Sex work is real work.
That’s the battle cry led by sex workers in New York state fighting to stop the criminalization of their labor. Last June, a handful of Democrat lawmakers introduced the Stop Violence in the Sex Trades Act bill, which was drafted with Decrim NY, a coalition of sex workers, immigration advocates , and LGBT organizations. If passed, the statewide legislation package would eliminate penalties to consenting adults who buy or sell sex, while keeping intact existing anti-trafficking laws.
Currently, sex work is criminalized everywhere in the U.S., with the exception of some counties in Las Vegas where it was legalized. It's worth noting the huge difference between legalization, which invites government regulation, and decriminalization, which removes all forms of regulations and laws from the job.
New York’s bill, unique in the nation, could change the lives of the countless people in the sex trade industry who have been arrested, incarcerated and subjected to widespread discrimination related to employment, housing, and more.
Most seek sex work as a survival strategy —to escape homelessness, violence or, in the case of LGBT+ people, rejection. Many sex workers are undocumented or come from otherwise marginalized communities.
Of all prostitution-related arrests in New York, 94% were black women, while 9 out of 10 women detained in massage parlors offering sexual services were immigrants. It’s no wonder that, for fear of being arrested, sex workers tend not to report violence or crimes committed against them.
And then there are the shockingly archaic sex-related laws that were on the books until recently: Up until 2014, NYPD officers could arrest people for simply walking around with more than three condoms in their wallets. The discretionary practice often served as an alibi for racial profiling.
A study in The Lancet on HIV and sex workers showed that decriminalization of sex work would avert 33–46% of HIV infections in the next decade. It would also increase their access to human rights, including health care. An estimated 20 to 40% of cis- women are at high risk of HIV infection in the United States reported having sex in exchange for money. Trans sex workers are nearly 6 times as likely to be living with HIV than the general trans population.
Although the push to decriminalize seems like a long shot, it has become a hot topic for the progressive movement in the 2020 Presidential primaries. Democratic presidential candidates have come out in support of it, including Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, and Bernie Sanders.
But this isn’t a new discussion. Women have perpetually been defined by our sexuality, yet when we try to take ownership of it, there’s often pushback.
We have been told that sex shouldn’t be sold, and instead should be given away for free within the bounds of a relationship, like other labors that have been linked to womanhood, such as housework and childcare.
But despite the immense stigma, sex work is a way for women (as well as men and non-binary individuals) to gain financial power and challenge the status quo. That's why the battle for decriminalization is not just about monetizing sex work, but about a way for women to claim ownership of their sexuality, their bodies, and their selves.
Watch Refinery29’s Truth Be Told episode on the sex workers' movement to reclaim the validity of their labor.