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The Case for Legalizing Sex Work

PRINCETON – Sex work is, as the saying goes, the world’s oldest profession – except that the saying uses “prostitution” instead of “sex work.” The change to a less pejorative term is warranted by a shift in attitudes toward sex workers that contributed to Amnesty International’s decision in May to urge governments to repeal laws criminalizing the exchange of sex for money by consenting adults.

Amnesty International’s appeal was met by a storm of opposition – some of it from people who were evidently failing to distinguish between the sex industry as a whole and the human trafficking that, in many countries, is a tragic part of it. No one wants to legalize coercion, violence, or fraud in the sex industry, or the use of sex workers who are not adults. But some organizations campaigning against trafficking understand that when sex work is illegal, it is much riskier for sex workers to complain to the authorities when they are enslaved, beaten, or cheated. For that reason, the International Secretariat of the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women applauded Amnesty International for supporting decriminalization.

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There was also opposition from some feminist organizations, which accused Amnesty of protecting “the rights of pimps and johns.” Instead, they argued, we should “end the demand for paid sex” – but without explaining how this is to be done.

In species that reproduce sexually, sex is, for obvious reasons, one of the strongest and most pervasive desires. Humans are no exception in this respect. In every modern society, humans exchange money or other valued items for things that they desire and could not otherwise obtain. For various reasons, a significant number of people cannot get sex, or sufficient sex, or the kind of sex they want, freely. Unless at least one of these conditions changes, demand for paid sex will continue. I find it hard to see how any of them will change sufficiently to eliminate that demand.

If demand for paid sex is likely to continue, what about the supply? Another response to proposals to decriminalize sex work is that we should instead change the conditions that lead people to sell their bodies. This assumes that only those who lack any other means of supporting themselves would engage in sex for money.

That assumption is a myth. Leaving aside sex workers who want money because they have expensive drug habits, some could get a job in a factory or a fast-food restaurant. Faced with the prospect of monotonous, repetitive work for eight hours a day on an assembly line or flipping hamburgers, they prefer the higher pay and shorter hours that the sex industry offers. Many may not make that choice, but should we make criminals of those who do?

It’s not a crazy choice. Contrary to stereotypes of paid sex, work in a legal brothel is not especially dangerous or hazardous to one’s health. Some sex workers view their profession as involving greater skill and even a more human touch than alternative jobs open to them. They take pride in their ability to give not only physical pleasure, but also emotional support, to needy people who cannot get sex any other way.

If sex work is not going to disappear anytime soon, anyone who cares about the health and safety of sex workers – not to mention their rights – should support moves to make it a fully legal industry. That is what most sex workers want as well. In the same month that decriminalization became Amnesty’s official policy, the conservative government of New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state, decided not to regulate that state’s previously legalized sex industry. Jules Kim, the CEO of Scarlet Alliance, the Australian Sex Workers Association, greeted the news with relief, saying that decriminalization had delivered “outstanding outcomes for sex workers’ health and safety.”

The Sex Workers Outreach Project agreed that decriminalization led to better health for sex workers, and enabled them to be covered by the standard features of the labor market, including insurance, occupational health and safety programs, and rules of fair trading. A majority of Australians now live in states that have legalized or decriminalized sex work.

This is consistent with the growing recognition in recent years that the state should be extremely reluctant to criminalize activities freely entered into by consenting adults. Laws against sodomy have been abolished in most secular countries. Physician-assisted dying is legal in an increasing number of jurisdictions. In the United States, there is widespread support for the legalization of marijuana.

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The repeal of restrictive legislation has practical benefits, in addition to extending individual liberty. In Colorado, the desire to tax the marijuana industry was a major motivation for legalization. The original impetus for the legalization of the sex industry in New South Wales was an inquiry into police corruption that showed that the sex industry was a major source of police bribes. Legalization ended that in a single stroke.

Countries that criminalize the sex industry should consider the harms these laws cause, as Amnesty International has done. It is time to put aside moralistic prejudices, whether based on religion or an idealistic form of feminism, and do what is in the best interests of sex workers and the public as a whole.