Sex and drugs are two of the most controversial and intensely charged topics in American culture, and the connection between them extends far beyond their shared association with the hedonistic impulse.
Sex and drugs can be powerful ways to alter consciousness, to facilitate surrender, to heal and to reconnect. But there’s yet another important link to be made between the two: the oppressive prohibitionist wars on drugs and sex work.
As someone with experience fighting for both drug users’ and sex workers’ rights, I am struck by the mirroring of underlying issues at play.
Sex workers and drug users share the questionable distinction of being two groups of people who are consistently and often acceptably stereotyped and maligned as a whole, even in so-called progressive circles.
The general campaign against sex work through state and federal laws (as well as lobbying by anti-trafficking organizations) is not generally called the War on Sex Workers—but that’s effectively what’s taking place. Selling sexual services is illegal, and many activities that help ensure the safety of sex workers are criminalized under pimping or trafficking laws.
Like the War on Drugs, these laws further marginalize the most marginalized. Just as the drug war makes drug-taking more dangerous and disproportionately affects the most vulnerable, the War on Sex Workers makes sex work more dangerous too—unfairly targeting certain workers based on gender, race and class.
Here are 10 reasons ending the War on Sex Workers makes as much sense as ending the War on Drugs:
1. Criminalization increases harm and dangers (but legalization isn’t the answer either).
We already know that the criminalization of drugs has a whole slew of unintended negative effects, from impure and potentially dangerous product on the market to the unfair targeting of certain populations in its enforcement.
Similarly, criminalizing sex work creates harm and makes sex work more dangerous. Sex workers have no protection under the law if they are robbed, beaten or raped on the job. (Some still don’t believe a sex worker can be raped.)
When sex workers experience theft, rape or other assault, there is no way for them to go to the police. Sex workers who are dealing with a coercive middleman can be left feeling dependent on them, isolated in the underground. Criminal records for sex work (just like records for drug convictions) often prevent those who do want out of sex work from being able to get a different job.
Let’s not forget to mention that police disproportionately target street-based workers, especially trans women and women of color. In some places, carrying condoms is used as evidence of the intent of prostitution—meaning that sex workers are being incentivized not to protect their health and the health of others, because doing so risks arrest.
However, legalization is not ideal either. Legalization is a reverse criminalization that inevitably creates a two-tiered system, with some activity remaining underground. The amount of stigma around sex work pretty much guarantees that many sex workers are not going to want to register with the government under their legal names.
Regulation also involves jumping through hoops, often requiring extra time and money, a process that favors more privileged workers. The most vulnerable workers are left to work in the underground and continue to face all of the dangers of criminalized sex work. The legalization of sex work in Germany and the Netherlands has demonstrated the weakness and ultimately, failure, of this model.
Decriminalizing would make it possible to prosecute violent clients and to provide social services for exiting sex work outside of the criminal justice system. It would also allow sex workers the freedom to continue their work as they choose, except with a reduction in potential harm.
New Zealand decriminalized sex work in 2003 and its laws remain the model sex worker organizations refer to as the ideal for their rights and safety.
Ninety-six percent of street-based sex workers in New Zealand say they feel the law protects their rights. This can probably be attributed to the fact that the New Zealand government worked directly with sex workers in order to create laws, something that is so often missing from discussion and legislation of the sex industry elsewhere. One popular sex worker protest slogan is “Nothing about us without us!”
2. Stigma around sex work and drug use compounds harm.
The stigma around drugs means many users fear that the discovery of their use could lead to everything from the loss of their job to the loss of their children.
Stigma can also prevent users from asking for help and support when struggling with their relationship to substances. Similarly, sex workers often cite stigma as the most harmful aspect of their work. And many sex workers who do want to switch professions find that stigma makes it difficult to explain resume gaps, etc.
At the very least, stigma is isolating and psychologically harmful. But de-stigmatizing sex work wouldn’t just improve sex workers’ mental health and well being—it would help improve their physical safety as well.
One can see both laws and social attitudes reflected in some clients’ treatment of sexual service providers. The stigma of the “dirty whore” facilitates socially acceptable hostility towards sex workers—and leads to a system that has come to accept violence towards them as an inevitable consequence of their work rather than a societal problem that needs to be addressed.
