Should We Decriminalize Sex Work?
By Mitzi Perdue
Are you aware of a major dispute among those who are dealing with sex trafficking?
The disagreement centers on whether or not to remove criminal penalties for sex work. Specifically, should commercial sex acts between consenting adults be decriminalized?
What you’re about to read is an argument against removing the existing criminal penalties. Our source is James P. Klein, Commanding Officer of the Vice Enforcement Division of the New York Police Department.
He has been in law enforcement for 37 years, and for the last three years, his focus has been human trafficking prevention. He gets to see on a daily basis the reality of what’s going on with the actual people involved.
The Number of “Sex Workers”
If you were to talk with him, one of the first things he might point out to you has to do with the number of sex workers. To understand where he’s coming from, we’re using the term, “sex worker” as someone voluntarily engaging in sex work.
In Klein’s experience, when you look at the number of individuals who are voluntarily engaged in sex work and compare this number to the number of individuals who are in it because of force, fraud, or coercion, the number of people who are in it voluntarily is vanishingly small.
“To base your whole argument for decriminalization on this small set of the population is unreasonable,” he states. “All we’re doing is exacerbating a very sad situation and causing more pain and more tragedy.”
In his view, decriminalization means:
The demand side will grow exponentially.
The traffickers will have a free hand to sell more.
Even though a small number of people engaged in prostitution may do so of their own volition, the staggeringly large majority are doing it involuntarily.
The Victimized Are Often Invisible
At this point, you are entitled to wonder, “If most people in prostitution are doing it against their will, why don’t they just leave? Couldn’t they tell someone who could help them escape, such as one of their clients or a health care provider, or maybe someone in law enforcement?”
Lt Christopher Sharpe, who reports to Jim Klein, has an answer. “The pimp can control his victim with either the threat or the fact of personal physical harm.”
Sharpe has met women who’ve had pimps do the following to put them in fear of talking about their life as a trafficked person. Their pimp will:
Break their arms
Burn them with cigarettes,
Brand them with tattoos
Cut them with a broken beer bottle
In one case Sharpe had to deal with, “A woman had her face cut from her ear to her neck. She went to the hospital, got patched up, and was back working for her pimp the next day. Her pimp did it with impunity, knowing she wasn’t going to talk.”
Terror is one reason trafficked individuals may not talk about their situation. Another is, in too many cases, they’ve never known anything else.
Klein and Sharpe have each encountered young people who were trafficked since age 11. The girls and also boys were raped, sodomized, and abused, and while it’s a life of hell, they’ve been brainwashed to think that going to the police would mean something even worse.
Disguising What’s Going On
As Klein points out when a trafficked person comes to the hospital, the real issue may be violence from their pimp or a john, but the individual won’t reveal this. Instead, a woman may explain her broken arm by saying she slipped on the staircase. Or she accidentally burned herself by falling on the stove.
Between terror, not knowing anything else, and disguising what’s going on, trafficking is too often unreported crime. Both Klein and Sharpe know from experience that getting accurate statistics is currently an impossibility, but that doesn’t make the problem any less real.
From their street-level vantage point, Klein and Sharpe are certain that decriminalizing something so inherently evil for the sake of a tiny subset of the sex industry, would be wrong. They are firmly in the camp that opposes decriminalization of sex work.