Forcing sex workers into the hidden economy will not keep them safe

A sex worker activist in Paris.
A sex worker activist in Paris.
Image: Reuters/Charles Platiau
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If Amber Batts cared less about protecting her contractors, who are sex workers, she quite possibly wouldn’t be going to jail.

For years, Batts was the owner of Sensual Alaska, the largest escort service in Alaska. According to sex work researcher Tara Burns, Batts was known for her excellent business practices. She took a smaller cut than most services (only 30%, rather than 40-50%) and also “did really extensive screening” of workers’ prospective clients.

Batts maintained independent contractor records for each escort, to ensure that each party understood the business arrangement and explicitly consented to it. She wanted to make sure that her business was consensual and safe—but it was her attention to detail and paperwork that would ultimately be her undoing. In a piece for Tits and Sass published in August, Burns reports that Batts, after being raided by the police, will serve at least 5 years in prison.

Criminalizing sex work is supposed to protect women from exploitation. But not all women agree that the state is protecting them. As Burns told Quartz, in Batts’ case, “The state said that they were not accusing her of force, fraud, coercion, or even yelling at a sex worker.” In other words, Batts was seemingly punished for taking steps to prevent exploitation. The problem, as pointed out by multiple sex workers and their advocates is that if screening clients can be used to put “madams” like Batts behind bars, then people aren’t going to want to screen clients—which puts sex workers at more risk, not less.

This is a common issue in the debate over criminalization. Anti-prostitution advocates often argue for criminalizing managers and clients (also known as johns) as a way to protect supposedly exploited sex workers. But sex worker advocates argue that such laws inevitably end up putting sex workers themselves at risk of arrest and violence.

“We oppose criminalizing third-party acts,” Katherine Koster of the Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) told Quartz, “because frequently people who are sex workers themselves are charged under those acts.” Koster pointed to a 2010 Chicago study which found that criminalizing managers and clients produces what the study calls “backfire” effects which increase the very risks the sex workers advocates claim to want to help.

For instance, Koster said, when two women are working together on the street, one may be arrested for pandering, or facilitating the prostitution of the other. Women who share a hotel or apartment can be arrested for owning a place of prostitution.

Similarly, criminalizing johns doesn’t necessarily help workers. Instead, reducing demand can mean that sex workers have less leverage in screening clients, and may need to go to client’s houses—a potentially riskier scenario than meeting in an environment the sex worker can control.

“In any industry, reducing demand doesn’t help workers,” Koster explains. “It reduces prices. It reduces the ability of survival sex workers to say no to people who might be violent, or to people who might want sexual services they don’t want to engage in, or to people who don’t want to use condoms.”

Criminalization also makes the involvement of law enforcement—even in situations where sex workers need help—a risky proposition. Sex workers are understandably reluctant to go to the police to report abuse if they fear they will be arrested.

In the Amber Batts case, Burns told Quartz, one of the police informants was a disgruntled former employee of Sensual Alaska who allegedly reported Batts as part of a dispute with another worker. She called 911 and said that she was a trafficking victim, and asked for help. The police did nothing for several weeks, and then finally reached out to her—by organizing a raid, during the course of which, Burns said, they seem to have had some form of intimate contact based on a recording she obtained. “I think it’s important that people should be able to call 911, and say they are victims of sex trafficking, and access equal protection under the law,” Burns told Quartz, ” without a police officer calling and having sexual contact with them.

Indeed, Burns’ survey of sex workers in Alaska suggests that abusive encounters with police are fairly common. Fully a third of the Alaskan sex workers Burns interviewed said that they were threatened with arrest when they tried to report being the victim or witness of a crime. Of those she talked to, 75% didn’t report a crime because they feared arrest.

When prostitution is fully criminalized, as in the US, or partially criminalized, as in Sweden and Canada, sex workers and law enforcement have an antagonistic relationship. New Zealand, on the other hand, decriminalized sex work in 2003. As a result, sex workers regularly report crimes and exploitation to the police, according to Gillian Abel, a professor of population health at the University of Otago. “Prior to decriminalization, sex workers had very little to do with police and almost certainly would not go to them if a client or a brothel operator committed an offense against them,” Abel told Quartz. “The realization of legal rights under decriminalization has seen an improved relationship between most street-based workers and the police.”

Sex workers in the country have been able to take exploitive brothel workers to court at the Human Rights Disputes Tribunal. They’ve also used the law against abusive clients, and even against abusive police.

Based on evidence of the risks to sex workers when their work is criminalized, Amnesty International officially adopted a policy this August advocating for the decriminalization of sex work worldwide.

This policy change has unsurprisingly proved controversial (in the US, for example, a group of high-profile actors and activists signed a letter protesting it), but Margaret Huang, chief of staff for Amnesty International USA, explained to Quartz that “we’re trying to adopt the position that provides the best protection for sex workers, who are amongst the most vulnerable to exploitation and abuse.” After talking to sex workers, Huang said, Amnesty’s main goal was to “bring sex work out of the shadows, out of the hidden economy, and put it in a place where they can expect accountability for any abuse or exploitation they might encounter.”

According to her supporters, that’s what Batts was trying to do as well. She wanted to provide a safe environment for sex workers—with clear contracts, vetted clients, and fair labor practices. Batts wanted to treat sex work as a safe, open business, out of the shadows. That’s what got her jailed.