3. People of color and those on the lower end of the socioeconomic scale are disproportionately targeted by law enforcement.
Generally, those with economic privilege are more likely to get away with using their illegal substance of choice. Similar rules apply in the current enforcement of the war on sex workers. Street-based sex workers are targeted for arrest most often, with trans women and women of color (sex workers or not) profiled far more frequently.
In New York City only one third of the population is black, yet black defendants face 69 percent of charges brought before the court for prostitution-related offenses and 94 percent of the charges for the vague offense of “loitering for the purposes of prostitution.”
Discrimination occurs along socioeconomic lines as well. When law enforcement officers stage setups, they often respond to ads on websites such as Craigslist and Backpage, where sex workers can advertise freely or cheaply. (These cheap advertising sites are frequently the determining factor in whether sex workers can work independently indoors or need to work on the street and/or for a third party, and their shutdown can be financially devastating.) Meanwhile, websites that require tens or even hundreds of dollars a month to advertise on, which cater to sex workers with higher rates and wealthier clientele, are left alone.
4. Both wars use law enforcement and imprisonment responses to what are much broader social problems.
Our society’s criminal justice approach to the war on drugs (and as the brilliant author Gabor Maté often says, this system of justice truly is criminal) counts success by arrest numbers. In doing so, we avoid having to face the underlying and intersecting social issues of addiction, poverty, trauma, racism and other marginalization.
Similarly, the War on Sex Workers allows us to avoid issues like transphobia, homophobia, misogyny, poverty, homeless youth, immigration, labor rights and structural inequality under capitalism. The law enforcement approach to sex work gives a seemingly easy solution to what are incredibly complex problems endemic to our society. It allows politicians to tell their voters they have acted to solve the problem, while actually fixing nothing and often compounding the struggles of society’s most vulnerable.
5. Both wars justify themselves by hysteria around “trafficking.”
Some of us have lived long enough to remember the hysteria around drug trafficking back in the ‘80s that now finds its parallel in the recent explosion of concern over sex trafficking. Both are cases of a moral panic driven by “noble intentions” and an “end demand” prohibitionist approach.
Yet, we all know how that story ended: mandating more law enforcement, funding police militarization, and enforcing stricter laws unleashed an inhumane war on the most marginalized in our society—without any success in reducing drug use or the violence surrounding it.
The war on sex trafficking is having the same effect, with the popular trend of harsher sentences for trafficking offenses (including new mandatory minimums) and huge amounts of funding to agencies to fight sex trafficking. What’s rarely talked about is that most sex trafficking stings end up rounding up sex workers in handcuffs who were working of their own consent.
In the ‘90s, an unholy alliance was formed between evangelical Christians and some radical feminists, who worked to rebrand their (by now unpopular) agenda of eradicating prostitution as a campaign to end sex trafficking. Who could argue with the fight to end sexual slavery?
But leading anti-trafficking organizations such as the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) define all sex work as trafficking. They pushed their redefinition of commercial sex as “sexual exploitation” into the U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children, which was approved and signed by 117 countries. The general public remains unaware of the protocol (along with the ever-expanding range of anti-trafficking laws around the globe) that provides legal and moral cover to target sex work under the guise of fighting trafficking.
Organizations such as CATW do not recognize the existence of voluntary sex work because by their definition, all prostitution is violence against women (never mind the inconvenient fact that a lot of sex workers aren’t women). This strategy of rebranding the fight to abolish prostitution as one of eradicating sexual slavery has largely succeeded—it’s now impossible to have a discussion about sex work today without also discussing trafficking.
Trafficking of people into forced labor, in the sex industry or any other industry, is clearly abhorrent. But too often the activities now targeted under anti-trafficking laws are consensual acts between adults. One can be prosecuted as a “trafficker” for offering or soliciting paid sex, living with a sex worker, running a classified advertising website or being a sex worker’s driver or security person.
In real life, “sex trafficking” seldom resemble the images of desperate young girls bound at the wrists plastered all over “end modern-day slavery” campaigns. Under current U.S. law, anyone less than eighteen years old and selling sex is “trafficked.”
Underage “trafficking victims” are typically street-based youth (most commonly between 15 and 17 years old) trading sex for survival. Recent studies have found that the majority of these underage sex workers are selling sex without the aid of a middleman or pimp—90 percent in New York City, according to a study from John Jay College (the same study found 45 percent of underage sex workers to be boys). This population would be much better served by the assistance of well-funded social services than by an increase in funding for law enforcement.
