The Case for Decriminalizing Sex Work: Criminalization and taboo are a deadly combination for sex workers.

AuthorPerry, Amber

Britta Graves considers themself a full-time artist and a part-time sex worker, spending their days making art, playing music, and going to the beach. And at night, they dance. Graves, who uses they/them pronouns, is a Jacksonville, Florida, transplant. They recently left Athens, Georgia, because of pandemic-inspired curfews, which caused them to make only 75 percent of their normal income at the club where they worked. The financial strain left Graves struggling to make up for lost revenue.

Even with a scholarship, Graves was paying $6,000 a semester at the University of Georgia. They took a job waiting tables but, when that failed to meet their financial needs, they began stripping, which paid more than any other job they were likely to get after graduation. Graves, twenty-two, has been stripping for three years and calls this their "ten-year plan." It has its ups and downs.

"The ability that I have to connect with strangers on a very deep, emotional, carnal, personal level reminds me how good it is to be human," says Graves. "There are aspects of the industry that are really not empowering, and most of those things have less to do with the industry itself, and more to do with the way that other people treat me because of my job."

For Graves, this includes a lack of access to health care, rejection for housing due to income source, and sexual assault. The fact that sex work is seen as criminal behavior makes matters worse.

"The purpose of criminalization is to enforce the moral law," says Chris Cuomo, a University of Georgia professor of ethics and feminist philosophy. She calls it a "Puritan model" built to control women.

The connections between criminalization and sex worker health are well documented. One study using data from 1990 to 2018 confirmed the extensive harm, including an increased risk of sexual and physical violence, caused by anti-sex-work laws and policing practices. The World Health Organization recognizes the criminalization of sex work as a health threat as well, noting that decriminalization and other structural interventions would reduce the rate of HIV infections, sexually transmitted infections, and other harms.

Merriam-Webster defines a sex worker as "a person whose work involves sexually explicit behavior." This broad definition encapsulates a wide range of occupations from stripping, prostitution, and working for escort services to pornography, phone sex operating, and webcam modeling. The legality of sex work varies from state to state.

There are an estimated one to two million sex workers in the United States and more than forty million worldwide.

Fueling criminalization is the...

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