Bodies As Battlegrounds: Debating The Pros And Cons Of The Decriminalization Of Sex Work

Note:  An earlier version of this article was  submitted for the required journalism capstone exercise at Hofstra University. The author wishes to thank Professor Susan Drucker for her help with final edits.  The author also wishes to thank Kevin Lippes for his love and support...and for coming to collect her when she was detained by the Canadian Border Service while attempting to get pictures and video for this article.


In August, 2015, Amnesty International voted in favor of a policy that calls for the full decriminalization of consensual sex work. Definitions of sex work will vary. This author uses the term to refer  “…to the consensual exchange of sexual services between adults for money or goods.”

This is not to be confused with sex trafficking, where people are forced to “…engage in commercial sex acts against their will.”

The Amnesty  vote was supposed to make it possible for proposals to be drafted to rewrite legislation in countries which criminalize the consensual sale and purchase of sex.

Sex work is already partially decriminalized in the United Kingdom and Canada.

In April of this year, The Village Voice ran an article discussing efforts to decriminalize prostitution in New York City as part of efforts to close the jails on Rikers Island.

Some question the efficacy of their methods, and say that they don’t actually take the needs of sex workers into account.

Others remain opposed to decriminalization for a different reason—arguing that sex work degrades women and degrades society.

Alex Etchart & Siobhan Knox, the creators of “Sex Workers Opera” in the UK , use their production as a means of integrating sex worker’s voices into  discourses on sex worker rights. They’ve observed that everyone has an opinion about sex workers, but seldom are those opinions informed by conversations with actual sex workers. To try to help  remedy that situation, there are never less than 50% sex workers involved in their show at all times.

 “It shouldn’t be an argument anymore,” says Knox, “It should be an act of listening…We want people to realize that you probably know a sex worker…Art has a responsibility to represent people on their terms.”

To that end, they put out an open call for sex workers to submit their stories, and to date, they’ve told over 50 stories of sex workers from 17 countries.

Now many sex workers in the United States are wondering when they’ll get their chance to be heard, and see sex work decriminalized here.

This author asked some of them for their thoughts on the subject.

Photo Credit: Amanda Ocasio

Sex Work In The UK

In England, Scotland and Wales, it is legal to buy and sell sex, but it is illegal to manage a brothel, and buy and sell sex in public. In Northern Ireland, it is illegal to pay for sex services. (Facts:,,; Photo Credit: By Maximilian Dörrbecker (Chumwa) (Own work, using this diagram) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (, via Wikimedia Commons)

Alex Etchart and Siobhan Knox hope to use their art to break down stereotypes and start new conversations on sex work.

Their stage is also a space for sex workers to find, and reassert their power.

For example, “The Freedom Song,” written from a sex worker’s perspective, reminds outside observers that “You can’t tell me how to live my life.”

“The dominatrix is like, ‘I’m in power, fuck you’,” says Etchart of the character.

They both say that they’re aware of the fact that it’s a huge subject that isn’t going to resolve itself overnight.

“All we wanted to show was that a dialogue had been started,” they say.

There are certain conversations which may be a bit easier to have because sex work is partially decriminalized.

“If you go to the sexual health clinic, they’ve been trained not to judge you. You get to the front of the queue,” says Etchart of programs offered by Britain’s National Health Service (NHS) for sex workers.

The NHS makes every effort to reach out to sex workers, but it isn’t always easy thanks to current legislation. When asked for comment, Jeremy Dunning, Senior Communications Officer at the Central and Northwest London NHS Foundation Trust, declined. He did provide a link to the text of a statement made by the Central & North West London NHS CLASH Team when they provided evidence at a symposium held at the House of Commons regarding the decriminalization of prostitution. Parts of the statement have been summed up here. (For the complete statement, see: )


None of this is to say that sex workers in the UK don’t face stigma as well, despite the partial decriminalization of their trade.

