When it comes to the intersection of sex, demand, and currency, the public often shies away from engaging in thoughtful, intelligent conversations and instead, resorts to slut-shaming. Stepping away from the stigma, social hang ups on sex, and the taboos of sex as a business, sex work is a profession at its core. Like any other, it’s an occupation in which one person offers a service and the consumer pays to receive the benefits of that service. It’s a vocation that’s based on a financial exchange, but meets exclusion, discrimination, and prejudice for its product, sexual favors. But it’s also a diverse profession, spanning prostitutes to exotic dancers, practiced by more than just women, and responsible for employing millions across the globe.

Is it fair to criminalize sex workers and deny them social services for engaging in a profession by choice or coercion? What’s the real issue that Americans have with legitimizing sex work? Because there are numerous occupations that parallel the profession in terms of risk, yet non-sex workers receive better healthcare, legal protection, and law enforcement support.

Often called the world’s oldest profession, it’s clear that sex work is not going anywhere, whether it is legalized or not. Despite its ancient history, the contemporary public still classifies sex workers as “un-people,” unworthy of adequate social services, undeserving of unbiased healthcare, and unfit to be legitimately recognized in the national economy. In numerous other legal mediums, it’s clear that sex sells, whether it’s music, film, advertising, adult entertainment, or another popular pastime. Sex, as an industry, is powerful, lucrative, and a driving force in inspiring financial consumption.

Yet those who literally sell sex face startling realities because their work is not legalized in the United States. According to a report by the Urban Justice Center, “Behind Closed Doors: An Analysis of Indoor Sex Work in New York City,” 46% of indoor sex workers experienced violence in the course of their work, 42% had been threatened or beaten for being a sex worker, and 14% reported violence at the hands of police. In another report, “Revolving Door: An Analysis of Street-Based Prostitution in New York City,” 80% of street-based sex workers reported experiences or threats of violence while working. When asked about police support, they reported that law enforcement did not take their complaints seriously and instead, told them that they should “expect” violence. Additionally, 27% of respondents reported that they had experienced violence at the hands of the police, which included officers physically grabbing, kicking, beating, stalking, throwing food, raping, and sexually harassing prostitutes. Despite these occurrences, the classification of “victim” rarely applies to a sex worker. The popular consensus is that they “deserve” any violence that comes to them for participating in illegal activity.

But it goes deeper, as sex workers often experience discriminatory attitudes toward their profession by medical professionals. U.S. federal policies do not adequately address the fact that sex workers may be at increased vulnerability to HIV transmission and other health risks. In fact, the U.S. National HIV/AIDS Strategy outright ignores sex workers as an at risk population, resulting in a lack of prevention and harm reduction services for this community and customers receiving its benefits. Federal policies often work against sex workers’ efforts to protect themselves and the public health, as the “anti-prostitution pledge” requirement of the Bush era mandated that organizations working to prevent human-trafficking take a pledge to not provide prevention and health services to sex workers or be blocked from receiving federal aid. While human trafficking is a huge concern within the realm of sex work, it’s still dangerous to suggest coerced sex work and free-will sex work as synonymous. Not only does the “anti-prostitution” pledge call for financial restrictions, but also it mandates that these organizations not speak of solutions for different legal approaches to prostitution. Thus, it stops conversation and progress, while leaving a certain community of people as vulnerable along with its consumers.

The United States is a nation that’s supposed to promote agency and choice. It’s a country that was built on the verbal foundation of equal protection for all. How is it possible that sex workers face repeated discrimination and lack of services, simply because they sell what people naturally want for a living? More than anything, it feels as if the federal stance on prostitution is just another attack on a population of people that don’t fit the tight definition of what an American should look like, behave, and be. It’s a deliberate attack on sexual agency, means of controlling the types of sex that people can engage in, and scapegoat for the moral “downfall” of society.

