Recently, on one of the local internet forums, I came across the following question from a client. Never one to pass up a conversation even tangentially related to the criminalization of sex work, I started to answer his question, but my explanation quickly grew and kind of veered off-topic. So, I decided to post it here instead.
I wonder though, that if sex work was ever legalized, if the value of your time would decrease? Just a question… As supply increases, demand lowers.
This is a great question. The short answer is “probably.” But…
Here’s the long answer:
There’s a huge difference between legalization and decriminalization.
In legalization, our work is legal, but only under certain conditions determined by the state. The problem with this is…well, just look at Nevada. Well, no. First, let’s look at Storyville.
Storyville: The “Red Light District” Approach, Exploitation, and a Two-Tiered Legality
As much as we in New Orleans (myself included) romanticize Storyville, New Orleans’s legal red light district between the years of 1897 and 1917, legalized prostitution was similarly problematic back then. Women were only permitted to sell sexual services in one part of town. A girl could not legally, say, meet a client in her own home, negotiate a price, and accept payment for the time she spent with him. The only legal way to accept payment for her erotic labor was to pay a brothel owner/manager in Storyville for the privilege of working there, and pay grossly inflated rent prices to the building owner, who rented out “cribs” (tiny closet-like rooms for the purpose of prostitute/client meetings and transactions) to working girls by the day. Needless to say, lots of people got filthy rich between 1897 and 1917, and most of them weren’t the actual working girls.
OK, now jump forward 100 years and to the West 2,143.9 miles (according to Google Maps), and let’s talk bout Nevada. In a couple of counties, full service sex work is legal, but only in licensed brothels. Workers must also go buy a license from a government office ($$, and the worker’s information becomes public, btw), and they can only work for a brothel that has permission from the state. While working for the brothel, they cannot leave the premises. They must also
- pay for rent and meals at the brothel–you’re not allowed to get an apartment or buy your own groceries,
- pay for weekly trips for STI tests at a doctor the state has chosen for that purpose,
- pay for the van trips to that doctor,
- allow the brothel owner to see their medical info before they can,
- give up (I think) half their earnings to the brothel owner, and
- rely on the brothel owner for pretty much anything they need for work, which means prices are inflated, etc.
Basically, it becomes a get-rich-quick scheme for the state, the brothel owner, the doctor and his/her staff, and everyone but the people doing the actual sexual labor. Ironically, one of the justifications given for this type of system is that providers need protection from exploitation (“pimps”). So, instead of allowing a provider to work independently (advertising, screening, negotiating with and meeting clients without anyone else interfering in that process), the state requires the use of a 3rd party, who is involved in (and profits from) the transaction.
Criminalization of the Most Vulnerable, Legalization for the Privileged
And let’s not forget the fact that not everyone will be able to afford that license or all the fees required to get start working at the brothel (licensing fees, transportation costs, required brothel-owned transportation service from airport to brothel, required up-front rent, required up-front food money, etc.). Nor will everyone who wants the job be hired to work in the brothel.
So basically, there are a few people who can work legally, as long as they give quite a bit of their earnings to a bunch of people who don’t have much to do with the actual work being done. And everyone else goes to jail if they get caught.
This is only one form of legalization, but it shows how problematic legalization can be. On the surface, it sounds great, especially to those who have no experience working in this business or meeting with escorts. Keep hookers hidden away from good, regular folks in society? Great! Force them to be tested weekly? Awesome–lord knows they’re vectors for disease otherwise! Require that they work under the supervision of a babysitter who knows what’s best for them? Fine idea! Mandate a government-issued license to fuck? Sounds logical to me! (This is sarcasm, in case you can’t tell).
In reality, there are several problems with the “legalization” type of approach. As I said before, those who are most vulnerable (poor people) will not be able to afford to work legally, and will continue to work illegally and suffer the consequences. And providers who may not be the brothel owner’s “type” for whatever reason (race, age, body size, looks) will also not be able to work legally, and will continue to work illegally and suffer the consequences. I don’t think it’s fair to set up a system that punishes poorer, or fatter, or older providers for doing the same thing their wealthier, thinner, younger counterparts are doing, nor is it an improvement on the system we already have.
In addition (and to me, this is the most important part), I think it’s flat-out wrong for the state to legislate who can fuck whom, as long as everyone is of legal age and is consenting. It is absurd to say that it’s OK and legal for consenting adults to have sex for this reason (love, horniness, the desire to get back at an ex, etc.) but not that one (the need to pay one’s rent or phone bill, the desire to buy a fancy new dress, etc.).
