Sex Work Is Work
June 13, 2019 9:34 AM   Subscribe

“From even a quick scan of the 20-plus page draft bill, it’s clear that decriminalizing sex work means dealing with more than just laws against prostitution per se. “This actually speaks to exactly how pervasive the criminalization of the sex industry is,” said State Senator Julia Salazar, “that it touches so many parts of the law the average person doesn’t think about when they think about prostitution being illegal.” A Historic Breakthrough for Sex Workers’ Rights: New York could become the first state to decriminalize prostitution. (The New Republic) Sex Work Is a Hot and Messy 2020 Political Issue (City Lab) Philosophy Tube: Sex work, criminalization, legalization, and decriminalization (43:00)
posted by The Whelk (30 comments total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
Finally. Even if this attempt doesn’t make it at least people are starting to talk in terms of the rights of sex workers and not Great Moral Evil.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 9:44 AM on June 13, 2019 [16 favorites]

I am so glad this is happening. Also I would like to thank metafilter for setting my ass straight on sex work some years ago.
posted by nikaspark at 10:02 AM on June 13, 2019 [21 favorites]

People are just so, so bad at addressing the causes of problems instead of just trying to shoot for making it go away.

Homelessness? It's best for society if we find people houses. But instead people try to make their cities hostile to the homeless, and hope they'll relocate.

Drug use? It's best for society to have rehab and healthcare, but instead we throw addicts in jail.

Abortion? We'd see a huge reduction if we had comprehensive healthcare, sex education, and access to contraceptives. But people keep hoping that restricting access will prevent abortions.

People hate sex work because they believe disease and abuse is endemic, but if we'd actually make it legal, then sex workers would have the ability to access better healthcare, report abuse, and monitor clients.

Even if you're morally opposed to sex work, you should want to see it decriminalized, because it's easier to help people out of that line of work if they're not living in a legal gray area.

It's kind of surprising that the legality of prostitution hasn't been challenged in court on a constitutional ground. I can't think of another otherwise legal activity that is illegal when done on a professional rather than amateur level.
posted by explosion at 10:12 AM on June 13, 2019 [40 favorites]

I can't think of another otherwise legal activity that is illegal when done on a professional rather than amateur level.

Organ donation is one, but even then we make exceptions for repeatable transfers such as plasma.
posted by jedicus at 10:21 AM on June 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

I can't think of another otherwise legal activity that is illegal when done on a professional rather than amateur level.

You can cook food and serve it to your friends and family for free, but you can't sell it without following a lot of strict rules on hygiene and other important factors. Of course, that's a matter of regulation, not total criminalization.
posted by Faint of Butt at 10:24 AM on June 13, 2019 [11 favorites]

There's legit feminist arguments for keeping sex work criminal, at least for the buyers. I disagree with those arguments, but they're not inherently illegitimate.

But I'm firmly on the pro-legalization side.

I really hope New York's law passes because I think it will make life dramatically better and easier for sex workers. There's downsides to legalized sex work, but there's downsides to pretty much anything. The question isn't "is this proposal perfect in every way", but rather "will this proposal be better than the status quo"?

And I think its obvious that legalizing sex work is going to have vastly fewer and less severe problems than keeping sex work criminal.

But then, I also think gambling and all recreational drugs should be legal, if regulated so as to keep harm to a minimum.
posted by sotonohito at 10:41 AM on June 13, 2019 [8 favorites]

I know some sex workers and have had the opportunity to hear something about the details of the business. I absolutely believe in decriminalization, for these reasons:

1. Criminalization pushes sex workers, mostly women, into the hands of pimps. When sex work is legal, workers can use existing networks to stay safer, work indoors, etc. When workers have to work on the street or don't have access to networks, not only do people choose to rely on pimps for some kind of protection but pimps can more easily track downand force workers to work for them with threats.

2. Presumably, decriminalized sex work means that sex workers can rent their own spaces, right? If so, that will be a huge gift of safety and health - if you can, eg, share a space with other workers, you have the safety that comes with co-working and you can more easily buy/maintain/access whatever you use to do your work - whether that's condoms or bondage stuff or clothes, etc. You don't have to carry it around and you know it's secure when you're not using it.

