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Decriminalize prostitution to protect sex workers

BY DI EDITORIAL BOARD | APRIL 20, 2011 7:20 AM

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On April 14, police charged four women in Coralville with prostitution. The women, ranging in ages from 18 to 27, admitted to placing online ads in order to meet men in their hotel room for sex. There were no pimps involved, and no abuse committed, no intercourse and no transactions made. In other words, these women are facing criminal penalties for a crime in which nobody was hurt.

The traditional basis of the illegality of prostitution is questionable in the context of modern society, and decriminalizing prostitution in Iowa would reduce the unjust exploitation of women and reflect an inherent right to liberty and autonomy.

In the United States, only a handful of counties in Nevada permit the buying and selling of sexual services. The rationale for prostitution's illegality is based both on a general sense of sex work's indecency and on the ideas that prostitution has large-scale negative consequences — that it is harmful to women, leads to additional illegal activity, results in an increase in sex trafficking, and increases the prominence of sexually transmitted diseases. Although it inevitably falls short of addressing all of these points, decriminalization would do much to decrease the aforementioned.

To be clear: Sexual transactions in which all parties consent to a certain payment for a certain act are wholly different from the sort of coercive behavior that defines sexual trafficking. Abuse, fraud, and rape ought to be — and generally are — illegal, independent of prostitution regulations.
Prostitution regulations that aren't all that effective at stamping out the practice. The 2004 ABC News American Sex Survey reported that 15 percent of American men and 30 percent of single men under age 30 have paid for sex. Last year, Craigslist shut down its "adult services" section in an attempt to slow solicitation for sexual services. Clearly, the laws in place are doing little to eliminate what's commonly regarded as the world's oldest occupation.

Instead, the laws facilitate a high risk of abuse within the industry.

Sex workers, whether forced to sell themselves out of economic necessity or choosing to sell themselves out of curiosity or interest, have no legal authority they can turn to in order to protect themselves. "When I was a sex worker, I was raped," Bay Area Sex Workers Advocates Network Director Carol Leigh told the DI Editorial Board on Tuesday. "I was discouraged from seeking help from the police, because the police would shut the place down."

Consensual sex itself is not a crime; only when there is a financial transaction involved does it become illegal. Once sex workers agree to provide their service in the exchange of money, they are often forced to implicate themselves in a crime to acquire police protection.

"The police will say they treat those crimes like any other crimes," said Leigh. "But we know that's not true. The reality is that we do not feel safe going to the police. It's very hard to protect yourself from the police and the rapists at the same time; you're always looking both ways."

The difference between decriminalization and legalization deserves some clarification. Legalized prostitution would open the door for taxation and particular regulations, including requiring sex transactions to occur in brothels; decriminalization would simply remove all laws against prostitution. While either would be an improvement on the status quo, sex workers' advocates tend to prefer the latter, because state control of prostitution tends to perpetuate police abuse and stigmatization.

As in most cases, protectionist sentiment should be trumped by the voices of sex workers themselves, who advocate for laws against fraud and abuse rather than laws to curtail what they do with their bodies. Decriminalization would allow workers to organize themselves and advocate for themselves without being targeted by the law. Greater empowerment means a greater ability to negotiate for safer sex practices and better wages — in other words, actual control over workers' bodies.

Sadly, there's little chance that Iowa will decriminalize prostitution in the near future; even more liberal voices tend to balk at the idea of legal sex work. The facts are there: Prostitution continues to be prevalent in the United States, one of the few developed countries in which commercial sex services are illegal, and our criminal penalties for prostitution only serve to hurt sex workers. Our legal system ought to be grounded in a commitment to harm reduction and bodily autonomy.

Consent-based sexual transactions, even if they involve money, are victimless crimes. Like most victimless crimes, they shouldn't be crimes at all.


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