Sex work — a term many people who sell sex for money prefer to “prostitution” because it is their job — was first dubbed “the world’s oldest profession” by Rudyard Kipling in 1888. It may be impossible to know if this is true, but it would make sense. Some people want sex. Some people are willing and attractive. For better or worse, the supply and demand for sex work have always existed, and probably always will. As a result, government attempts to punish it will always be ineffective, and more importantly, hurt both human trafficking victims and those who have voluntarily chosen sex work.
Right now, both trafficking victims and voluntary sex workers risk arrest for coming forward about dangers they experience on the job. According to a report by the Trafficking Victims Advocacy Project of the Legal Aid Society of New York and the International Women’s Human Rights Clinic at the City University of New York, even children under 18 who are forced into trafficking can be arrested.
The report explains that “once a trafficking victim is charged with prostitution, the circumstances around the arrest and the overtaxed criminal court system create tremendous pressure on the victim to plead guilty, rather than contesting the charge or revealing the trafficking situation.”
It goes on to explain that this can cause undocumented trafficking victims can be deported, and that a prostitution charge may make it difficult for documented trafficking victims to find employment.
Making sex work legal would prevent trafficking victims from facing these consequences. Also, it would protect not only trafficking victims, but all sex workers, from the same fate. This is important not just because there’s nothing inherently wrong with offering sex for money, but also because even if you do think there’s something wrong with it, keeping more options open makes it easier to leave the industry.
Some people accept this conclusion but call for policies that are still harmful based on the mistaken assumptions that all sex workers are trafficking victims and sex work is inherently degrading. The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, for instance, calls it “bought rape.” These people call for decriminalizing the act of having sex for money, but advocate punishing the clients of said sex for money. Joni Mac, a sex worker, argues in a TED Talk that this ends up putting sex workers in more danger.
“To keep safe in my work, I try not to take bookings from someone who calls me from a withheld number,” she explained. “If it’s a home or a hotel visit, I try to get a full name and details.”
Mac also explains if the clients face punishment for revealing their identity, then said clients may not be willing to reveal their information. “I might have no other choice but to accept a booking from a man who is untraceable if he later turns out to be violent.”
Furthermore, many sex workers, especially marginalized sex workers such as disabled people and trans women, become sex workers because they do not have any other options. Taking away their only source of income could put their life in danger.
Not all sex workers are victims, but all need safe working conditions and places to turn for help. Criminalizing sex work prevents this from happening.