Clegg: Should selling sex be legal?

BY CHRIS CLEGG | AUGUST 05, 2015 5:00 AM

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When three major credit-card companies cut their cards from being accepted on Backpage.com, an advertising website that operates much to the same capacity as Craigslist, they may have accidentally knocked down one of the barriers protecting sex-workers.

According to the Huffington Post, American Express, Visa, and MasterCard all cut ties to the site in June and July because of a complaint lodged by Illinois’ Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart that accepting payment for explicitly sexual ads in its “adult” section “significantly lowered the barrier to entry for would-be sex traffickers … cloaking them in anonymity and putting all risk on the shoulders of their victims.”

However, while Dart and the credit-card companies were undoubtedly trying to do the right thing in curbing sex trafficking, their swift action could have used a bit more thought and research. 

First of all, it is important to note that “sex work” in the United States, while legal in parts of Nevada (Google Sheri’s Ranch), is illegal. Nonetheless, the combined power of human desire and the Internet have made it nearly impossible to weave out of the social fabric that we like to call society. Much like how stipulations outlawing marijuana are largely ignored so, too, are laws against sex work. 

While selling sex in this country is, for the most part, illegal, it does happen. And it happens a lot. Urban.org released a 2014 report focusing on the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in eight major cities and found that, in 2007, the business was worth as low as $40 million and as much as $290 million.

The amount of wealth concentrated in that economy says a couple of things. One, it is a popular industry. Two, the laws put in place to prevent such activity have largely failed. And three, people want to sell sex. The last one is the one that Dart and the credit-card companies may not have considered before lodging their complaints and removing their services, respectively. 

As I mentioned, their minds were in the right place; both parties wanted to take an action that would help stop sex-traffickers from kidnapping individuals who advertised pay-for-sex online, but the action itself had unintended effects. As Maggie McNeill, a practicing courtesan, or, call girl, told Vice’s Colleen Curry, “The women who are going to be most hurt if Backpage rolls over are the less-advantaged, less-privileged workers.” 

Why? Because now, instead of using an online website that allows those who choose to sell sex an ability to screen their customers and negotiate terms such as condom use and location, they are forced to do it on the streets, completely unregulated. As the statistics mentioned above show, selling sex is by no means close to being extinguished, and Dart and the credit-card companies have actually perpetuated a more dangerous scenario for those who choose to engage in such activities by taking away a means of important regulation.

Take Germany, for example. According to the BBC, the Germans legalized selling sex in 2002, and, as a result, sex-workers can now “pay into a pension and demand health insurance.” If Germany’s attitude towards sex-work represents one end of the spectrum, then Dart and the credit-card companies surely represent the other. Regardless of where on that spectrum you see yourself, I believe it is time to start asking the question: Should selling sex be legal?

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