I’ve been doing outreach in the sex worker community for nine years. I’ve heard the stories and witnessed the fallout that results from criminalisation. This has been, and still is, a learning process for me. Working with these amazing human beings has changed me and the way I see the world.
I invite you to take a walk in their shoes. Imagine living in a world where, at every turn, someone is doing something to harm you in some way. You have no recourse. Reporting it to the police means being arrested because you would have to admit you were engaging in sex work. Besides, you’ve been raped by a police officer, so it’s a gamble to seek help from anyone in uniform. Getting raped only once is better than getting raped twice, arrested, and regarded as less than human.
Imagine living in a world where you witness friends you meet on the street disappear one by one at the hands of their pimps or predators and nobody cares, not even the police, you’re disposable. Where disdainful stares from others burn holes through you and their insults constantly echo in your head and you have to build up courage just to walk into a store to buy food.
Imagine being a 100lb woman laying in the rape unit with no skin left on your neck and face unrecognisable from a night of being repeatedly strangled and beaten, bleeding from every orifice in your body from being repeatedly raped and sodomised; narrowly escaping death when he took you outside to put you in the trunk but went back into the house to remove evidence of his crime, allowing you time to crawl up the street and get help; then being told by police that the 300lb man that did this to you would go free and you would be arrested if you wanted to report it.
Imagine the courage it took for this woman to go to the DA and press the issue only to have the case led down to an assault where the offender was sentenced to 45 days in jail to be served on weekends so it didn’t interfere with his job because he is an upstanding citizen.
Imagine how devastated you would be if you were brutally victimised by a predator, then victimised by the police telling you weren’t worth protecting, then victimised by a system that is supposed to protect you but protected him instead.
Imagine living through the most horrific circumstances and working hard to improve your life only to be denied job after job because you have arrests on your record for solicitation; having financial services taken from you and not being able pay your bills; being denied housing and other services that would help you continue to stabilise your life and move forward; and, imagine spending years trying to overcome it all while living on the streets. Eventually, ending up right back where you started even though you knew if you did everything right your life would improve. The ceiling that exists for the most marginalised members of our society is very very low and extremely difficult to overcome. Criminalisation is a supporting structure for that ceiling.
These abuses are not singular occurrences. They are incidents that are stacked, one after another, on the shoulders of each sex worker. We live in a society that tells us it’s not OK to engage in sex work; yet, we have a system that does everything it can to make sure anyone doing it can never stop.
All these abuses cause trauma. Terror grips your entire being when someone moves too quickly, when you see anyone in a uniform, when your ATM card doesn’t work and you immediately assume the bank has taken your account and you don’t know how you’re going to pay your bills; and, when you’re in public and anyone turns their attention to you, even if it’s just a glance. The physical, mental, and psychological fallout this is staggering and the physical trauma is the easiest of them to overcome. Criminalisation perpetuates these abuses.
Often a sex worker is marginalised prior to entering sex work. There are many life circumstances that can put someone on the street where sex work is their only option. If you can’t imagine what those circumstances are, it simply speaks to your privilege. Some reasons include poverty, lack of access to a good education, discrimination, mental health issues, and medical issues . All of these things equal denial of opportunity and repeatedly being told you are less deserving. Sex workers have been systemically oppressed for as long as they can remember. Add to that the stigma of criminalisation and all the complications and abuses that come with it and you have a recipe for PTSD.
Victimless behaviour that is criminalised flourishes underground. Violence increases exponentially and sex workers become extremely vulnerable and afraid to be seen because that would mean being taunted, insulted, arrested, harassed, abused, raped, trafficked, murdered, and having support mechanisms removed through legislative means like FOSTA/SESTA and Operation Choke Point, to name a few.
If sex work was decriminalised and sex workers had labour rights, predators wouldn’t get away with harming them, or anyone else in our communities, and it would significantly reduce the risk of violence against everyone in our communities. It would allow those engaging in sex work to retain their dignity, report crimes, and seek alternative employment if they wanted to when their circumstances improved.
Feelings aren’t facts. So, regardless of how you may feel about sex Work, the fact is it exists and will continue to exist in a world where opportunity is denied. Criminalisation of sex work is harmful, not only to sex workers, but to trafficking victims and our broader communities.
James Johnson is the Director of Media Production at Sacramento SWOP. James has been involved in civil and human rights activism since he was in his teens.