Decriminalization of sex work is a means of harm reduction

by Naiymah Sanchez

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It’s time to talk about sex work again. So let’s discuss the consensual sex trade and why decriminalizing sex work is a means of harm reduction and an important step in the fight against human trafficking.

Ending the criminalization of those who engage in the consensual sex trade industry starts with ending the stigma attached to sex work. That means normalizing sex work. It also means pushing back against the conflation of the sex work industry with the coerced sex trade and the realities of human trafficking.

A person might choose to get involved in sex work for a number of reasons. Many sex workers choose this job because of the financial stability offered by one of humanity’s oldest industries. They engage in the sex trade industry to meet their basic needs despite certain societal and economic factors that would otherwise leave them in oppressive life circumstances. Other sex workers simply enjoy the work and the idea of being paid to give other people personal pleasure. People who consensually enter the sex industry as a means to make a living are doing a job.

Consensual sex work should not be confused with the coerced sex trade and human trafficking.

People who are threatened with harm or violence against them or their loved ones to coerce them into sex are victims of human trafficking.

Criminalizing sex work means that people in the sex trade industry are targeted by police, prosecutors, and judges. This creates a sense of constant threat of arrest or time in jail or prison, damaging their quality of life. While many areas of sex work are seen as more acceptable by society — online escorts, stripper/dancer, and legal brothels, for example — street-based sex workers face more of a stigma and experience a higher rate of exploitation, abuse, violence and interactions with the criminal legal system.

When the ACLU of Pennsylvania began working to end stop and frisk in Philadelphia with a program for police to simply tell those engaged in minor offenses to move along, it gave police more time and money to devote to stopping violent crime. Likewise, ending the criminalization of sex work will allow more reousrces to be devoted to crimes like human trafficking and ending the coerced sex trade.

Halfway measures toward decriminalization like the so-called “Equality Model,” which decriminalizes sex work for the sex worker but leaves in place criminal law for those who hire or manage sex workers do not make sex work any safer. In fact, the Equality Model has been linked to an increase in violence against and stigma about sex workers.

In a co-sponsor memo, Pennsylvania state Representative Summer Lee (D-Allegheny County) notes that decriminalizing sex work plays an big role in harm reduction for already-vulnerable Pennsylvanians in the sex work industry. Rep. Lee notes that decriminalization removes the fear of arrest while giving people who are victims of violence or exploitation a way to safely come forward and report what they are experiencing.

Criminalizing street-based sex work not only sends more people to jails and prisons in Pennsylvania, it is also a deterrent for sex workers who are being abused, exploited, or in fear to speak out against their abuser. This makes everyone less safe.

To well-meaning advocates against human trafficking and the coerced sex trade, these facts should be strong evidence that decriminalizing sex work could be a key step in advancing a campaign to stop human trafficking.

Sex work is here to stay. The question is, are we willing to protect those who choose to enter into this industry? Or will we continue to make their lives and livelihoods less safe by continuing to criminalize this type of chosen work?

Naiymah Sanchez is the trans justice coordinator at ACLU of Pennsylvania.

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