- Taking Control
TORONTO—Most sex work regulation around the world criminalizes harm reduction tools, encourages the overpolicing of immigrant communities, and leads to the assault and murder of more sex workers. Regardless of intent, today’s policies only exacerbate the problem of human trafficking. They control sex workers rather than afford them control.
Many workers enter the sex industry, like I did, due to what I call “economic coercion,” not physical force. I had lost my job, which meant losing not only my income but also my ability to legally work in the country I had made my home. One of the only jobs I could work without papers was in the sex industry. Because of my lack of immigration status, I risked greater criminal penalties, including a lifetime ban from entering the U.S., if I was ever convicted of prostitution. These potential consequences make the stakes too high for sex workers to collaborate with law enforcement to address sexual assault, trafficking, and other violent crimes. The “justice” system is weaponized against us rather than being an ally that promotes our safety. In the U.S. and elsewhere, governments need to remove the threat of permanent deportation for migrant sex workers and create other viable avenues for work and income.
In New York, I was part of a coalition of sex workers and allies that won a statewide ban on the use of condoms as evidence of prostitution— a hard-fought step to promote condom access within our communities and end the prevalent belief that possessing condoms is grounds for criminal prosecution as a sex worker. While confiscation has a chilling effect on condom use by vulnerable people in the sex trade, it’s rarely an effective way to prosecute traffickers or others who abuse people. Good public policy incentivizes condom use and other harm reduction tools to promote better outcomes for sex workers.
Criminalizing and stigmatizing our means of survival is ultimately the greatest oppression sex workers face. It’s reflected in the disbelief and silencing of our allegations of rape and murder. It’s evident when serial killers and rapists target sex workers, because they’re perceived as disposable and discredited by law enforcement. And it’s made clear when advertising venues like My Red Book, Craigslist, and Backpage are threatened, surveilled, and shut down, preventing my colleagues and me from working on our own terms.
The “Nordic model,” which Canada has adopted, is incorrectly framed as an alternative to criminalization. Rather than decriminalizing sex work, the Nordic Model infantilizes and patronizes sex workers by framing them as victims, while shifting the illegality from selling to buying sex. Not only does this deny workers agency, it fails to prevent the injuries inflicted by law enforcement on sex workers. A sex worker today may face absurd charges of trafficking oneself or a colleague, rather than the simple misdemeanor prostitution convictions of the pre-Nordic Model era.
Decriminalizing and destigmatizing sex work through policy change means delisting every aspect of the sex trade as a criminal offense, including the purchase and advertisement of sex work. [End Page 5]
ANNA SAINI is a Toronto-based advisory board member at the Best Practices Policy Project.