Sex Work is Work and It’s Time to Decriminalize
May 21, 2021
By Silen Wellington (they/he)
“I started out as a drag queen, then made my way to woman, goddess, and finally elevated myself to the best throne of all — whore.”
The mermaid on stage bats her aquamarine eyelashes, sequin dress shimmering in the stage lights. She’s our emcee for the night, and we all laugh along but she’s not kidding — she was a sex worker, and she’s not the only sex worker on the set list for this comedy show.
I’m at a bar in Wellington, Aotearoa New Zealand, with a band of 8 other feminists and queers who live with me at Black Sheep Animal Sanctuary. We’re all dressed up, ready for the one night a month we get to take off our hay-covered dungarees and muddy gumboots to experience city life instead of bearing the sound of rooster screams.
“I was working at a call center down in Queenstown,” another sex worker comedian says, squinting in the lights. “Then I realized I’m a millennial and I’d rather be fucking strangers than talking to them on the phone.”
The crowd erupts in laughter, but I can’t help but think in the back of my head, that’s so, so true.
New Zealand decriminalized sex work in 2003, and while sex is a topic that rarely comes up in mainstream kiwi culture (which tends to be more prudish than American culture), it was something that people talked about pretty openly within feminist and queer spaces.
While the “Nordic Model” criminalizes buying but not selling sex, New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act fully decriminalized sex work. Since 2003, it has been legal in New Zealand for any citizen over 18 years old to buy and sell sexual services, including street-based sex work and running a brothel.
Opponents of decriminalization in New Zealand feared it would lead to more human trafficking and an “explosion” of brothels, but five years after decrimininalization, the Prostitution Law Review Committee found that the sex industry hadn’t increased in size and found no link between the sex industry and human trafficking. Just as in 2003, in 2020, New Zealand ranked in the highest tier for anti-trafficking standards, as considered by the U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons Report.
What opponents of decriminalization fail to mention is that the Prostitution Reform Act enabled sex workers to be protected under the Employment and Safety Act, allowing them to better advocate for their rights and report harassment. An independent review committee from the Christchurch School of Medicine found that after five years of decriminalization, 64% of sex workers found it easier to refuse clients and 57% reported improved attitudes from police.
The Nordic Model was considered in New Zealand, but instead parliament prioritized the demands of feminists and sex workers, “trusting that they were best placed to talk about their own work.” Research into countries with asymmetrical “Nordic” models of decriminalization seems to suggest that these models still have “substantial negative impacts on communities of sex workers.” Sex workers from Pro-tukipiste Finland, an organization that provides counseling and support to workers in the erotic industry and sex industry, report that the criminalization of clients but not workers can be used to surveil sex workers and catch clients. “We see this kind of policy as a violation against sex workers’ integrity and right to privacy,” Swedish advocates have reported.
Additionally, the Nordic Model assumes all sex workers are victims of their work rather than autonomous, self-determined people. While it’s true some sex workers are engaging in sex for survival, criminalizing the purchase of sex will not change their circumstances. In fact, decriminalization can help give sex workers legal rights, making it easier to seek out resources without fear of legal repercussions.
After nearly two decades of decriminalization, New Zealand’s laws have proven to better the lives of sex workers without increasing rates of sex trafficking. Contrary to common fears, decriminalization could actually allow for more effective responses to combat human trafficking. Sex workers are often well positioned to recognize sex trafficking, as demonstrated by the sex worker-run Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee in Sonagachi (Kolkata) India, which was “able to identify and support women who had been trafficked.”
Like in New Zealand, decriminalization in the U.S. would allow sex workers to report assault and violence without fearing their own arrest. According to a peer-led Center for Court Innovation study on sex workers in New York, 30% had been threatened with violence by a police officer, and 15% reported the officer did not arrest them in “exchange” for sex, which is sexual assault. In the words of the Decriminalize Colorado movement, “arresting consenting adults for Sex Work puts Trans and BIPOC community members at disproporationate risk of experiencing violence from law enforcement and does nothing to address the myriad root causes of trafficking and labor exploitation such as racism, poverty, transphobia, and houselessness.”
It’s time we listen to what sex workers are advocating for, and decriminalize sex work. In Colorado, you can support sex workers by donating money to Decriminalize Colorado, supporting their resource sharing & community outreach work, divesting from systems that profit from violence against sex workers, signing this letter of support, and by educating your city & state officials, friends, and family about the importance of decriminalizing sex work.