by Manuela Reveiz
Important distinction: While both sex work and sex trafficking involve prostitution by definition, sex work entails a willing engagement in commercial sex, while sex trafficking involves force, coercion, or deceit. Some enter the industry willingly as sex workers, but may eventually become victims of trafficking. Maryland is no exception, and is uniquely situated to be a hot spot for human trafficking due to its population density; access to domestic, interstate, and international travel; and socioeconomic diversity.
Recent events have made me look back and reassess my thoughts on sex work. On March 16, 2021, eight people, Daoyou Feng, 44; Xiaojie Tan, 49; Hyun Jung Kim, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; Soon Chung Park, 74; Yong A. Yue, 63; Paul Andre Michels, 54; and Ashley Yaun, 33, were killed by a 21 year-old white man at massage parlours in the Atlanta area. Six of them were Asian women. The shootings and the public reactions they have incited are evidence of widespread racism, sexism, and anti-sex-work sentiment, which together produce violence across North America. Some evidence has suggested that the victims of the Atlanta shootings were sex workers. Whether or not these women were sex workers, they were targeted because the shooter believed that they were, which points to the constant sexualization of Asian women working in the massage industry.
Asian migrant massage workers are already policed by officers who want to raid their workplaces and pose undercover as customers in order to arrest them — including having sexual contact with them under false pretenses. In April, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation anticipated to go into effect October 1st, Prohibition on Sexual Activity by Law Enforcement During the Course of Investigations or Assistance — Police Reform — HB0411/SB0043, sponsored by Delegate Nicole Williams and Senators Sarah Elfreth and Shelly Hettleman. Current law prohibits law enforcement from sexual activity with people in custody or who are incarcerated. This bill will extend this prohibition to include sexual activity with someone law enforcement investigating or assisting as a victim, witness, or suspect. This is a key piece of legislation to protect sex workers from exploitation and mistreatment.
Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world. They face constant risk of discrimination, violence, and stigma. There is a damaging notion that sex workers can’t be sexually assaulted. There are no comprehensive, up-to-date statistics on how many sex workers in the United States have experienced sexual violence. One research study found that sex workers have a 45% to 75% chance of experiencing sexual violence. Criminalization increases stigma, contributes to a culture in which violence, abuse, and discrimination are accepted, and makes the reporting and prevention of sexual violence more difficult. We need to focus on eliminating structural issues that drive exploitation, and at the same time accept that sex work can sometimes be a choice, so we need to make it a safe choice.
Although research suggests that sex work disproportionately occurs among women of lower socioeconomic status, women in all socioeconomic groups may engage in sex work. In 2018, the U.S. passed FOSTA-SESTA, Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, legislation that was aimed to combat trafficking that actually just made it far more dangerous and difficult to be a sex worker of any kind. The legislation forces websites to censor any user content alluding to purchasing sex. One of the key problems with these bills is the fact that sex workers use the internet to vet clients. There are sites that allow sex workers to review their clients and put out red flags on clients that made them feel unsafe. By censoring any content alluding to sex work, the bills not only further criminalized and endangered sex workers, but also put trafficking victims at greater risk by driving the industry even further underground. This comes at a time when various national and international health authorities (WHO, UNAIDS, The Lancet), and associations working for health (Médecins du monde, Aides, UNFPA) recommend the decriminalization of sex work.
Special attention should be placed in the training of medical staff, and in particular the gynecological sector. Sex workers experience a systematic fear of telling doctors about their activities. There have also been multiple incidents of mistreatment and judgement when medical care providers know that their patients are sex workers. This pushes sex workers to abandon their health checkups for fear of medical stigma against them, which is dangerous for their reproductive health. Obstetrician–gynecologists and other health care providers can help improve the recognition of sex workers and increase their access to preventive care. “Though sex work is often pushed to the fringes of society, OB/GYNs have a responsibility to offer women engaging in sex work the best comprehensive care for their needs,” said Jennefer Russo, M.D., M.P.H., author of the new committee opinion by the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Committee on Health Care for Underserved Women, “Improving Awareness of and Screening for Health Risks Among Sex Workers.”
If we are trying to better the conditions in which women practice sex work, why not start by addressing racism? Sex workers cannot be excluded from conversations around structural racism. Sex work is an extremely racist industry to BIPOC sex workers. For instance, women in strip clubs experience things very differently depending on their racial and ethnic identity. According to Ariel Hernandez in an article about her journey in becoming a voice in the sex-worker movement in New York, for every 100 women working in a strip club, there are only five to 10 Black women. Upscale strip clubs don’t hire Black women. African-American women with non-straight hair land stripping gigs at clubs with aggressive environments that pay less. In “Black clubs”, strippers can’t dance if they don’t have body augmentation, and in high-end clubs they can’t dance if they do have body augmentation. This marginalizes Black strippers even further because in either case they are not getting hired due to racist policies. Promoters and owners get to hire and fire girls along racially biased lines. In some clubs, they don’t allow strippers with darker skin color to give dances in VIP areas or sometimes do not allow certain women of color to have shifts at all. Women of color, especially Black women, are also more likely to be policed and criminalized for sex work-related crimes. In the U.S., Black youth account for approximately 62 percent of minors arrested for prostitution offenses even though Black people only make up 13.2 percent of the population. The effects of a prostitution arrest on a person’s record can last a lifetime.
In January 2021, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby said that the city would no longer prosecute for prostitution, drug possession, and other low-level offenses. This announcement is made following a one-year experiment of not prosecuting minor offenses to decrease the spread of COVID-19 behind bars. Instead of prosecuting people arrested for minor crimes like prostitution, the program will deal with those crimes as public health issues and work with community partners like SPARC, Baltimore Safe Haven and the Baltimore branch of the Sex Workers Outreach Project to help find solutions. Despite these positive changes, prostitution is still a misdemeanor crime in Maryland law, and a person convicted of the misdemeanor of prostitution may be sentenced to up to one year in prison or a fine of up to $500, or both.
It is imperative to advocate for the rights of sex workers and migrant workers, and to support the decriminalization of sex work in Maryland. If you have the means to do so, you can donate to the Maryland-based organization SWOP-Baltimore which is a local branch of the Sex Workers Outreach Project, a national social justice network dedicated to the fundamental human rights of sex workers and their communities. You can also contact your Maryland legislative representative to thank them, if they voted for HB0411/SB0043 and other sexual violence and oppression bills that will protect sex workers and everyone else simultaneously.
Behind the opposition to decriminalize both abortion and sex work lies the belief that some women must be incapable of physical autonomy and agency. We are.