Decriminalization: What Sex Workers Want
Now, with decriminalization, it’s no longer illegal to trade sex for money. You can pay for it. You can sell it. As long as both parties are of legal age and consenting, it’s your business. There will still be certain regulations, of course, but no new laws need to be made, because laws covering those issues already exist. For example, most rational people would object to allowing the buying and selling of sex in a park or at the grocery store. Well, we already have laws prohibiting public nudity and public sex. The same goes for forced sexual labor–we already have laws against rape.
What most individuals working in the world of erotic services want is decriminalization, because then it ceases to be illegal for providers to do the work they do. And it ceases to be illegal for our clients to…well, to be clients.* All we want is to have the right to have the same sexual encounters that everyone else is free to have without fearing arrest because someone leaves us a little monetary compensation for our time and attention.
*Please don’t confuse decriminalization with the “Nordic Model.” Advocates of the “Nordic Model” will often use the term “decriminalization,” perhaps out of ignorance, or perhaps in an attempt to obfuscate the truth–that the “Nordic Model” is almost universally opposed by sex workers themselves. The “Nordic Model” takes an “end demand” approach–sex workers are no longer criminalized, but clients are. Obviously, that’s a really shitty situation for us–would you want the purchase of your products and/or services to be criminalized? Do you think a doctor’s practice could succeed if it were illegal for patients to visit? What about financial advisers? How profitable would that business be if it were illegal to seek financial advice? What if it were legal to sell alcohol, but not to buy it? Do you think bartenders would feel “safe” and “protected,” or would they just want to go back to slinging beers to their law-abiding customers in peace? You see, we do want to right to work without fear of arrest, but we don’t want our clients to be criminalized. Not only would we have a more difficult time finding clients, but when there’s that much of an imbalance re: risk of arrest (as in, we would be taking no risk by meeting with clients, but they would be risking arrest every time they chose to visit an escort), all kinds of unexpected consequences arise. And of course, the majority of them ultimately put sex workers at risk.
The Rates Question
So, your question was whether our rates will have to drop if and when this work is legalized. Legalized? Well…probably not. Legalization comes with all kinds of “you can do this, but…” caveats, and those caveats cost lots of money. Those brothels in Nevada? Those girls’ rates aren’t cheap, unless they’re desperate because they owe the brothel owner $$$. Decriminalized? Maybe. Once there’s no fear of arrest, there will probably be more supply–more people will join the profession. But remember, there will also be more demand. Less people will be afraid of visiting a provider.
I have a feeling our rates would have to drop some…or at least, many of us would have to drop our rates somewhat. However, that’s a small price to pay for being able to work without worrying that you’ll be arrested and lose everything you care about–your home, your day job, custody of your children, maybe even friends and family. And it would almost certainly be easier to meet with clients safely because I’m betting clients would be more willing to hand over the necessary screening info if they could be sure we weren’t cops posing as providers for a sting.
Equal Power, Equal Protection
Just think about it…No one could threaten to “out” us (clients or providers) to the cops. If a provider stole from you, you could go directly to the cops and report the incident without them giving you a hard time. If a provider was sexually (or otherwise) assaulted by someone she met with, she could report it without worrying about being arrested for the type of work she does.
The “But Taxes!!!” Argument
People bring up taxes as justification for legalization. Many, many, many of us already report earnings and pay taxes. Of course not everyone does, but that’s common in lots of service industry jobs (waiting tables, bartending, etc.) and lots of informal labor (babysitting, cleaning houses, fixing people’s computers in your home, etc.). Decriminalization would make it even easier to do that–either as a business owner (independent provider), or as an employee at an agency or brothel (depending on how it’s done, a provider could be an independent contractor or a regular old employee). Imagine if doing taxes was as straightforward and easy as walking into one of those tax prep places in a strip mall and saying “I’m an escort. Here are my receipts for the year. I saw this many clients and made this much money and spent this much on advertising and supplies.” So many providers would find it a lot easier to, I dunno, be approved for a mortgage and become property owners so that they have something to show for all the work they’ve done over the years, and a real asset to hand down to their children or to cash in on when they retire. Wouldn’t that be nice?
“Sexually Deviant Fallen Women” or “Desperate, Misguided, Helpless Victims”?
For as much as society loves to either demonize us or paint us all with the “poor, helpless victim” brush, they sure don’t seem willing to do the one thing that would actually empower us–that would enable us to show that we are so, so much more.
Update as of 3/2017:
I’ve recently come across the writings of Missy Mariposa, a former independent escort-turned-legal brothel worker at Sheri’s Ranch. Her experience at Sheri’s Ranch has been overwhelmingly positive, and doesn’t resemble the restrictive and exploitative environment I imagined. I fully admit my image of brothel work was based on a couple episodes of a reality show I saw way back when, and a few descriptions I had read by workers at another legal brothel in Nevada (not Sheri’s Ranch). Missy has fully embraced brothel work, and she explains why in this post: Why I hung up my heels as an independent and embrace the brothel. Color me enlightened!