Decriminalization as a Path to Ending Violence Against Sex Workers


Posted on December 17th, 2015 by Elizabeth Boylan

Red UmbrellasToday, December 17th, is International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.  December 17th received this designation in 2003 in memoriam of the more than 49 known sex workers and other marginalized women who were murdered by serial murderer, Gary Ridgway.

The call to end violence is an important one, and one that we should all heed. It is especially imperative that we heed the call to end violence when the violence in question puts persons who are already marginalized at risk of sexual assault and rape, physical assault, abduction, stalking, and murder.

In this instance – the call to end violence against sex workers – we are compelled to ask why sex workers are marginalized and why they are stigmatized, and how this makes them subject to greater violence.  The criminalization of sex work creates an institutional paradigm that puts sex workers at greater risk of violence, and sets systems in place that make it difficult for sex workers to report violent crimes perpetrated against them as they are vulnerable to persecution, prosecution, and further violence.

Sex work enables people to have economic independence by levying a fee for their sexual autonomy.  It enables individuals, who may not want, or be able to perform other work, to be economically powerful, and to be validated through engaging in work that is valuable and desired in society to a consuming public.

When sex work is criminalized, power is removed from the sex worker, and put into the hands of a government’s criminal justice system; as persons who enter the criminal justice system in the United States are frequently subject to cycles of fear, bias and discrimination, this further perpetuates cycles of marginalization of sex workers.  Sex workers are less likely to report assault, violence, robbery, or rape to legal authorities who are supposed to uphold laws that condemn these actions, for fear that they will be subject to scrutiny and discrimination as a result of their chosen profession. If a sex worker reports a crime against themselves, and is found to be engaging in illegal activities, they may be subject to police harassment and arrest.  If arrested, charged, and convicted of a crime, they are then subject to prison or coercive reforms, which frequently do not work, and do greater harm than good.  Given, then, that the individual has a criminal record, depending on the city and state an individual lives in, they may be subject to employment discrimination in the future – – which puts them at risk for poverty and housing discrimination and insecurity.

Sex work, too, offers a venue for economic empowerment and independence for persons already marginalized and discriminated against by society and employers.  Many transgender and gender-non-conforming individuals may turn to sex work as a means of income if they are unable to find other work due to discrimination by employers, or as a result of economic insecurity because they are frequently paid less for work in non-sex-work fields due to wage disparity and discrimination.  These numbers increase at the intersections of multiple marginalized identities – – persons of color, femme and trans-feminine individuals, persons born outside of the United States, and persons with disabilities.  The criminalization of sex work puts these individuals at risk of further stigmatization and at risk for greater institutional and individual violence.

Across the United States, there are a variety of laws that allow law enforcement to use condoms as “evidence” of criminalized sex work.  Until 2014, in New York State, possession of condoms was grounds for arrest on suspicion of sex work.  While this law was removed in New York State, many laws throughout the country still allow law enforcement officials to arrest persons on suspicion of sex work based on possession of condoms.  This leads sex workers to be less likely to carry condoms, for fear that doing so could be used as evidence against them if they are apprehended or stopped-and-frisked by police.  With laws like this in place, sex workers are less likely to carry condoms and other barriers that may protect them from STIs, HIV, and pregnancy; this in turn, creates a public health risk, one that is entirely preventable.  With sex work decriminalized, sex workers would be free to protect their health and safety.

When sex work is criminalized, we see that individuals engaged in this work are marginalized, and less likely to be able to protect their health, and to report violent crimes against themselves for fear of prosecution.  By de-criminalizing sex work, we would shift the paradigm that marginalizes these individuals, giving them the security to report violent crimes against themselves without fear of discrimination, harassment, or arrest, and thereby protecting their right to not be victims of violent crimes – rights that all persons should be entitled to.

While it is clear that we need to protect sex workers from violence, and make people aware of the fact that violence against sex workers is an institutional problem, ending this violence is only treating a symptom of the larger dysfunction caused by the criminalization of sex work.  By decriminalizing sex work, we can create a path to ending violence against sex workers, and enabling healthier, safer existences, and greater autonomy and economic opportunities for individuals who engage in sex work.

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