“Stigma is the reason for violence,” explains Knox, “Stigma is the reason that laws aren’t supporting sex work.”

For example, Knox recalls a conversation that she and Etchart had with a university student. The student was writing an essay about sex work, and because of that, the student’s supervisor realized that they were a sex worker. The student was subsequently reported to their dean.

“The fact that it’s actually sex work is double the stigma,” explains Knox.

“And uni authorities do infantilize you,” adds Etchart.

But there are allies.

Stuart Jones, of 3CA Chartered Accountants, provides  “Tax help for the UK adult entertainment industry." He also helps with mortgages, apartment rental applications and tax planning. For example, he recalls how a sex worker once came to him asking for help navigating a legal minefield. She was renting out an apartment and wanted to know if she should do it daily or hourly.

Jones says he took up this project after noticing the lack of respect shown by a number of accountants towards sex workers.

“If your accountant doesn’t respect you, he or she probably wouldn’t be doing a good job for you,” says Jones.

There are allies, and there is also an appetite for change in the current legislation.

Image Credit: Amanda Ocasio, Statistics taken from


Sex Work In Canada

Currently in Canada, like the UK, it is legal to sell sex. A key difference in legislation is that in Canada, it is illegal for an individual to purchase services from a sex worker. Running escort agencies and massage parlors remains also illegal. In a statement provided to this author, Ian McLeod, a senior adviser at Department of Justice Canada wrote that: “The government has committed to review the adequacy of the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act in responding to all the issues identified by the Supreme Court of Canada’s December 2013 Bedford decision. The impact of these recent reforms will be monitored, and we will be engaging those most affected by the new legislation in undertaking this review.” (Photo Credit: Wikisoft*@@@-fr 08:45, 15 January 2011 (UTC) (Image: Canada (geolocalisation).svg) [GFDL (, via Wikimedia Commons )

“Open your mind and take a step into my world — uninhibited by taboos, judgement and censorship.”

Canada’s Master Tom, reportedly the “World’s Best Known Pro Male Dom,”  extends both an invite and a challenge to those visiting his website.

For Master Tom, it isn’t just about sex. He says that he, “…fleshes out hidden desires” for people, and delivers “exceptional and memorable services”—whether in a dungeon or kinky living room. His dealings with clients don’t  end when a session ends. Aftercare is provided and he requires a written report from all clients so he can gauge their state, and they can reflect on the experience.

For some, these sessions are revelatory. Master Tom recalls a session with a disfigured cancer survivor. "By having that experience with me, it was very rewarding for that individual,” he says.

Abolitionists  in Canada disagree.

A summary of the Bedford v. Canada decision. Thw Bedford case shaped Canada’s current laws on sex work. (Facts:, Infographic: Amanda Ocasio)


Trisha Baptie, co-founder of EVE, was forced into sex work.

“So we are a group of former sex trade workers who challenge the idea of sex as work & who put it on the continuum of violence against women,” she says of the group’s work.  The group tries to be the allies that they wish they had when they were sex workers. For example, they’ve  published a list of resources with information that they wish they had had when they were working in the industry.

When asked how she would respond to a sex worker who says they chose this work, Baptie responds with a question.

“I would ask how empowering men to purchase sex from women helps to create an egalitarian society,” she says.

But is criminalization the answer?


Master Tom feels that there are “pluses and minuses” to Canadian legislation on sex work.  While it does give sex workers more control, he says it hasn’t reduced stigmatization or violence.

PACE Society is working to combat the stigma, and violence.  Their Twitter profile says that they’re a “Peer-driven nonprofit providing harm reduction front-line support services by, with, & for sex workers.”

“We don’t go in with any other agenda than empowering our members,” explains Brenna Bezanson, PACE’s Community Liaison.

For example, the group runs violence prevention workshops for sex workers. The workshop is funded through the city of Vancouver, and the Vancouver Police Department (VPD) have been supportive of their efforts.

