Stop Singling Out Street-Based Sex Workers

As I write this post, South Australia’s Legislative Council approved a bill to decriminalize prostitution. The next step would be a vote in that state’s House of Assembly. One of the reasons to be optimistic is that every attempt to amend the bill was defeated, including one that would have kept street-based sex work illegal. Similarly, social conservatives in New Zealand have been trying to get a ban on street-based sex work in Christchurch, without considering the various factors behind the problems involved (e.g., loss of public lavatories and other facilities due to earthquake damage).

Too often, moderates propose a “compromise” which excludes streetwalkers from the rights and recourse to be given other sex workers. Escorts and brothel girls? Sure, let them be legal. But not for those who ply their trade on the street. If other sex workers are able to do their business indoors, then so should they – not out in the open like that.

One of the times I heard an acquaintance make such an argument, I couldn’t help pointing out the irony that he’d just bought a hot dog and a soda from a vendor on the street. Yes, we allow folks who might afford a cart to sell food or hats or other goods out in the open, applaud the initiative of kids who offer their services mowing lawns or shoveling snow, and even let our neighbors sell all sorts of items from their yards or garages – but when the same principle is applied to commercial sex, too many of us still take exception.

When moderates separate street-based sex workers from others in their profession, they are helping to perpetuate the twin stigma of whorephobia and whorearchy. It’s bad enough that prohibitionist fanatics exploit their stereotyped image and marginalized status as fodder for propaganda. When they are singled out by appeals to respectability, they open the door to undue restrictions on all sex workers, and the problems that are likely to spill over from that. From banning commercial sex on the street, to restricting where incalls may be located, or that “legitimate” sex workers be registered and subjected to invasive mandatory health checks, legalization schemes never seem to stop at the street corner.

The major objection given to allowing street-based sex work is the “nuisance factor” perceived to be associated with it, especially when it takes place in residential areas. Establishing a commercial zone away from residential ones makes sense, but these are often implemented poorly, with said zones often having their own problems. If local governments want such a scheme to work, then they need to involve sex workers in the process of determining the best site for such a zone, as well as any resources they would need (such as drop-in clinics and help centers, SRO hotels providing short-term rentals, and access to public transportation). Local authorities also need to facilitate dialogue between sex workers and other members of the community, so that all sides may better understand one another’s needs.

The idea of viewing and treating street-based sex work as different from others does nothing to alleviate the risks involved. If anything, removing both legal restrictions and societal stigma is essential to finding ways to remove other obstacles to their health and safety. Decriminalizing the commercial sex industry means decriminalizing it in total, and not merely those we perceive as somehow more acceptable.

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