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Freedom Growing For Sex Workers Around the World... Not So Much In the U.S.

The tendency to conflate legitimate sex work with human trafficking is the greatest hurdle to progress.

Sex work is a particularly taboo topic in American society. The exchange of sexual services for money or goods remains illegal in all American states except Nevada, where brothels are licensed in some areas. In most U.S. jurisdictions, prostitution or solicitation is a punishable offense accounting for 62,760 arrests annually in 2010, according to recent Bureau of Justice statistics. Advocacy groups contend that the government invests some $11.4 million per year into police resources solely to round up sex workers, forcing many in the industry to work undercover to avoid prosecution.

While efforts such as Proposition K to legalize sex worker rights in the United States have certainly been vocal, all moves for decriminalization have thus far been defeated by strong campaigning from government officials who believe legalizing sex work would hinder law enforcement’s ability to curb sex trafficking. This tendency to conflate legitimate sex work with human trafficking has been the greatest hurdle to reaching consensus on how best to address the issue, provoking strong debate within the feminist movement.

On one side are the outspoken sex worker advocates who don’t seem to acknowledge the plight of those forced into trafficking as legitimate victims, instead depicting all sex work as a meaningful and enjoyable profession. On the flip side are women’s rights and anti-trafficking organizations increasingly intent on branding all people who engage in the sale of sex as victims, inflating sex trafficking statistics and refusing to believe sex workers have agency over their work and bodies. All prostitution, they believe, constitutes violence against women. 

Clearly, both views are skewed and hinder policy development in the United States, as the divide between the agent-versus-victim sex worker classification intensifies. In response, the government has attempted to address the issue by imposing punitive measures on those who buy sex services through FBI sting operations and “ John schools,” where men arrested for solicitation pay a fine and/or take a class to learn about the harmful consequences of their actions. 

Legislation such as the Trafficking Protections Victims Act (TPVA) has been enacted, but it's aimed primarily at ending sex trafficking rather than recognizing sex work as a legitimate occupation or that those that who engage in sex work should be afforded basic labor protections including health and safety. These laws have only expanded the state’s police powers further perpetuating the myth that sex work is a “universally victimizing activity,” according to Carisa Showden, co-author of Negotiating Sex Work.

Such efforts have also had the unintended consequence of placing sex workers at greater risk of violence, forcing them to operate in clandestine locations as well as increasing criminal penalties like arbitrary arrests for failing to comply with law enforcement. Such restrictions also deter sex workers from carrying condoms, exposing them to disease and pregnancy for fear that condom possession may be used by police as evidence of prostitution. “In essence, if a woman doesn't fit the stereotype of an innocent girl forced into prostitution, she becomes a criminal,” Showden writes.

While this victimization paradigm of sex worker laws in the United States undoubtedly falls short of representing the needs and rights of sex workers, the question remains whether decriminalization or legalization is more effective in guaranteeing protections for sex industry workers. Some 50 countries around the world have now legalized sex work, including all of Central America and the entire continent of South America (minus three nations), while pimping remains illegal, thus encouraging the agency of sex workers in most of these nations. Virtually all of Western Europe has legalized sex work to varying degrees, which even extends to pimping and brothels in some countries. Such measures inevitably raise pros and cons and present their own unique challenges. Here's how other nations around the globe handle the scope of sex worker rights.