Should Sex Work be Decriminalized? One Advocate says Yes

Caroline Unger of the Sex Workers Outreach Program Baltimore discusses how best to protect sex workers in light of new human trafficking legislation currently being debated by the city council

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TAYA GRAHAM: Human trafficking and prostitution are considered crimes, but to many advocates they are actually injustices which involve a complex array of social forces.

Women and men and trans folks who trade sex are often afflicted with a myriad of other social ills: poverty, criminalization, and violence. And the murky world in which sex is exchanged for money only makes addressing the problems in the industry more difficult, which is why using the criminal justice system to address these issues has been controversial. Some say the only way to combat prostitution is to go after the johns, criminalizing men who buy sexual services, but others argue comprehensive decriminalization takes the process out of the shadows and provides safety and protection for those who need it most. And still others say cracking down on the traffickers themselves with tough new laws is the best solution, while countries like Denmark, Germany, Brazil, and in the U.S. states like Nevada have completely legalized sex work.

To help us sort out the most effective and humane way to address the sex for money business, I will be conducting two interviews with people who are actively seeking effective solutions. Later I will talk to Baltimore city Councilman Kristerfer Burnett, who is working on a package of legislation to address human trafficking in Baltimore that he hopes will change the way law enforcement approaches the problem. But now I’m in the studio joined by Caroline Unger, a representative of SWOP, the Sex Workers Outreach Project. Caroline, thank you so much for joining me.

CAROLINE UNGER: Thanks for having me.

TAYA GRAHAM: And for the purposes of our discussion I may be using the term woman and sex worker interchangeably, and that is not to erase the experience of men, boys, and trans folks and nonbinary people who participate in sex work, but just to facilitate the conversation, and because the majority of those who are involved in sex work are women and girls.

Now, let me ask you first, is there a difference between prostitution and sex work?

CAROLINE UNGER: To me I think a lot of it comes in the connotation of those words. Sex work was coined as a political term to group all sex workers together, not just prostitutes. So that can encompass anything from being a dominatrix to a stripper to doing street work to camming. It incorporates more of a myriad of the aspects of the industry prostitution, to me, generally is used with the negative connotation and is used just to refer to the exchange of direct sex or penetrative sex.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, trafficking refers to forced sex work. Does this sound like the experience of most of the sex workers that you know?

CAROLINE UNGER: No, not at all. So, trafficking absolutely exists in America, exists in Maryland, exists all over. But sex work also exists. So these things are constantly conflated, both in the media and legislatively. And it does a deep variety of harm to both trafficking victims and to consensual sex workers. Because there’s sort of a spectrum of agency in the industry, with one side being when you’re coerced in the industry, when you don’t have agency to leave you’re being, you’re being trafficked. And then if you come into the industry with easy ability to enter and leave, generally correlated with a lot of class and race privilege that is, yeah, you have, that is, yeah. More predominantly considered work.

TAYA GRAHAM: Right. Now, Councilman Burnett and the State’s Attorney’s Office are very concerned about human trafficking, and Councilman Burnett’s proposing a bill that would really heavily penalize customers, those who want to buy sex. How would that actually affect sex workers?

CAROLINE UNGER: Yeah. So this isn’t a new idea. It was pioneered in Sweden. It’s generally referred to as an end-demand model, so by targeting the johns the aim, in effect, is still to end sex work, right. So for people that use it as a means of survival, it inhibits their income. It forces sex work to be more underground. And really, any punitive measures addressing sex work disproportionately affect trans women of color, people that have less agency to leave and enter the industry that’s still, that sex work is still, can increase their economic independence and generally can be entered still of their own agency. It can inhibit their line of work, because the end-demand model is still predicated on this idea that sex work isn’t a legitimate way to support yourself and to make an income.

TAYA GRAHAM: So what kind of protections or actions would you like to see taken to help sex workers, if you don’t find this bill helpful?

CAROLINE UNGER: Yeah, definitely. There’s a lot. I mean, the city is pretty miserably failing sex workers. I think as an organization we are 100 percent behind full decriminalization. So essentially, the less police involved in dealing with sex workers the better. I don’t think I need to go over all of the abuses rife within the department, but often sex workers are some of the most vulnerable populations that the police deal with and therefore are directly the most vulnerable to the police themselves. So our organization backs advocacy for sex workers social and health services to be accessible to them at all times without discrimination. And generally the farther away from the court and legal system they stay the better, and therefore incarceration.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, you actually brought up something interesting. Our police department is currently under a consent decree because of its incredibly unconstitutional, sexist, racist, and biased practices. Now that we’re under the consent decree, tell me what you heard about in relation to sex workers and her interaction with police. What did you hear before the consent decree, and has anything started to change?

