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Legalize Sex Work


It’s not often that I agree with a conservative like S.E. Cupp, but her argument for legalizing sex work in the wake of the New York prostitute jumping to her death to escape a police raid is a good one.

Prostitutes in the United States have a 45% to 75% chance of experiencing workplace violence. Numbers, of course, are unreliable. Most are too afraid to report attacks — or any other crimes they may have been victims of — for fear of being found out. For those who do, in most states, sex workers aren’t protected by rape shield laws, meaning their prostitution, current or past, can be used as character evidence against them. New York is one of the few that exempts prostitution.

The World Health Organization recommends that countries decriminalize sex work to mitigate the violence they are subjected to, as well as regulate things like condom use and regular STD testing the way the porn industry does.

Sex workers themselves have tried to make their industry safer, establishing websites to share safety tips and rate their clients. But because the sex trade is illegal, so are those sites; they are regularly raided and seized by the FBI.

In New York City, picking up prostitutes has become a big business for the NYPD. Over the past 10 years, police have made thousands of prostitution arrests — 1,700 in 2014 alone. Raids on hotels and massage parlors routinely round up hundreds of prostitutes, pimps and johns.

Despite creating Human Trafficking Intervention Courts, meant to soften the treatment of prostitutes in New York, prostitutes make easy arrests that pad police quotas, and courts get quick guilty pleas from sex workers who know they can not fight the system.

One woman named “Love,” profiled in a Vice piece, was a former sex worker who was snatched off the street by cops who just assumed she was still a prostitute. She was arrested and charged with misdemeanor prostitution. At the time she was a surgical technician student.

She fought back, suing the city and winning a monetary settlement for false arrest. Her success is exceedingly rare.

On top of all of this is the important point that sex work is a labor issue. It is work. Take the morals out of it. It is nothing if it is not work. And if we exempt a class of workers from our labor laws and make their work illegal, even though everyone knows these workers will still ply their trade, we are opening them up to being raped, killed, and criminalized, to the point that they would jump to their deaths before being caught by the police. That’s an unacceptable labor situation. Given where the economy is going for the working class, I would certainly guess that prostitution is likely to be a more common job going forward, not less common. I give a lecture once a year in a colleague’s class on sex work. And I go after the students’ judgmental notions about sex work, forcing them to confront it as an economic question. As I say to them, if you want to stop this:

An evening out with an investigations team looking for underage girls in establishements known for sex work in Phnom Penh, Cambodia.

Then you need to reform this:

The same goes for the United States. So-called “moral” arguments about sex and prostitution are meaningless in terms of fixing these problems. Criminalizing sex work kills sex workers. If you don’t want people to be sex workers, give them real economic options. Anything else is just words obscuring the real issue.

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