Decriminalization ensures safety, empowerment of sex workers

Stella Fetherston, Art Editor

In Oregon, prostitution is fully criminalized. That means that selling sex, buying sex and third parties that profit from or facilitate prostitution – like brothels – are illegal. The thing is, criminalization doesn’t help sex workers as much as people think it does. If anything, Oregon’s legislation makes the job even more unsafe.

The discussion of sex work can usually be followed by a discussion about preventing human trafficking. The statistics make sense in that regard; if prostitution is illegal, then the market is smaller, and the smaller the market, the smaller the demand. In essence, the rates of human trafficking decrease when prostitution is illegal. 

But prohibiting prostitution doesn’t make the problems sex workers face disappear. Like with any job, people often go into sex work because they need money. Unsurprisingly, people will do a lot to survive, and that includes risking fines or jail time. Instead of deterring people from selling sex, criminalization forces sex workers to jeopardize their safety to avoid police detection. 

For example, in New York City, condoms could be used as evidence to convict sex workers of prostitution. This was before 2013, when the state senate enacted a bill that barred condoms from being used as evidence in prostitution-related offenses. Before this bill, sex workers would have to choose between bringing protection and a potential arrest. 

Criminalization directly causes sex workers to sacrifice their safety for their jobs. Whether they’re working in isolation or risking HIV/AIDs transmission, sex workers are forced to put themselves in dangerous situations so they can avoid struggles like homelessness and food insecurity. 

If an incident occurs at their work, sex workers will have to choose whether to call the authorities because it puts them at risk for arrest. These same authorities are also capable of abusing their power, and sex workers can’t report it without also being prosecuted because of the illegality of their occupation. If a sex worker is an undocumented immigrant, then reporting any incident, abuses of power or otherwise, becomes nearly impossible unless they’re willing to risk deportation. 

Full criminalization isn’t the only model for legislation around prostitution. There’s partial criminalization, which makes selling and buying legal but third parties illegal. This system still fails sex workers. Due to this third party exclusion, if two sex workers are working out of the same apartment they can be arrested for operating a brothel. This is the same possibility that sex workers face in Oregon, where they can be charged with a Class C felony. 

One popular model, commonly known as the Swedish/Nordic model, makes selling legal and buying illegal. The idea seems pretty straightforward: to stop prostitution, you cut out the demand. What actually ends up happening is increased anonymity between sex workers and their clients. In order to protect the identity of a buyer, sex workers have to make quick decisions about how much they’re willing to trust a stranger. 

In Nevada, sex work is legalized, which means that buying, selling and third parties are all legal and regulated by the state. There are registration fees, scheduled health checks and specific places where sex workers can solicit clients. This model isn’t accessible to everyone, though. Registration takes time and money, so when sex work is legalized, not decriminalized, people who can’t afford registration are still working illegally. 

Decriminalization is when prostitution is both legal and cannot be intervened upon by law enforcement unless other laws become relevant. It is also what most sex workers advocate for. When discussing the decriminalization of prostitution, lots of people ignore the autonomy of those who sell sex, even though there are coalitions organized by sex workers which speak on the matter. These groups advocate for decriminalization because it ensures the right to work safely and on one’s own terms. 

In America, the stigma surrounding sex work is strong; prostitution is seen as degrading and dirty. For an issue like sex work—which is predominantly done by women, LGBTQ+ people and people of color—the problems which sex workers face are ignored and shunned. It’s a bit of a domino effect; people are ignorant, then they’re hateful, and then they’re violent. At the end of the day, the violence we see committed against sex workers isn’t just done by an individual; it’s carried out by a system.