But it’s not simply the government’s fault when the public is not willing to learn historically accurate accounts of sex work in ancient societies, how sex work has in the past and currently operates with far less violence and danger to its participants in countries that legalize it, and sex work’s intersection with other social issues, such as race, gender, class, and homophobia.

So when sex workers experience violence, inadequate healthcare, and failed legal protections, it’s easier to just shrug and say: it is what it is. Imagine if other mainstream professions experienced the same level of discrimination. Maybe then, this country could move past stereotypes and see sex workers as human beings.

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  1. simply put for me: sex work raises a plethora of difficult, complex and uneasy questions surrounding agency, sex, sexuality, health, labour, protection, rights, justice, equality, prejudice etc in societies that are sexist, patriarchal, racist, classicist and intersectionally the works.

    the central concern above any moral concern is that of protection… physically, emotionally and legally. women and men, will and have, as you say engage with sex work for a vast number of reasons and whilst some may see the profession as problematic in itself, the socio-political, cultural and economic realities we need to make a shift towards guaranteeing that security, protection is guaranteed first and foremost.

    although i do feel that in the sexist, patriarchal systems we live in mean that sex work will inevitably exploit women, we need to move away from pitting women against women for example and create a politics of solidarity that gives scope for sex workers to sustain and retain their agency in all spaces, critically engaging and working to undo that which does exploit or puts them at risk emotionally, physically and economically etc.

  2. Nevada has the lowest rates of sexually transmitted diseases amongst prostitutes than any other state in America. Nevada is also the only state in America utilizing a system of legalized prostitution. On that fact alone, im for legalizing.

  3. My state, of Rhode Island, made it illegal two years ago. It was legal up until recently. We’re going backwards. I totally agree that it should be legal. There is also classism at play where certain prostitutes are protected (Wall Street prostitutes, surrogate sex partners for therapy is a form of prostitution).

  4. To me, this is no different than the Prohibition period from 1920. Prostitution seems to be one of the last issues that America can’t seem to wrap their heads around. Never mind that legalizing prostitution would bring in a significant amount of money to cities (via property and wages that can be taxed), reducing the amount of violence that comes with keeping it illegal. I understand that human trafficking is an important issue, but to lump that in with sex workers who chose this profession is absolutely ludicrous.

  5. Sex work is problematic because of the foundational narrative of most societies, which stems directly from religious texts. The justification of violence towards “immoral” people — of all kinds, not just prostitutes, but drug addicts and lazy, unproductive people — tends give moral authority to state to control illicit behavior in its citizens.

    If we do not stop this ancient precedent of shaming human beings, I guarantee we will start seeing overweight people categorized as enemies of the state, criminalizing them for gluttony and greed (much like sex workers are punished for what comes down to lust).

    The author wrote:
    [S]ex work has in the past and currently operates with far less violence and danger to its participants in countries that legalize it, and sex work’s intersection with other social issues, such as race, gender, class, and homophobia.

    This is such a great statement! In every society that criminalizes capital vices/sins, it gives authority to a small amount of people who derive their authority from the state to abuse and bring violence to a industry which, since the people who work in said are demonized, cannot find people to explicitly advocate for their safety in fear of retribution from the larger community.

  6. “Because there are numerous occupations that parallel the profession in terms of risk, yet non-sex workers receive better healthcare, legal protection, and law enforcement support.”

    No. Prostitution is distinctly different from every jobs that isn’t front-line combatant in the military because no other job’s “clients” make it a regular habit of seeking to murder the job-holder. You brush this fact aside to sex worker’s detriment.

    “The workplace homicide rate for prostitutes (204 per 100,000) is many times higher than that for women and men in the standard occupations that had the highest workplace homicide rates in the United States during the 1980s (4 per 100,000 for female liquor store workers and 29 per 100,000 for male taxicab drivers).”