TAYA GRAHAM: Yeah. So, in the Department of Justice report it’s, the reports of interaction with sex workers are honestly, like, gut-wrenching to read. The Baltimore Police Department is to me so indefensible about this. There’s been repeated reports of not only when sex workers file rape charges them being ignored and not investigated, but also ignored and active cover ups of Baltimore Police Department raping sex workers. Right. So this was brought to light, right. And to me this is, like, tip of the iceberg of what sex workers on the street face in Baltimore. And I think that there is definitely increased public awareness around what’s happening to sex workers. Our organization has gained a ton of momentum in the last year, and Power Inside also has been very active in advocating around the gender-based violence in the DOJ, because a lot of that was sort of not as publicized, because so much of, so much of the report was harrowing that some stuff got left to the side.

So I have seen an increase in public awareness, certainly. But I think, you know, jury’s still out, really, if the Baltimore police will ever be held accountable for anything, in my opinion. So we’ll see what happens.

TAYA GRAHAM: Right. Now, the new bill that is being proposed by Councilman Burnett, does it, in the form that it’s in now, does it address any of your concerns for the sex worker community?

CAROLINE UNGER: In my perspective and perspective of many sex workers I know it’s really purely a step backwards. I don’t really see how end-demand is actually going to improve any sex workers’ lives. It makes johns more reluctant to enter the industry, or it just leaves more reckless and violent johns in the industry. So to me it just doesn’t, it doesn’t make sense. And it’s, it’s really, I think, a clumsy approach overall to the issue.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, isn’t actually a federal version of this law coming out?

CAROLINE UNGER: Yeah. I’m really glad you brought it up, because it’s a huge issue right now because it just passed the Senate yesterday. It’s a bill called FOSTA/SESTA, which essentially in the wake of Backpage, which was an online platform for sex workers to sell their services, when they were sued, this bill was created to criminalize essentially all online platforms for sex work. But the narratives around the bill are solely about sex trafficking, right. So again, as I mentioned earlier, these things in legislative sessions are completely conflated. Sex work essentially doesn’t exist as a narrative around this bill. It’s just, it’s sort of seen as we need to save the victims of trafficking, which can happen and is already illegal and should be illegal, and strictly enforced. But it should not also adversely affect sex workers. But for some reason these things are, the duality cannot be held by a lot of legislators.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, with Councilman Burnett’s bill, or even with the larger federal bill, are there any implications for trans or nonbinary sex workers that are being overlooked?

CAROLINE UNGER: Yeah, I mean, absolutely. It’s, it’s, you know, women of color and and black and brown trans sex workers that are extremely and disproportionately targeted by any increased police measure, right. So even just having more police in the communities is increased danger for sex workers on the street. So to me this bill is, whether its intentions are good or not it inadvertently affects the most marginalized populations by increasing the level of criminalization in their work. Because it’s often people that are excluded from more legal work that are in more criminalized forms of sex work.

TAYA GRAHAM: Right. Now, some people would say, well, maybe we should legalize sex work entirely. Not just decriminalize it, but actually legalize it. Do you think there’s any negatives to legalizing the sex industry completely?

CAROLINE UNGER: Yeah, I definitely think so. I think the legalization model has been tried a lot. It’s very popular in Europe. Germany pioneered it, and legalization, it still keeps the state as the sort of primary intermediary with sex work. So essentially with more state involvement it still limits access of who gets access to licensure, and who has time and money to go through bureaucratic procedures of legalization, right. So for me it’s still, my understanding is still that it excludes the most marginalized and the most vulnerable still. Decriminalization is moreso approach that gives people access to services that they need without sort of being a gatekeeper of who gets to enter and leave the industry, right.

TAYA GRAHAM: With legalization, doesn’t that mean that the government actually creates a registry of sex workers, forces them to go to doctor’s appointments and get a certain type of health checks, and the government even starts sticking its hand into the sex workers’ pocketbook, right. So there’s a lot of ways that the government becomes really intrusive with legalization. Now, what would you say to someone that says if we legalize or decriminalize sex work, we’re teaching men and boys that women’s bodies are commodities and that they’re entitled to sexual access? How would you respond to that.

CAROLINE UNGER: I think that statement itself robs sex workers and women of agency of their bodies, right. The idea that that sex work is somehow selling your body, right, that we are encompassed solely as women by our sexuality and that’s just, like, once we sell it and then something about us is lost or gone to me is just so ridiculous. Like, it’s a service just as food service is a service. And to me it just, it doesn’t make sense to act like there isn’t at different aspects of experiences in sex work where some can be empowering for women some can be disempowering. They can be true at the same time for people in the industry. I just, I think it’s a, it’s sort of a paternalistic view of women to see them solely as victims of men that just want to use them for sex, when really the dynamic is far more complicated.