3. Bad clients and vengeful exes lose leverage. Right now, they have a huge amount of power to threaten workers, because they can threaten to out people, report them to CPS, call the cops, etc. (This is seldom framed as a misogyny/power issue; it's usually framed as a "decadent world of sex workers" thing - but it's not like men don't threaten women elsewhere. Decriminalization would just remove some of their power.)

4. Financial stuff. If it's decriminalized, you'll have a normal rental/tax/employment history - your job history will still be stigmatized, but not to the same degree. You won't have to worry about how to deal with the money you bring in; you or your employer can bank and pay taxes like everyone else. More, you can much more easily save up for, eg, a house.

5. Easier to leave the industry - you'll have a normal financial history and no criminal record. Also, the portable skills that you've gained, whether they are financial/bookkeeping, fashion, advertising, etc, will be easier to put on your resume. There are a lot of skills to sex work.

6. Once wages are legit and transparent, it's a lot easier for workers to organize, deal with politicians as a group, etc. On the one hand, once things are legal there's probably less upward pressure on the prices for some things, but there can be a real price floor for workers in general.

Also, sex work is not just work, it's a LOT of work! At the minimum, there's a lot of work and expense in terms of clothes, manicures, hair, wigs, etc. If you're working independently, there's also a LOT of work to maintain ads and web presence - posting new content/photos, taking new photos, making sure that you're getting the kinds of views you need, paying bills.

I strongly recommend that everyone who wants to have an opinion on sex work talk to sex workers or read some extended interviews and memoirs. You may not think that you've absorbed the myths and stigma pervasive in our culture, but you really have - or so I learned from my own experience. Demystifying sex work is really important before people form serious, actionable opinions.

On another note: my impression is that a percentage of sex work is kind of skeevy, and that there definitely are plenty of men who have this "I am buying women, this maps onto my attitudes toward women in general" attitude.

However, I do not believe that criminalizing sex work helps with any of this. I believe that worker power will get sex workers respect and that will have a knock-on effect in terms of respecting all women and GLBTQ people.

I also believe that when it's safer and easier to both enter and leave the industry, the skeevy part of the industry will shrink. Men who use sex workers because they like to abuse and control women won't be able to get that particular thrill and workers won't be trapped in the industry by criminal history, tax problems and stigma.
posted by Frowner at 10:52 AM on June 13, 2019 [83 favorites]

Closely related to those interested (apologies for the link dump):

Silvia Federici's book Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body and Primitive Accumulation , is a central text on this very question.
Caliban and the Witch is a history of the body in the transition to capitalism. Moving from the peasant revolts of the late Middle Ages to the witch-hunts and the rise of mechanical philosophy, Federici investigates the capitalist rationalization of social reproduction. She shows how the battle against the rebel body and mind are essential conditions for the development of labor power and self-ownership, two central principles of modern social organization.
consider also Silvia Federici, “Precarious Labor and Reproductive Work,” a 2006 lecture.
Also, when we said that housework is the work that reproduces not just “life,” but “labor-power,” we began to separate two different spheres of our lives and work that seemed inextricably connected. We became able to conceive of a fight against housework now understood as the reproduction of labor-power, the reproduction of the most important commodity capital has: the worker’s “capacity to work,” the worker’s capacity to be exploited. In other words, by recognizing that what we call “reproductive labor” is a terrain of accumulation and therefore a terrain of exploitation, we were able to also see reproduction as a terrain of struggle, and, very important, conceive of an anti-capitalist struggle against reproductive labor that would not destroy ourselves or our communities.

How do you struggle over/against reproductive work? It is not the same as struggling in the traditional factory setting, against for instance the speed of an assembly line, because at the other end of your struggle there are people not things. Once we say that reproductive work is a terrain of struggle, we have to first immediately confront the question of how we struggle on this terrain without destroying the people you care for. This is a problem mothers as well as teachers and nurses, know very well.
Juno Mac and Molly Smith, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, a 2018 book that just came out from Verso. I haven't read it but I now note it is blurbed by Federici. Here is an except in the Boston Review:

Leopoldina Fortunati and Carol Leigh are also good on this.
posted by Ahmad Khani at 11:27 AM on June 13, 2019 [13 favorites]

There's legit feminist arguments for keeping sex work criminal

I have yet to hear a convincing one. "Keep your laws off my body" is a particularly high hurdle to clear.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 11:32 AM on June 13, 2019 [10 favorites]

Seems like the law enforcement path causes a lot of its own problems but I am not sure the legalize and regulate path works without a lot of careful planning.

