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United States: End Systemic Violence Against Sex Workers

sex work protest

World Policy Journal begins each issue with the Big Question, where we ask a panel of experts to provide insight into the cover theme. The question for the winter 2016/2017 World Policy Interrupted issue is: What do sex workers need to better control their working conditions? Below, Julia Lukomnik and Akynos argue that in order to decrease exploitation, human trafficking, and public health risks, the United States needs to regulate sex work instead of criminalizing it. 

By Julia Lukomnik and Akynos

Sex work in the United States is criminalized. Criminalization is founded on two misconceptions—that sex work is the same as exploitation or human trafficking, and that criminalization will stop the spread of sexually transmitted diseases—and a heavy dose of moral panic. But the U.N., in its Palermo Protocol, has already acknowledged there is a difference between sex work and trafficking. And the potential for exploitation exists in many industries (think coal mining or clothing manufacturing); the solution to that problem is regulation, not criminalization. As to public health concerns, the tactics used to criminalize the sex industry actually disincentivize healthy behavior.   

When sex work is criminalized, sex workers are denied the ability to control their work environments to ensure their safety. For example, to enforce criminal laws, law enforcement agencies often weaken or eliminate access to tools that keep sex workers safe. In 2014, when the FBI closed MyRedBook, a website used to conduct background checks on clients and share warnings about those who might be dangerous, it destroyed a mechanism sex workers used to self-regulate their industry. Similarly, the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution leads to sex workers carrying fewer to avoid police detection.  

Police have a long history of using their power to sexually assault and rape sex workers, as highlighted in a June 2016 Oakland, California, police department investigation. Increased contact with law enforcement results in more detention and jail time, which has disastrous effects on sex workers’ health, housing, ability to support their families, immigration status, and prospects for future employment. Because sex workers don’t feel safe reporting criminal activity to police, they lack recourse when their rights are violated.   

So, what do sex workers need to better control their working conditions and ensure safety?  

1. Sex workers need the government to stop destroying their means of vetting clients. This undermines safety and a financial bottom line, which leaves sex workers vulnerable to exploitative working conditions.

2. Sex workers need to stop being separated from their children and denied the right to housing. These actions put an emotional strain on sex workers, and force many underground out of fear, away from health and social services.

3. Sex workers need a change in the narratives around the sex industry. Sex work is not inherently dangerous, and should not be treated as such.  

4. Sex workers need evidence-based laws that protect them and their right to work. The regulation of sex work under labor law in New Zealand and New South Wales, called “decriminalization,” has been proven to best protect the health and safety of sex workers.

5. Sex workers need police to enforce existing laws against violence and exploitation, including when the perpetrators are members of law enforcement agencies. In Merseyside, England, for example, where attacks against sex workers are considered hate crimes, violence against sex workers decreased and prosecutions for rape increased.

6. Sex workers need anti-trafficking advocates to work with them, not against them. Anti-trafficking funds are behind many of the raids against sex workers. These raids reduce sex workers’ ability to work together to ensure safety and reduce the likelihood that sex workers will report trafficking when they become aware of it.

Finally, sex workers need to be included in the discussion about how to end systemic violence. As sex workers have said for years, “Nothing about us, without us!”   



Julia Lukomnik is a program officer for the Open Society Foundations, where she works to protect the health and human rights of marginalized groups, including sex workers. She has worked with grass-roots groups, research organizations, and the U.N. to create policy that betters health and promotes social inclusion. You can follow her on Twitter @Julia_POSHARP.

Akynos is an activist, performance artist, and sex worker. She has worked with several sex worker-led organizations to promote sex workers’ rights at the U.N. and to push New York State to adopt legislation that protects sex workers’ health and rights. You can follow her on Twitter @Akynos.    

[Photo courtesy of Fibonacci Blue]


Anonymous's picture
We need decriminalization,

We need decriminalization, NOT regulation or criminalization.
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