Even migrant workers “rescued” under anti-trafficking laws were most often already sex workers in their home country who immigrated illegally to work in the sex industry here.
We can immediately shift the number of people affected by sex trafficking by providing more shelter beds for the homeless (particularly LGBT youth), expanding government programs that provide food and housing, and providing opportunities for job training. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown writes, “For the vast majority of vulnerable sex workers, the greatest barrier to exit aren’t ankle-cuffs, isolation, and shadowy kidnappers with guns, but a lack of money, transportation, identification, or other practical things. Is helping with this stuff not sexy enough?”
6. “End demand” doesn’t work.
“Ending the demand for drugs is how, in the end, we will win,” President Ronald Reagan told us in 1988. “The tide of the battle has turned and we’re beginning to win the crusade for a drug-free America.”
Of course, the number of Americans using illicit drugs has only increased since then, billions of dollars and hundreds of thousands of prison sentences later.
The “Nordic model” to “end demand” for sex work (which is law in Scandinavia, France, and Canada and is rapidly influencing American policy) criminalizes buying sex but not selling it. Just as in the war on drugs, the Nordic model so popular in feminist circles theorizes that if only we can make enough arrests or make the punishment severe enough, demand will end and people will stop trying to purchase sexual services. Not only is this based on a false premise, but—contrary to the frequent claims by supporters that this law only punishes “johns”—it directly harms sex workers.
You can’t criminalize a worker’s customers and not negatively impact the worker’s life as well. These laws have not only failed to reduce prostitution in places like Sweden, but have actually made life more dangerous for sex workers who, for example, now have less time to negotiate safer sex practices with nervous clients who fear arrest.
7. The real lived experiences of drug users and of sex workers are underrepresented and widely misunderstood.
Due in no small part to stigma, social portrayals of drug users and sex workers often miss the mark.
We’ve seen a slight shift in this recently with the normalization of cannabis use and the corresponding widening of mainstream portrayals of cannabis users as a result.
Representations of sex workers, however, remain split along the dichotomies of “wealthy high class call girl” versus “drug-addled street worker,” and of “happy and empowered” versus “desperate victim.”
The reality is much more nuanced and complex—i.e., human. When will we see the story of the single mom supporting her children through sex work? The trans teenager kicked out of their house and trying to survive? The student putting themselves through college?
A parallel stigma exists for those who purchase sex, particularly if they are men. “Johns” are often demonized as lascivious, aggressive or abusive. But the reality is most men who buy sex are just normal guys.
Where are the stories of the lonely man on a business trip, the cripplingly shy guy who hasn’t gotten laid in years, the guy with the fantasy he’s too ashamed to share with a partner, the divorcee trying to get his mojo back after a terrible betrayal, or the disabled man who yearns for intimacy?
8. Criminalizing drugs and sex work denies fundamental human rights to cognitive liberty and bodily autonomy.
Anti-sex work and anti-drug laws both criminalize activity between consenting adults. Taking drugs and selling sex are consensual crimes where there is no “victim.”
Imagine if we could accept that each person is the best expert on their own life, that we all engage in risk and harm reduction all of the time, and decided to live their own life.
Drug reform campaigners sometimes argue that the right to take certain substances falls under the category of cognitive liberty, the right to “mental self-determination” or to alter one’s consciousness as one so chooses.
Sex work has its parallel here in the principle of bodily autonomy—that is, bodily self-determination. If someone chooses to have transactional sex, that’s their body and their right to choose.
Sex can often be transactional, even outside of sex work. We don’t arrest sugar babies and sugar daddies. Most would find it ridiculous to prosecute someone who felt they should have sex after someone paid for an expensive date. And we would never dream of punishing wives that give their husband oral sex to acquire a favor later. Laws that forbid this transaction from taking place in exchange for cash instead are simply a puritanical hangover.
9. Laws prohibiting drugs and sex work reflect America’s puritanical heritage.
The puritanical impulse is alive and well in America—as is all the hypocrisy that comes with it.
We punish people for using some substances (illegal drugs) but not others (alcohol, legal prescription drugs) whose use can also manifest as anything from life-enhancing to harmless to life-destroying.
