What will protect sex workers?

November 21, 2016

Patrick Delsoin and Rachel Cohen argue that genuine decriminalization of sex work needs to be connected to programs to alleviate poverty, violence and oppression.

TRADING SEX for survival--that's what millions of teens in "food insecure" households may be facing, according to a new study by the Urban Institute and Feeding America.

In discussions held in 10 communities across the U.S. to find out more about the conditions facing the 6.8 million 10 to 17 year olds who regularly don't get enough to eat, researchers say that "[t]eens at all 10 of the study locations and in 13 out of 20 focus groups talked about girls having sex for money."

As the Guardian's coverage of the study reported, "The findings raise questions over the legacy of Bill Clinton's landmark welfare-reform legislation 20 years ago as well as the spending priorities of Congress and the impact of slow wage growth."

Many teens told the Urban Institute researchers about engaging in regular relationships with older men who provided food, housing, or money in return for sex. While these arrangements may be less likely to bring teens into conflict with law enforcement if they're orchestrated through the internet or via social networks, other teens, especially in heavily policed communities of color, do experience violence and exploitation as a result of the marginalization created by the criminal status of sex work.

Protesters demand an end to the criminalization of sex work
Protesters demand an end to the criminalization of sex work

The Urban Institute study underlines the urgency of the need to radically alter official approaches to sex work in a country that destroyed "welfare as we know it," left minimum wages straggling well behind the increasing cost of living, and shamed and criminalized sex workers.

An international study surveying prostitutes in nine countries, including the U.S., found that overwhelming numbers suffer serious violence, homelessness and trauma. Some 68 percent meet the standard for suffering post-traumatic stress disorder. Nearly 90 percent said they wanted out of prostitution, but had no other means of survival.

A different study from John Jay College likewise found that almost 90 percent of the minors surveyed in the U.S. said they wanted to leave "the life," but cited access to stable housing as one of the biggest obstacles.

Current U.S. laws against prostitution not only fail to alleviate the problems that sex workers face, but they harm sex workers in many more ways, cutting them off from protection from violence and abuse by bosses, clients and police, and from basic health and welfare services. Not surprisingly, oppressed communities are specially targeted under existing laws.

The criminalized perception of sex workers also contributes to other victims of violence being ignored if they are alleged to engage in sex work, with or without evidence. For instance, the murders of dozens of trans women of color often go completely unreported each year. But when the media does cover them, the news is often accompanied by conjecture that the victims may have been prostitutes--as though they are therefore undeserving of concern or even to blame for the violence they encountered.

MORE AND more countries have taken half-measures toward decriminalization over the last two decades.

Sweden debuted legislation in 1999 that claims to crack down only on people purchasing sex workers' services. Since then, the so-called Nordic model has been widely celebrated as an unconventional way of eliminating the sex industry without sex workers themselves being criminalized. Prostitution is way down as a result, and prices are way up, according to a recent study.

The question, though, is how such legislation impacts sex workers when the social and economic conditions that push women in particular to sex work aren't changed.

Critics point out that the criminalization of sex workers' clientele continues to marginalize the workers and makes it more difficult for them to make a living. Some have spoken out about how the law simply pushed prostitution further underground--and even intensified the pressure that pimps can place on remaining sex workers to work longer hours or screen members of a decreasing client base less carefully.

In Sweden, government programs provide the possibility of access to housing, welfare programs and income, but the "model" being exported to more and more countries leaves out the social services needed by the sex workers being put out of work.

Treating sex work as an inherent problem that needs to be reduced or abolished also tends to amplify the pervasive slut-shaming sexism that women and sex workers endure. And 16 years of criminalizing purchasers of sex has increased, not decreased the numbers of people in Sweden who feel prostitution itself should be treated as a criminal offense.

Similar laws adopted internationally have also collided with provisions against sex trafficking. In recent months, authorities in Belfast and London have raided suspected brothels, supposedly to crack down on brothel keepers. But in practice, police kicked down doors, arrested workers in full view of the press and jeering bystanders, and hauled away immigrant workers to be detained and deported.

Often, such raids undermine ways that sex workers can provide safety for themselves in numbers, by working or living together. Under some laws, prostitutes living in groups can each be charged as purveyors, when in reality they may be collaborating as friends, to provide support and safety or to help weather financial ups and downs.

The ugly scenes in Belfast and London illustrate that no matter the intentions of the "Nordic model," the state still forces sex workers to operate in an atmosphere of criminalization. Other interactions with the state, like child protective systems and attempts to access public housing or welfare, also tend to punish sex workers--which too often result in women in sex work being left homeless and unable to find other employment.

IN THE U.S., criminalization policies are even more harsh and harmful.

In October, federal law enforcement conducted a high-profile raid against Backpage.com, a classified advertising website that makes millions a year in revenue from adult services ads. CEO Carl Ferrer was arrested and charged with trafficking both adults and minors, based on posts the site hosted. The raid was ordered by politicians seeking re-election in November and was largely hailed in the press as long overdue.

