Why We Should Stop Stigmatizing Sex Workers

Hull is the only city in the United Kingdom which has banned sex workers from its red light district, making prostitution illegal. The local council said the policy was effective and had renewed the legislation in December 2016. Some had criticised the ban claiming that it resulted in greater danger for women involved. Ever since the policy had come into place, police tactics moved from targeting sexual workers to anyone who is involved in the industry, including pimps, partners and boyfriends. More punters are reported to be serving orders now. Three years have passed since the introduction of the policy, a multi-agency group made up of representatives from the council, the police and charities are collaborating to formulate the best way to interpret the legislation while supporting women involved with sex work. However, while sex workers are the ones who are most likely to benefit from the project, none were invited to contribute to the discussion. In this report, I will evaluate whether criminalising prostitution is the best way to protect and deter sexual trade. I will also provide arguments to support why we shall stop stigmatizing sexual workers.

Prostitution, by definition, is when a person has sex with someone for money. According to a report published by Fondation Scelles, there are approximately 40 to 42 million prostitutes in the world. Three-quarters of them are aged between 13 and 25 and nearly 80% of them are female. Prostitution is an occupation which is highly stigmatized by the society due to inherent social values. The sex industry is not limited to undeveloped countries; it is also prevalent in countries as developed as the United States. As of today, an estimated 1 million prostitutes live in America, though it is only legal in Nevada. As much as the occupation is stigmatised, people do enter prostitution due to various reasons. Some chose it themselves while some were coerced to do so. Among those who were forced to enter the industry, many were drug addicts or victims of human trafficking. In a research conducted by The United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime, 51% of the victims were women and 28% were children. It is my strong belief that instead of the victims, it is the drug dealers and human traffickers that should be blamed. Criminalising victims might seem effective in the short run but does not address the underlying issues.

I contend that given working conditions and workers’ rights are protected if it is acceptable to have sex, prostitution should also be acceptable. This is because people, from a liberalist approach, are autonomous beings, they should be allowed to do whatever one favours with one’s possession. Sex work, like other occupations, acts as a mean for people to utilise their skills to make a living under mutual consent.

In her book ‘Sex and Social Justice,’ Nussbaum stated that intellectual abilities are like sexual nature, it is part of our identity as a human. The prejudice against prostitution is often interlinked with the unregulated working conditions and potentially harmful treatments by others. Now, let us consider the following hypothetical cases, given X and Y are identical twins with the same potential capabilities:

C1: X was adopted by a middle-class family with parents both working in professional fields. X grew up to be a firefighter who saves lives in emergencies.

C2: Y was adopted by a poor family with parents who later became jobless. Y ended up dropping out of middle school and became a prostitute in a legal and regulated brothel in order to maintain a reasonable standard of living.

Being adopted into different social classes, their upbringing and values will inevitably differ. Social classes, to some extent, affect people’s intrinsic values and skills acquired. Generally, people engaging in prostitution have a higher correlation to issues like drug addiction and alcoholism. Thus, society tends to look down on the industry, perceiving that the proliferation of prostitution will lead to violence or the exploitation of sex workers. However, one should not neglect the fact that not all prostitutes are coerced to be in the industry. One might choose to be involved in prostitution due to higher wages as compared with other occupations available. People should be permitted to make decisions for themselves under the given circumstances.

Intuitively, it might seem that Y has loose moral standards. Yet, prostitution, like any other job, allows people to utilise skills they possess to make a living. Moreover, before engaging in a properly regulated trade, prostitutes and customers often have mutual consent as to what would be done during the transaction. This resembles other occupations where people reach a mutual agreement with their employers regarding their responsibilities in the workplace. People then get paid off for their contributions and hard work. Hence, if X was widely respected and honoured for his contributions as a fireman, Y should equally be respected for his sexual skills. The job nature of firefighters and sex workers is, therefore, on a moral par. Putting a value on sex does not change the morality of the action itself. The above situation has demonstrated that sex work should not be stigmatized, it is merely a type of occupation. It is the underlying issues that should be addressed promptly. One shall not let the immorality of potential side effects mask the morality of the original action. If prostitution were to be banned, other occupations should also be forbidden.

Opponents might hold that prostitution is morally unacceptable because it degrades women and exposes them to exploitation. It is never my intention to promote the industry nor encourage women to join the trade. My belief is that people should be able to choose for themselves when they are given choices.  I argue that the focus should be on providing emotional support and proper treatment in order to cure these issues at depth. Due to intimate physical contact with clients at the workplace, sex workers might be more vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.  The Lighthouse Project, funded by a local charity in England, collaborated with 11 women who worked in the industry. During the three-and-a-half years, it took to prepare, 16 women working on the streets in Hull died, five were murdered and another eleven died from other causes including drug overdoses, alcohol abuse and pneumonia.

Stigmatization of sex workplaces workers under significant danger. Regulating prostitution effectively enhances work safety for sex workers. For instance, Switzerland legalised prostitution in 1942. Laws were also enacted to combat against human trafficking by limiting the control pimps have over prostitutes. Just like the others, sex workers are subject to taxation and other social insurance contributions. According to Herzig, a former Zurich department official, prostitution will happen whether it is legal or not. The government’s role should be to make it safe and to provide assistance when necessary. Undoubtedly, legalisation of sex work is still a much debated issue around the world. The idea of legalisation is also one that is hard to be accepted by many. Yet, I believe that whether or not it is agreed upon, there is no doubt that a better regulatory system is required to minimize the side effects that come along with prostitution.