Why Sex Work Continues to be Criminalized

How understanding evolution allows us to see why harmful laws persist

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Sex work is sometimes referred to as the oldest profession. Sex work is predominantly performed by women providing services to men in return for tangible resources. We see similar behaviors among some of our primate cousins: low-ranking female monkeys of various species will permit males of the tribe to mate with them in return for food. Although it may be transiently fashionable to blame all the ills of society on The Patriarchy, it seems more intellectually coherent to recognize sex work as a strategy, utilized by females trying to survive under exigent conditions, that pre-dates the evolution of our own distinct species of hominid.

It’s pointless arguing whether or not sex work should exist. That’s like arguing over whether violence should exist, or whether hunger should exist. Assuming that we are unlikely soon to be fortunate enough to live in an absolutely perfect and utterly flawless global society, we should surely be focused on how to reduce harms rather than contenting ourselves with adopting abstract moral postures that achieve no real-world good.

Over the last forty years more forward-looking nations have considered the various issues associated with sex work. Due to the fact that the majority of sex work is performed by women who lack both social status and alternative opportunities, one of the greatest social impacts is violence perpetrated against women. This violence can be caused by customers, pimps, and people-traffickers. Even when violence is not overt, working conditions can frequently be atrocious and risk of infection unnecessarily high.

No society benefits from having even a portion of its population suffering under such conditions.

As nearly all the harm associated with sex work is a direct result of criminalization, one would expect a rational society to decriminalize sex work. This would especially be one’s expectation in the light of real-world data from countries that have decriminalized sex work, such as New Zealand. In all such cases the causes of much harm have been eliminated or dramatically reduced. Once sex work is legal, sex workers can organize and establish safe working conditions and practices for themselves. They can access sources of healthcare. They can report any crimes committed against them.

Overnight pimps vanish, abusive customers can be prosecuted and deterred, and people-trafficking becomes far more difficult to maintain. Meanwhile overall health improves as sex workers, having access to health and reproductive services like any other citizen, no longer act as transmission vectors of disease. And like every other citizen they pay taxes and thus contribute to the general welfare.

No study of decriminalization has revealed adverse outcomes in consequence of legalizing sex work.

Yet despite all the theoretical and real-world advantages of decriminalization, the fact is that in most of the world sex work is stigmatized and criminalized.

It’s worth asking why this should be. Even though we humans are generally very stupid and ignorant, surely by now the message would be getting through? After all, forty years is about how long it took for the anti-smoking message to make its effects felt. So why not something similar with sex work?

This is where things get interesting, and very emotive.

First of all, religionists always have a strong interest in regulating the sexual affairs of society at large. This is because sexuality affords professional religionists (priests, pastors, rabbis, imams, etc.) an excellent opportunity to use one of humanity’s strongest biological drives against itself, thus reducing people to a state of guilt and unhappiness in which tales of magical creatures and afterlife happy hunting grounds can act as salves. All the religions arising from the Yahweh cult are intrinsically sex-negative. This is unsurprising given their common origin in the tribal myths of neurotic and highly repressed goat-herders who lived more than 3,000 years ago.

But to a rational educated mind there is no obvious reason why superstitious beliefs derived from old and rather squalid myths should have any influence on social policy today. We no longer stone and burn and amputate in the West; we no longer cast out devils nor expect angels to wander over with Miracle of the Day special offers. Why should we care a jot about the fantasies of ignorant people who lived more than three millennia ago?

Secondly, and now closing in on perhaps the most pertinent issue, most societies unfortunately tend to fear what may crassly be termed vaginas on the loose. Every woman who has recently split up with her long-term partner has likely had the experience of suddenly being less welcome at dinner parties. It was fine when she was one half of a couple, safely chaperoned by her man. But once she’s single the other women, primed by hundreds of thousands of years of biology, feel less comfortable having her as a solo guest.

Likewise, women who have secured a partner and who may to some degree depend on the contribution of their resources to the household, instinctively feel the subtle threat of sex workers. What if their husband were to divert some of his income, every once in a while, in that direction?

Biology is the most powerful factor in our lives. We may be largely unaware of our deepest motivations but over the last forty years the nascent discipline of evolutionary psychology has begun to shine light on many of our hardwired behaviors and feelings. It doesn’t matter that we don’t recognize these things; all that matters is that they trigger us to behave in certain predictable ways.

Now we can begin to see more clearly why efforts to decriminalize sex work generally fail. They don’t fail because men are eager to keep women stuck in dangerous and demeaning circumstances (though undoubtedly a few men do feel this way, grateful for the power it affords them). Efforts fail primarily because women are for the most part opposed.

It’s interesting to list the reasons why people are opposed to decriminalization. The usual tropes are trotted out: it won’t improve the lives of sex workers (actually, it always does); it won’t stop people-trafficking (nothing will eliminate this 100% but decriminalization reduces it dramatically); pimps will always prey on sex workers (not when their activities are no longer criminalized because then there’s no ability for pimps to live off the earnings of sex workers).

After all the “rational” arguments fail, opponents fall back on pseudo-morality. Sex work is “wrong” (but apparently investment banking is fine, especially if your husband happens to be one…). Sex work “always” demeans the woman and so it’s wrong. Well, maybe yes and maybe no. But there are lots and lots of other very demeaning jobs out there: why aren’t these subject to criminalization too?

In short, all the arguments from morality fail too, which is not really surprising given that it is inherently immoral to force a section of society to live in dangerous and degrading conditions merely in order to appease the half-baked prejudices of women who live in safe and comfortable conditions.

These women, unconsciously, don’t want to incur unnecessary risk from vaginas on the loose. They likely believe the nonsense they spout, but that’s only because none of us likes to think we’re doing harm to others, especially when that harm is entirely unnecessary. But from an evolutionary perspective we can see the dynamic clearly: higher status female primates are protecting their share of the resources by inflicting harm on lower status females who have no way to defend themselves.

And frankly that’s neither edifying nor morally tenable.

As a result of opposition, sex work remains illegal in most parts of the world.

Elsewhere, politicians try to play both sides of the game. They appeal to progressives through partial decriminalization but equally appeal to female voters by retaining criminalization. Thus we see utterly absurd situations whereby selling sex is legal but buying it is illegal. Obviously this is no different from criminalizing all aspects of sex work, but it has the great merit of appealing to voters who can’t be bothered to think the problem through nor conduct real-world research into the consequences of such laws. So for politicians the solution is lovely, but for sex workers it’s no better than the old ways of criminalizing their activities.

Which is, of course, the entire point.

I’d like to think that if some people (and especially female voters) could better understand their instinctive reluctance to decriminalize sex work, perhaps just enough support could be won for a more humane and rational approach to the issue.

More likely, we’ll still be having these conversations fifty years from now. During which time untold numbers of women will continue to suffer entirely unnecessary harms.

And that’s the real crime.

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