TAYA GRAHAM: Now, there are critics who would say that that the men, women, and trans folks involved in sex work are there because they’re being marginalized by class or race or gender presentation, and that it’s actually exploitation not empowerment. Is there any reason to be involved in sex work that’s not simply economic?

CAROLINE UNGER: Certainly. I mean, to the first part of the question, I think exploitation is, is rooted in capitalism, right. Capitalism is the root of all of these different oppressions that people face, right, and everybody is being exploited to some degree, just by having to work for a wage. So for me, of course there’s different reasons why people enter an industry. But all of us in some sense are coerced by, economically. I don’t think many people would just volunteer. I mean, but there is, like, you know, I also think there’s, there’s not a monolith of experience, right. There’s parts of the work that can be very rewarding that are beyond just a monetary, transactional exchange. Those experiences I think are really erased if you just see it as the exploited and the exploiter.

TAYA GRAHAM: And I just have one more question in this area. There are feminists and some progressives who would say that prostitution is just inherently damaging to women, that it’s damaging psychologically and physically. How would you respond to that kind of critique?

CAROLINE UNGER: I mean, I think my first response is, have you talked to sex workers? Have you listened to the lived experiences of sex workers? Is that true for all sex workers? And I know for a fact that it’s not. So for me that, that feels like a sort of abstracted critique, that like, if you’re going in with the premise that prostitution is violence, then you’re just going to try to find stories that confirm that. But in reality there is such much more of a variety of experience than that encompasses.

TAYA GRAHAM: So you’re saying there’s a confirmation bias there. If you see prostitution as violence then you will find violent stories to support it. That’s interesting.

CAROLINE UNGER: And there’s researchers that do that, right. They start with that premise and then they just support that, right, because research is political and of itself.

TAYA GRAHAM: True. Now, I think this might be my most important question. How can your average, everyday voter help support sex workers?

CAROLINE UNGER: Don’t call the police on sex workers. That’s, like, number one. For sex workers that are working on the street calling the police can be a death sentence for some of them. I think avoid calling the police in situations if at all possible. I think generally with sex work there’s really not enough people that are brave enough to defend it actively when people start making jokes about it or have a really strong sort of moral, visceral reactions to it instead of, like, confronting those and actually defending sex work as a legitimate form of work. A lot of people would rather stay silent. Because it is vulnerable to to defend something that is so highly stigmatized right. But the only way that these narratives get changed is if people start questioning them instead of just, like, falling into oh, well, that’s gross, or like, those poor women, are like, all of these sort of tropes that people talk about sex workers as.

But yeah, and I think opposing this bill is also a good start. And also SWOP Baltimore has, we have an Amazon wish list for outreach supplies. We do street outreach to street workers. So I think a really important way to show up is just materially. Like, if you have resources give them to organizations that are doing the grassroots work. We’re always in need of doing it. We’re completely grassroots funded, so we’re always in need of donations and material supplies that go to street workers.

TAYA GRAHAM: I think that’s really interesting what you said, that don’t remain silent when you hear people talking about sex workers and sex work, that if you know a sex worker if you care about a sex worker that you should speak up and defend them, and not allow them to continue to be stigmatized. What kind of legislative action would you actually like to see? Like for example, I think a good idea for a bill would be to expunge someone’s record completely of all charges of solicitation, that that might be a very positive bill. Is there a bill that you envision you would like to see passed?

CAROLINE UNGER: Yeah, totally. I think that’s a great idea. I think there’s a lot of really brave lawyers working on expungement, too. Because even trafficking victims sometimes get prostitution charges, right. That happens where those things, when they’re conflated, can give people a slew of charges that are not even applicable to their case, right. So a lot of our efforts around are, like, rolling back legislation, right. But I think like having a legislative committee to actually address decriminalization and how that would be implemented, I think, would be an amazing step forward for Maryland. And really, yeah, far more progressive than its stance has been towards sex work. Because Maryland has been notoriously conservative around any acts for the purposes of sexual arousal are illegal, right. This all, blanket, encompassing legislation.

So I think yeah, generally to to roll back any punitive measures towards sex workers and the people that buy it we’re totally for.

TAYA GRAHAM: OK. So full decriminalization.

CAROLINE UNGER: Yeah, absolutely.

TAYA GRAHAM: OK. So I want to thank my guest, Caroline Unger of SWOP, the Sex Workers Outreach Project, for joining me. And I want to thank you for joining me at the Real News Network.