In the world of the patriarchy we are all members of, women are patronized, reduced to their body and looks, and sexualised in everyday settings. Of course, when women want to make some profit off of that, that’s where the real trouble starts. From modeling to Onlyfans accounts to women owning their sexuality through art (shoutout to WAP), conservatives speak out with indignation, labelling said women with the crimes of objectifying themselves and setting bad role models for children.
But of all the ways women can turn children from the path of righteousness, only one is actually illegal: sex work, or the willing exchange of sexual services/products for money.
So what’s the ruling on sex work globally?
There are different stages of the legality of sex work across the globe: decriminalised, legalised (meaning with regulations), or illegal.
In most of Africa, sex work is strictly illegal, or at least organizations like brothels or pimping are outlawed. However, due to the state of widespread poverty in most African countries, sex work is common.
In the United States, sex work is illegal with the exception of Nevada. The rest of the Americas are in various states of legalization, and in most countries, enforcement is up to local laws.
In Asia, sex work is mostly prohibited, with the exceptions of a few countries. For example, Japan allows certain types of intercourse, and India allows prostitution only in private residencies. Despite the strict rules on sex work, child prostitution is a serious problem throughout Asia. I will be very clear here: child prostitution and any form of trafficking are not sex work. Sex work must be consensual, and children cannot legally consent to sex.
Both laws and enforcement vary across Europe. While the European Union prohibits organizations for sex work but allows the act itself, and most ex-Soviet countries strictly prohibit sex work, there are many exceptions. Germany allows both prostitution and brothels; Belgium allows both despite their illegality, similar to the Netherlands; Hungary and Latvia have both legalized sex work and regulate it.
In Oceania, sex work is decriminalised in New Zealand and varies quite a bit across the rest of the continent.
In addition to these nuances, sex workers must also avoid minor offences, such as HIV transmission, drugs, obscenity, being a public nuisance, etc. In areas where sex work is legalized and regulated, government rules often invade a sex worker’s private life… their health, their money, their personal relationships.
In totality, sex work is mostly illegal, usually stigmatised, and often a result of poverty and lack of other options.
What would be the benefits of decriminalization?
According to a report by the Fondation Scelles, there are around 40 to 42 million sex workers around the globe who lack the government protections other citizens are rewarded with. Here are the key benefits of decriminalising sex work:
Ability to seek justice or police protection. In places where sex work is criminalized, sex workers do not report crimes such as robbery, rape, and assault because they fear being harassed or simply laughed out of the station. Worse, they fear being raped by a police officer. In Toronto, 100% of migrant sex workers told the Migrant Sex Workers Project that they would not report violence to the police. In the United States, immigrant sex workers are often deported when they report a crime done against them. Even when a sex worker reports a crime, they often refuse to testify at court, fearing they will be jailed instead of their abuser. The chances of this happening are even higher if the sex worker does drugs, is transgender, or is an immigrant.
Decriminalising sex work would offer protection against police brutality and rape, sexual assault, intimate partner abuse; it would also allow sex workers to seek therapy and support for these violences.
Bodily autonomy. Morally and legally, the government cannot police what people do with their bodies. Regulating what sex workers do with their bodies takes away their basic right to bodily autonomy.
Rights to civil protections and other compensations. The criminalization of sex work prevents sex workers from organising unions, asking for humane work environments, and demanding equal pay. It specifically exempts them from anti-discrimination laws, rape shield laws, etc.
Sex workers undergo terrible ordeals every day, often because it is their last option. The only way to improve their working conditions and offer them a humane work environment is to decriminalize their job so they can seek the same protections we take for granted.
Reporting sex trafficking. Sex workers are often connect to sex trafficking chains or victims. However, they fear bringing this information to the police because they correctly fear being jailed themselves.
Helping sex trafficking victims. Connected to the previous point, not only does criminalization pose an obstacle to reports of sex trafficking, victims of trafficking are often jailed or face consequences themselves. In countries like Norway, immigrant sex trafficking victims are often deported when they reach out for help.
Healthcare. Perhaps one of the largest benefits of decriminalizing sex work is healthcare.
Female sex workers are 13.5% more likely to have HIV/AIDS. Across the globe, sex workers avoid checkups at clinics because they might be identified and arrested. Some hospitals even turn away sex workers. This puts them and their partners at increased risk for STDs and additionally prevents them for getting adequate healthcare for other ailments.
In many countries where sex work is more strictly regulated, sex workers also avoid carrying condoms or other forms of contraception for fear of police finding them. Sex workers may also take up offers to have sex without condoms for double price because they are trying to provide for their families. Keep in mind that sex trafficking victims are also often subjected to rape without condoms, skyrocketing their chance of contracting STDs or HIV.
Why decriminalize instead of legalize?
If you’ll recall, many countries have legalized sex work instead of decriminalizing it. This means that sex workers can still be arrested if they do not follow government regulations. Burdening sex workers with a bunch of red tape still contributes to the problems listed above, and both research and sex workers themselves prefer decriminalization.
Could this possible, in any way at all, encourage sex trafficking?
We’ve already covered how decriminalization would allow reports of trafficking to come to the light and protect victims from unfair persecution. But could this possibly permit sex traffickers to pose their illegal activity as consensual sex work?
Let me say this just once. Sex work is consensual. If it is not consensual, it is not sex work. Wasn’t that a nice contrapositive?
Decriminalizing sex work must include clear laws on the distinction between consensual and non-consensual. If this takes place, then decriminalization would only help victims of exploitation and trafficking.
Okay, but aren’t you a feminist? Doesn’t sex work reduce women down to their bodies? Isn’t this objectification?
My inspiration for this article came from an Instagram post featuring a tweet as follows: “Just to be clear, I’m pro-choice, pro-sex worker, pro-surgery, and anything else that promotes women being who and what tf they want to be” (Twitter user @ XoRanata).
I saw this tweet, nodded to myself, and, like a moron, looked at the comments. Most of the comments regarding sex work argued that sex work objectified women. In the great “sex work yes or no” divide between feminists, this is also the common feminist argument against sex work.
But let’s look at it this way. Up above, sex work is defined as “the willing exchange of sexual services for money.” And while we’re defining things, let’s go for the other fancy word. Objectification is the “treating people like tools or toys, as if they had no feelings, opinions, or rights of their own” (Cambridge English Dictionary). Now the question we need to answer is whether or not sex work objectifies women, and reduces them to their bodies.
But since sex carries a lot of baggage, let’s compare it to another type of manual labor: plumbing. A plumber does your plumbing with their body, and you pay them for it. Is this objectification?
Do you use them like a tool? Well, you pay them for it, and they voluntarily accept your payment and choose to do the service, so no.
Do you use them like a toy? You can’t force them to do anything other than construction like you used to pop off Barbie’s arms, so no.
Do they have feelings and opinions and rights? Well, you don’t generally scream at them and throw things at them and pat their head when they speak (unless you’re a psychopath). Now, you don’t treat them like royalty, but you do respect they’re a person and you give them basic respect for that. And if you do choose to throw things at them, then they can and probably will file a report against you.
None of this sounds like objectification. And like plumbing, neither is sex work… unless it is criminalized. With decriminalization, sex workers are protected from being treated and abused like objects.
Without it, sex workers can be raped and robbed and violated and assaulted without compensation or protection. When these things happen, they cannot file reports, and when they contract HIV, they are prevented from seeking aid. They remain the Barbie’s of rapists and the justice system.
Sex trafficking, police brutality, and HIV/AIDS are all widespread plagues on Earth, and decriminalizing sex is a large step forward for all three. It would also afford sex workers rights and respect like actual human beings. Seems like a no-brainer to me.