I listened to a podcast where this topic came up:

Ambassador Sarah Mendelson had seemed to have real world knowledge that legalization provides cover for illegal activities.

Does this post cover that view point?
posted by graham1881 at 11:33 AM on June 13, 2019

sotonohito and others: you use the word "legalization," but there's a specific distinction between legalization and decriminalization -- New York is advocating decriminalization, where there aren't any laws regulating it, whereas prostitution in Nevada is legalized, which is regulated by law. More here.
posted by AzraelBrown at 11:54 AM on June 13, 2019 [13 favorites]

there definitely are plenty of men who have this "I am buying women, this maps onto my attitudes toward women in general" attitude.

These men also treat waiters and hospitality staff poorly. Labor in general can be skeevy, sadly.

legalization provides cover for illegal activities.

This is a risk that all lines of business have. Many businesses are cover for money laundering. Abuse of undocumented labor is endemic to many sectors because of a lack of standards and enforcement.

However, when a business is illegal, it's almost universally harder for crimes within to be reported or enforced. Which illegal activities are you referring to that would be *more* covered under decriminalization than they are now?

In general, when people say "decriminalize," there's an implicit addendum of "and regulate." I think proponents of decriminalized sex work still understand and expect that it would be regulated at least as much as, say, salons or massage parlors.
posted by explosion at 11:57 AM on June 13, 2019 [13 favorites]

I would love for sex work to be decriminalised and, ideally, legalised and regulated in reasonable and thoughtful ways. Not least because I would like to become a professional cuddle bunny but too many places think that is a sexual service (which it is not or at least not in my case). Mostly, however, for the sake of sex workers. Thanks for the post, OP!
posted by Bella Donna at 12:58 PM on June 13, 2019 [3 favorites]

A lot of sex workers say sex work isn't about the sex very often. It appears there are a huge number of men who are paying women in order to have their base human needs met. There are orgasms involved, but johns are looking for a lot more than a release from being horny.

Just the same that sex ed is the best way to reduce abortions, figuring out why men need to pay women in order to have their emotional,physical and social needs met will be the best way to reduce prostitution & ills associated with it.
posted by KBGB at 3:03 PM on June 13, 2019

I can't think of another otherwise legal activity that is illegal when done on a professional rather than amateur level.

My wife is going through nail school, and right now she do all the work on people she wants for free, but she'd be in violation of California state law if she charged money because she doesn't get her license until July.
posted by sideshow at 4:30 PM on June 13, 2019 [4 favorites]

Prudery just makes everything worse. The worst aspects of the sex trade, like human trafficking, would be greatly diminished by decriminalization. And in a future world, there would be an option to unionize.
posted by ovvl at 7:12 PM on June 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

There is a lot of evidence from places like Germany, which decriminalized prostitution in 2002, that decriminalization starkly increases the amount of human trafficking that goes on in prostitution. So it helps women in some ways and hurts them in others.
posted by colfax at 11:58 PM on June 13, 2019 [1 favorite]

Prostitution is not decriminalized in Germany; it has been legalized and regulated.
posted by aedison at 1:43 AM on June 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

Oh, I'm glad to see this!

I'm not sure if this is the right place, but I have some questions about decriminalization vs. legalization. (I'm not talking about "legalize to eventually abolish sex work", such as the Nordic/Swedish Model)

I also want to clarify that I know I don't know a lot - while I've been reading a bunch of articles and following sex workers on Twitter and other online platforms, my thoughts on this are less developed than, say, on racism. So I apologize if something I say is misconstrued or has an anti-sex work bias.

So - it seems like the more vocal voices about sex worker rights are for decriminalization (vs. legalization). My (limited) understanding is that this is:

1. For solidarity reasons because advocates for legalization are also for decriminalization as a first step.

2. Because legalization may add licensing and regulations that will effectively raise the financial barrier for entering the industry (as opposed to being a high-paying form of labor that many people, especially marginalized folks can access)

3. Heavy legalization might also potentially punish sex workers who can't comply with those regulations, giving pimps / managers too much control over marginalized sex workers, thus potentially even aiding sex trafficking

4. Legalization might be wielded as a tool to effectively re-criminalize sex work (for example, a "no sex work businesses within 1 mile of a public school" would effectively criminalize sex work for almost all of NYC)


Pro-legalization: in my mind I've been thinking about sex work as somewhat akin to talk therapy and massage therapy, which are both legal, and in some places like the US, regulated and have licensure programs for good reasons (I think?) including the bodily health of everyone involved.

