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Anti-Criminalization: Criminalization happens on the ground, not in the legislature

Date: November 27, 2012

I attended Harm Reduction Conference for the first time this year, and it was also the first year this conference had the “sex worker track,” a series of workshops and presentations throughout the conference dedicated to addressing harm reduction approach to meeting the needs of sex workers and people in the sex industry. Many of the presentations I’ve posted on this blog last week were part of the sex worker track, and I attended many presentations by other activists.

But there is a downside to holding a specific “track” on sex workers’ issues, as it became clearer as activists and advocates working for people in the sex industry discussed among ourselves: I felt that “sex workers’ issues” was treated like a separate set of issues, distinct from issues affecting people who use drugs–the central focus of the conference overall–despite the fact there are large overlaps between issues and concerns faced by both groups. And it is not just in the sense that many people in the sex trade also use drugs; more importantly, it is because social and economic circumstances that exacerbate risks both groups face are often the same.

For many activists participating in the “sex worker track,” it was obvious that the ascent of the mainstream “anti-trafficking” discourse that reduces the complex issue of sexual labor to evil “traffickers” forcing innocent “victims” into prostitution and prescribes further policing and prosecution as the solution is not just harmful to sex workers, but to people of color, immigrants, street youth, and all others whose lives are under pervasive surveillance and criminalization, as I’ve discussed in my presentation about “war on trafficking”.

We were also keenly aware that police encroachment of social service systems under the guise of fighting human trafficking (mainly domestic minor sex trafficking), as discussed in my presentation about youth services, is dismantling the coalition based on harm reduction principles between social and economic justice movements and public health administration that we have built over last several decades, with serious negative consequences for many other vulnerable communities in addition to people in the sex trade. But I’m afraid that the rest of harm reduction community are not recognizing this clear and present danger to the entire harm reduction movement because they compartmentalize “sex workers’ issues” as a side business, rather than one of the central themes of the entire movement.

One of the most exciting things that came about as a result of our discussions at the Harm Reduction Conference is a new framing for addressing how attacks on people in the sex trade which are perpetuated by the mainstream anti-trafficking discourse operate in relation to other ways communities are targeted and criminalized by the state.

Mainstream (white, middle-class) sex workers’ movement in the U.S. puts lots of emphasis on “decriminalizing” prostitution and sex work–i.e. eliminating laws that prohibit consensual adult commercial transactions involving sexual contact–as well as destigmatization of sex work. But to those of us who are street-based, immigrants, youth, transgender, etc. this agenda appear to be based on the naive premise that people engaging in prostitution are targeted by the state because the legislature passed laws to criminalize prostitution. Those of us who live under pervasive surveillance and criminalization know that the cause and effect run the other way around: we are just targeted and criminalized for who we are, and the laws are passed by the legislature to justify it and make it more efficient.

In other words, criminalization happens on the ground, not in the legislature. For example, even though some States have passed “safe harbor laws” that define minors who are “rescued” from prostitution as victims, not criminals, young people are still arrested and detained as juvenile delinquents, “material witnesses,” mentally incapacitated, etc., or are “charged up” with drug and other crimes that result in longer sentences than simple misdemeanor prostitution offenses. Young people, especially young women of color and transgender women, are still profiled as suspected prostitutes, and are targeted for “stop and frisk” in search of drugs and condoms–which is construed as an evidence for prostitution. They are still forcibly placed under the child welfare system that many young people had to run away from in the first place for years, instead of serving 12 days in jail as they did before. We are not targeted because we trade sex for money, food, shelter, survival; we are just targeted, period, and it is simply slightly more convenient for the state that some of us are also breaking laws against prostitution (and even if we aren’t–we are automatically suspects).

We need an anti-criminalization movement, not decriminalization movement. An anti-criminalization movement is not just about sexual freedom or “right to choose,” although it supports these ideas too. More fundamentally, it is about fighting for social and economic justice in the face of pervasive state violence against communities of color, immigrants, street youth, drug users, and others. An anti-criminalization movement is not just about changing laws, but about delegitimatizing state violence from its very foundation of colonialism and genocide to slavery and the Prison Industrial Complex.