    In Canada, Prostitution was legal while Robert Pickton was murdering some 70 or so women on his British Columbian pig farm. In Washington state, prostitution was illegal when Gary Ridgeway did his Green River Killings of 71 women. In Sweden, there have been no serial killer preying on several dozen women either before their terrific 1999 decriminalization law or after it. Let’s all have some of what Sweden is having!

    • @Jarlea: @Jarlea: It is inaccurate to describe sex work as “legal” in Canada. It is nearly impossible for street workers–Robert Pickton’s targets–to work legally because of a law that prohibits public communication for the purpose of commercial sex. It is precisely this law that researchers, criminologists and sex workers themselves identify as putting them at risk from murderous clients and people who pose as clients (most violence against sex workers, incidentally, is not committed by paying clients), because it denies them adequate time to assess the men who approach them before accepting their custom.

      Sweden did not decriminalise anything in 1999–it made buying sex, which was previously legal, illegal. There have been no reported murders of sex workers since (not that,as you note, there were many before) but Swedish sex workers report feeling in much greater danger since the law has the same effect as the Canadian law on their ability to assess clients. It also causes them to take more risks with regard to unsafe sexual activities. This has also occurred in Norway, which recently adopted the same law.

      • @Wendy:
        “Swedish sex workers report feeling in much greater danger”

        I don’t believe that, haven’t seen proof of that, and it doesn’t make sense in so many ways. Don’t send me to one woman’s blog, send me to collected evidence, and don’t say underground culture is too hard to get any statistics on because it isn’t. Humans are fallible, social sciences continue.

        “it denies them adequate time to assess the men”

        How long does it take to determine if a man is a rapist? Women sometimes marry their rapists before figuring him out.

        “It also causes them to take more risks with regard to unsafe sexual activities.”

        What you’re saying is that johns are predatory, manipulative fucks worthy of life-saving “assessment” by sex workers because they will take any and every opportunity to literally get the most bang for their bucks, even when it’s unsafe.

        Do you realize you’re legitimizing suspicion of johns as forces for severe harm?

        • I don’t believe that, haven’t seen proof of that, and it doesn’t make sense in so many ways.

          It actually makes a great deal of sense if you study the collected literature on sex work under criminalisation laws. Where the job of the police is to prevent paid sex from taking place, it must take place under more clandestine conditions. For street workers this means removing themselves and their clients as quickly as possible from any place where the police are likely to observe them. This has been noted in study after study and in various jurisdictions, see for example Blankenship and Koester’s “Criminal Law, Policing Policy, and HIV Risk in Female Street Sex Workers and Injection Drug Users” (2002) 30 Journal of Law, Medicine and Ethics 548, Anne Marie O’Connor’s “Women Working in Prostitution: Towards a Healthier Future” (Women’s Education Research and Resource Centre, University College Dublin 1996) and numerous Canadian studies cited in Judge Himel’s decision in Bedford v Canada. Applying the risk of arrest to only one party to this transaction does not make a difference – in fact in the Blankenship and Koester study one of the interviewees specifically identifies the client’s fear of arrest as the reason that police activity drives prostitution into more secluded areas.

          Reports that Swedish women in street prostitution feel in greater danger have been cited in the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and Police’s “Purchasing Sexual Services in Sweden and the Netherlands: Legal Regulation and Experiences” (2004), the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare’s “Prostitution in Sweden 2007” (2008) and the Department of Social Work at the University of Gothenburg’s “Prohibiting the Purchase of Sexual Services” (2010). These were based on interviews conducted with sex workers themselves and/or people who work with them, not just “one woman’s blog”.

          How long does it take to determine if a man is a rapist? Women sometimes marry their rapists before figuring him out.

          And that means that no man can be accurately assessed as dangerous? Please. Time may be needed to determine whether a man is intoxicated or on other substances, if he is a man that other sex workers have reported as a “bad date”, or if in the course of negotiations he drops any other clues that their professional experience leads them to associate with danger. They also need time to properly negotiate what service will be provided and at what price, in order to prevent the misunderstandings that sometimes lead to non-premeditated violence (John Lowman, “Violence and the Outlaw Status of (Street) Prostitution in Canada” (2000) 6 Violence Against Women 987).

