The debates around legalizing sexwork have been going on for years. And two of the big arguments against it are claims that sexwork increases the rates of sexually transmitted infections and leads to trafficking. Sexwork advocates say that these are the result of it being illegal and that, if we legalized it, things would improve.
Kate McCombs, one of my former sex education workshop presenters, has been living in Australia and blogging for mysexprofessor.com. She has a post about the effects of legal sexwork in the state of Victoria, Australia. And wouldn’t you know it- legalizing sexwork works!
Male, female, and transgender sex workers in Victoria are required to undergo monthly checks for chlamydia, gonorrhea, and trichomonas, and tri-monthly blood tests for HIV and syphilis. Sex workers who work in the legal system have significantly lower rates of all the aforementioned STIs than the general population of Victoria. This is attributed to widespread condom use, good health education for and among sex workers, regular STI testing, and the simple fact that sex work is legal, since this status gives sex workers more negotiating power. Interestingly, recent research has suggested that the STI tests could be required every three and six months, respectively, and still provide the same low levels of STIs. Also of note, the few STI diagnoses that do occur among sex workers working within the legal system are nearly always from non-transactional (i.e. private relationship) partners, not clients.
One of the concerns I hear frequently in regards to sex work is about trafficking; that is, sex work that is forced or coerced, and involves transporting people from one country to another. Trafficking is illegal in all of Australia and the police are very aware of the issue. I went to a lecture about sex work given by members of Melbourne’s St. Kilda police force wherein they discussed trafficking in Melbourne. What I found most compelling about their talk was how they believed sex workers themselves (those working in the legal and illegal systems) were one of the best resources for reducing trafficking. The police officers spoke from experience, discussing how sex workers inform them when coerced or underage sex work is happening in their neighborhoods. I imagine this kind of dialogue would be difficult or impossible if sex workers faced harsh legal penalties if exposed to the police.
This is exactly what sexwork advocates in the US and elsewhere have been saying for years. Sexwork happens in all societies, despite the many cultural and legal prohibitions. And all too often, sexworkers are blamed for the harms that result from a system that denigrates and demonizes them. But those harms are not inherently part of sexwork, as Kate’s observation of Australia’s experience shows.
Check out the rest of her post for more information on the topic.