We saw a beginning of this new alliance in California, where voters earlier this month overwhelmingly approved Prop. 35, a ballot measure enacting several “anti-trafficking” laws that focus on increasing criminalization and policing. Even though Prop. 35 was easily passed statewide, the array of organizations that publicly stood against this problematic statute was impressive: along with some sex worker and civil liberties organizations, the list of critics included Black Women for Wellness, Latinas for Reproductive Justice, and Causa Justa / Just Cause–organization led by people of color for people of color who saw through the anti-trafficking rhetoric of Prop. 35 and recognized it for the racism, sexism, and xenophobia that underlie the increased surveillance and criminalization of their communities.

It is this new, emerging alliance against criminalization of our people and communities in an increasingly multi-racial and queer/trans-friendly America that gives me hope despite of the massive overreach of policing and criminalization advanced by the mainstream anti-trafficking movement. We need to continue having conversations not just about decriminalization as a matter of legal reform, but about anti-criminalization, linking the struggles of people in the sex trade with other people and communities that are facing state surveillance and criminalization, building alliances with organization for racial, economic, gender, housing, queer/trans, and immigration justice.

(Thanks to people I spoke with at the conference, especially S. and K. for your insight that informed much of what I wrote here. This isn’t my personal manifesto, but something that came bubbling in the space among and between all of us. I love you.)


  1. […] happens on the ground, not in the legislature”: Emi Koyama on the 2012 National Harm Reduction Conference, Prop 35, and the need for a anti-criminalization […]

    Pingback by The Week In Links: November 30 — November 30, 2012 @ 2:00 pm

  2. Hey emi, if you want to change the terms; anti crim from de crim, great! But don’t do it at the expense of debasing perceived ‘white middle class’ prostitutes like myself. Putting the term ‘white middle class’ on me or others because we’re white on the outside and perceived ‘middle class’ (what ever that means) is a debasing act itself, a form of horizontal oppression that we all learnt about back in the 70’s during the women’s movement when they kicked out lesbians and prostitutes….
    Its like using the term ‘white middle class’ to refer to those of us who are white on the outside and perceived ‘middle class’ is to align yourselves with the anti prostitutionist who use the same arguments to dismiss our call for rights to negotiate for your own labor, safe work conditions and to associate as ‘privileged’ for being pissed off and frightened enough to have submitted a ballot argument to the state of kalifornia to oppose that piece of shit prop 335. It feels really unfair that funded HIV/drug sexworker orgs workers are engaging in this classmenship hostility publicly. If you or anyone else wants to talk to any ‘movement’ people, just call us up. google our phone numbers. Mine was printed in the kalifornia voter information guide and distributed to millions people! I received calls from all over the state from voters who had questions and responded to them at my own personal expense. My phone bill is very high as a result and I struggle to try to pay it. I scarified my ability to support myself to spend time answering those phone calls, to speak out publicly against this atrocity and all using public transportation, borrowed cars…. Putting myself out there publicly is a great risk to my and my community’s well being for the rest of our lives!
    FYI, none of us ‘white middle class’ workers who head up orgs have any money because we refuse to align ourselves with HIV/drug harm reduction movement. Or course sw get sidelined at these events. Its been clear all along that SW are only mere props upon which these types of orgs exist to clock the funding off our heads when we ‘participate’ just like the anti prostitution/trafficking groups. HIV/drug orgs and anti prostitution/trafficking orgs all rely on prostitution arrests to get ‘clients’ trafficked to them! Because we envision and work towards a world of complete totally enfranchisement where we’re all valued without being arrested first, we’re perceived and dismissed as ‘white and middle class’?
    Yes Its great that there are new allies to build coalitions with in calling for decrim, anit crim, harm reduction….what ever you want to call it. Blowjob, oral, giving head…whatever.
    Yes we will be following up with legislators, yes we will be working on the legal challenges, yes we will go back to begging for funding, yes we know that getting changes on these levels is only the beginning to stopping the police culture of harassment of who ever they want when ever they want.
    And I and everybody I’ve ever done activism with knows clearly where criminalization happens, we’ve ALL been to jail for working and face that risk every day. I’m not sure that non white non middle class sw activist are calling prostitutes like myself ‘white middle class’ can say. I’m not really even sure who you are talking about ‘white middle class’. Am I middle class because I have a computer? Or a cell phone?
    What are you talking? Who are you talking about?
    Clearly there is a communication breakdown.

