Why Decriminalizing Sex Work Would Help in the COVID-19 Fight

Families wouldn't need to be torn apart as they survive a pandemic, poverty, and mass incarceration.

[PHOTO: People protesting for sex workers' rights]
Louisiana must decriminalize sex work now, and the first step is for state lawmakers to support HB 366. Emily Kask/AFP via Getty Images

For more anti-racism resources, check out our guide, Racial Justice Is Reproductive Justice.

The criminalization, overpolicing, and mass incarceration of poor Black and brown communities in the United States is a familiar tale in our nation, and sex workers are at the center of it. Add COVID-19 to the mix, and this shameful history becomes not just an injustice, but for many, a death sentence.

In 1989, a group of Black women in New Orleans decided they wanted to put an end to marginalized communities’ exclusion from conversations about issues that hit their communities the hardest. HIV/AIDS-related health issues were the impetus for that activism, which led to the creation of our organization, Women With a Vision.

Some 30 years later, we face another public health crisis—this time with a different virus that once again hits our most marginalized communities the hardest, revealing that white supremacy, patriarchy, and homophobia are still at work to silence and exclude marginalized voices.

As at the peak of the HIV/AIDS crisis, poor Black and brown women and queer and trans people of color are disproportionately harmed by the coronavirus. And for those who make their living as sex workers, they are also disproportionately targeted and victimized by a predatory carceral system.

Through early April, Black people accounted for 70 percent of COVID-19 deaths in Louisiana, though they make up only 32 percent of the state’s population. This disparity is often explained by higher rates of underlying health conditions, attributed to a lack of access to quality health care and to other determinants of health linked to poverty: food and housing insecurity, environmental injustice, unsafe working environments, and the constant stress of feeling unsafe in your own community, due in part to predatory policing. This tracks, given that our state has some of the highest poverty rates in the nation, across several measures.

Amid the pandemic, our front-line workers continue to go to work each day at grocery stores, restaurants, pharmacies, delivery services, and food processing plants, and they rightly deserve our support and recognition. But another group of workers faces difficult decisions between going to work at great personal risk versus not being able to put food on the table: sex workers.

Although sex workers now face a heightened risk of exposure to COVID-19, they have long had to endure unsafe working environments due to draconian laws, overpolicing, and incarceration. These forces take people away from their families, limit opportunity, and subject them to predatory fines—driving many further into poverty. Without addressing the underlying issues of poverty and economic inequality, this punishment-driven response by law enforcement simply traps those who are already at the margins of society deeper into poverty, holding them hostage to the carceral system.

Louisiana sure knows a thing or two about mass incarceration, as our state regularly tops the list for the highest incarceration rate in the country. Especially now, the close quarters, poor sanitation, and inadequate medical care make jails and prisons ripe for mass outbreaks, with dire—and for some, deadly—health consequences for all trapped inside.

As many across the country call for the release of incarcerated individuals to protect them from COVID-19, let us also take this opportunity to examine and reconsider who we’re criminalizing in the first place. Louisiana must decriminalize sex work now, and the first step is for state lawmakers to support HB 366.

What strong support of HB 366 would say to the public is that Louisiana’s public officials recognize that hyper-criminalizing consenting adults engaging in sex work only embeds them deeper in poverty. HB 366 does not overturn any laws regulating sex trafficking for the protection of minors. What it does do is uphold family units seeking to survive a pandemic, poverty, and mass incarceration by decriminalizing prostitution-related charges against consenting adults.

It’s long overdue and more urgently needed than ever.

Correction: This article was updated with the correct bill.