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What thoughts come to mind when you think about sex work? It’s not surprising if a stream of shaming and derogatory narratives spring to mind. But why? A construction worker willingly sells their body to be in the profession. So does an adult, consensual sex worker. Sex work is work, not a crime. It still is in most places, though, and it’s making use of jails as moral punishment.
Sex work is like any other business transaction. There is a proprietor and a client. Both agree on a cost for services rendered. There is, and always has been a necessary place for this work in society. Instead of arrests, assaults, the trauma and life disruption of jails and the court system, which further marginalize sex workers, it’s time to provide workplace protections, harm reduction, and a restoration of autonomy.
According to a 2019 report, “Human Rights Watch has consistently found in research across various countries that criminalization makes sex workers more vulnerable to violence, including rape, assault, and murder, by attackers who see sex workers as easy targets because they are stigmatized.” Unsurprisingly, police are often the biggest perpatrators against the sex work community. Moreover, as the World Aids Campaign found, sex workers are at greater risk of experiencing health disparities due to criminalization. These risks are exponentially multiplied for trans sex workers, and sex workers of color.
Sex workers deserve to practice their trade free from the fear that comes with not being able to vet clients, and without the fear of being targeted by police, or further criminalized. By legitimizing the work of sex workers through decriminalization, we can provide safety and protection without the expensive licensing and regulations that legalization would require.
Not to mention, research has shown legalization actually puts sex workers at more risk of experiencing police violence. “In the Netherlands where sex work is legalized, law enforcement has raided sex workers’ homes without a warrant and conducted mass arrests of sex workers veiled as anti-trafficking operations,” according to SWOP Behind Bars. Sex workers who belong to marginalized communities, especially Black, trans, and disabled communities, are especially targeted for criminalization.
The right to do consensual or survival sex work is no different than the right to work in a call center to survive. Many marginalized communities, including people with disabilities, choose to engage in sex work because other jobs have long hours and complicated requirements that can be difficult to access, and all deserve the autonomy in deciding if sex work is an accessible option for them. Legalization can be similarly problematic because the complications involved with managing a license bars many people out of finding work simply, easily, and safely. Full decriminalization allows marginalized communities, including people with disabilities to find work that works for them, without a large overhead and complicated regulations that they often don’t have access to navigating.
The last sector affected by criminalization is the client. Without the shame and fear of exposure or arrest, clients would be able to seek the safe space they need to explore everything from affection to fantasy. People should not be afraid of sex work or consulting a sex worker. From people with disabilities who may be shut out of the romance game due to ableism to businessmen who feel unsafe broaching their needs in public, the world needs sex workers — and a safe, shame-free way to engage between sex worker and client.
Nobody needs a license to be a coal miner, or a retail manager, or a software engineer. Nobody needs a license to help people feel heard, cared for, and understood. Nobody has to fear the constant threat of police brutality, arrest, or prison because of their chosen career. In the end, sex workers are trying to do what everyone else is try to do: pay the bills, make rent, feed their families, and survive.
Decriminalization is the only way forward to lift sex workers out of harm’s way. Decriminalization is liberation.
Kyli Rodriguez-Cayro is a mental health educator, sex workers rights activist, and journalist with bylines in Huffington Post, Allure, Bustle, and more. Through her work, she co-founded the Youth of Utah Advocacy Coalition, as well as the Sex Workers Outreach Project Salt Lake City Chapter. You can follow her on Instagram at @kyli_rc
Heidi Pomerleau is an advocate and activist in Salt Lake City. She loves mountains, knitting, and sex education. She is a committee member for the Sex Workers Outreach Project SLC.
Havoq Luscivia is an autistic stripper, burlesque dancer, and cabaret producer based in Salt Lake City. They are a fierce advocate for sex worker rights, disability access, and community building activism.