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Justice Mon Apr 07 2014

Why the Dialogue Around the Sex Industry is Difficult

The term "sex worker" is a very broad one as it refers to anyone who works in some sort of industry related to sex. This includes prostitutes, escorts, professional dominatrixes, porn performers, burlesque performers, phone sex operators, strippers and go-go dancers. This is a catch-all term for the people who work in this industry.

It is important, before proceeding, to understand just how broad the term sex worker is to cover all of the people who work in that industry. It's also worth understanding that it's not just women who are sex workers; there are also men and people who identify as trans* who are sex workers, even though the dialogue about the industry seems to usually focus on just women.

It's also worth remembering many of the people who are sex workers are in professions that are legal. Porn, burlesque, exotic dancing and phone sex are all legal in the United States, with some restrictions. Prostitution, except for in Nevada where it must be practiced in regulated brothels, is illegal in the United States.

The topic of decriminalizing sex work was discussed Friday at a conference Amnesty International held in Chicago. Although the legality varies from country to country, it could be gathered that the main form of sex work addressed was prostitution.

Illinois Attorney General Lisa Madigan and Cook County Commissioner Bridget Gainer led a rally in the Loop on Friday to address this issue. Both are opposed to this because of the human trafficking and child sex abuse that is often tied to prostitution.

But a potential problem facing the dialogue around sex work is the idea that all people are forced into it, when in reality not everyone is forced into any aspect of sex work.

Some people go into sex work willingly because they find it liberating and empowering. (I will never be one of those people because I'm squeamish and a bit of a prude.) Some people go into it because of the money or other things they can earn in that job.

But there are still people who end up in sex work because they are deceived or forced into it by boyfriends or pimps. Although legalizing prostitution could help provide services for those who work in that industry, a question arises of how to handle the problem of human trafficking, provide services for those leaving human trafficking and ensure sex work is safe for those who choose to go into that profession.

For those who choose to go into prostitution, among the dangers they face are violence from customers and harassment from the police, as well as ostracization from society at large.

There are areas in the world where prostitution is legal. As mentioned earlier, Nevada has legalized brothels in counties with fewer than 700,000 people. Under Nevada law workers at the brothels are required to be registered with the county sheriff, tested weekly for gonorrhea and Chlamydia and monthly for HIV and syphilis. According to a BBC segment (NSFW) on safe sex and Nevada brothels, there has never been a prostitute at a Nevada brothel who has tested positive for HIV.

State law also requires prostitutes to use condoms and laws are in place to prevent pimping, although a Business Insider article on the brothel Sherri's Ranch mentions that particular establishment takes 50 percent of what the women working there earn. But it is worth noting this is still a flawed system since prostitution is only legal in areas of Nevada that are essentially in the middle of nowhere, and it would be foolish to assume prostitution does not occur in Las Vegas.

There is also the well-known red light district, De Wallen, in Amsterdam. The Netherlands legalized prostitution in 2000, but De Wallen existed long before prostitution was legalized. Unlike in Nevada, health checks for prostitutes are not required.

A problem with using the Netherlands as a golden example of legalized prostitution is that, according to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime, the country is one of the top countries to which victims of human trafficking were sent. Nevada is also not a good example of the benefits of legalizing prostitution since it is illegal in major cities and prostitution still occurs in those cities where sex workers do not get the same protections nor required to follow the same regulations as those working in brothels.

Additionally there is criticism of the legalized brothels in Nevada because the workers are required to often live in the brothels, giving them little freedom.

It is worth noting, however, that in New South Wales, Australia, prostitution was decriminalized and a study [PDF] from the University of New South Wales found "no evidence of recent trafficking of female sex workers."

How can we address human trafficking and the needs of sex workers?

Like all vices, prostitution will continue to exist even if it remains illegal. It is, after all, a profession that has existed for thousands of years and there's no reason to think it will ever stop. There is also reason to believe there will still be human trafficking regardless of if aspects of sex work are legal. A recent Tribune article highlighted efforts between the Federal government and those working at strip clubs to fight human trafficking at strip clubs. There are several people who go into exotic dancing willingly, but trafficking is tied to that part of the sex industry.

A compromise needs to be met to address human trafficking and the needs of sex workers. Regardless of the legal status of prostitution, human trafficking will continue to occur and it is a problem that needs to be addressed. But for those who choose to go into the sex industry, steps should be taken to address their safety.

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