“They’re lovely women,” says Sheri Kiselbach, PACE’s Violence Prevention Coordinator, of the VPD officers, “They’re very respectful.”

PACE’s workshop teaches attendees about their rights under the law, but it also addresses self-esteem.

“There’s no shame if you need to work, and there’s no shame if you need to trade sex for drugs…” says Kiselbach.

“If you believe that you deserve violence, you’re less likely to report violence,” Bezanson adds.

But PACE also teaches workshop attendees how to pick their battles.

“It’s all about how to get away safely…” explains Bezanson, “Sometimes coming out fighting is not going to be the right strategy.”

Note: The source only provides percentages. The total number of incidents for the period in question is not provided. Image Credit: Amanda Ocasio


PACE makes sure that workers know their options, and are able to adapt to situations as needed.


Sex Work In The USA

Currently, prostitution is illegal in 49 states, and 4 counties in Nevada. The remaining 12 counties in Nevada permit prostitution, provided the worker is willing to register, obtain a license, and submit to regular STD testing. With the exception of child pornography & “obscenity,” pornography is covered under the First Amendment. (Photo Credit: CC BY-SA 3.0, , Facts: & )


“We’re Whore Nation!” exclaims Janet Duran, cofounder of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance .

“This alliance is committed to the belief that people of all genders have the autonomy and right to decide for themselves whether or not to be in this line of work,” reads the organization’s mission statement, “Recognizing the violence and other forms of human rights violations that stem from criminalization and stigmatization, we wish to counter this through public education, documentation and community organizing.”

By “this line of work” they mean sex work.

Duran holds a Bachelors degree in Psychology, but says, “It’s easier to just work up to 10 hours a month, and be home, and pay my bills, and dedicate my time to other issues.”

Abolitionists question why a woman would choose to engage in sex work.

Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO) operate independently of any government bodies, but often participate actively in attempts to shape policy on a specific issue. NGOs such as the Coalition Against Trafficking In Women (CATW) view sex workers as "victims," and argue that, “We must take a principled position against the legalization of prostitution and discourage the demand for commercial sex without penalizing the victims.”

Taina Bien Aime, Executive Director of CATW, is reluctant to use the term "sex workers." She says that the term was invented by the sex trade to "normalize" abuse and exploitation.

Sex workers disagree.

“For a lot of people you have to reassert your autonomy when you explain it, otherwise people are just going to understand it as these men are taking advantage of you,” explains Jara Krys.  Krys used to study at the University of Pennsylvania.  She turned to sex work so she could afford to medically transition from male to female.

Janet Duran’s advocacy is influenced in part by her personal experiences.  Back in October, she was sexually assaulted by a client.  The client refused to pay after a session. Duran was arrested after the incident.

Organizations like CATW would argue that situations like Duran's prove their point.

Taina Bien Aime believes that men don’t just buy dates with prostitutes.

“They buy the ability to sexually harass,” she says, “We have this sense that there’s parity in negotiation when there isn’t.”

Bien Aime says that in sex work, the person with the money has power, and it’s difficult for sex workers to report crimes.

It’s difficult, but not impossible.

“We enact laws that are counter-intuitive…” says Jara Krys, “It harms them [sex workers] with stigma and it puts them in jail when that’s not what they need.”

Janet Duran also feels that criminalization makes sex workers into bigger victims.  As a result, she has developed her own coping mechanisms. She believes that there are limits to the benefits of safety workshops for sex workers. Instead, she puts her psychology degree to use when vetting clients. She avoids drunk clients because they get “super, super violent.” She says that if a sex worker is going to go back to a hotel room with a client, it is better if the client’s company is paying for the room because the client will be less likely to misbehave.

“Sex workers are usually way too scared to come forward…I was handcuffed and sodomized…” she says, “Four years, [and] I haven’t heard it go to a grand jury…I haven’t heard of too many sex workers coming forward and complaining…That’s why we’re fighting for decriminalization.”

