by Naiymah Sanchez
We need to talk about sex work.
Sex work and sex workers have been around as long as people have been engaged in commerce. Despite being one of the oldest professions on the planet, sex work remains a taboo to many people.
Oftentimes, when people hear the term “sex worker,” they think of street prostitution. But that’s far from the whole story. Sex workers are also dancers in strip clubs. They are performers on OnlyFans and similar websites. They are adult film actors. They are escorts and “sugar babies.” The list goes on. The bottom line? If you have ever been to a strip club or watched an adult film, you have been a consumer in the sex work industry — it’s not just about buying sex.
That said, sex workers who are in the business of selling in-person sex, whether on the street or online, are the most vulnerable workers in this industry and would benefit the most from the destigmitization and decriminalization of sex work.
Because of the persistent taboo around sex work, in most communities in Pennsylvania and across the nation, sex workers face arrest and incarceration for doing their jobs. A run-in with police can also lead to coerced sex. The threat of being targeted by police drives many sex workers into situations that can often lead to sexual abuse, physical violence, or worse.
An arrest on charges of sex work can prevent someone from accessing an accurate ID, jobs, housing health care, and other services. It can also lead to deportation for immigrants. Sex workers already face discrimination in many of these systems, and a criminal record and these collateral consequences further marginalizes and stigmatizes them.
By criminalizing sex work and driving sex workers underground, the law is to blame for adding so much risk and stress to the work itself, which sex workers report is a driver of substance use and addiction. The fear of arrest leads to rushed negotations over services and fees, putting sex workers at greater risk of violence at the hands of their clients. Clients know they can rob and assault sex workers — and get away with it — because as long as sex work is criminalized, sex workers risk arrest if they report abuse.
In LGBQ&T communities that are already overpoliced, sex workers are at a disproportionate risk of arrest. This is a vicious cycle, especially for trans people. The vast majority of trans people report facing some sort of discrimination at the workplace, which can lead to unemployment and houselessness. Unhoused LGBQ&T youth are seven times more likely than heterosexual youth to trade sex for a place to stay.
Sex workers deserve better. We must end the prosecution and incarceration of workers in an industry that has always been and always will be here. Sex workers should be able to maintain their livelihood without fear of violence or arrest, access health care without discrimination, and seek justice when they are harmed.
It’s time to decriminalize consensual adult sex work and ensure the safety of sex workers. To do this, we must dismantle the taboo that surrounds sex work and sex workers and change the way our society views the sex work industry.
We also have to change the public discourse to stop the conflation of consensual sex work with the very real issue of human trafficking. If sex work is decriminalized, human traffickers and patrons of victims of trafficking would remain subject to serious criminal penalties. In fact, decriminalizing sex work will make it easier for victims of trafficking to speak out against their abuser without fear of facing arrest themselves.
We must call on our elected officials at every level of government to acknowledge the realities about sex work and to take bold action — even if politically unpopular — that protects sex workers and decriminalizes their trade.
Above all, decriminalization of sex work is a civil liberties issue. Laws that criminalize voluntary and consensual sex, including the exchange of sex for money, are anathema to the constitutional promise of a right to privacy. No government should be in the business of dictating the conditions under which consenting adults have sex. Decriminalizing sex work is a part of the broader work to create a smarter, fairer, more humane criminal legal system.
Sex work is here to stay. The question is, are we willing to protect those who choose to engage in this industry? Or will we continue to put the health, safety, and lives of sex workers on the line just to satisfy our nation’s habit of embracing outdated Puritanical values? We can and must do better.
Naiymah Sanchez is the trans rights coordinator at the ACLU of Pennsylvania.