Want to Reduce Sex Trafficking? Decriminalize Sex Work.

The argument that decriminalization of the sex trade will increase sex trafficking is a myth. In fact, the opposite is true.

[Photo: Sex workers and supporters hold signs saying Sex Work Is Real Work as they march in rally]
Decriminalization of sex work makes everyone safer, including victims of trafficking. Emily Kask/AFP/Getty Images

The New York state legislature introduced a bill in June that would remove criminal penalties for adults who voluntarily buy and sell sex. Right now, selling sex is a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to 90 days in jail; buying it is a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to a year in jail and/or a $1,000 fine. Decriminalization of sex work would remove those criminal penalties.

It’s important to understand that decriminalization—which has also become a topic of conversation among Democratic presidential candidates—is not the same as legalization. Legalization does not have nearly the same positive results that decriminalization has, and this misunderstanding could lead to devastating consequences. Full-service sex work is legal in Nevada in licensed brothels in counties with fewer than 400,000 residents, but workers must comply with regulatory frameworks. While this may sound good, it still leaves plenty of room for underground sex trafficking to flourish. Decriminalization, which both sex workers and trafficking survivors are pushing for, removes the prohibition against the sale of consensual sex between adults.

The main argument that people have against decriminalization is based on a myth: that decriminalization of the sex trade will increase sex trafficking. As a New York-based sex worker, I can promise you that sex workers hate sex trafficking as much as—or more than—the average civilian. Besides the fact that we are regular people who want to keep children and others safe from predators, we are also at high risk of being trafficked ourselves.

Sex workers are adults who choose to work in the sex trade. As a general term, “sex worker” includes escorts, adult actors, cammers, and strippers, among others. Like any profession with a low barrier to entry, while some sex workers may have chosen sex work from an array of other possible career paths, others may not feel like they have other options. But being driven by financial circumstances alone is not the same as being trafficked. Trafficking victims, by contrast, are coerced, and/or forced into the sex trade by third parties. There are already existing state and federal laws against trafficking, and these laws would remain intact even if sex work were decriminalized.

Unlike the imagery many anti-trafficking evangelical organizations invoke, trafficking victims are rarely middle-class white kids who are kidnapped by strangers in a parking lot. Instead, traffickers target the most marginalized kids and adults, including people who are homeless, undocumented, disabled, transgender, queer, or in the foster care system. These same demographics are also overrepresented in sex work because we have less access to legal work.

In fact, far from causing sex trafficking, expert Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, the author of Hidden in Plain Sight: America’s Slaves of the New Millennium, found in her research that decriminalization is necessary to fight it. In 2017, the American Medical Association Journal of Ethics published a paper urging health-care workers to support decriminalization.

Last year, public health researchers reviewed 40 quantitative and 94 qualitative studies about the relationship between laws against sex work, and the health and safety of sex workers. They found that the more criminalized sex work was, the more violence and exploitation sex workers faced. According to the study’s authors, this was because criminalization “disrupted sex workers’ work environments, support networks, safety and risk reduction strategies, and access to health services and justice. It demonstrated how policing within all criminalisation and regulation frameworks exacerbated existing marginalisation, and how sex workers’ relationships with police, access to justice, and negotiating powers with clients have improved in decriminalised contexts.”

In other words, when the cops are on your back, you have to do things that are sometimes dangerous in order to avoid arrest, and more activities move underground where predators can flourish.

That’s why some human rights organizations are also calling for decriminalization. In 2016, Amnesty International called for the decriminalization of the sex trade, in part because it’s most effective in reducing sex trafficking. The World Health Organization also supports decriminalization and has held this stance since 2012.

Groups that are organized by and for trafficking survivors support decriminalization too. Freedom Network USA, the largest organization in the United States that works directly with trafficking survivors, publicly supports decriminalization. Other anti-trafficking organizations that support decriminalization include La Strada International and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women.

We can see the correlation between criminalization and trafficking firsthand. Earlier this year, federal anti sex-work SESTA/FOSTA laws went fully into effect. In San Francisco, those laws have increased reports of trafficking by 170 percent. The further sex work is pushed underground, the more predators can flourish in the shadows.

So why is this myth still so rampant? The idea that the interests of sex workers and the interests of trafficking victims do not align is a lie put forth by what some sex workers and activists call the “Anti-Trafficking Industrial Complex.”

Instead of using their resources to support trafficking survivors directly or preventing trafficking, NGOs like Polaris—a massive anti-trafficking industry organization—and evangelical groups like the Faith Alliance Against Slavery and Trafficking use a lot of their resources to help increase criminalization of sex workers and trafficking victims. Polaris urged members to contact politicians to push for the passage of SESTA/FOSTA, even though sex workers and trafficking survivors had publicly complained it would make trafficking worse. These groups are rarely led by survivors or people who work directly with them, nor do they usually provide direct services; instead, they typically refer people elsewhere, often to groups that do support decriminalization.

Groups like these also work to spread misinformation about the relationship between sex work and sex trafficking by making unsupported claims that sex trafficking is “fueled by the proliferation of pornography.” Their platform treats all prostitution as sexual slavery and does not distinguish between consenting adults and people who are forced into it. They also use their “anti-trafficking” message as an evangelical tool by creating religious school curricula that erase the marginalized people who are actually most targeted by traffickers.

Decriminalization is not uncharted territory. New Zealand decriminalized buying and selling sex in 2003. New Zealand lawmakers intentionally centered the voices of those most affected. Since decriminalization, research has shown better health and safety outcomes for sex workers in New Zealand, and better relationships between sex workers and law enforcement.

Decriminalization of sex work makes everyone safer. More than any other kind of system, decriminalization will help reduce the number of people who are trafficked and help those who are victims of trafficking get to safety more easily with fewer negative health and safety consequences.

If you want to reduce trafficking, you must be for decriminalization of the sex trade.