Proponents of the effort to shut down Backpage say such websites make it way too easy for youth to become involved in sex work or to be trafficked by others. The National Center for Missing and Exploited Children claims that reports of suspected child sex trafficking, much of it taking place online, have increased by more than 800 percent over the last five years.

But as the Urban Institute study shows, the internet is not the only factor likely to account for more young people entering into sex work.

Criminalization makes research difficult, but experts point to anecdotal evidence that poverty, substance abuse, and domestic and sexual violence precipitate entry into the sex industry.

But police are far more likely to arrest accused prostitutes than accused rapists. The Bureau of Justice Statistics recorded more than 56,000 arrests for prostitution in 2012, the most recent year for which data is available. Those arrested included 790 minors and were disproportionately Black. Meanwhile, just over 18,000 people were arrested on charges of rape, compared to estimates of 248,000 rapes taking place each year, according to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network.

In early November, Chicago police officer William Whitley was arrested for admittedly paying for sex with minors, including in his squad car in the presence of his partner.

But arrests of those exploiting trafficked teens like Whitley is the exception that covers up the rule. Research by the Chicago-based Young Women's Empowerment Project compiled horrifying accounts of rape, theft and other violence by police, comprising 30 percent of all abuse reported by people in the sex trade.

So while Whitley's arrest made headlines--alongside stories of police using Backpage.com to go undercover and arrest other purchasers of sex--the frequency of police exploitation of sex workers remains hidden from view.

Most defenders of the criminalization of prostitution point to the need for law enforcement to be able to shut down sex trafficking. Researchers estimate 4.6 million people worldwide may be trapped in sexual slavery today.

But how can the same racist, sexist, militarized police force that occupies the lowest-income communities of color, commits brutal and even fatal violence with impunity, and harasses, abuses and exploits sex workers be expected or trusted to rescue trafficked people?

For its part, the federal Department of Homeland Security and its Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency love to brag about their tireless efforts to stop up interstate trafficking.

In 2015, ICE boasted more than 1,400 trafficking arrests, in which 400 victims were identified. But the number of trafficked people that ICE claims to have helped, even if it did so every year, pales in comparison to the 2.5 million people that ICE deported during Barack Obama's years in office. So the legitimacy of policing immigration in order to stop sex trafficking is highly dubious.

And what happens to the victims of trafficking? Under a law passed in 2000, trafficked people can appeal for temporary legal status. But without specific material support or a general framework of welfare in this country, there is little else for trafficked sex workers to turn to.

LAW ENFORCEMENT serves and protects the rich. It has never been a reliable safeguard for workers' rights. Through struggle, workers have won critical legal protections, but sex workers, like all workers, stand to gain the most through their own self-organization and struggles--waged in solidarity with everyone needing access to health care, housing and other welfare--not by waiting on police to protect them.

Ultimately, the social and economic factors that often push women to sex work must be addressed. Only access to other social and economic alternatives can truly challenge stigma and reduce the violence surrounding sex workers.

Fighting for conditions in which people are not coerced into sex work does not require passing judgment on sex work itself. In fact, sex work is probably an inevitable feature of life under capitalism. Marx's close collaborator Friedrich Engels observed that sexism in class societies flows from both subjugating women's reproductive labor and commodifying women's sexuality, writing that "monogamy and prostitution are indeed contradictions, but inseparable contradictions, poles of the same state of society."

Engels' framework equips the Marxist tradition with the understanding that women's role in the nuclear family predominant under capitalism forms the roots of the oppression that women suffer in all other aspects of life.

But Marxists also understand that each person navigates and reproduces complex social relations as conscious, creative human beings. So rather than moralize with individual workers about whether or not to participate in marriage, we fight for marriage equality for couples of all genders. Likewise, Marxists need not pass judgment on whether workers should do sex work, but we absolutely need to champion the rights of sex workers, while keeping our eyes on the prize of a society where people will freely determine their relationships.

Specific struggles and organization to combat sexual and domestic violence, operating independently of law enforcement's heavy hand, could offer crucial resources to people otherwise stuck in sexually exploitative relationships or livelihoods. And contesting the slut-shaming that marginalizes sex workers, along with survivors, LGBT people and people of color in various ways, is critically important as well.

Within the last few weeks, millions of women went on strike in Poland to defeat a proposed ban on abortions that didn't include even an exception for the health of those who are pregnant. Tens of thousands joined in "Ni Una Menos" protests against crimes against women in Argentina. And in Iceland, women carried out a mass action against the gender pay gap by leaving work at 2:38 p.m., the time of day after which they work for free, compared to wages for men doing similar work.

Each of these struggles show the kind of mass, unified action needed to secure the rights of women, workers and the sexually oppressed. Struggles like these are the key to winning a world where no one is compelled into sex work by poverty, domestic violence and lack of access to health care and housing.

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