On Oct. 26, the New Haven Police Department arrested 13 women for trying to make a living in a world that had given them no other choice than to sell their bodies. The women were charged with prostitution and had their mug shots published online. And before activist efforts resulted in the suspension of any further stings, police Officer David Hartman, a spokesman for the NHPD, told the News that there were plans for more stings.
This assault on the rights and dignity of these women derives from the stigmatization of sex workers in society, media and law enforcement. As a dangerous profession subject to violence and abuse, sex work is rarely a choice. Rather, it derives from a lack of choice or viable options for employment. Women, people of color and LGBTQ+ individuals comprise the majority of sex workers worldwide and are disproportionately affected by this stigma and accompanying violence.
The criminalization of prostitution, although seemingly intended to “rescue” women from sex work, actually furthers the cycle of discrimination and disenfranchisement. Sex workers do not have the option to report crimes committed against them given the illegality of their profession. Criminalization also inhibits the development of programs to encourage condom usage and STI testing — efforts that would at least limit the negative health repercussions of sex work.
In a conversation with the News on Nov. 18, Officer Hartman said, “We don’t provide social services, but our sincere hope is that those who have gotten into the system — these are people who have been involved in this servitude-like crime for years — will avail themselves of social services.”
This is a cop out, pun intended. The failure — or nonexistence — of social services is precisely what entrenches sex workers in their professions. Arresting sex workers – resulting in a criminal record – and publishing their mug shots unsurprisingly ensures the elimination of all other employment opportunities for these women. How can former sex workers be expected to find jobs if a quick search of their name reveals their criminal record? And that criminal record is prostitution? It’s a simple answer: They can’t.
One can also think of sex work in terms of supply and demand. The criminalization of prostitution limits neither the supply nor the demand — it just pushes it into dangerous and illegal underground spaces. The arrest of sex workers does not in any way mitigate the supply when demand remains high, and those who purchase sex remain unprosecuted.
According to a report from Fondation Scelles, approximately one million sex workers live in the United States. If anything, the persistence of the profession, despite its illegality, is proof of the inefficacy of criminalization. So if punitive legal measures do not deter buying or selling sex, then what can be done to limit prostitution and also make it safer for sex workers?
While legislative reform may take a while to implement, we have to start on the local level.
On the supply side, tax dollars invested in pursuing prostitution stings should be redirected to develop programs to provide women with health, employment and other basic services to break the cycle. Women that are arrested for sex work should be directed to these services — which as Hartman carefully forgets, don’t yet exist. Eventually, decriminalization is a vital step that will allow sex workers to come forward, report abuse and seek assistance in finding other forms of employment.
On the demand side, john schools, programs that “treat” men who purchase sex, have proven to be an effective method of curbing prostitution. In San Francisco, a john school reduced recidivism to sex work by 40 percent. Reverse stings, which target johns, also have a successful track record in cities across the US. This should be our focus: those who purchase rather than those who sell. Buying sex should be the crime, not prostitution itself.
But most importantly, we need to destigmatize sex work both in the media and our minds.
Take a moment and analyze your own prejudices against sex workers. Do you think of them as immoral? Do you feel sorry for them or think that they are empowered? Do you believe that they choose their professions willingly?
We need to approach the issue of sex work not with disgust but with the understanding that the “world’s oldest profession” results from systemic racial, gender-based and socioeconomic disparities. The vilification of these women, as well as the mistaken notion that sex work can be empowering despite its very existence deriving from systemic injustice, is harmful. Both perpetuate a profession that benefits no one. Despite all rhetoric to the contrary, prostitutes are people too.
Sofia Braunstein is a junior in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org .