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Decriminalizing Sex Work is at the Frontier of Workers' Rights

Aaron Barksdale

Aaron Barksdale

Sex workers don’t want your judgment or your sympathy, but most want to be legal.

It's been called the oldest profession in the world, but despite centuries of labor sex work still gets a bad rap. Whether or not you agree that sex work should or shouldn't be happening: It is. There is increasingly more evidence to support the decriminalization of sex work and that people engaged in the commercial sex trade are entitled to the same protections guaranteed to other workers.

Sex workers rights are directly linked to women's rights, LGBTQ rights, workers rights and other vulnerable communities. Since their work is criminalized, sex workers are vulnerable to sexual assault and violence, which bars them from law enforcement protection or legal recourse in cases of discrimination. In the US, Nevada is the only state that permits any form of sex work, but there are strict limitations. Internationally, there are 69 countries where sex work isn't a crime, but even in legalized countries sex work isn't treated the same way across the board.

Cyndee Clay is the Executive Director at HIPS, a small DC-based nonprofit that provides harm reduction services and advocacy for sex workers and drug users. According to Clay, community advocates and law enforcement formed the organization in 1993 to end the abuse of women in the streets.

"We realized our original mission was too narrow, and our judgments [were] getting in the way of actually helping people," Clay told VICE Impact. "Individuals who had been engaged in the sex trade helped us change our programs and information to be more successful in addressing violence, coercion and criminalization of people on the streets."

Sasanka Jinadasa, the Community Engagement and Technical Assistance Manager at HIPS, explained that the organization has a harm reduction model rather than an anti-sex work stance.


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"The kind of issues that sex workers face are really extensive," Jindasa told VICE Impact. "They're enhanced by the stigma that sex workers face and things you'd see of people who live in poverty or people who live without housing, but also enhanced by this myriad of identity factors and work choices."

HIPS provides their clients with social services like food, hygiene, clothes, medical access, legal counsel and housing assistance. The group also has a needle exchange program for many of their clients who are either trans and on hormone therapy, or those who may be intravenous drug users.

"It's much easier to think that people trade sex for money because someone is forcing them to, than to acknowledge that our economy, education system and criminal justice system is simply failing, and that is forcing people into sex work."

People of all genders, sexual orientations and ages become sex workers to support themselves financially, but the back alley hooker-pimp transaction sensationalized by the media isn't the reality that all sex workers face.

"It's much easier to think that people trade sex for money because someone is forcing them to, than to acknowledge that our economy, education system and criminal justice system is simply failing, and that is forcing people into sex work," said Clay.

Read more: What To Do If You're Being Harassed At Work Because of Who You Are

Like most aspects of the workforce, the sex trade has evolved to take place in front of a computer screen. Lana Rain, a 21-year-old cam girl based in New York City, dresses up in cosplay costumes to live stream adult content to her audiences. Despite the stigma that is often associated with sex work, Rain feels empowered by her decision to work in the industry.

"I [saw] the negative views general society has about sex work in general, which I thought was ridiculous because porn is something we all consume," Rain told VICE Impact in an email interview.

"I saw huge potential in combining everything I love and enjoy into one career," Rain said. "I could make porn that I myself enjoy and project my own desires into while connecting with people who like the same things and feel good about it."

For Rain, the sex work that she does isn't criminalized. Performing sex acts on webcam or "camming" is legal, like most pornography, but exchanging sexual favors for goods or money is considered prostitution.

The internet has made it easier for sex workers to have agency over how they conduct their business. They are able to determine who they are willing to meet, what they're willing to do and how much they're willing to charge. But these online avenues are quickly being shut down.

In August 2015, the Department of Homeland Security agents raided the New York office of Rent Boy, a high-profile website for gay male escorts. The raid left many gay male sex workers displaced, and it galvanized a series of protests that fizzled out as quickly as they started. In January 2017, the website Backpage, the Craigslist of adult services, shut down the feature allowing users to advertise sex acts after fighting trafficking allegations from government officials for two years.

Such attacks on sex work by public officials are often veiled with claims of morality, but what they really point to is a control over individual autonomy. It's also slightly ironic that some of the most judgmental public officials are also the ones who frequent sex workers on the low. The anti-sex work ideology that ended the services offered by both Rentboy and Backpage are also hitting small business-owning Americans and their employees.

For the past four years, Elizabeth*, 33, has been the manager of a female-owned sex shop in Richmond, Virginia. Elizabeth takes pride in her job but feels that political climate surrounding her work could put her career in jeopardy. In December of 2016, Virginian GOP delegate, Robert G. Marshall proposed an anti-porn resolution to the state's General Assembly declaring porn was a health hazard. Despite being vague about how to handle the issue, Marshall's proposal is gaining steam from other local legislators.

"The laws in Virginia are already pretty strict, and making anything stricter would definitely pose a problem for the business," Elizabeth told VICE Impact.

"With trafficking, someone has coerced you, you do not receive compensation for your services and you do not want to be participating."

According to Clay, the misunderstanding of how sex trafficking differs from sex work contributes to the stigma against sex workers. "People hear the concept of anti-trafficking and hear stories of people who have been survivors of violence and abuse, and of course they want to do something to stop it," she said.

The line between sex work and trafficking isn't blurred.

"Sex work is work. You provide services for cash, goods, resources, whatever is," Jinadasa said. "With trafficking, someone has coerced you, you do not receive compensation for your services and you do not want to be participating."

According to Clay, decriminalization of sex work helps everyone in the sex trade, including those who have been trafficked. Several organizations -- including Amnesty International, the World Health Organization and UNAIDS -- have called for the decriminalization of sex work. It's is a huge undertaking, but there are other advocacy arms for sex work harm reduction for anyone to get involved.

One of the best ways to help out is by volunteering or donating to the organizations that support sex workers rights such as HIPS or national organizations like Sex Workers Outreach Project USA.

"Educating yourself on what it means to remove criminal penalties for sex work to listen to sex workers, to hear their voices and read their stories to focus on what sex workers need instead of what [you think] they should be doing," said Jindasa.

* Names and personal information have been changed to protect identities.