As the ACLU of Pennsylvania continues working to decriminalize sex work, we want to take a moment to acknowledge International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. We simply cannot overlook the harm experienced by those who engage in sex work and how decriminalization would address many of these harms.
Some may say that if sex workers would just take on another profession, then they wouldn't experience the rate of violence or the negative impacts associated with the criminal legal system. But those people probably do not have a good understanding of why people engage in the sex trade industry.
Let's talk about it, shall we?
People engage in the sex trade for many reasons. Whether it is the convenience of earning a livable wage on their own terms or that they enjoy the work, the fact remains that sex work is work; in fact it is one of the oldest professions on the planet.
The criminalization and stigma associated with sex work increase sex workers' vulnerability to physical, emotional, and structural violence. And the resulting impact of sexual harm, adverse health outcomes, and housing insecurity and can make it harder for sex workers to reach higher eduction or to find alternative employment opportunities if they have a record of arrest or prosecution for sex work-related offenses. It’s a vicious cycle.
We also acknowledge the reality that some people are forced or coerced into the sex work industry. The movement to end violence experienced by sex workers is about liberating and reducing the harm experienced by those individuals as well.
Criminalization causes and enables violence
Sex work is criminalized through a mixture of municipal, state, and federal laws and policing practices that enforce “the laws.”
Imagine how hard it would be for you to make ends meet, pay your bills, put food on your table, or pay for medication if your job or profession was criminalized. Can you imagine how hard living would be? That's what it's like for sex workers in the United States every single day.
While some may think that criminalizing sex workers would increase the likelihood that those individuals would seek out other job opportunities, in fact, criminalization has the opposite effect. The criminalization of sex work has led more sex workers to engage in riskier encounters and often prevents them from reporting being a victim of sexual assault, robbery, or other dangerous situations.
The criminalization of sex work-related offenses and anti-sex trafficking policies create financial barriers for sex workers and increase the risk of individuals being exploited or trafficked.
Decriminalization is possible and reduces the chances of harm and violence.
Sex worker rights advocates demand that instead of increasing and doubling down on laws and policies that criminalize sex workers, they encourage politicians and other influential people to do more to increase resources and access that would address the quality of life and well-being of those who engage in the industry.
The ACLU sees sex worker rights as a civil rights issue, and agencies like the World Health Organization urge decriminalization of sex work as a public health issue. So why aren't we moving forward?
We all can take action to end the violence against sex workers
You may ask yourself: What can I do to help end the violence experienced by sex workers? The answer is simple. You can participate in the fight for the rights of sex workers, by connecting with sex worker rights groups in your community and by encouraging your elected officials and other influential people to take off the blinders and ensure sex workers can exercise their human right to work free from abuse, harm, and violence.
In honor of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, let’s all take the time to learn more about the laws that criminalize sex workers for working and how that criminalization enables violence against them. I hope you’ll join us in the movement to liberate sex workers and continue to make progress in securing rights for sex workers and decriminalizing their work.