man has been a sex worker in Washington, DC, for more than 30 years. In that time, she’s faced a stream of abusive behavior from police.

“I’ve had them call me names, tell me that I was stupid, that whatever happened to me out there, I deserved it for being out there,” she told Vox.

Officers have made comments like, “it would be all right if you were out here working, so long as I get lunch,” Spellman said, essentially forcing her to buy them a meal to avoid being arrested.

She’s also been sexually assaulted by officers, she told Vox. “This is something that you can find across the board with sex workers,” she said. Police “take advantage of us.”

Then there is the financial toll of criminalization. Repeated arrests and fines for doing sex work have driven Spellman further into poverty. She’s currently homeless.

Criminal penalties can take a toll on sex workers’ families too. Spellman’s children are grown now, with children of their own — she even has a great-grandchild. But when they were young, she said, “those arrests really took away from my babies.”

The solution, for Spellman and other sex workers’ rights advocates, is decriminalization: the removal of criminal penalties for selling and buying sex. Advocates say getting rid of those penalties is the only way to keep sex workers safe from police harassment and the damaging effects of arrests and fines — and to guarantee them full human rights as workers in America.

Activists have been pushing for decriminalization worldwide for years, and they’ve had some successes: New Zealand removed criminal penalties in 2003, and Amnesty International called on all countries to do so in 2016. But in the United States, where buying and selling sex is illegal everywhere except for a few counties in Nevada, decriminalization has been a tougher sell.

That’s starting to change, though, thanks to a combination of sex worker activism, increased attention to racial justice and workers’ rights and, perhaps, backlash to the 2016 election. Recently, legislation to decriminalize sex work has been introduced in both DC and New York state, and several presidential candidates, including Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, have said they support some degree of decriminalization.

The decriminalization effort has a lot of work ahead of it — most states have yet to make any moves on the issue. But sex workers are closer than perhaps ever before to winning the right to do their jobs without fear of arrest.

“It needs to happen,” says Spellman, who also works with the service and advocacy organization HIPS. “It deserves to happen.”

The movement for decriminalization is far from new
Sex workers face stigma and prosecution in the US and around the world. As Molly Smith and Juno Mac write in their 2018 book Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers’ Rights, tens of thousands of people are “arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, deported, or fined” for sex work-related offenses in the US every year. In a 2003 survey of street-based sex workers in New York City, 80 percent said they had been threatened with or experienced violence, and many said the police were no help. In fact, 27 percent of respondents in the survey said they had experienced violence from police officers.

“If I call them, they don’t come. If I have a situation in the street, forget it,” one respondent said. “After a girl was gang raped, they said, ‘Forget it, she works in the street.’”

These problems are longstanding, and people who sell sex have been advocating for their rights in America for generations. In 1917, for example, more than 200 prostitutes marched on Central Methodist Church in San Francisco to protest an anti-prostitution campaign led by the church’s pastor. In the 1960s, sex workers were part of the Compton’s Cafeteria riot and the Stonewall uprising, landmark events in the fight for LGBTQ rights.

But the sex workers’ rights movement as it exists today has its roots in the 1970s, with the founding of groups like COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) that advocated for an end to laws targeting sex workers, journalist Melissa Gira Grant writes in her book Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work.

“The usage of the term ‘sex work’ marks the beginning of a movement,” wrote activist Carol Leigh, who coined the term in 1978. “It acknowledges the work we do rather than defines us by our status.”

Over time, “sex work” started being used by health and advocacy organizations, as well as the media, according to the Global Network of Sex Work Projects. Today, it’s used to describe sex as a form of labor, Smith, who’s also a sex workers’ rights organizer, told Vox. “It’s about situating it within a framework of workers’ rights,” a framework under which workers advocate together for economic, racial, and gender justice, she explained. (Some sex workers use the term “prostitute” to refer to themselves, while others do not.)

A major part of the fight for sex workers’ rights has been a push for decriminalization, or removal of criminal penalties for selling and buying sex. In general, “prostitution remains illegal and criminalized across the country,” Kate Mogulescu, an assistant professor of clinical law at Brooklyn Law School, told Vox. But there is no federal law banning sex work, and laws vary from state to state and even city to city, says Mogulescu, who also directs a clinic focused on representing people charged with sex work-related offenses.

In some states, such as Arizona and Florida, repeated arrests for doing sex work can result in a felony conviction and prison time. Until 2011, some people arrested for doing sex work in Louisiana were forced to register as sex offenders. In other states, like New York, sex work-related offenses are misdemeanors, punishable with fines and other penalties. But even then, people arrested on sex work charges may be jailed until trial if they can’t make bail, as Mac and Smith note in Revolting Prostitutes. They also point to one county in Virginia where a jail was forced to bring in 200 rollout beds to accommodate a crackdown on prostitution.

The only state where sex work is legal in some counties is Nevada, but the counties must have fewer than 700,000 residents — this excludes Clark County, where Las Vegas is located. Even in the legal counties, the sector is highly regulated — sex workers can only work in licensed brothels and must be tested regularly for sexually transmitted infections.

Mistress Matisse, a dominatrix and writer, described working in a Nevada brothel as a restrictive experience. “You had to be in the brothel 24/7,” she told the New York Times in 2016. “It was like a cross between summer camp and a women’s prison.” Most prostitution in Nevada still takes place illegally, outside the brothels, the Times reported.

Meanwhile, some draw a contrast between laws against sex work and those around pornography, which often requires people to have sex for money on camera. Though authorities in the past have tried to charge pornography producers under anti-prostitution laws, a 1988 California Supreme Court case found that pornography did not violate those laws.

“We have a very robust porn industry,” Spellman said, “but then we still have restrictions on selling sex. Is that not the same thing?”

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