          Do you realize you’re legitimizing suspicion of johns as forces for severe harm?

          Has anyone, ever, disputed the fact that some clients can be forces for severe harm? That’s possibly the biggest straw man I’ve ever seen in a debate.

          Sex workers generally report that most clients are unproblematic and transactions go off as agreed (Marina A. Barnard, “Violence and vulnerability: conditions of work for streetworking prostitutes” (1993) 15 Sociology of Health & Illness 683). There are however some deadly exceptions – and criminal laws make it harder for sex workers to avoid them. That is the nub of the issue.

  7. Excellent post, Arielle Loren!

    I remember, while listening to a local Atlanta radio station several years ago, hearing the story of a police officer who asked a sex worker for sex in exchange for not arresting her. I remember how baffled I was by that, and even more shocked to hear from the officer that it’s a common occurrence in exchange for no jail time. It’s understandable, yet it sickens me.

    Sex work won’t be viewed as legitimate until society gets over its “holier than thou” mindset. I also agree with Jules in that society tends to look down on not only sex workers but other people society deems “undesirable”. (substance users, etc.)

  8. um. wtf of course its “undesireble” why would people welcome with open arms something thats considered risky behavior????why should people support desperate ass women who fck strangers everyday for money? why the hell should people praise that? is money all you people care about? i guess since its so great then why dont we have prostitutes and strippers to go “career day” at schools or have those as a new major in college since you guys think it should be highly regarded and respectable.

    i’m not surprised that arielle is in high support of this. shes always writing about how wonderful it is to spread your legs for everybody and how people should respect and praise the men and women who do crap like that. it has nothing to do with being religious. its common sense. why are you supporting and encouraging women to jump in bed with total strangers all for the sake of money? its not a smart thing to do. why be surprised that doctors look down on hookers? they are constantly risking their health and being dumb. so sad to see the world spiraling out of control and seeing everybody cosign the most foolish crap ever! its illegal for a damn reason.

    yes sex is a beautiful thing but not when its with strangers who dont give a shit about you except for get a nut. is that what women should be reduced to now? sperm dumpsters? whats respect about that? you really wanna add that as an occupation for your potential daughters and grand-daughers?

  9. Ah, Daniela, it is precisely this kid of judgement that is talked about. The issue is choice. Not intelligence, not morals which are all. Way to individually defined to just be blanketed onto any issue. Not everyone who chooses sex. Work is having risky sex. Not everyone who is a sex worker is randomly “opening their legs for strangers” lol… I believe in the right of humans to make CHOICES for themselves. However, this kind of thought is difficult to digest by those who choose to think their opinion of things is the only right way. It is difficult by those who are brainwashed by the very same religions who caused slavery, continue to cause war and thwart the very possibility of individual thought.

    Thank the Universe for people like Arielle who are self actualized enough to step away from. The tribe mentality that has so. Many people living mediocre, predictable lives that they have to escape from thru reality tv, etc.

    • @Essence: um are you serious? ” SEX WORK” IS having sex with strangers. so you mean to tell me that prostitutes make their money by having sex with their friends and families now? how is having sex every single day, multiple times a day, with a new person all of those times NOT risky? come on! nobody is brainwashed by religion. religion has shit to do with it. its common sense. you dont know what diseases those people have, you dont know if they’re a serial killer, you dont know ANYTHING about them. why would you cosign on your fellow woman putting themselves in danger by sleeping with strangers for a living? thats how people get killed. not cool!

      i know you think you’re being “evolved” and “concious” but you’re not sweety. i’m so sorry if not risking my life and my health is seen as “predictable” SMH

      • @daniela:

