How the War on Sex Work Crushes Underprivileged Women

By McNeill, Maggie | Reason, March 2020 | Go to article overview

How the War on Sex Work Crushes Underprivileged Women


McNeill, Maggie, Reason


THAT PROHIBITIONIST LAWS are always, always, enforced more heavily upon the poor, the disadvantaged, and minorities is not, I think, controversial. One would have to contort one's brain in a manner worthy of a Cirque du Soleil performance to ignore the facts that cops more heavily patrol poor and minority neighborhoods and actively look for people to arrest; that judges and juries have less sympathy for those they perceive as "others"; and that, because poor people overwhelmingly lack the resources to mount an adequate criminal defense (or even bail), they are far more likely to plead guilty to whatever a prosecutor offers, just so they can get it over with and at least try to get back to their lives. Protectionist laws (including occupational licensing) similarly harm those who are not yet established in a field, since nonincumbents are less likely to be consulted about the content of those laws and far less likely to be able to afford compliance costs after the regulations take effect.

These are among the reasons sex workers almost universally prefer prostitution "decriminalization" to the regulatory systems characteristic of what is called "legalization." The former--unlike so-called drug decriminalization--takes sex work out of the hands of the police altogether, while the latter plants a thicket of special sex-work-specific rules, regulations, laws, licenses, permits, codes, and prohibitions that invariably creates a two-tiered system: one for those who have the money, knowhow, political or business connections, and other resources to comply and thus function "legally," and one for those who do not. In every country with a "legalized" system, we see the same pattern: Well-connected businesspeople who have never themselves done sex work buy up all the brothel licenses, while racial or gender minorities, migrants, and other disadvantaged groups are far more likely to be arrested for working illegally within that "legal" system--often for violating the same kinds of ridiculous and unnecessary rules that governments love foisting upon industries to which politicians or the cartels who own them have taken a dislike.

Even within the fully criminalized systems typical in the United States, there are glaring disparities of enforcement. Most of y'all reading this probably already know that while white and nonwhite Americans use recreational drugs at roughly equal rates, minorities are arrested more frequently, charged more heavily, and more frequently caged (and for longer terms). And most of y'all can probably guess that it's the same with sex work: While there are sex workers and clients of every description, sex workers of color, trans sex workers, and street workers are dramatically more likely to be hassled, arrested, and even robbed or raped by police than their white, cisgender, and indoor-working counterparts. Black trans street workers, falling into all of these groups, practically have targets painted on their backs; they're often arrested merely for daring to show their faces outdoors, a phenomenon that activists call "walking while trans." The same is true for their clients: Poor minority men who can only afford the (generally lower-priced) services of street workers are far more likely to be ensnared by policewomen looking to entrap them into committing a crime than are affluent white men who visit "high-end" escorts who discreetly do business in apartments or houses in "nice" neighborhoods. In one raid a few years ago, nearly every surname of the men arrested in a "John sting" in Seattle was Hispanic, despite the fact that Seattle is, to put it politely, much less ethnically diverse than most U.S. cities.

Just as poverty, minority status, and other disadvantages make people more vulnerable to the predations of police and prosecutors, so too do such attributes expose them to a greater likelihood of exploitation by criminals and unscrupulous businesspeople who don't quite qualify as criminals (but are bad enough). …

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