    Comment by Maxine Doogan — December 2, 2012 @ 11:46 am

  3. Emi’s spot on it that prostitution doesn’t exist in isolation, but exists in the context of various social justice issues affecting various marginalized groups. I also agree that the U.S. sex workers’ rights movement could do more to address the intersections of these issues. However, saying that the movement to decriminalize prostitution is mainly about White, middle-class, cis women draws focus away from how anti-prostitution laws are so often used against the most marginalized group of sex workers (who whichever terms people identify by), such as trans*, Sex Workers’ of Color, low income sex workers, and street based sex workers (who sometimes are, but often are not White). Yet, I realize in this piece, Emi also address how anti-prostitution are used against sex workers–but still find the argument about the decriminalization prostitution being mainly about White, middle-class, cis women to be problematic in some respects. Describing sex workers’ efforts to decriminalize prostitution as a privileged perspective would be equivalent to saying this about any marginalized groups advocating against their unjust criminalization.

    Decriminalization of prostitution is not an end-all-be all that will in and of itself fix every injustice, but still a step (though I also support using the term anti-criminalization for reasons Emi expressed and also to get beyond the confusing legalization vs. decriminalization dichotomy). In places where there are no explicit laws on the books criminalizing trans* people, People of Color, low-income people, and additional marginalized groups, anti-prostitution laws gives authorities a tool to harass such people under the suspicion of prostitution and loitering for prostitution–regardless of whether or not they are in the sex trade-industry. As an example of how criminalizing prostitution further endangers the most marginalized groups of sex workers, somebody in Chicago mentioned that the city eliminated it’s anti-loitering laws except when an activity is illegal. Thus, with prostitution being illegal, authorities can go after sex workers or marginalized groups “suspected” of being sex workers for loitering for the purposes of prostitution. If prostitution were decriminalized, they would not be able to use prostitution or suspicion of prostitution to do this, which would make it harder for authorities to arrest and-or harass marginalized groups involved in or suspected to be involved in prostitution.

    People could argue that authorities could find other ways to harass and-or arrest marginalized groups, but criminalizing prostitution makes it that much easier. They don’t even have to be creative enough to come up with another excuse. Thus, I view decriminalization and anti-criminalization of prostitution as an important parts of the solution, but not the complete solution to all injustices.

    Comment by Vegan Vixen — December 2, 2012 @ 1:07 pm

  4. […] of open discussion on a selected topic or issue. This month, we’ll be discussing “Anti-Criminalization: Criminalization Happens on The Ground, not in the Legislature,” a blog article by Portland Activist Emi […]

    Pingback by SWOP Meeting Wednesday, Dec 12 – New Start Time « Sex Worker Outreach Project – Chicago — December 11, 2012 @ 8:43 pm

  5. You probably have seen this, but just in case: Iman, J., Fullwood, C., Paz, N., W, D., & Hassan, S. (2009). Girls do what they have to do to survive: Illuminating methods used by girls in the sex trade and street economy to fight back and heal (pp. 1–51). Chicago.

    Comment by S.L.M. — May 18, 2014 @ 8:56 pm

  6. […] of material benefit from decriminalization as they would continue to be criminalized in other ways (Emi Koyama has written more extensively about this). It’s pointless to try to expand our organizations unless we actively work to expand the workers […]

    Pingback by On Surviving Sex Work — August 7, 2014 @ 1:30 pm

  7. […] ? I do AND I don’t think it is enough. While decriminalization will improve the working conditions for some people, largely white, straight, able bodied, legal citizens, it won’t be enough to end the state criminalization of people of color, poor, trans, queer, disabled, immigrant folks. Emi Koyama has written quite eloquently about this on her blog: […]

    Pingback by PROFESSOR’S PERSPECTIVE | Citizen Sluts — March 30, 2017 @ 8:54 am

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