The question of whether sex work ought to be either decriminalized or legalized has resurfaced recently. It’s been on the minds of sex worker activists for some time, but it has gained national attention. For example, on NPR, and among U.S. democratic presidential candidates.
My concern is that legalization of sex work would not occur independently of the exploitative social, political, and economic systems already in place. For example, I went to the U.K. once for a conference on human rights, and on the airport shuttle radio there were two British men seriously discussing a question: Given the rising costs of higher education, should sex work be legalized in the U.K. so that people can pay for college? Instead of making higher education more available for everyone – the possibility of doing so was not even considered – the solution being offered was to legalize sex work so that college students could pay for college. Underneath this discussion, there was neither the concern nor the drive to reduce exploitation or protect sex workers – it was a drive to give men more access to bodies, and particularly the bodies of young people.
The subsumed idea is that young people will be coerced into doing something that they really would not otherwise choose had college education been more affordable. Yes, it would be a “choice” in a very loose sense, but it is a very forced choice, like choosing to work a potentially dangerous job at a factory vs. starve. Every job has requirements. Whether any individual is comfortable with the particular requirements of any given job is up to their own discretion – ideally, the individual could freely choose whether to have the job or not. However, non-ideally within neoliberal capitalism survival requires forcing oneself to meet a given job’s requirements, whether one is comfortable with the job’s requirements or not. In legalizing sex work within a neoliberal capitalist framework, it must be conscientiously recognized that the very real possibility for coercion exists.
Legalization within systems of exploitation could have very serious unintended consequences that could lead to even more forms of exploitation. I do think that the type of exploitation that could occur to sex workers is more traumatic than the type of exploitation that could occur to other types of workers – to be raped or forced to commit sexual acts would be more traumatic than to be robbed. Sex work entails a type of bodily activity that makes one more vulnerable to violations of one’s bodily integrity. (A close second, but for different reasons, would be workers in agriculture and factories.) The socio-political situation as it exists now is one in which sexual assault survivors are still placed in the position of being disbelieved and having to prove their assault – that is to say, socio-politically and legally, sexual assault survivors bear the burden of proof. Sex workers are much more likely to face sexual assault and are especially disbelieved by the legal system. Given as much, my concern is with taking seriously potential unintended consequences.
My concern is not with whether sex work ought to be legalized or not. I would like to think that my concern is more nuanced than that – but I am open to being wrong. My concern is with making sure that if sex work is legalized, that it does not create more pervasive forms of exploitation. I do not want exploitation to become further codified in law, because when exploitation becomes codified in law it becomes much more difficult to correct. I do not want sexual assault perpetrators to be effectively legally sanctioned to violate and exploit people because socio-politically society is still operating on an ideology that hyper-commodity fetishizes sex and treats people’s bodies as commodities to be violently consumed. Regulations and sex workers having a voice in the deliberations surrounding the conditions for legalization or decriminalization could limit this, but only if all parties involved are conscientious about the potential unintended consequences.
I want to be very clear: I take it very seriously that neither I nor anyone else has a right to tell another person what they ought to do with their own body.
This means that social, political, and economic systems should not be allowed to tell anyone what they ought to do with their own body, in any manner. This means the protection of one person’s choice of sex work as their profession and the protection of another person’s choice of non-sex work as their profession. Humans can tend to be dichotomous thinkers – we can oscillate between extremes. There needs to be a socio-political balance between extreme conceptions of sexuality – neither exploitative hyper-commodity fetishized conceptions of sexuality nor repressive hyper-moralized conceptions of sexuality. Along with an ideological re-conceptualization of sexuality, and in conjunction with either decriminalizing or legalizing sex work, serious work needs to be done to address and correct exploitative systems that drive people to not have a true choice in the type of work they would do. The implementation of universal basic income, universal healthcare, and universal higher education or technical training would create the social, political, and economic conditions possible for people to have a true choice in what type of profession they would like to pursue.