The Blade Runners: Decriminalized Sex Work in the U.S.
Updated: Jan 16, 2022
In my spare time, I like to watch serial killer documentaries and two weeks ago, I watched “Crime scene: The Time Square Killer.” The documentary detailed the life story of Richard Cottingham, a computer operator by day, a decapitator of sex workers by night. In the 1970s and 80s, Time Square was not the entertainment mecca it is known for today; instead, it was the habitation of sex, crime, and violence.
In the documentary, investigators and police officials detailed the timeline, motive, and background of Richard Cottingham. While scholars like Dr. Melinda Chateauvert described the history and vulnerabilities sex workers face when “walking the blade.” Her perspective, though informed, diluted the realities of sex work. Accentuating the importance of political correctness, Dr. Chateauvert cared more about utilizing the term “sex worker” than calling attention to sex work as a survival strategy for vulnerable groups. To her, sex work was a choice, but nothing explained the parameters influencing that choice. As feminists and sex workers advocate for the decriminalization of sex work, I wanted to listen and understand why.
For three days, I listened to TED talks, group discussions, and news debates advocating for or against the decriminalization of sex work. I also spent an extra day reading New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act of 2003. I could have done more research, but I believe I have a comprehensive basis for understanding the main arguments of both sides. If I did not, it is your purpose as the reader to inform me. This blog was not created to discredit but to inform and inquire.
To begin, let us learn about the current governance structures of the sex work industry:
Criminalization: The prohibition of sexual solicitation, brothel-keeping, the purchase of sexual services, and living off the earnings of sexual labor (Open Society Foundation, para. 1).
Partial Decriminalization: Governmental authorities control the legalities of specific laws, codes, and regulations associated with the sex industry. In the United Kingdom, The Policing and Crime Act of 2009 legalizes in-house prostitution and outcall escort services. However, brothel-keeping, street solicitation, and working in a group of two or more is illegal (Parliament of the United Kingdom, part 2).
The Nordic Model of Sex Work: Reduces the demand of sex trafficking through the prosecution of sexual consumers and arbitrators and the augmentation of worker support services (Nordic Model Now, para.1).
Legalization: A set of laws, codes, and regulations specific to the sex industry; anyone who buys or sells sex outside of these rules will be subject to arrest (Decriminalize Sex Work, para. 1).
Decriminalization: The removal of laws and policies penalizing sex work; laws protecting the rights of sexual consumers, producers, and related third parties. Sexual solicitation, brothel-keeping, the purchase of sexual services, and living off the earnings of sexual labor are permitted (Amnesty International, question 4).
Arguments for the decriminalization of sex work
Advocates for the decriminalization of sex work believe decriminalization promotes the autonomy, safety, protection, and freedom of the sex worker. Sex workers could dictate hours of operation, cost of service, and clientele without punishment. Laws would focus on sexual health, workers’ rights, and legal protections. The lack of criminality would reduce interpersonal violence, crime, and recidivism; sex work would genuinely become an option.
In the opinions of sex workers and allies, the criminality of sex work results from systemic oppression. The sex worker is always prosecuted, not the consumer or arbitrator of sexual services. Prohibitionist laws criminalizing sex work jeopardize the safety of the sex worker. The criminalization of the sex industry is what produces the vices of sex trafficking, not the act of sex itself. Legislators are advised to create laws against the evils of sex, not the entire sex industry. The conservative values of prohibitionist laws detract from the harsh reality that sex work is the only survival strategy for many vulnerable groups.
The ones who did it first: The Prostitute Reform Act 2003
In 2003, parliament member Tim Barnett and the New Zealand Prostitute Collective proposed the Prostitute Reform Act to remove laws punitively targeting the sex industry. The act's proponents ensured collective working groups, protected workers’ rights, and the accountability of managers, operators, and consumers of commercialized sexual services. The specifics of the act can be read in your spare time. From the surface, the law is receptive to the needs and protection of sex workers... so long as the sex workers are citizens of New Zealand.
Referencing the immigration restrictions of the act contradicts the argument for decriminalization. Sex work is a survival strategy for disenfranchised groups; therefore, exploitation will occur if decriminalization criminalizes the vulnerable. According to Part 2, section 19 of the act, visas are not granted to immigrant sex workers, prostitute business operators, or prostitute business investors. Temporary entry visas or residential visa holders cannot provide, operate, or invest in commercial sexual services and will be deported on reasonable grounds (Prostitute Reform Act, 2003).
Bennachie and associates (2021) researched the impact of section 19 on migrant sex workers. Because of the Immigration Act of 2009, migrant sex workers are targeted by sexual humanitarian antitrafficking law enforcement initiatives, immigration patrol, and the local police (Bennachie et al., 2021). Intimidated by these local entities, migrant sex workers are apprehensive about reporting sexual crimes or health complications due to the fear of deportation (Bennachie et al., 2021). This not only results in an elevation of health risks, but citizens can repeatedly commit violent crimes without fear of the law.
According to the United States 2021 Trafficking in Person Report, New Zealand lacks an understanding of the different forms of trafficking (para.1). The government does not report adult victims of sex trafficking, nor has prosecutions been made for labor trafficking for the second consecutive year (US Department of State et al., 2021). Convictions of child sex traffickers have increased, but many traffickers are sentenced to home detention (US Department of State et al., 2021). The government’s inability to recognize trafficking trends and adjudicate appropriately weakens the survivor’s protection, undercuts the effort to hold traffickers accountable, and inadequately addresses the nature of a crime(US Department of State et al., 2021).
I would not support the decriminalization of sex work. Advocation for the movement lacks consistency and the inability to define the meaning of sex work. The commodification of sex dilutes the emotional, spiritual, and social implications. The idea of engaging in sex as a job requirement has greater influences than personal choice. Making a choice does not determine confident and secure thought. Age, gender, trauma history are the few but salient determinants that can negatively influence the freedom of choice. Even if one decides to become a sex worker conscientiously, their decisions directly and indirectly impact the environment.
Personal feelings aside, in comparing the United State's governance structure with other countries, decriminalization did not decrease or eradicate violence against sex workers. A new group or industry is criminalized, perpetuating oppression differently. This comes as no surprise because advocates have yet to address whether there will be enough willing participants to meet the demands of sex?
Amnesty International. (2021, June 30). Q&A: Policy to protect the human rights of sex workers. https://www.amnesty.org/en/qa-policy-to-protect-the-human-rights-of-sex-workers/
Bennachie, C., Pickering, A., Lee, J., Macioti, P. G., Mai, N., Fehrenbacher, A. E., & Musto, J. (2021). Unfinished decriminalization: The impact of section 19 of the prostitution reform act 2003 on migrant sex workers’ rights and lives in Aotearoa New Zealand. Social Sciences, 10(5), 179.
Decriminalize Sex Work. (2021, October 31). What about Legalization? https://decriminalizesex.work/why-decriminalization/briefing-papers/decriminalization-is-the-only-solution/
Nordic Model Now. (2021, October 16). What is the Nordic Model?https://nordicmodelnow.org/what-is-the-nordic-model/
Open Society Foundation. (n.d.). Ten reasons to decriminalize sex work. https://www.opensocietyfoundations.org/publications/ten-reasons-decriminalize-sex-work
Parliament of the United Kingdom. (2009, November 12). The Policing and Crime Act 2009. https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2009/26/part/2
U.S. Department of State. (2021, August 5). 2021 trafficking in persons report: New Zealand. U.S. Department of State. Retrieved January 10, 2022, from https://www.state.gov/reports/2021-trafficking-in-persons-report/new-zealand/