Similarly, we punish someone for selling a sexual service to another person—but only if they’re not being filmed to have the video sold on the internet later (pornography). We also allow and sometimes even expect people to capitalize on their sexuality (as the adage goes, “sex sells”) but have a real problem with (particularly women) actually selling sex for themselves rather than for a corporation.
Sue Bradford, member of the New Zealand Parliament, summed this point up well in her 2005 speech:
“We believed, and still do, that it was completely wrong to go on living with an archaic law which criminalized generations of sex workers, mainly women, for a victimless so-called crime in the name of antique moralities shared by only some of the population.”
In fact, just as numerous cultures around the world and throughout history have had sanctioned and sacred occasions for the use of psychoactive substances, there is some evidence to suggest that ancient Mesopotamian temples priestesses provided sexual rites in exchange for donations to the temples. Having sex with a priestess, who was seen as a living embodiment of the divine Goddess herself, would have been seen as a way to worship and connect to Her. Conceiving of that possibility requires a complete shift in the Western understanding of sexuality and the sacred.
10. Drugs and sex work can be powerful tools for healing and spiritual connection.
We now know that some drug use can lead to healing or transcendent experiences that have positive effects on people’s lives.
The University of Alabama at Birmingham School of Public Health found that participants who took naturalistic doses of “classic” psychedelics—magic mushrooms, DMT, mescaline and LSD—had significantly decreased likelihood of suicidal thoughts, suicide attempts, and psychological distress. Psychedelic users were found to have 19 percent less likelihood of exhibiting psychological distress in the past month, 14 percent lower reports of suicidal thoughts and 36 percent lower probability of suicidal attempts in the past year.
Beyond that, studies with substances such as psilocybin and MDMA have been found to be remarkable healers for anxiety in those with terminal illness, depression, PTSD, social anxiety in autism, etc. Psychedelic experiences can lead to powerful unitive and mystical experiences.
Similarly, sex work can be another powerful tool for healing and spiritual connection. Sex surrogates, sexological bodyworkers, sacred intimates, and neo-tantrikas—all sex workers who focus on sexual healing and re-connection—can be seen as the underground psychedelic therapists of sex work.
It is innately healing to be met in your nudity and vulnerability with complete presence and acceptance, no less by a stranger. Sex workers can help release sexual shame and guilt, work with troubling sexual fantasies, overcome sexual trauma or dysfunction, build confidence, and provide sexual education. Data on these claims is yet to be compiled, but we do know touch and intimacy are healing—and most of us don’t receive nearly enough of it.
Drugs and sex work can be triggering topics for a lot of people, but it’s time to admit that we’ve been using the wrong strategy to address them. It’s no coincidence that organizations like the ACLU and Human Rights Watch are pushing for an end to the War on Drugs at the same time that Amnesty International has called for worldwide decriminalization of prostitution. Prohibition, which only ever increases harm, must come to an end.
It’s time to start legally testing drugs for purity, providing clean needles and access to condoms, and permitting safer online markets like Silk Road and Backpage. It’s time to trust each person to make their own choices with what’s currently available to them—whether they’re a Silicon Valley CEO microdosing LSD to come up with new ideas, a long-distance truck driver taking speed to stay awake at work, a college student escorting to pay tuition or a single mother selling sexual services to keep her kids fed.
To deal with difficult matters such as addiction to drugs and coercion in the sex industry, we can replace our law enforcement approach and redesignate funds to focus on ameliorating the conditions that leave people vulnerable to addiction and abuse to begin with, through education, housing, social services and more. That starts with listening to personal narratives of those affected.
The dream? Once we’ve ended these wars on consensual human activity, destigmatized sex work and drug use, and fully implemented a harm reduction approach, a whole new world of possibility opens.
Exploring one’s body or mind is no longer done with fear or guilt. Sex workers are seen as expert educators and service providers like any other—and just like a masseuse or therapist, clients see them for everything from pleasure and relaxation to exploration and healing.
Drug users have the opportunity to participate in guided experiences with pure substances to explore their own consciousness in a safe and supportive environment, where old traumas can be reexamined and new insight can emerge.
In this future world, two of the most powerful tools we have for healing—reconnecting and exploring consciousness—are set free. And as a result, so are we.