Night Shift Issue No. 1: Sex Work: Are You For or Against 

Legalization or Decriminalization

Want to embroil family, friends or colleagues in a rich and deeply controversial topic of discussion? Ask them whether or not they believe prostitution or sex work should be either legalized or decriminalized. That’s what I’ve been engaging in the past five months for the Controlling the Narrative Fellowship I received from the Solutions Journalism Network (founded by The New York Times in 2013) in June.

In fact, in the almost 15 years I have been writing about sexual violence and exploitation and sex trafficking, I have encountered no other topic that is as likely to get people as riled. 

That’s exactly why I wanted to pursue this topic for the focus of my fellowship. I had primarily covered the anti-trafficking side of the story, talking to and spending time with survivors, survivor advocates, recovery specialists and law enforcement agents. But I kept seeing a tremendous crossover with prostitution, since pimps make prostitution the primary platform for committing their crimes and seriously hurting and sometimes killing the victims they force, coerce or defraud into prostitution. 

If they aren’t killed by their pimp and they don’t die from a drug overdose, they are consigned to a burdensome and often lifelong task of trying to recover from their horrific experiences. You can label it PTSD. Or you can understand how the devastating trauma that being forced to have sex with strangers up to 15 or 20 times a day and being abused by pimps for many years can haunt a person, even if they receive the best counseling possible.

Currently, I am doing sustained interviews with several independent sex workers, as well as advocates who support the decriminalization of sex work. Many would like to go one step further and see sex workers receive full professional benefits such as health care. 

Although I have focused on the con side of the argument in the past, as a journalist, especially as a solutions journalist, I knew that I was not getting the whole story. That’s what solutions journalism represents. Not just focusing on the “seashells and balloons” as a good journo friend jokes, but examining and investigating the entire story, the positives and solutions to mitigate or solve a problem, and also the limitations and challenges that solutions providers encounter.

So, I am here to objectively, rationally and intelligently speak to people on both sides of the issue. I believe that by doing so AND by bringing together those opposing adherents whenever I can, we may find some compromises and solutions that will help everyone. There are no guarantees, but I always believe it is much wiser and more beneficial for everyone if we discuss the issue intelligently and cover both sides, rather than shove it into a closet and try to ignore it.

Prostitution is not going away. One of my Cuyahoga County Trafficking Task Force contacts told me the greed of pimps and the insatiable sex drives of men will never allow that to occur. Moreover, the movement to decriminalize, legalize and destigmatize sex work is growing around the world. Much of the tremendous pushback from the con side is founded in the belief that sex workers are vulnerable to the crimes and violence that sex traffickers wreak upon communities everywhere. Yes, in every state, every country.

So, as I said, things can get pretty heated when you talk with proponents of sex work and those who are vehemently against legalization or decriminalization. 

What’s the difference? Glad you asked.

“Legalizing sex work would create a set of laws, codes, and regulations specific to the sex industry. People who buy or sell sex outside of these rules would be breaking the law and subject to arrest. Decriminalizing sex work means that consenting adults who buy or sell sex are not committing a crime.”

I took this definition from decriminalizesex.work. Good definition to distinguish the two words, and I’ll be digging deeper into both. The people behind this site want to decriminalize to “End human trafficking and promote health and safety.” 

However, while I would like ideally to see both happen, the former is a bit problematic because even in places where sex work has been legalized or decriminalized –  e.g., Nevada, The Netherlands – traffickers still run rampant. They are incorrigible criminals. They are immune to caring about or observing laws. Like any organized operation, they want to hire experienced workers, but in their case, they also prefer to identify individuals who are extremely susceptible because of poverty, alcohol or chemical substance use, intellectual or developmental disabilities, existing criminal records, or other vulnerabilities. 

Here’s a central complication: Many people who support decriminalization are not malefactors or professional criminals. For whatever reasons – that I will be exploring, as well – they believe sex work should be a choice for those who wish to earn a living independently.

I’m here to bring a dispassionate approach to examining the issue. I have been interviewing people on both sides, and I am ready to launch this email newsletter.

I will write about the topic drawing from diverse sources. I will employ everything from publications such as Global Policy, which features some highly analyzed work from emeritus sociology professor Ronald Weitzer at George Washington University who does extensive research and writes about potential legalization and its relationship to sex trafficking in Europe. I am also conducting my own interviews with individuals such as Alia Dewees, who was trafficked as a child, which led her to work in strip clubs and pornography and then finally escape that sordid, drug-fueled and dangerous world. 

Today, Alia works as the Director of Aftercare Development for Safe House Project in Southern California. She helps victims of trafficking find safe housing and legitimate employment to rebuilt their lives.

As she pointed out to me early on, there are sex work activities that are already legal such as exotic dancing and pornography. (There is a growing movement connecting the negative effects of pornography to contributing to the demand for prostitution and thus sex trafficking, which I will also dig into.)

This is a very special journalism project and learning opportunity for me to dive into a world that can be quite dark and disturbing. However, there are fascinating, intelligent, creative, competent, passionate people on both sides of this moral and legal dilemma. 

It is a very complex issue with people who feel strongly for or against sex work being in any way decriminalized. 

That’s where I will be focused for the next year and beyond. I hope you will join me for this intriguing and compelling journey to learn about a topic that too many of us are afraid to study, explore or discuss. We must, if we are to ever make well-reasoned, informed decisions regarding effective policies and legislation one way or the other.

As my close, personal friend Plato once said: It is better to be unborn than untaught, for ignorance is the root of misfortune.