Human trafficking exists and is terrible. I’m all for taking effective steps to reduce human trafficking. However, problem arise when this argument is used to advocate for enacting legislation that also hurts voluntary sex work, for a few reasons.
If you search for info about the recently passed FOSTA-SESTA joint bill, there’s a mountain of commentary out there from more knowledgeable folks. So just to touch on it briefly: the goal of the bill was to reduce sex trafficking (yay, right?). But the way it did this was to put severe restrictions on how various sexual or sex-adjacent encounters can be arranged on the internet, effectively shutting those types of conversations down completely on most platforms.
A huge problem with this is that making arrangements online had made things much safer for sex workers — it dramatically reduced having to partner with unsavory middlemen, allowed sex workers to create shared databases vetting potential clients, helped workers reach a broader audience so that they could be very choosy and selective about what jobs they took, etc. Instead, by kicking sex workers off most online platforms, FOSTA-SESTA drove sex work further underground, and ramped up the pressure to resort to shadier and riskier options (among other issues).
So in fact, FOSTA-SESTA has made sex work more dangerous, and it has made trafficking more difficult to detect by driving those activities deeper into the shadows. On the flip side, as with the alcohol and marijuana industries, an excellent way to fight bad and criminal behavior is to legalize and regulate. If sex work were a legitimate industry, employers would need to verify employees’ identity/age/SSN/etc. — which is terrible news for illegal sex trafficking. Additionally, sex workers would have legal recourse for addressing poor treatment in the workplace, and they’d feel comfortable reporting any suspicious activity or missing persons to the police.
So how could a bill that was intended to reduce sex trafficking be so ineffective, and even actively harmful? Part of the problem is that sex workers were not involved or consulted in creating the bill, despite the fact that they’re one of the best, on-the-front-lines resources for spotting and stopping sex trafficking. The fact that lawmakers who are purportedly so concerned about trafficking aren’t interested in getting to the bottom of what steps would truly reduce it makes me very concerned. Unfortunately this is a problem that affects both sides of the aisle.
From the Right
Family values — sex work is harming our culture / the youth
From a ‘family values’ perspective, sex work is often lumped in with other sex-related concerns like porn and hookup culture. Regardless of whether these things actually do pose a serious threat, I think it’s dangerous to suggest that our concern about the impacts of sexuality on young people means we should keep sexuality as secret and forbidden as possible.
We’ve already seen that abstinence-only education is a terrible way to try to protect your child — these kids are poorly equipped to understand their own sexuality, and are disproportionally affected by unwanted pregnancies and STDs. They miss out on learning important lessons about consent / respect / healthy partnerships / how their body parts work, etc. Likewise, trying to combat ‘hookup culture’ by giving kids a copy of I Kissed Dating Goodbye has inflicted terrible damage that can take decades to heal. Not to mention how LGBTQIA+ youth have been treated.
So is banning sex work really the best way to protect our youth? Honestly, I’m not even sure what the fear is specifically about — people don’t have to interact with sex workers if they don’t want to, even if it’s legalized. Perhaps folks are worried that our youth will be “lured” to become / patronize sex workers in an unhealthy way. But if that did actually happen to someone, the problem is that that individual has an unhealthy relationship to sex, and that’s the problem that needs fixing — just like someone with any unhealthy relationship to an activity or substance should seek help to heal that relationship. And by making such a big, weird deal about sex, we risk actively encouraging more unhealthy relationships toward it.
Sex work could never be a legitimate industry
I think the issue here for certain conservatives is that they believe there is no positive outcome from sex work — it’s bad news, through and through. I’m not going to be able to budge them on that opinion, even though I strongly disagree (as discussed in the next section). Rather, I just have to default to points made above that by marginalizing this work more, and driving it further underground, there are real and painful human consequences.
So why not legalize, regulate, and simply choose not to participate yourself? I don’t smoke pot, but I am absolutely in favor of legalizing it, because keeping pot illegal bolsters organized crime, wastes law enforcement resources, disproportionally hurts marginalized populations, and derails people’s lives over trivial, non-violent offenses. Making sex work illegal does all of that, too.
From the Left
Hurting women’s standing and self-image
Some people worry that sex work promotes the objectification of women and encourages damaging and unrealistic beauty standards. Well then, sheesh, you should really be watching better porn!
…KIDDING! This is a valid point, but the problem isn’t sex work. The problem is that, as in so many industries, misogyny and crappy power structures have historically silenced and marginalized female voices and viewpoints. Hollywood has a track record of making ridiculous content that’s guilty of all these problems, but rather than banning movies, consumers are demanding content that better represents female perspectives, and better reflects racial and physical diversity. We can do that with sex work, too!
I think that sex work (whether it’s face-to-face in a safe and supportive space, or else remotely by viewing thoughtful and badass content online) can actually be a really powerful tool to combat misogyny and weird beauty standards. Seeing female bodies and genitals of all different stripes can do wonders for young girls who wonder if they’re ‘normal.’ If someone has a tough relationship to sexuality, or is having difficulty with orgasming, or is confused about how to interact with a sexual partner, then meeting with a reputable, yelp reviewed, professional sex worker could be an amazing resource to work on those issues.
Danger to marginalized groups
It’s absolutely true that many sex workers are doing this work involuntarily. Groups that are already marginalized, such as people of color, trans people, and queer teens, are disproportionally affected by human trafficking and “survival sex” (participating in sex work only out of extreme need, as a last resort).
This is terrible and unacceptable. But when it comes to solving this problem, actions like FOSTA-SESTA are some of the worst things we could do, because they further marginalize and endanger the people that we’re supposedly trying to help.
Some things we can do to help are: provide a better social safety net / access to housing so that people have a little breathing room and options; stop kicking LGBTQIA+ kids out of the house; and bring sex work out of the shadows so that it’s easier to intercept and end coercion and criminal activity.
I think one of the most damning aspects of the “we’re helping marginalized people!” defense of criminalizing sex work is that when sex workers from marginalized groups try to speak up about what would actually improve their lives and safety, their voices have been ignored and aren’t reflected in legislation like FOSTA-SESTA.
A bad substitute for good sex ed
As noted above, a lot of porn is bad! Likewise, going to a sex worker as a young person for a one-off, time-sensitive session is probably not a great way to learn about giving a partner pleasure and working together.
That’s the current state of affairs, and it bothers the heck out of me. But as I touched on briefly above, I think that legalizing more forms of sex work, and ditching the stigmas associated with it in the past, could actually really help this problem!
I’m super excited about explicit sexual educational tools like OMGYes and the explosion of female-run sexual media companies. Creating legitimate businesses around sex work would empower women with another great avenue for income and ‘girlboss’ing, and it would be so great for people of all genders to have access to more diverse content and perspectives than what has dominated in the past, in the days when sex work was considered a shady and shameful job for people (especially women) to have.