Sex Work Debates: “Against Your Best Interests” ≠ Illegal

Thanks to Wikimedia for the image.

As sexuality professionals who follow the news know, in late August there was a federal raid on’s office in New York. Sex educator Charlie Glickman describes the news (and provides some rhetorical analysis) at his blog.

Glickman characterizes as “a website designed to connect trans and cisgender male escorts with clients.” In Melissa Gira Grant’s account of the event, seven staff members were arrested and charged with prostitution. According to these charges, they were running an “internet brothel” despite the fact, as Gira Grant points out, that “This ignores the government’s own complaint and its detailed accounting of Rentboy’s alleged activities. It is not possible to conduct prostitution on the internet; there’s no such thing as an ‘internet brothel.'”

There are many aspects to this case that deserve attention, such as Glickman’s argument that the lack of “protecting women and children” rhetoric in the case exposes how hypocritical the anti-sex-work camp is. Morgan Page furthers this argument, explaining how in the law’s approach to the Rentboy arrests, there was absolutely no mention of trafficking, which is supposedly the main problem with sex work: ” It is a loud and curious omission given that police find it impossible to talk about sex work at all these days without discussing trafficking.” However, here I’d like to focus on the idea that sex work should be illegal in order to protect people from making decisions that harm themselves.

Now, I’m clearly drawing a distinction between trafficking – being entered into sex work against one’s will – and consensual sex work, wherein an adult enters into sex work in conditions that are not coerced (well, not any more than the need to work to survive is already coercive under capitalism). Amnesty International makes the same distinction, and has just issued a resolution recommending universal decriminalization of consensual sex work, stating: “Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence, and abuse.” Decriminalization is, they argue, the best way to protect sex workers’ human rights and reduce the violations and violence they experience as a result of not having recourse to the law.

Many are still against decriminalizing sex work, though. I’ve observed some slightly more nuanced arguments against decriminalizing sex work, which revolve around the notion that people should be prevented from doing something that’s against their best interests. And that’s why law enforcement should be involved.

However, as I recall, it’s not illegal to do things that work against what’s good for you. Who even decides that, anyway? As a society, we let people smoke cigarettes (though laws increasingly crack down on where people can smoke and aim to protect those who do not consent to exposure). We let people drive cars, which are of course very dangerous. We let people vote for candidates who most assuredly do not have the interests of their constituents in mind.

To continue with the smoking parallel, there are laws to protect people who don’t want to be exposed to cigarette smoke. But those laws do not make it illegal for consenting adults to smoke at all. Part of what’s built into these laws is an acknowledgement that some people do not consent to exposure to dangerous substances… and more importantly some people cannot give that kind of consent (i.e., minors). So we as a culture acknowledge that some people are incapable of the judgment and knowledge that requires consent for risky activities, even when those activities remain legal as a whole.

So where do we draw the line? At which point do we decide that someone is incapable of acting in their own interests? Minors obviously don’t get to make certain decisions for themselves, and so do people who occupy various parts of mental health or developmental disability spheres. But beyond that… when do we as a society tell an adult who seems to be in full possession of their faculties that “Nope, sorry, you just can’t do that” when the action does not directly impact anyone other than their own self?

I fear that the attempts to keep sex work illegal revolve around the same tired argument that manifests in a lot of debates around sexuality: that XYZ form of sexual expression is immoral, icky, inauthentic, threatening to the sanctity of marriage (whatever that is), and so on.

The bottom line is that if “well, it’s against their best interests to do sex work” is one of the best arguments you can muster, you need to rethink your arguments. That is not grounds for making something illegal in our society, though the moral/ick factors surrounding sexuality make it hard to see this.

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