When Eileen, a former prostitute, was working the streets of Seattle, she dressed more like a mall rat than a sex kitten: jeans, a T-shirt, Chuck Taylors. She chose this look not to attract a certain type of customer, or even to make her days of wandering the streets more comfortable.
“I didn’t wear high heels or a negligee,” she says, “so I could run from the cops.”
Now 53, Eileen (who asked that we withhold her last name) is a social worker. Thinking back on her time in the sex industry, she’s emphatic in her belief that she would have been safer if her work hadn’t been criminalized. In addition to worrying about the police, she was harassed by clients, robbed of her few belongings and unable to access health care for fear of being stigmatized or reported. And too often, law enforcement did worse than make arrests.
“I’ve had cops tell me that if you do this or that”—i.e., perform sexual favors—“they’ll let you go. It happens every day. There’s probably some woman getting shook down while we’re having this conversation.”
For centuries, law enforcement, government and religious organizations have criminalized prostitution and other forms of sex work. But the oldest profession in the world doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and according to both sex workers and a range of experts, keeping it illegal serves only to endanger those engaged in the practice. That’s why, in August 2015, Amnesty International—one of the largest human rights organizations in the world—announced it would join the effort to decriminalize sex work.
In May 2016, the group released its official policy paper on the issue. The 17-page document states that continuing to treat sex work as a crime infringes on the human rights of consenting adults. It recommends repealing laws that penalize sex workers, educating law enforcement on how to protect sex workers and providing health care that’s free of stigma and discrimination.
Patricia Schulz, a United Nations gender-equality expert who sits on the organization’s Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, lays out the cost of ignoring those recommendations.
“When prostitution is criminalized, sex workers risk being abused,” she says. “They risk being manipulated. They risk being forced to have sex with police workers. If they’re brought to detention, they might be raped by other inmates. They might be raped by other workers. There’s a whole series of violations of their rights arising from the situation.”
This insight comes after years of hearing from sex workers in many countries, studying the issue and, she says, “traveling a long way” from her initial view on the matter.
“When there’s no penalty, it means sex workers can have an apartment; they can have an alarm system, a guard to make sure nothing happens,” she says. “From a pragmatic position, there’s no benefit of criminalizing the activity.”
Schulz’s line of thinking, however, has some surprising detractors. Amnesty International’s 2015 announcement was met with a Change.org petition signed by, among others, Lena Dunham, Meryl Streep, Kate Winslet and Emma Thompson, asking the organization to reevaluate its position. The petition states that “the sex industry is predicated on dehumanization, degradation and gender violence.” It calls prostitution “a harmful practice steeped in gender and economic inequalities.”
In January, a dispute erupted among organizers of the Women’s March on Washington over the inclusion of sex workers’ rights in their official platform. Reportedly intended to embrace all groups marginalized under the new presidential administration, the platform initially included the phrase “we stand in solidarity with sex workers’ rights movements.” Then, on January 17, reporters covering the march discovered that the phrase had been quietly removed. Following an uproar on social media, it was put back in and currently reads “we stand in full solidarity with the sex workers’ rights movement.”
March organizers made no formal statement about the removal or reinstatement other than to tweet the phrase in question on January 19 with the hashtags #WhyIMarch and #WomensMarch; they did not respond to playboy’s request for comment. But the surrounding controversy indicates that even among highly progressive women advocating for their own bodily autonomy, sex work is still a lightning rod.
Savannah Sly, president of the U.S.-based Sex Workers Outreach Project, has worked for more than a decade in the sex industry. She argues that those who oppose her profession, while perhaps well-intentioned, disregard the basic rights of sex workers to do their jobs and do them safely.
“God forbid something does happen and I’m assaulted or robbed,” she says. “I am an outlaw.”
Opposition to prostitution is as old as prostitution itself. As far back as the year 596, the king of the area now known as France and Spain declared that sex workers should be flogged and banished. Sex work has been frowned upon in the United States since the Pilgrims first set up shop in New England, and by the early 1900s, prostitution was officially criminalized in most U.S. states.
“There was such social stigma to it,” says Melinda Chateauvert, author of Sex Workers Unite. “Prostitutes were considered to be ruined.”
In recent decades, things have changed. Measures introduced by lawmakers that are based on morality alone—think opposition to marriage equality—tend to face a steeper battle in the court of public opinion than legislation with an eye toward, say, protecting vulnerable members of society. In response, the movement to shut down the sex industry hasn’t died; instead, it has grown more subtle offshoots whose rhetoric often conflates all prostitution with sex trafficking.
“Before, sex workers were seen as dirty whores,” says Sly. “Now, these women are victims who need to be rescued.”