While they wait for the laws to change, and try to cope with the closure of Backpage’s “Adult Services” section, some sex workers have been organizing efforts to support themselves financially. Backpage was “the LinkedIN for the sexwork community,” explains Matthew L. Schwartz, a New York-based MBA who sometimes runs the “Gay Sex 101” panel at Yaoi North–“…the LGBTQ-centric programming track that runs as part of Anime North.”

The site’s closure has been bad for business.


Dismantling the “Whore-archy”: Internalized Stigma & The Fight For Decriminalization

In an email exchange with this author, Heidi Hoefinger, an Anthropology professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice,  suggests that the behavior of some sex workers makes it easier for society to continue to stigmatize sex work:

“I’ve had both male and female students disclose that they currently work or have worked in the sex industries…The work they do seems to be mostly stripping.  And a few have talked about sites like ‘Seeking Arrangements’ and ‘’ as venues to seek out mutually beneficial material relationships, BUT those students don’t tend to view ‘sugar relationships’ as ‘sex work.’  They are able to ‘separate’ themselves out as doing or being something ‘different’–so therefore, in a way they continue to perpetuate the stigma against sex work.  Perhaps if sex work were de-stigmatized and viewed as a respectable form of work, these ‘whorearchies’ would diminish.”

In a separate conversation, Anthony Bedford, a former porn promoter who also used to run adult parties with Brooklyn’s 3X Society discusses the racialized dimensions of these “whorearchies,” and argues that conversations on decriminalization need to take race into account.



Continuing The Conversation On Decriminalization

Courts in New York State have already been experimenting with different approaches to dealing with sex work.  One proposed solution is the state’s Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTIC).  Currently, there are 11 such courts operating in the state.  According to the New York State Unified Court System’s website, identifying and prosecuting cases of human trafficking has been difficult.  The website says that while there were 3400 prostitution-related arrests in 2012, there were only 40 arrests for sex trafficking.  The HTICs claim to treat those who are trafficked,  and those who willingly sell sex  the same way, and offers both personalized alternatives to incarceration such as mandated therapy sessions , career training, and education.

Some have critiqued the way these courts don’t draw a distinction between victims of sex trafficking, and those who voluntarily engage in sex work.

Lucian Chalfen, Director of Public Information for the New York State Unified Court System, disagrees with those criticisms.  In an email exchange with this author, Chalfen says that the argument that the HTICs turn willing workers into victims is “erroneous,” and that the majority of people who engage in sex work are forced to do so.

“The judges who preside in the HTICs mandate that all participants engage in services simply because when a person is being trafficked, it is very unlikely that she or he will identify himself as a trafficking victim in the courtroom setting,” he says, “These services, which are not punitive and are designed to improve the lives of the participants, are tailored to the individual person’s needs.”

Many sex workers want you to know that they don’t need to be rescued.  In early January 2014, sex workers, allies and activists joined forces on Twitter to create the “#NotYourRescueProject” hashtag campaign.

“These people typically don’t know anything about the industry, so it’s really sad that the legal system is on the basis of ignorance,” says Jara Krys, when asked to respond to the rescue narrative that appears to be playing out in HTIC courtrooms.

Janet Duran also disagrees with Chalfen.

“Stop treating us like we don’t know what’s going on…” she says, “Let us have our say in doing what’s right for us.”

Duran knows that there’s only one way for sex workers to get a seat at the proverbial table: decriminalization.

“We’re not going to get that right till sex work is decriminalized,” she says, “We have to make sure we’re present, even if they don’t want us there…It is our workplace.”

It’s difficult to write a conclusion to a story that seems like it’s still in the process of being written.  This article provided a small space for the voices of sex workers to enter the debate on decriminalization.  With time, perhaps more journalists, academics, and legislators will become more open to the idea of allowing sex workers to have more of a say in how their workplaces, their lives and their bodies are viewed by and treated by the law.

Comments are closed.