Recent headlines around the issue of prostitution and trafficking highlight the detrimental ways in which laws and policies aiming to “end prostitution” cast a wide net affecting not only people who provide sexual services but also people who provide support to sex workers such as safety screening and transportation. In the District of Columbia two women who “answered phones, booked appointments and screened clients” plead guilty to being part of a “prostitution ring” and another woman who “edit[ed] photographs” for publicity materials will face trial late in June. In New York City a proposed policy has targeted taxi drivers in a misguided effort to address trafficking in persons.
Sex workers and people in the sex trade are portrayed in the media and courts as either criminals deserving of punishment or as victims in need of rescue – but for the most, providing sexual services is simply a job. In the course of this work, sex workers and people in the sex trade frequently rely on others for information and support to keep themselves safe. A friend, booker or receptionist can assist by answering the phone and screening potential clients using any number of online tools and other information such as “bad date lists” created by sex worker organizations. Other friends or support persons may pick up kids from school, hold money in order to keep it secure, write down a license plate number for a street-based worker, or wait for a call at the end of an appointment to make sure that the worker got home safely. A trusted driver, such as a professional taxi or limo driver or a good friend with a car, can get workers to appointments securely.
While anti-“sex trafficking”/anti-prostitution campaigners as well as the media are often quick to demonize all third parties associated with sex work, the deeper reality is that many support people are working to keep sex workers safe despite the effects of criminalization and marginalization. People who provide such support can face even greater penalties than people in the sex trade. In New York, Promoting Prostitution includes “aiding” a person to “commit or engage in prostitution,” procuring patrons, and/or operating or assisting in the “operation of a house of prostitution or a prostitution enterprise.” Additionally anyone “profiting from” prostitution—even sex workers’ partners who are not coercive or exploitative—could be prosecuted under this statute [See N.Y. Penal Law §230.15 Promoting prostitution; definitions of terms].
Arresting support staff, demonizing taxi drivers and criminalizing loved ones does nothing to keep sex workers and people in the sex trade safe. In many ways it makes people from these communities—who often have few or no other employment options—more marginalized. Driving the sex sector further underground ensures that *all* workers in this sector are unable to assert their rights and needs (around safety, wage, working conditions, etc). This criminalization and marginalization makes it much harder for anyone associated with the sex work sector to report violence, instances of trafficking in persons or abuse perpetrated by unscrupulous third parties and law enforcement.
What is a better approach? If we begin to recognize sex work as work/labor, then we can begin to comprehend the need for improved conditions, decriminalization, established unions/workers’ groups, and other necessary benefits that workers should be entitled to in any sector.