Column: Sex work

Sex & Society

Prostitution –– it’s been coined as the world’s oldest profession, but is also one of the most stigmatized, especially in the U.S.

Sex work is, for the most part, illegal in the United States. The only exception is Nevada, where prostitution is only legal within licensed brothels located in specific rural areas (not including Las Vegas or Reno, despite popular notions).

Prostitution is not stigmatized because it is illegal; it is illegal because it is stigmatized. And this stigma rises from the widespread belief that sex is something sacred, something special that should be shared by two people in love, and therefore something that cannot be sold in good moral conscience.

That’s not to say this view is wrong –– but it is not an all-encompassing view, either. Emotional connotation aside, protected sex is no different than, say, a massage. It is simply an act in which two (or more) people engage with each other for physical pleasure. The fact that money is exchanged does not change the nature of the physical service, nor does it automatically make the private, victimless actions of two consenting adults the business of the government.

According to U.S. law enforcement agencies records, every year between 70,000 and 80,000 people are arrested for prostitution. 70 percent of those busted are female sex workers, 20 percent are male sex workers, and 10 percent are “johns,” or clients. For every customer that’s arrested, nine workers are busted for prostitution.

This skewed focus on persecuting the workers only makes it harder for prostitutes to stay safe. For one, sex workers (especially those on the streets) must avoid looking suspicious to the police, which discourages them from staying in groups or feeling out a customer before accepting an offer. The criminalization of prostitutes also dehumanizes sex workers. They are seen as “offenders,” and are much more likely to be treated with violence and disrespect by both clients and the police.

And when a sex worker is violently attacked in her or his line of work, the crime usually goes unreported. It is very difficult, if not impossible, for a prostitute to seek justice for these abuses because she or he is then at risk of exposure to the law, not to mention judgment by society.

Many sex workers, especially higher-end escorts, are not forced into prostitution because of debt or drug addictions. These men and women choose sex work as their profession (a quick Google search for “sex worker interview” demonstrates the wide range of interests and situations that lead people into this line of work). The criminalization of the services they offer is founded on the opinions of those who think their personal morality should apply to everyone in this country.

Unfortunately, others involved in prostitution are not so lucky. Many are victims of physical/emotional abuse or hard drug addictions, or are forced into prostitution against their will. This type of prostitution is not consensual, and I wholeheartedly agree that those responsible for such exploitation should be punished.

This country’s taxpayers spend $200 million every year for the arrest of sex workers. Couldn’t this money be better spent preventing and persecuting those guilty of such exploitation, like sexual coercion and the trafficking of immigrants and minors?

Laws should be based on protecting human rights and safety, not on persecuting consensual adults for victimless “crimes.” The only way we can focus on the real issues in prostitution is if we acknowledge that it is not intrinsically wrong and decriminalize those who choose sex work for themselves.

MARISA MASSARA thinks you should check out spreadmagazine.org for more info on the sex industry. She can be reached at mvmassara@ucdavis.edu.

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