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Why Decriminalizing Sex Work is more than just Decriminalizing Sex Work: a manifesto

Date: August 31, 2022

Decriminalizing Sex Work

After 10+ years of constant assault on the livelihood of sex workers under the pretense of fighting sex trafficking, sex work decriminalization is finally being discussed in presidential primaries and state legislatures. But much of the conversations center around abstract arguments around individual liberties or how a small tweak in the criminal law might help or harm vulnerable people. We want more. A whole lot more. Because to us, decriminalizing sex work means:

  • End all the ways the state criminalizes poverty and survival, not just sex work. We reject sex work exceptionalism that leaves behind poor people, homeless people, people who use drugs, etc.
  • Divest from the criminal justice system as the primary means of addressing sexual violence, gender-based violence, sex trafficking, and hate violence. We need community-based solutions that prevent abuses, care for survivors, and surround wrongdoers with supportive change agents.
  • If you cannot support the sex trade for whatever moral or political reason, at least do not support the criminal justice system. Whatever problems exist within the sex trade, more policing, surveillance, and prosecution excerbate them rather than mitigating them.
  • Center BIPOC, queer and trans, disabled, immigrant, etc. sex workers in any policy conversations that impact sex workers and people who trade sex, including those around sexual violence, sex trafficking, infectious diseases, and others.
  • Defend freedom and anonymity against the surveillance capitalist state that monitors, censors, and profits off of how we live our lives, including how we make a living to survive within it.
  • Provide universal basic income and universal basic services which include housing, healthcare, child and elder care, and education for everyone to have full range of options to determine how we live.
  • Strengthen rights and protections of workers regardless of the industry. For example, migrant women massage parlor workers have a lot in common with domestic workers and hotel cleaners and they can all benefit from worker organizing and advocacy.
  • Abandon colonial extraction industry on indigenous lands as well as U.S. occupations and bases around the world that create environments in which sexual violence and sex trafficking against indigenous and colonized peoples proliferate. End colonial legal arrangements that give U.S. footsoldiers immunity from local rules.

The oft-repeated statement “sex work is work” does not imply that everything is fine with sex work as is. It means that sex work is a site of survival, of struggles and accomplishments, of exploitation and resistance, of degredation and dignity, like any other work. Decriminalizing sex work does not begin and end with decriminalizing sex work: rather, it is a framework that proposes a radical transformation of social, economic, and political structures to enable full lives and opportunities for all.

Combahee River Collective once stated that “if Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” We argue that if sex workers were free, it would mean that all workers would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all ways in which workers are harmed and exploited.

Sex work decriminalization for its own sake does not lead to that. It would simply mean that there would be one less tool to target sex workers among many such tools. True decriminalization of sex work must therefore mean decriminalization of the whole society so that crime is not the category that the society uses to address inherent contradictions and consequences of unequal, unjust structures. It must mean all workers and all people are finally free.

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