Sex work is illegal in much of the United States, but the debate over whether it should be decriminalized is heating up.

Former California Attorney General and Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris recently came out in favor of decriminalizing it, as long as it’s between two consenting adults.

The debate is hardly new — and it’s fraught with emotions. Opponents of decriminalization say it’s an exploitative industry that preys on the weak. But many activists and academics say decriminalization would help protect sex workers, and would even be a public health benefit.

Queen Honors Activist Who Fought To Decriminalize Prostitution
RJ Thompson wants to push back against the idea that sex work is inherently victimizing. He says for him it was liberating: Thompson had recently graduated from law school and started working at a nonprofit when the recession hit. In 2008, he got laid off with no warning and no severance, and he had massive student loan debt.

Thompson became an escort. “I made exponentially more money than I ever could have in my legal profession,” he says.

He says the possibility of arrest was often on his mind. And he says for many sex workers, it’s a constant fear. “Many street-based workers are migrants or transgender people who have limited options in the formal economies,” he says. “And so they do sex work for survival. And it puts them in a very vulnerable position — the fact that it’s criminalized.”

Thompson is now a human rights lawyer and the managing director of the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center. It’s among several organizations that are advocating bills to decriminalize sex work in New York City and New York state. They already have the support of various state lawmakers.

How Does Stigma Compromise The Safety Of Sex Workers?
Due to its clandestine nature in America, it’s extremely hard to find reliable numbers about the sex trade. But one thing is for sure: It’s a multi-billion-dollar industry. In 2007, a government-sponsored report looked at several major U.S. cities and found that sex work brings in around $290 million a year in Atlanta alone.

Economist Allison Schrager says the Internet has increased demand and supply. “Women who pre-Internet (or men) who wouldn’t walk the streets or sign with a madam or an agency now can sell sex work, sometimes even on the side to supplement other sources of income,” she says.

So what happens when you take this massive underground economy and decriminalize it? Nevada might offer a clue. Brothels are legal there, in certain counties.

In Shrager’s book, An Economist Walks Into A Brothel, she investigated the financial workings of the Nevada brothel industry. She found that on average it’s 300 percent more expensive to hire a sex worker in a Nevada brothel than in an illegal setting. Shrager thinks it’s because workers and customers prefer to pay for the safety and health checks of a brothel.

“Sex work is risky for everyone,” she says. “You take on a lot of risk as a customer too. And when you’re working in a brothel you are assured complete anonymity. They’ve been fully screened for diseases.”

Legalizing Prostitution Would Protect Sex Workers From HIV
But many activists and academics say decriminalization would help protect sex workers and could also have public health benefits.

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