Some very basic truths we should all be able to agree upon regarding sex work.
- You own yourself. To deny this would imply that someone else can own you.
- A free person only enters into a contract if they will be better off for having done so.
- It should not be illegal to sell something you can give away for free.
- People who are being coerced to do anything are victims and need to be able to report crimes against them.
Sadly in the United States, even at the most basic level this is not true. I am not free to sell my labor as a plumber, because it is illegal for me to work as plumber without a license, and even in my own home, I can’t replace a hot water heater without a permit. I am not free to sell my labor as a driver unless I have a commercial license. I am not free to sell my labor as a carpenter, as a cook or almost any profession without the authorization of the government.
And in some cases I’m not free to sell my labor under any circumstances. Sex workers, in most jurisdictions in the United States are working on the black market.
Let’s address the most strenuous objections to sex work head on. Some people argue that sex work leads to human trafficking, which is a nice word for slavery. While unquestionably there are example of people having been enslaved for sex work, the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons lists other types of human trafficking, including for domestic servitude. If we agree on basic truth #4 we can agree that slavery should be easy to report, treated very seriously, and people engaged in the slave trade should be punished regardless of what sort of labor the slave engaged in. Categorizing some forms of slavery as less serious than others denigrates all of humanity. Slavery is a scourge upon our society and must be ended.
There are so many examples of sex workers who work voluntarily that it is clear that sex work does not require slavery, nor does it cause it. In fact, legal sex work has an example in the real world. in 2003 New Zealand decriminalized prostitution.
Five years after its introduction the Prostitution Law Review Committee found:
Every other objection to decriminalizing prostitution comes down to a moral objection that is clearly not shared universally. Prostitution is already legal in several places in the United States. Being an actor in a pornographic film is a protected right under the first amendment. Strip and Massage clubs abound.
It’s time to decriminalize sex work.
Arguments besides trafficking against legal sex work focus on worker exploitation, but workers are always exploited in a black market. So long as sex work is criminalized, sex workers can be exploited via fear of arrest. If protecting workers is a concern, allowing sex-workers the freedom to ply their trade and report crimes without fear of arrest themselves will make the job much safer. And we already have laws against child labor. Decriminalization of sex work changes no labor laws.
There are also arguments against sex work that focus on the idea that decriminalized sex work will lead to “moral corruption.” Similar arguments were made against integration, marriage equality and even the industrial revolution. The lesson to be learned from all of these examples it that limiting someone else’s freedom is always the worst option.
And identifying the worst option is helpful for decision making. A statement in favor of decriminalizing sex work is neither a statement in favor nor opposed to sex-work itself. It’s a statement in favor of the idea that people own themselves and must be allowed to do with their bodies as they please.