OPED: It’s time to decriminalize sex work
Donald Trump’s presidency could mark a new phase in how America deals with prostitution, long considered the oldest profession. On April 11, the president signed an act that reconciled the Senate’s “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” and the House’s “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act.” His action was aimed at restricting internet advertising of commercial sex services.
But for many Americans, prostitution has shifted from a moral issue, “sin,” to a legal one, “consent.” A May 2016 Marist poll found that 49 percent of Americans felt commercial sex between two consenting adults should be legal, and 44 percent opposed it. In addition, six in 10 respondents opposed criminal prosecution of those arrested for prostitution, while 53 percent believed decriminalizing prostitution would minimize risks to sex workers by providing regulation.
Prostitution is legal at about 20 brothels operating in seven rural counties in Nevada, and has long been generally accepted by a significant part of the populace. Rhode Island decriminalized sex work for six years, from 2003 to 2009, and saw a significant decline in sexually transmitted diseases and rapes.
There are growing calls to decriminalize prostitution. Sex-worker advocacy groups like COYOTE (Call Off Your Old, Tired Ethics) as well as the World Health Organization have called to decriminalize non-trafficked —i.e., “consensual” — prostitution. And there have been legal challenges, like the lawsuit brought by San Francisco’s Erotic Service Providers Legal Education and Research Project challenging California’s laws against prostitution. It was not successful.
In October 2017, two city council members in Washington, D.C., introduced a bill to decriminalize sex work; it is still pending. New York state’s former chief judge, Jonathan Lippman, headed a special commission on criminal justice and incarceration reform that advocated for reclassifying prostitution as a civil offense rather than a criminal one.
One thing we know for certain: Criminalizing prostitution has not made it go away. Revenues for sex work in the United States are estimated at $14.6 billion a year. The Fondation Scelles estimated in 2012 that there were 1 million prostitutes operating across the country.
Decriminalization protects sex workers, reducing instances of STDs and sexual assaults while also curbing sex trafficking and the need for risk-laden street prostitution. More broadly, it allows the government to save money on enforcement while creating new tax revenue.
We live in an era when gun ownership is a constitutionally guaranteed right; when 30 states have decriminalized medical marijuana and nine states allow its recreational use by adults; the Supreme Court has just ruled that sports gambling is legal; and the commercial sex industry – sex toys, porn, enhancement drugs and more – is a multi-billion operation and an accepted part of American life.
It’s time to decriminalize sex work.
— David Rosen of New York City is the author of the book “Sin, Sex & Subversion: How What Was Taboo in 1950s New York Became America’s New Normal” (Skyhorse, 2016). This column was written for the Progressive Media Project, which is run by The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.