Note: Below is a piece written for an online media outlet that requested my 300-500 word response to the question “should prostitution be legal?”.
It was uncompensated, but because they were lining up many activists (anti-prostitution and sex worker rights) and scholars (law, philosophy, etc.) on both “pro” and “con” sides of the debate, and I felt that none of them on either side would represent my perspective, so I wrote one on a very tight deadline.
Well, it has been a month since that time, but they have not used my response in their published feature so I will assume that they did not like my piece, or felt that my response was completely incomprehensible to their target audience, who are members of the “personal finance industry,” so I decided to publish here instead.
Should prostitution be legal? Of course it should, as I am sure others can explain how there is no fundamental moral or ethical reason that private sexual transactions between consenting adults should be criminalized, or how, if one were actually concerned about the violence and exploitation that exist within commercial sexual exchanges, prohibition of prostitution exacerbates the problems by pushing the sexual marketplace further underground.
But those who argue whether prostitution should be legalized, decriminalized, criminalized, or combination thereof (as in the case of the so-called Nordic model) often miss the crucial reality that criminalization is not about what the laws on the book say, but about the targeting and persecution of communities and individuals deemed criminal, as the extra-legal executions and murders of Black men and women by the law enforcement and the dearth of prosecutions against such actions attest. Criminal laws do not make criminals; they are merely tools to further persecute those who are already labeled by the society as criminal.
That is why, while I welcome my fellow sex worker activists’ and allies’ efforts to decriminalize prostitution, I believe that the criminalization of sex workers who are people of color, trans women, immigrants, street youth, drug users, and other criminalized populations will continue unabated regardless of how the law might classify the legality of commercial sexual exchange. In fact, I have heard anecdotal stories from youth advocates in cities that have enacted “safe harbor” policies which prevent minors from being charged with the crime of prostitution that the constant harassment, abuse, and persecution of street youth engaging in sex trade by the police have not decreased as a result.
Even laws that ostensively target pimps and sex traffickers are in reality used to further criminalize young people of color (I heard the police chief of a city I lived at the time tell a crowd at a human trafficking community forum that we must “stop listening to that crap, rap music” in order to prevent sex trafficking), in addition to making it harder for people in the sex trade to help each other without committing the crime of “promoting prostitution,” which media often equate with “pimping” and human trafficking but does not necessarily involve coercion or exploitation.
Since around 2011, the federal government reframed “domestic minor sex trafficking” as part of the “gang problem,” setting the government’s “war on trafficking” on the same devastatingly racist trajectory as Richard Nixon’s “war on crimes,” Ronald Reagan’s “war on drugs,” and George W. Bush’s “war on terror.” In the meantime, the trafficking of foreign and domestic workers in our farms, factories, hotels, restaurants, and other businesses—none of which are predominantly owned by Black and brown people—remain unaddressed. We need to stop arguing in abstract about whether or not prostitution should be legal, and instead focus our attention on the white supremacy of our social, political, and legal institutions.
Update: Several more months later, they finally posted my response on their website.