Opinion | Legalize sex work to protect sex workers

By Delilah Bourque, Senior Staff Columnist

The word prostitute — or sex worker, as is the preferred term — tends to inspire the image of young women in short skirts standing on a darkened street corner or someone sitting in a window under a red light in Amsterdam. But sex work is actually more nuanced and broader than most understand it to be. While many forms of sex work are legal, like phone sex and nude dancing, prostitution remains illegal in most of the world.

This illegality heightens the danger of a job that deserves to be legalized. Decriminalizing or legalizing sex work broadly across the United States could increase protections for the nearly 2 million sex workers at risk for abuse and lacking access to workers’ rights in the country.

Sex workers would be able to seek health care, have the potential to form labor unions, be able to sue for discrimination and reap other benefits of employment laws while working a legal profession. Sex workers would also face less violence if they were able to report abuse to police. Sweden, which decriminalized sex work for workers but not solicitors in 1999, saw no sex workers murdered by clients between then and 2015.

If sex work was legalized, sex workers would be healthier and at less risk for sexually transmitted diseases, like HIV. Currently, female sex workers are 54 times more likely to contract HIV than the average woman. One study suggested with mathematical modeling that if sex workers had access to safer places to work and medical treatment, incidents of new HIV infection in sex workers fell between 33% and 46%.

Decriminalizing and legalizing sex work also helps remove stigma around sex workers by legitimizing their profession. Andrea Werhun, author of “Modern Whore,” a memoir about her experiences as a sex worker, found that the shame surrounding sex work made it hard to share her life with her families.

“You don’t have to be a sex worker to know what it’s like to feel excluded from society. I couldn’t be myself,” Werhun said in an interview. “Most people weren’t in a place where they could deal with my sex work.”

Seeking new sex work laws could also help the economy. Legal sex work would increase revenue for state and federal governments collecting taxes from individual sex workers and from brothels. Though economics are not as important as the personal safety of sex workers, an economic boost could be a contributing factor in passing legislation.

Dennis Hof, a brothel owner in Nevada, estimated that the government of Las Vegas alone could collect huge amounts in taxes from brothel owners.

“[Prostitution is] a multimillion-dollar-a-year business in Las Vegas, and nobody gets any taxes off of it … The city and the county could probably make about $25 million a year in taxes off of legalized prostitution,” Hof said. “Right now they spend a lot of money policing vice. Why not eliminate that and turn it into a revenue-maker, instead of having to pay to police it?”

Right now, Nevada is the only place in the United States where sex work is currently legal in certain areas of the state, and engaging in sex work outside of a legal brothel is a misdemeanor offense. But the Nevada system isn’t perfect. Sex workers are considered independent contractors, meaning they cannot collect unemployment, retirement or health care benefits.

There are multiple different models for the decriminalization and legalization of sex work across the world. New Zealand is the only country that has fully legalized sex work, and some models in Nordic countries like Sweden and Norway criminalize sex work for the buyers, but not the sellers. In the Netherlands, for example, sex work is regulated by police, and brothels must be licensed.

The Dutch system is complicated, with many different stipulations on how many licenses can be administered for a certain area and how workers can use the spaces in brothels. Some sex workers in the Netherlands are advocating for more complete legalization, which they argue would keep sex workers safe from police harassment and poor working conditions in a limited number of brothels.

Legalization and decriminalization has marked effects on the lives of sex workers. New Zealand passed the Prostitution Reform Act in 2003, which fully decriminalized sex work for those over 18, without stipulations about where sex workers are allowed to work.

Following the PRA, a 2007 study by the Department of Public Health and General Practice at the University of Otago in Christchurch, New Zealand, revealed that 90% of sex workers surveyed felt the new laws gave them better employment, legal, health and safety rights. One sex worker in New Zealand was able to successfully sue the owner of the brothel she worked at for sexual harassment in 2014.

Opponents of decriminalization and legalization argue that the illegal bringing of unwilling people into sex work, or sex trafficking, would increase if sex work is legalized and decriminalized. But criminalizing sex work is not an effective solution to sex trafficking. With current legislation, trafficking is still a problem — 7,255 people fell victim to sex trafficking in 2017. Decriminalization is considered to be a strategy to fight sex trafficking by protecting trafficking victims from prosecution for illegal sex work.

Sex work is a profession held all over the world and in many different forms. Though trafficking laws also need to be improved, victims still slip into the hands of traffickers with our current system. Decriminalization and legalization of sex work broadly across the country will increase protections for sex workers, who currently are exposed to abuses without the protection of the law.