Pro-decriminalization: However, it does seem (based on the experiences and articles of sex workers) that people prefer New Zealand's decriminalized model and think that it's better than Germany's legalized one. And reasons 3 and 4 are real, grave reasons why legalization may be risky for sex workers, and reason 2 is a real reason why legalizing sex work remove access to labor, especially for survival sex workers.

But if decriminalization or deregulation is ideal, what does that mean about how therapy be deregulated? Can't I say "talk therapy is between two consenting adults, so why should the government regulate it?" (or is an answer, "yes, therapy should be deregulated"??, or "a different logic should apply to therapy and sex work"?)

Is there good writing on what, in a totally ideal world, where problems 3 and 4 don't exist, what "ideal form of legalization/regulation of sex work" would look like, ideally by sex workers or allies?
posted by suedehead at 9:27 AM on June 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

The excellent podcast Criminal has a couple of recent episodes about this topic. Part 1 interviews a trans Argentinian sex worker who is now an advocate for legalization in the US. Part 2 interviews the highest-paid legal sex worker in the US.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 9:37 AM on June 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

I used the wrong term earlier, I should have said decriminalization.

One of the big reasons people push decriminalization as opposed to legalization is because the situation in Nevada, the "legalized" place is awful.

Sex workers are required by Nevada law to work in brothels, which means someone other than the sex worker is actually in charge.

Worse, Nevada law mandates that while they are on duty, sex workers cannot leave the brothel for any reason other than medical emergencies. Breaks? Stay in the brothel. Lunch? Stay in the brothel. Again this puts the sex worker at the mercy of the brothel owner and limits them to even less freedom than most other workers have.

I think it's pretty clear why most sex workers are absolutely opposed to putting a Nevada style regulatory regime in place.

There's a good argument to be made for having some sort of regulatory framework in place, if for no other reason than to make sex trafficking more difficult. But American sex workers are naturally leery of people advocating a tightly regulated legalized situation because they see it as the potential for Nevada style oppressive, pro-pimp anti-sex worker, laws.
posted by sotonohito at 11:28 AM on June 14, 2019 [6 favorites]

Other than Nevada, do we have examples of industrialized societies where sex work has been legalized/decriminalized? I know very little about the subject.
posted by escape from the potato planet at 1:56 PM on June 14, 2019

Sex work status by country in Europe.

New Zealand and Australia have also legalized sex work, although it’s different by state in Australia.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 4:28 PM on June 14, 2019 [1 favorite]

There is a lot of evidence from places like Germany, which decriminalized prostitution in 2002, that decriminalization starkly increases the amount of human trafficking that goes on in prostitution.

Reading the various studies there’s a lot of "increases", "decreases", etc. but very little by way of raw numbers.

In 2011 for example there were 636 cases of human trafficking in Germany. I think the studies make a good argument that this would be lower without state sanctioned sex work increasing the general demand. On the other hand that is hardly an epidemic, and especially given how often human trafficking is tied to organized crime it seems a problem more suited for law enforcement than legislation.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:01 PM on June 14, 2019 [2 favorites]

I’m reading about the UK and it appears to be legalized there and sex workers are looking for decriminalization instead.
posted by Selena777 at 9:59 PM on June 14, 2019

the linked video goes into detail about the UK and Northern Ireland in how the selling of sex is technically legal but just being suspected (not proven, suspected) of profiting off sex work means you can be hauled in or charged with crimes like, renting a flat to a sex worker or sharing a car service or bodyguard and have you - it;s pretty humiliating and violent and all on technicalities. Plus they just confiscate what they like, phones and computers and such.
posted by The Whelk at 10:33 PM on June 14, 2019 [4 favorites]

and the author of the first article, Melissa Gira Grant , author of Playing the Whore, notes that since the 70s, sex workers report the Police, not clients, are the major source of violence in their lives.
posted by The Whelk at 10:38 PM on June 14, 2019 [7 favorites]

Teen Vogue: Why Sex Work Is Real Work
posted by homunculus at 6:05 PM on June 17, 2019 [1 favorite]

Keep Your Laws Off My Body
posted by The Whelk at 2:56 PM on July 2, 2019

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