The Case For Decriminalizing Sex Work: How archaic laws drive human trafficking
For centuries, all across the world, sex work has been prevelant in human society, yet despite its long history even today social stigmas and legal rulings criminialize and marginilise an industry that will exist so long as human society does. While an increasing number of people, myself included, call for it to be recognised as a legitimate industry, it is true that a number of dangers exist for the men and women that work in it, human trafficking and other violence agaisnt sex workers included.
The industry's detractors often point to these risks as vindication for the continued laws against it, arguing that relaxing these laws would give exploiters and human traffickers free reign to harm vulnerable groups. However, as Albright et al point out in their 2017 article “ Decreasing Human Trafficking through Sex Work Decriminalization”, this argument “fails to engage in a nuanced conversation of sex work as it relates to exploitation, poverty, discrimination, worker rights, and human trafficking”. In reality the criminalization of sex work does the oppostie of protecting vulnerable groups, instead it creates the conditions that marginilize and make these groups vulnerable in the first place, making it far easier for them to be exploited.
On a very basic level, the criminalization of sex work and the resulting social stigma remove the possibility of proper regulation of the industry. Governments and groups can talk all they like about the global issue of human and sex trafficking, but their refusal to actually work with the industry and those affected means that no effective solution can ever be reached. Throughout the history of worker’s rights (because that’s what sex workers are, legititmate workers), regulation of the workspace and the the powers of employers have gone a long way to improving working conditions.
With this track record it stands that the legalization of sex work and its recognition as a legitimate industry would inherently require its regulation, allowing greater access to the networks that drive the industry, make violence against workers reportable through official channels, and require those employing sex workers to adhere to proper standards that protect their employees as well as preventing vulnerable and exploited women being thrust into the industry unwillingly. In short, sex workers would be entitled to the same workers rights as every other legitimate worker.
Picking up on the issues of marginalisation, this is where Intersectionality comes into play. While the criminalization of sex workers makes them a marginilised group in the first place, its worth noting which groups often end up as sex workers in the first place. For starters, while there are plenty of men in the industry, it is mostly women that become involved in sex work, often working class, and often women who have migrated to the country in which they are working.
Workers then are often already from marginalised groups, making it easier for them to be exploited by less than safe employers within the industry. When already marginalised groups end up in lines of work that add yet another layer of marginalisation with no real regulation, it becomes increasingly easy for them to slip through the cracks into trafficking rings, unprotected by proper worker’s rights.
As I mentioned above, those who oppose decriminalization often argue that it would make trafficking worse, but it's worth nothing when these concerns actually enter their discourse. As Hershatter noted in 1997, sex work does not usually dominate public discourse, until it suddenly becomes a social concern as a “metaphor, a mode of articulation through which emerging social forces and anxieties play out their displaced existence”. Kempadoo expanded on this notion, using Taiwan in the 90’s as an example. During the era of military rule, anti trafficking/anti sex work discourse had been prevelant. Post military rule however, an increasingly liberal society had removed much of the discourse as sex work became more accpeted, and real societal progress towards legalization had been made by 2009
As if in response to this progress, Taiwanese Christian groups revived the trafficking discourse as an argument against legalisation, “articulating broad parental anxieties” and combining them with ethnic and economic anxieties surrounding global migration in order to generate opposition to any kind of legalization of sex work. The very long story short is that this was used as a continually morphing form of social control against sex workers, and I’d reccomend Kempadoo et al’s book “Trafficking and Prostitution Reconsidered: New Perspectives on Migration, Sex Work, and Human Rights” for a much more in depth account of the issue. What I want to highlight from the work however is the tendency of opposition groups to only raise these concerns when progress for sex workers becomes a possiblity, and abandoned once the perceived threat is gone, making their concern a thin veil for social stigma.
In conclusion, both the laws and social stigma surrounding sex workers currently have done nothing but drive demand for human traffickers, while also creating a system where those who are exploited have no real means of recourse, and no real protection from the risks that we have allowed to develop in the industry. Ultimately while legalizing sex work would not solve thesse problems over night, the proper regulation and protections that would be afforded to sex workers woulf go a long way to undoing the damage, as well as shake a centuries old social and moral stigma that has no place in modern society.
Love and Rage,