- Sex workers are scared to report violence for fear of criminalization for prostitution.
- Between 45% and 75% of sex workers globally have experienced violence at work.
- Until decriminalization of sex work occurs, the best way to protect sex workers from violence is to give them amnesty from criminalization when reporting violence.
- Lauren Crosby Medlicott is a freelance journalist in the UK.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
- Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.
Generally, violence against another person is a breach of human rights and grounds for prosecution. However, when it comes to sex work, violence is often overlooked — or worse, it is ignored and used to charge the victim with prostitution. Globally, between 45% and 75% of sex workers have experienced violence at work, and the issue is particularly bad for trans and migrant women.
In the United States, selling and buying sex is illegal in all but eleven counties in Nevada. The decision to criminalize sex work may stem from American values to protect the vulnerable in our society. However, sex workers, activists, and prominent political figures are opposing the illegality of prostitution based on research that it doesn’t protect sex workers from violence.
In fact, criminalization makes people in the commercial sex trade less safe as it pushes sex work into dark, lonely corners to avoid contact with the police, discourages working in groups, and prevents workers from organizing to claim worker’s rights.
Both DC and New York have recently introduced legislation to decriminalize sex work, but most states haven’t even begun to move on the issue of decriminalization. It will be a long road to decriminalization, but while it is considered, immediate violence against sex workers must be addressed.
Without immunity, sex workers will continue to face violence
Since prostitution is illegal, sex workers are more vulnerable to violence because perpetrators know that their victims are less likely to report abuse for fear of being arrested or fined for prostitution.
In their book Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, Molly Smith and Juno Mac found that tens of thousands of people are “arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, deported, or fined” for sex work offenses each year in the United States. In a 2003 study of street sex workers in New York, 80% stated that they had been threatened with or experienced violence. Many had no help from the police, and 27% experienced violence from police officers themselves.
If sex workers are too afraid to disclose abuse for fear of criminalization, they will continue to be physically, sexually, and emotionally abused by perpetrators who are well aware that they won’t be held accountable for their violent actions.
For sex workers to be protected in the current legal system, they need to have amnesty that gives them confidence to disclose crimes they have witnessed, or been victims of, to the police without fear of fines or arrest. They need to know that they will be heard and acknowledged, as opposed to ignored and criminalized.
San Francisco is leading the way
In 2017, San Francisco became the first place in the US to implement amnesty for sex workers reporting crime in its Prioritizing Safety for Sex Workers Policy. Given San Francisco’s robust history supporting sex workers, it is no surprise that it is the birthplace for sex worker support groups such as COYOTE, St. James Infirmary, US PROStitutes Collective and the Exotic Dancer’s Alliance — all which collaborated with the San Francisco District Attorney’s Office and the San Francisco Police Department (SFPD) to create the policy.
The policy states that “the District Attorney’s Office will not prosecute persons for involvement in sex work or other forms of sex trade when they are victims or witnesses of sexual assault, human trafficking, stalking, robbery, assault, kidnapping, threats, blackmail, extortion, burglary or other violent crime.”
Additionally, it was later ammended to hold law enforcement accountable for violence perpetrated against a sex worker, which was first opposed by the SFPD, but eventually agreed upon.
In June 2018, the safety policy was implemented in state-wide California legislation, prohibiting the prosecution of someone involved in prostitution coming forward to disclose experiencing or witnessing a violent crime. Finally, the bill was signed in July 2019 to ensure immunity from arrest for sex workers in California reporting violence.