Decriminalizing prostitution: Sex work is still work

Nina Geoghegan

As of today, sex work is still illegal in most of the U.S., including in California, where sex workers are entitled to six months in jail and a fine of up to $1,000. What sex workers are not entitled to is protection. The current illegality of prostitution has made them even more defenseless in their already vulnerable position. With a death rate higher than oil rig workers, according to HG Legal Resources, prostitution should be legalized to keep those in the industry safe. Legalizing sex work would allow those in the businessto get medical treatment without fear of legal troubles and seek help from the law to avoid manipulation by those in power. 

According to Business Insider, there are upwards of one million prostitutes in the U.S. alone — prostitution is an activity people will continue to engage in no matter what the law says, so why not make it safer through legalization?

A prominent risk of sex work is the medical struggle of accessing treatment. To begin with, prostitutes are 30 times more likely to test HIV positive, according to the United Nations Population Fund. In addition, the source reports that nearly one in four sex workers have been denied health care because of their job. When they are not being refused treatment, sex workers avoid going to clinics because bringing attention to their illegal occupation jeopardizes their ability to continue working. As a result, many stay away from medical care completely— if that medical care is even accessible. Considering the physical nature of prostitution, greater accessibility to health care should be a given. Every person deserves medical care and decriminalizing this line of work would help to do so.

The legalization of sex work would provide access to more than just medical care, but to active protection as well. As stated by sex worker Laura LeMoon in her Huffington Post article, with all its dangers, this industry is seen by many as a last resort. LeMoon is a self-described “survival sex worker” and used prostitution as a means to live. Like any sex act, sex work requires consent, but this is often neglected. In LeMoon’s situation, her terms were violated and she was raped. In her case, she decided not to report the assault because of the illegality of her job. Not only would drawing attention to her profession cause legal problems but in many cases, prostitutes are not protected by federal rape shield laws. States like Ohio and New York actively exclude prostitutes, considering evidence to be “admissible” if victims are proven to be sex workers. Under these circumstances, LeMoon is most certainly not alone in her story. 

Nonetheless, the atrocities do not end there. Due to sex work being illegal, those in the industry constantly fear arrest. However, jail time and monetary consequences may be the least of their worries, as something more ominous can come from police interactions. 

According to a 2002 study by the Center for Impact Research, out of sex worker participants, 24 percent who were raped identified a police officer as the perpetrator. Turning to law enforcement in any situation is already out of the question, as arrest would surely follow, but it becomes especially true when officers can be the danger. With this in mind, avoiding arrest can become a matter of personal safety. To continue working for their survival, many prostitutes fall victim to manipulations of police power as they cannot afford the jail time or the fine money.

Unfortunately, the decriminalization of sex work could fuel a different problem: human trafficking. A 2012 study by World Development suggests that the legalization of prostitution would be followed by higher inflows of human trafficking incidents, meaning more sex trafficking victims. Additionally, these effects would be magnified in higher-income countries where more people would be able to afford sex trafficking services. These findings are largely theoretical but valid. 

On the other hand, legalization would also help trafficking victims. As stated by the organization, Decriminalize Sex Work, those trafficked into sex labor are arrested an average of seven times during their captivity. Due to this, sex trafficking victims find themselves being prosecuted as criminals and charged for crimes they were forced to commit. Seeing as 75 percent of sex trafficking victims come from abroad, the risk of deportation follows along with the criminal charge. Above all, these interactions with law enforcement are often among the most traumatizing, according to the source. Decriminalizing sex work would prevent these victims from being labeled criminals or being deported.

The physical and mental cost of prostitution cannot be dismissed, but for those without an option, legalization can make it much more bearable. Under the Constitution, citizens are granted a multitude of rights and freedoms. Yet, for survival sex workers, a lack of the most crucial liberty stands in the way between them and making a living.