        These types of views of sex work are usually due to ignorance. Daniela, I am a sex worker. I can tell you that my work is much more than just spreading my legs for strangers. (Incidentally, I open my legs for relatively few strangers when compared with women in their twenties and thirties who go out and have sex every weekend with strangers, because I see nearly all regular clients, some of whom I have known for years, and who treat me with respect and friendship. I see a new client maybe once a fortnight, or once a month. Not that this means anything for me – many of my sex worker sisters and brothers do see many new clients regularly and that works for them.) My work involves giving pleasure, happiness and enjoyment, self-esteem building, giving others a sense of acceptance, helping others develop trust as well as interpersonal and relational skills… It may not be a major in college, but sex work requires and develops a specialised skill set. I can assure you that I am not ‘desperate’ or ‘dumb’ or a ‘sperm dumpster’ (I only ever practice safe sex with my clients) – I am an intelligent, capable woman and I have chosen a rewarding and valuable job that I am good at, and that allows me to give a lot to others in many ways. I am a woman with family, friends, interests, opinions – and values that happen to be different to yours. I know that there are situations and topics I do not know about and these are things I try to be non-judgmental about. Instead of attacking people, it can be helpful to attempt to understand what you do not, could not possibly know, unless you’ve done it yourself. (If you have been a sex worker in the past, I apologise in advance for my assumption.) Myself and the sex workers that make up my community deserve love and respect just like everyone else, deserve to be protected from violence (physical as well as verbal!) and discrimination just like everyone else, and deserve to enjoy the same rights as everyone else.

        Some of the most beautiful, loving, kind-hearted and strong people I have met are sex workers. You’ve probably met some too, you just didn’t know. I hope that you can open your mind and your heart. Wishing you the best.

  10. The major issue with the sex industry is that sex really does sell- but it’s extremely cheap. I think it’s a cop-out to say the negative perception of sex workers is perpetrated by the skewed moral-outlook of “brainwashed”, pretentious zealots. What about the consumers? How do they distinguish between person and product?

  11. Thanks for every other wonderful article. The place else could anyone get that type of information in such an ideal means of writing? I’ve a presentation next week, and I’m at the search for such information.

  12. The logic in this is so flawed, it makes me think a couple of johns came up with it. Biggest problem: if sex work becomes legitimized and accepted in the mainstream, then non-sex workers will be expected to do these now-accepted activities as part of their jobs. Regulations around sexual harassment will become non existent. Sexual abuse of all workers will skyrocket.

  13. Thank you for this article and the responses to it. It is good to know that there are some people making an effort to rethink how sex workers should be perceived and how things might change if they were not used as a dumping ground for society’s most negative understanding of sex. In arguing for the rights and freedoms of sex workers, you are holding up one important end of a debate about where both agency and abuse begin and end. Thank you. Some of the negative perceptions of sex workers are not inaccurate- women with drug addiction problems will turn to prostitution to support a habit that is terribly dehumanizing and will “consent” to any number of sexual activities that will provide them with needed drugs or money for drugs. However, I would argue that these women should not be classified as criminals, but as victims, and aided as such. There is terrible social stigma in being branded a criminal and it does nothing to help the social status of a horribly vulnerable population to be handled as such by the law. That said, I know that there are many women (and men) who work in the sex industry in various capacities who are not addicts and have made their choices for a wide variety of reasons. I have been one such and I have known many, many others. My own experiences and what I’ve observed of the experiences of others have underscored, for me, the tremendous importance of not being merely reactionary- not merely asserting one’s rights in the face of unthinking and prejudiced condemnation- but of acknowledging the complexity of the choices and situations facing sex workers while simultaneously supporting sex workers’ dignity and rights. The women I have known who have done this awed and amazed me: it replaced the pain of certain violations with a sense of dignity and open-ended possibility. Paternalism can never be a replacement for something that powerful. For this reason, it is important that sex workers continue to voice their truths. I just hope it will be a nuanced, honest account.

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