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Problems with the Criminalization of Sex Work

Look beyond the myth that sex workers are empowered women using their insatiable sexuality to earn a great living. Despite the protestations of very few high-class “escorts” who claim their lifestyles to be glamorous and lucrative, the reality is one of horror.

There are many people who believe that prostitution, or sex work, is a career choice like any other, and that women actually have the market edge in a world constantly in need of more sex. They think that the sale of sex is no different from the sale of any other commodity. On the other pole there are those who believe that there is something immoral or destructive about selling a human function in the most invasive way. The latter group includes religious conservatives on the one hand, liberal feminists on the other, and all types in the middle.

Sadly, very few people think about doing something to change the status quo, or to destroy the myth that prostitution is the oldest profession and will always be around.

Around the world (see the stats), governments have tried to excise prostitution and the criminal power structure that feeds on it. In so doing, they usually failed horribly. The most popular response is to criminalize prostitution and define the person providing the service as the one at fault. These women (usually), often drawn into this line of work by drug abuse, histories or incest and extreme cycles of poverty and violence, are then blamed for working in this dangerous vocation, for which the lion’s share of the income is taken by pimps and allied service providers. Arresting, imprisoning and fining the sex worker does nothing to control the market, except for sending them back onto the streets to earn the money they or their pimps were charged in the process. It also sends prostitutes further underground and makes their work even more dangerous.

A 2008 report by Anna-Louise Crago and Jayne Arnott for the Open Society Institute, entitled Rights Not Rescue, interviewed women, men and transsexuals in Namibia, Botswana and South Africa and reported widespread abuse and violation of rights in their sex work. Physical and sexual violence was brought on clients, pimps and by the police, followed by public humiliation, especially for transsexuals. Despite their work under dangerous conditions, threats and aggression, sex workers learned that they cannot expect equal protection under the law. This is, of course, compounded by the almost unavoidable risk of HIV contraction and transmission, which cannot be guarded against under conditions of rape.

In countries where sex work is legalized, such as in most of Europe, it is hoped to protect the health and well-being of sex workers and in some cases to allow them to pay taxes and by so doing receive social benefits from their work. There remains a debate over the effectiveness of the protection that this gives to women and youths who are by definition working under dire circumstances and conditions. There is no question that legalization does nothing to educate a society about sexual respect and license.

Finally, the Good News

Sweden has long had on its books a law that criminalizes the client of a sex worker, and not the worker her- (or him)self. Finland and Norway have recently joined them. The UK announced in late 2008 that they planned to legislate a similar law. This very progressive British law will not only fine the clients and place them on record, but in the case of trafficked women, it can hold a rape charge.

Maybe this will do something to help us rethink the meaning of treating people like sex toys which, by the way, are readily available without stigma or slight.


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