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Should Sex Work Be Decriminalized?

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Simon Bleasdale
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For decades a broad swath of American feminism has tried to crack down on prostitution by promoting laws that punish the clients of prostitutes or punish their pimps. But sex workers and their supporters say this doesn't work, that these laws can make it more difficult to leave the sex trade, can keep HIV transmission rates high, and can prevent adult sex workers from going to police for child trafficking or for other crimes because of fear of repercussions.

The longstanding debate came into the broader American public consciousness in 2015, when Amnesty International agreed on a recommendation in favor of decriminalizing prostitution. The decision spurred vocal outrage from celebrities like Lena Dunham and Meryl Streep  -- women who've publicly identified as feminists -- pushing the conversation further into the public discourse.

Emily Bazelon is a staff writer for the New York Times Magazine and a Truman Capote Fellow for Creative Writing And Law at Yale Law School. In her Sunday article for the magazine, she asks whether prostitution should continue to be a crime. Bazelon notes that the United States has some of the world's "most sweeping laws against prostitution, with more than 55,000 arrests annually, more than two-thirds of which involve women:"

Women of color are at higher risk of arrest. (In New York City, they make up 85 percent of people who are arrested.) So are trans women, who are more likely to do sex work because of employment discrimination. The mark left by a criminal record can make it even harder to find other employment. In Louisiana five years ago, 700 people, many of them women of color and trans women, were listed on the sex-offender registry for the equivalent of a prostitution misdemeanor.

Bazelon spoke with WSHU's Bill Buchner this week about how diverging opinions on sex work have fractured the feminist community. Below is a transcript of their conversation.

In your article you refer to prostitution as sex work, saying that's the preferred term for people in this business -- can you tell us where the term came from and why?

It came from a woman named Carol Leigh [a San Francisco sex worker, activist and artist, also known as Scarlot Harlot] in the 1970s and it's part of what's called the 'sex positive' movement within feminism. The idea here was that prostitution was a form of labor -- that's the 'work' part of 'sex work' -- and it was not necessarily inherently demeaning to women. That women could make a choice to do it and that you didn't necessarily have to think of women selling their bodies as 'selling their humanity' or 'selling themselves.' There could be a situations in which people would choose to do this work and it could be a legitimate transaction from a feminist point of view. 

Almost 3,300 people in New York City alone were arrested with charges of prostitution -- or for 'loitering for the purposes of prostitution' -- in 2014 and 2015. With so many arrests, some feminists have talked about arresting johns and pimps instead of those selling sex directly. What's the argument in favor of that?

The argument is that sex work is inherently a source of social inequality, that it is inherently demeaning to women, and so we should punish men. We should make it against the law for them to buy sex -- and that will help reduce demand for prostitution, and send a signal that this is not a legitimate practice. The country that has gone the furthest in this model is Sweden. There are some other countries doing this: Norway, France has just followed suit. And the idea is to flip the criminal justice system.

I should say this is not a model that sex worker activists support. Because as it has played out in Sweden and Norway, it has actually been quite punitive to women.

You're -- you're saying sex workers you spoke to say it's punitive to them?

That's right -- and this might seem kind of surprising because if you're arresting the men then what's the problem for women who are doing the sex work? The answer is that in Sweden and Norway men are fined -- they're not arrested, they don't go to jail -- and many of the women performing the sex work are immigrants. When police have a reason to check their documents, they often end up being deported. Women who do sex work also complain men have gotten more furtive behavior...since they're worried about getting [fined] they tend to want to go off into a remote or an unsafe place. So...this law may have a set of unintended consequences for women who do sex work.

How has this debate affected the feminist movement?

It's incredibly divisive. I write about other contentious issues, like reproductive rights, but feminists are usually united on that topic. And this was maybe the angriest I've seen real, self-defining feminists at each other in this debate. There's just this feeling on the point of view from sex worker activists that decriminalization would be the best thing for their health, for making what they do safer, for preventing the spread of AIDS -- there's some really good research that backs them up on that -- and they even think that it could help to prevent trafficking because if you bring the industry above ground, the consensual industry, then you make it easier to report abuses. That's their argument. 

On the other side are people who sometimes call themselves abolitionists. And they're deliberately invoking the history of the war against slavery. Because they see prostitution -- they do not use the words 'sex work' -- they see 'prostitution' as a terrible social ill. And they think the job of feminism should be to eradicate it, not make it safer. 

You can follow Emily Bazelon on Twitter