One of the largest antiprostitution outfits is the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, a New York–based nonprofit founded in 1988. CATW’s goal, according to its website, is to “end human trafficking and the commercial sexual exploitation of women and children worldwide.” The group asserts that all sex workers need saving, regardless of how or why they engage in their work. A 2011 paper published on its website claims, “Prostitution is a sexually exploitive, often violent economic option.” (CATW declined to be interviewed for this article, stating, “Please don’t take this personally, but we don’t interview with playboy or any other pornographic magazine as a matter of policy.”)
The basis of this position—that all sex workers are victims—makes no distinction between consenting adults and underage or otherwise vulnerable people who are forced into sexual labor. Amnesty International states clearly and repeatedly throughout its 2016 policy paper that the two are not interchangeable: “Forced labor and human trafficking…constitute serious human rights abuses and must be criminalized.… Human trafficking, including into the sex sector, is not the same as sex work.”
Schulz clarifies the point further: “The notion of selling sex services is really within the context of a decision made by two adults who negotiate a certain price for certain acts. If a person is being trafficked and is obliged to perform sex acts, it’s a form of rape.”
The stigma that all sex workers are damaged, traumatized or victimized spills over into the lives of those engaged even in legal work, with very real and serious consequences.
Porn actress Bonnie Rotten—in 2014, at the age of 20, she became the second-youngest woman to win the AVN Award for female performer of the year—encountered this problem while trying to report a sexual assault to police. Several years ago, she discovered she had been raped in a particularly gut-wrenching way: Her attacker filmed it and posted the video on the internet. She says the man drugged her before assaulting her. “I didn’t really know what happened until the video came out,” she says.
Rotten hired a lawyer, but by that point she had already become famous for her work in pornography. When she went to the police, they recognized her. “They acted like I was a scumbag for trying to do something about it,” she says. She eventually settled two years later, succeeding in having the video of her rape taken offline. But the ordeal wasn’t without trauma.
“It’s very hard for any of us to go to the police when this stuff comes up,” she says. “The legal system doesn’t look at us as an equal in the community. It’s like, ‘You guys agreed to this by spreading your legs once on camera. How are we supposed to differentiate?’ ”
Nowhere in this discussion is anyone making the argument that all sex workers love their jobs. Some women (and men—sex workers are predominantly, though by no means exclusively, female) enter the field because of financial problems, a lack of educational opportunities or a dearth of other job prospects. What makes sex work stand out from other lines of employment, though, is that while plenty of people don’t like what they do for a living, few industries inspire the formation of nonprofits intent on outlawing them.
If women can make these choices for themselves, men no longer control the world.
With that in mind, it’s hard to accept that much of the antiprostitution platform isn’t built on the same puritanical values that inspired the criminalization of prostitution. Sex work, after all, touches on some uncomfortable truths about sexual desire—truths that perhaps not everyone wants to acknowledge.
“There is a difficulty in accepting that if there are prostitutes, there are clients,” says Schulz. “It’s not very comfortable for many women to ask themselves whether their partner goes to see other women, and if so, what does he do that he doesn’t do with them?”
But sex work’s threat—or its power, depending on how you look at it—runs even deeper than that. Emboldened sex workers represent a significant challenge to the current balance of power between men and women. If women are legally able to capitalize on their sexuality and the female body is no longer controlled by male-dominated governments, power will shift. The sex industry will go from a buyer’s market, if you will, to a seller’s.
“If women can make these choices for themselves,” says Chateauvert, “men no longer control the world.”
Amnesty International’s position remains unchanged. “The policy is still as it stood last year,” says a spokesperson for the organization, and it “will guide all future actions we take on this front.”
But the battle for sex workers’ rights is still an uphill one. In April 2016, France enacted legislation modeled on a Swedish law that criminalizes buying, rather than selling, sex; though well-intentioned, it effectively stigmatizes and pushes sex work further underground. Stateside, an August 2016 Department of Justice investigation of the Baltimore Police Department found that some officers had targeted “people involved in the sex trade…to coerce sexual favors from them.” Similar acts were discovered during a scandal involving the Oakland Police Department and an underage prostitute in June of the same year.
Lawmakers seem to be aware of the problem but unable to find solutions. A bill that California legislators introduced last year would have allowed individual police officers to decide whether to send prostitutes to jail or offer them counseling, advancing the assumption that they need either mental health care or a prison cell instead of access to the same support systems as other workers in the state.
It took Schulz a while to come around to Amnesty International’s point of view, but after learning about the experiences of sex workers around the world—from Kenya to Thailand to the U.K. to Canada—the choice became clear.
“This is my personal view,” she says. “You can’t on the one hand say that every woman has the right to decide whether or not to have children, to decide about the spacing of the birth of their children, to decide on an abortion, and on the other hand say that no woman can decide for herself to engage in whichever activity she decides to engage in. There is an element of autonomy that I have recognized. Who am I to say this is a choice they should not have?”