Don’t blame the laborer: the necessity of decriminalizing prostitution

Abortion and prostitution are very similar. They both involve the separation of sex from reproductive consequences, whether by abortive or preventive methods of birth control. The selling of sex predates any contemporary society. For centuries, women have been involved in sex work, and for centuries those same women have employed almost any method available to avoid pregnancy.

If history indicates anything, it is first that women have a very stubborn and perhaps innate instinct to not die. And second, that controlling one’s reproductive circumstances, and ensuring the survival of one’s family by any means necessary, including selling sex, are phenomena not likely to die out in any conceivable measure of time.

I draw parallels between abortion and prostitution – not only because they are age-old institutions and because they have a similar function in our society as triggers of outrage, used primarily by politicians to unite supposedly vulnerable populations in false victimhood – but because there exists very little statistical data on prostitution in this country. Thus, in order to make hypotheses about prostitution, we must draw on data from other comparable institutions.

Statistically, while there is very little relationship between abortion legality and abortion incidence, there is a strong correlation between abortion legality and abortion safety. Abortions were performed far prior to their legalization as established by Roe v. Wade, and continued to be performed at similar rates afterwards. The crucial difference? Abortion is now roughly as safe as penicillin. The same is true of prostitution: if legal, it will be easier to regulate, and thus, to keep women safe.

Most critiques of prostitution center around dubious consent. These critiques are not wrong – it’s undoubtedly difficult to assess whether consent occurs in sex work when you consider what factors may force women into the trade – dire economic need, childhood sexual abuse, coercion by pimps, power differences of sex and race, to name a few. The number of women who enter sex work independent of these factors is small.

But what these critics are missing, is that prostitution, like abortion, occurs regardless of legal status. So too will relationships with dubious consent. If the payoff of decriminalization is that women in this line of work, voluntarily or otherwise, feel safer and have more legal leverage – essentially, that they are able to go to the police after experiencing sexual assault without fear of retribution – then it is a fundamental step.

What’s abundantly clear is that decriminalization cannot occur in a vacuum. We should also be examining what factors force women into the sex trade. We can’t logically simultaneously ignore those factors and oppose decriminalization, because women will suffer.

Whatever you feel about the institution, separate your vitriol for prostitution from prostitutes. Being a prostitute isn’t some unorthodox form of Satan-worship, or, as many seem to have suggested, the equivalent of brutal ritualistic pagan sacrifice of baby lambs. In most cases, women aren’t involved in sex work because it’s professionally fulfilling, just as most women who procure abortions don’t have a natural vigor for non-anesthetized invasive uterine surgery. Let’s be real.

Condemn sex work if you absolutely must, but protect the women who rely on it.