobilization. Her normal interests include embroidery, pretentious films, sewing, and angry political podcasts. After graduation, Camille plans on attending law school and working in either labor protection or family law

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