Last Sunday was International Women’s Day, a day set aside to honor and celebrate the economic, cultural, scientific, and political achievements of women as well as celebrate the women in our lives. It is also a day to put extra emphasis on the issues that especially concern women. Two such issues are the related problems of coerced sex work and human trafficking. While these are not the only crimes that victimize women they are some of the ugliest.
Sex worker abuse received a heightened level of attention last month, in the wake of the Superbowl. Disturbing articles alleged that large numbers of women were forcibly smuggled to Northern New Jersey to sell sexual services to the influx of male sports fans. Reports of large scale human trafficking around major sporting events have become common over the last several years. While the common claims that thousands of women are smuggled to the host cities of sporting events lack supporting evidence, coerced sex work is still horrifyingly common in the US and around the world. Young women are still tricked, kidnapped and force to sell sexual services for ruthless pimps, greedy traffickers and crooked cops. Victims of this coercion cannot trust police or other authorities because they themselves are engaged in illegal activity. As a result they have nowhere to turn to and few ways to escape.
Women in the illegal sex trade are subject to high murder rates and intense levels of psychological and physical abuse. This is the tragic result of prohibitionist policies that treat sex workers as criminals. Criminalization brings out the violent aspects of any trade. Just like prohibition made alcohol sales the domain of violent organized criminals, prohibition makes sex for money the domain of dangerous thugs and their victims.
Where there is demand for sexual services (as is the case around major sporting events and military bases for that matter), suppliers will do what they can to meet that demand. Tragically pimps and traffickers use violence to do this. Since their victims have no legal standing, they all to often get away with it. To end this nightmare we need to decriminalize sex work. Decriminalization means complete non-interference with voluntary transactions involving sex work from the state. People should be free to make their own decisions about sexual matters without government involvement. Those involved in criminalized trades, such as sex work, the drug trade or undocumented immigration are highly vulnerable to abuse and murder. While there are undeniably abuses in the “legitimate” economy, the worst of these pales in comparison to what routinely happens to those in prohibited occupations. In many ways this is a genuine labor rights issue, as those in prohibited trades, are often subject to the whims of others and have little to no means to negotiate for higher pay, better working conditions or even the freedom to walk away.
Sex work plugs easily into illegal markets, which is why it is so pervasive, even though it is outlawed in much of the world. Its customers present a consistent, predictable demand, and are willing to pay high prices for work that does not require any extensive training or capital investment. In a free society consensual sex work would be an option for people, especially for anyone that finds it preferable to other forms of work. The need sex workers serve is a real one. People should have the option of fulfilling it in safe, legal and consensual ways. It has been shown that decriminalization can not only decrease violence against women, but also reduce STD transmission. There is no reason why women or men should be forbidden from from earning money by bringing pleasure to others, if all parties involved are in agreement.
While some may counter that sex work is demeaning to those who engage in it, this is only made worse by the prohibitionist policies that surround it. If sex workers had the full protection afforded to other lines of work the stigma would likely decrease. Furthermore we should not be forcibly removing options from people just because they clash with the upper middle class’ subjective ideas of what is demeaning. We should condemn coercion and practices that prey upon people in desperate situations, but we should not be closing options off to them. If anything we should rectify those desperate situations and give people more options.
Sex work in a freed market would potentially be far less demeaning than much of the work we are currently accustomed to. Many of us find wearing the uniforms of fast food workers or expressing the false enthusiasm of telemarketers to be dehumanizing and demeaning, and yet no one in the upper middle class has suggested we outlaw these options for employment. In a freed market those involved in the sex trade could work independently with the full protection of a legal system. They could start their own businesses, and free themselves from not only pimps and traffickers, but bosses as well. Additionally those workers with bosses would have greater freedom to organize to fight for better wages and working conditions. The Industrial Workers of the World currently organizes a sex trade workers industrial union and the United Kingdom’s International Union Of Sex Workers are vocal advocates of decriminalization. In a world free from arbitrary prohibitions, government favoritism towards specific lines of work, and the countless barriers to entry that exist today, more options would be available for all people. Such a world may see a decline in sex work, or it may see it become a more attractive line of work than it is today. What matters is that all people are protected from coercion and are free to make any voluntary agreements they choose.
When transactions are fully voluntary both parties can walk away having benefited. Abuse is minimized when people are allowed to operate openly with full access to redress. Victimization occurs when third parties force others into these transactions. Criminalizing sex work has not eliminated this type of victimization, but made it worse. Today’s sex trade victimizes women and men because of its need for secrecy and the threat of constant attacks from the state. Prohibition, in all forms, produces ugly criminal underworlds where people are abused, murdered and treated as disposable. Let’s end the abuses associated with sex work by freeing sex workers from attacks by the state and supporting the robust protection of freedom for all people.