Sex Work: Will Legalization or Decriminalization Make a Difference?
In each issue of this newsletter, I will profile a sex worker, advocate or expert and feature
their beliefs and thoughts about whether or not sex work should be decriminalized.
Briefly, legalization would allow the governing municipality to regulate sex work, for
example, dictating where it can be done and the type of licensing it would require.
Decriminalization would remove criminal penalties for currently banned sex work with
no regulations or oversight of the individuals involved. There are obvious parallels with
what has happened with marijuana decriminalization.
I am fully aware that the two sides don’t always see eye-to-eye, as we say, so I know
there will be sparks along the way. However, I am already uncovering a few
commonalities and overlapping beliefs that may enable everyone to work together to
generate solutions that will be beneficial for all. Those will emerge more clearly if they
can talk with each other and work together, instead of entrenching themselves in
divergent camps. Every day we see clearly how that approach is not working to improve
or strengthen our nation. I also plan to provide opposing sides an opportunity to “cross
the aisle” in an online community forum next year.
In anything I write, I will present the individuals and their ideas completely openly and
objectively, as I have gained great respect for people on both sides of the issue that
divides them. I will feature them individually or pair people or programs on opposite
sides, and sometimes I will focus on a special topic, initiative or person. But I will always
strive for balance.
Just as importantly, I will also detail solutions they are involved in planning, developing
or implementing. Ultimately, the point for everyone is to help people live safer, happier
For several months now, I’ve been interviewing Alia Dewees. Fascinating. Intelligent.
Articulate. Dynamic. Passionate about her work. Resilient. All of which are proving to be
common characteristics of the women I’ve been speaking with on both sides of the pro-
decriminalization or anti-decriminalization of sex work disagreement.
Alia has served as a tremendous guide into the life of a sex worker. Unfortunately, she
was forced into it as a minor. The California native grew up in a fractured home where
her mother found income by doing softcore porn, until she tired of that world and got a
non-sex-related job. Unfortunately, that lifestyle had exposed her young daughter to
cowardly, unscrupulous men who sexually abused her.
As research has shown, early sexual abuse just made Alia more vulnerable to being
misled in her teens by older men who pretended to care for her and claimed to be her
“boyfriend.” In truth, they leveraged her as their source of income by selling her to
friends and other men for sex so that they could pay for their housing, alcohol, food,
drugs and just about anything else they desired.
I came to our interviews focused on whether or not to legalize underground full-service
sex work or escorting. Early in our conversations, though, Alia pointed out that
completely legal sex work is all around us, too: pornography, the most inappropriately
named “gentlemen’s clubs” or more colloquially “strip joints,” and massage parlors. (In a
conversation that I had a couple of years ago, a human trafficking task force detective in
Columbus, Ohio, told me that entire task forces should be formed to police massage
So, Alia was trafficked from the time she was 14, eventually breaking away at 18.
Familiar with that world, she began earning her living in strip clubs and making porn
films. She later met and fell under the spell of an older man who coerced her into
trafficking again in her mid 20s.
But like I said, Alia is quite resilient. I plan to write about her story more in-depth in the
coming months, but for the sake of brevity, she finally escaped from “the game” at 26.
She knew her life was being wasted and sliding toward drug-fueled oblivion. She was
destined for better things. After a couple false starts, Alia found her way to a very
powerful rehabilitation and recovery program in Chicago that I will also write about in
future issues. She got her GED. She attended college and earned her degree. She returned
to Southern California to rebuild her relationships with her children.
Because of her lived experiences as an escort and sex worker, Alia was actively recruited
by the Safe House Project to fill a vacant position. Today, as Aftercare Development
Director, she guides women survivors of trafficking to the resources they need to heal
and regain their health, find safe housing, pursue education and job training, and achieve
economic independence. I recently observed her lead a webinar about effective recovery
programs that provide safe housing for women with children that was attended by
representatives from many of the more than 250 programs nationwide with similar
Alia has come a long way in her journey and is the ideal person to help others follow in
her path. When we discuss decriminalization for sex workers, she is adamantly against it.
Although she is equally against criminalizing women who were trafficked in any way,
she does not believe decriminalizing will help anyone who chooses to pursue sex work as
One of the actions that defines human trafficking is that the victim was made to perform
labor or commercial sex acts through force, fraud or coercion. Alia says that while she
was never forced to do anything while making porn films, coercion was always in play.
“Part of the experience is it’s normal to hear things from your trafficker like, ‘Well, you
really need the money, and now you’re in a desperate situation, so that [sex act] better not
be on your ‘no’ list anymore,’” she explains. “’Or you’d better start doing interracial or
anal or you’d better work with that person you don’t want to work with because they
were violent with you last time or whatever it is; otherwise, we’re not going to be able to
get you work anymore, and you and your kids will be in a terrible financial situation
because you’re going to be labeled as difficult.’”
She does not believe legalization will change the stigma around sex worth, either.
“Just because it’s legal now isn’t going to change the biases of somebody’s grandma or
that old-school cop who sees people engaged in prostitution or stripping as worthless,”
she says. “It’s not going to make him more likely to believe a stripper who got raped in
the strip club. It will remain, ‘Well, this is what you signed up for, isn’t it?’ It’s not going
to be, ‘It’s legal for you to engage in prostitution now, so I want to help you with your
rape case.’ Decrim won’t elevate the value of people just because their work is legal.”
Alia and others on the against side that I have interviewed about sex work believe only
about 1% of sex workers operate freely, independently and control their lives and money
without fear of being harassed and threatened by traffickers to work for them. They are
usually well-educated and possibly from a middle class or well-off family. They are able
to operate privately and have safe clientele; they don’t get arrested, and their johns don’t
get arrested like sex workers on the street.
She adds that, when she reads about a survivor network that advocates for
decriminalization and rights for sex workers, she interprets what they are saying is that
having to perform commercial sex acts does not cause trauma, but the trauma rises from
not having control of their money.
“That’s just not true,” she says. “Even for somebody who maybe doesn’t have a third-
party exploiter, who isn’t being actively trafficked, who’s in sex work for survival, that
experience is traumatic. Knowing that your only option is to have sex with this 60-year-
old dude when you’re 25, someone who’s overweight, sweaty and talks weird and makes
creepy noises, it’s traumatic. It’s awful, regardless of whether somebody is trafficking
you or you are out there because you were out of options.
“It’s memories, it’s feelings, it’s smells that stay with you and make your skin crawl,”
Alia continues. “So, the narrative that if you have control over your money, and nobody
is forcing you to be there it’s all of a sudden not traumatic just isn’t true. It’s just not
All of that, she concludes, is what makes her very anti-legalization or decriminalization.
Next up: Blair Hopkins and SWOP Behind Bars, an organization that aides women who
have been incarcerated on prostitution charges.