Can legalizing sex work really protect sex workers?

“Sex work is work.”

I was having dinner with a friend a week ago, our dinner talk consisting of topics two friends who haven’t seen each in other in decades talk about. Finally, our conversation turned to sex work.

“Sex work is work,” I said.

My friend went livid. His arguments forced me to re-examine what I believed, as someone involved in human rights, was a “just” view on how sex work–and workers–should be treated.

By definition, a worker is a person who sells his/her labour as a product to a buyer in exchange for payment. Following this logic, the United Nations Development Program defines a sex worker as “adults who sell or exchange sex for money, goods, or services” and includes “consenting female, male, and transgender people.” This definition has been more or less adopted by intergovernmental bodies, civil society organizations, and sex workers’ rights advocates worldwide.

But my question is: does a sex worker ever truly consent to engaging in sex work? Oh, surely, many would argue that sex workers have agency, they can always choose not to engage in sex work. But, really, do they?

I believe many sex workers today are engaging in sex work not because they enjoy the work or because sex work is appealling, but because it is a choice that today’s system has forced on them. Many people enter sex work either because they were forced or coerced, are in need, or lack other alternative means of livelihood. In fact, one can also wonder whether the lack of alternative means of livelihood may be another form of societal coercion that forces many people to enter sex work.

Many advocates have been calling for the decriminalization and legalization of sex work, saying that the lack of legal mechanisms to protect sex workers violates their rights and increases discrimination, violence, and health risks associated with the trade. And while this may be a laudable proposition, does it really solve the problem?

Remember that the concept of wages in itself is inherently exploitative, even as labor is treated as a product, to be bought “openly” and “freely” in the market. Workers are paid wages far, far less than the value of what they produce through their work, allowing “labor buyers” (i.e., capitalists) to enjoy huge amounts of profits at the expense of the former.

So, too, is sex work inherently exploitative. While decriminalization and legalization may offer some bits of protection and some access to rights, they only reinforce the notion of the bodies of sex workers becoming products for trade, open for sale to the highest bidder. This can only further dehumanize sex workers, even as they are offered tidbits of protection through decriminalization and legalization.

So, while sex work may be considered as work, as long as a global system exists  where exploitation and dehumanization is the norm, where market forces are allowed free rein, then decriminalization and legalization of sex work may never be able to fully protect the rights of sex workers.

Photo from The Guardian.