Presidential candidates for the 2020 election in the United States are already being asked about sex-worker rights as an election campaign issue. And given that the country has a neo-socialist turn brewing, it’s worth wondering if sex work - as a legal, regulated, taxed, unionized and insured industry - could create income to help stave off America's recession. But there’s significant work that must be done beforehand. Yes, sex workers are a marginalized and criminalized population that has experienced ongoing human rights violations. But taxable work allows for access to services and legal protection. All things considered, is the potential preservation of America’s status quo a cross worth bearing for sex workers?
Sex Workers and Advocates Speak on Legalized Sex Work
“For those of us [as sex workers] who are truly motivated by the craft of all of this, not having our work be legalized makes me feel like an artist whose work is banned by the government,” says Domina Vontana, a Washington, DC, based sex worker of more than two decades. “If I would’ve had access to insurance, or known that there was an ability to unionize when I was getting started, it would have changed my career. From the services I offer to how I operate ... everything, probably.”
Comparatively, Eve Minax, a San Francisco-based dominatrix who identifies as a sex worker says many sex workers don't do it by choice and deserve protection. “Some of us got into this work because there weren’t many options and decided we had a calling, maybe wanted to try to make it better. But had my background been more inviting to more professional options I’m not sure I’d have chosen sex work. Hard to say.”
Because sex work happens under the government's radar and no official records or receipts are exchanged, it's hard to say how much tax revenue it could bring in, but sex work is estimated to generate $14 billion per year in the U.S., so the potential is significant. Taxation would also be a way to destigmatize sex work. Just consider how marijuana tax revenue is spent in Colorado. More than $40 million from the marijuana excise tax funds school improvement. If we’re using weed to fix schools in the United States, could we use sex to fix infrastructure or public transit? It’s not an immodest proposal.
In all American movements that have successfully navigated struggles related to public opinion, change takes time. More than 100 years passed between when African-American slaves were freed and when they could fully exercise their right to vote. Forty six years stand between the Stonewall riots and the legalization of gay marriage. The evolution of the societal respect of sex workers as related to the potential of public and legislative respect in regards to legalization certainly mirrors movements for other marginalized communities in America.
World-renowned author and sex educator Gloria Brame adds, “[w]hen I was growing up, the public believed that sex workers were living in shame and beleaguered by the myth that people only do it out of desperation or to get money for drugs and they're all sinners and going to hell anyway. Nina Hartley was a pioneer in speaking up for the civil rights of adult film stars and sex workers in general. She inspired others to feel proud of the work they do by their own free choice. She helped people see that sex workers are just doing a job, have bills to pay or kids to support, and could be your next door neighbor,” Brame said. “[T]he famous porn stars of the '70s (through '90s) changed the face of sex work. They have steadily pushed and grown into communities who won't be shamed into silence by hand-wringing prudes and corrupt politicians.”
Brame offers a respectfully dissenting opinion regarding the legalization of sex work. “I support decriminalization, not legalization, for numerous reasons,” she said. Her view of decriminalization offers elimination of anti-sex work laws, a reduction of interaction between sex workers and law enforcement officials, and retroactive sealing of prior arrests or convictions for sex-work-related offenses.
“Legalization is arguably more radical in terms of a cultural shift than state decriminalization. It would make sex work, by law, identical to any other job," said Vancouver, British Columbia, based sex educator and sex workers' rights activist Carrie Hill. "This means that legal rights, labor laws, and all the human rights entitled to ‘normal’ workers would thus be extended to sex workers. To mainstream sex work, a lot of things need to take place, so it's no singular issue or focus (sex work is highly intersectional at all points of marginalization), but decriminalization would be a very good first step.”
Brame adds that legalization of sex work would regulate when, where, and how sex work could take place, as well as non-removal of the element of criminalization of sex and sex-related activities. As well, fees for licensure and registration could create a steep cost of employment and operation for many at the lower end of the economic spectrum.
In response, there’s a real bridge worth crossing in regards to successfully navigating the space between decriminalization and legalization. Embracing pragmatism in terms of the ability to legalize sex work without Draconian legislation may be key.
Regarding next steps, Hill and Minax offer perspectives regarding what safe, sane and sustainable legalization could look like in America.
“Recognizing sex work as a legitimate, labor-intensive job worthy of human rights, benefits, access to banking/health care/legal aid, and humane treatment by society would go a long way toward reducing crime rates, improving quality of life, and granting accessible employment to people who, for whatever reason, are incapable of mainstream work,” Hill said.
According to Minax, “[t]he only disadvantages is that anytime you institutionalize a profession, (think cottage industry alewives, midwives etc.), men, in particular, have more power over people’s bodies being regulated. I think it’s a decent pay-off should we continue our 'progressive' path, but one never knows.”
The forthcoming presidential election may not return a positive outcome for the progressive goal of advancing the potential for the legalization of sex work in America. However, the parameters around how that would be enacted and how rules would be enforced are far more intriguing than when or if it ever becomes legal.
Fully answering questions regarding the future has not occurred here, but the two key tent posts for framing what is likely to be an ongoing conversation are apparent. Respecting both the safety of people’s bodies and the scope and parameters of their chosen profession is necessary. It is also worth noting that decriminalization, as a balance between legal and illegal sex work, is interesting in the sense that it acknowledges the possibility for sane and decent lawmaking to be corrupted by the potential financial gain associated with full legalization.
It's often said that sex work is the world’s oldest profession, but it still isn't one that's widely recognized or respected. But if could be the one that helps contribute money toward improving some of the country's economic or social problems.
Marcus K. Dowling is a journalist, broadcaster and entrepreneur. Recently, he's had a role in concept development, marketing, and promotion for Rewind and Decades, two wildly popular retro-themed entertainment venues in downtown Washington, DC. In the past ten years, Marcus has written for VICE, Pitchfork, Complex, Red Bull, Bandcamp, Mixmag, ESPN's Undefeated, and more. As well, he's the CEO of professional wrestling startup company Capitol Wrestling.