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Arresting sex workers helps no one | COMMENTARY

Arresting sex workers doesn't address the issues that got them into the work in the first place.
Arresting sex workers doesn't address the issues that got them into the work in the first place. (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Prosecution has long been a response to what society deems as unacceptable or immoral behaviors. Sex work is one of these behaviors that many feel should be punished that way for a variety of reasons.

In March, Baltimore City State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby decided not to criminalize low-level drug and sex work offenses, in an effort to reduce clogged court dockets during the COVID-19 pandemic, and also because she heeds the evidence that arrest is not a diversion nor a solution to the root causes of sex work. Prosecution does not, nor has it ever, provided women with the options that often are beyond their reach nor empowered them to make different choices.

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Arresting sex workers as a mean of stopping sex trafficking does not create a trusting relationship where people who are trafficked feel safe to come forward. Rather, it further destabilizes their lives and could place them in harm’s way. We believe, instead, that providing tailored services where individuals feel comfortable disclosing harms, whether it be at the hands of sex traffickers, boyfriends, or police, is a more appropriate and empowering response.

The sex work trafficking narrative often conflates sex work — an occupation that was recognized by the International Labor Organization in 1996, with sex trafficking, defined as the illegal business of recruiting, harboring, transporting, obtaining, or providing a person, and especially a minor, for the purpose of sex. Sex trafficking does exist. It is a problem worldwide that is important to address head on. But its conflation with sex work often strips people of any sense of autonomy or making choices when so often options are limited, especially during a national crisis of unemployment and underemployment.

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The expanded and nebulous definition of trafficking often sees the only response to sex work as arrest and prosecution, an often traumatic event — which can preclude women from getting jobs or can threaten their ability to parent — given what it means to have a “record.” Baltimore-based research and advocacy with women who use drugs and sell sex over the past two decades tells a different story and offers another solution.

Our harm reduction drop-in center, SPARC, has been conducting street-based outreach for over two years in Southwest Baltimore, and currently averages 160 encounters per week with women and non-men. Our team focuses on building meaningful relationships with sex workers, while also providing supplies to help nourish them and keep them safe like condoms, safer drug use supplies, water, food and clothing. We have been able to connect with people who have experienced trafficking, by holding space for them to share their stories.

However, this is a rare occurrence and the majority of the people we work with do not report working for anyone’s income but their own. They are not trafficked. We are confident that our outreach team, staffed with people who have various forms of lived experience serve as a better and safer sounding board than police, and we will continue to do the work to keep sex workers safe instead of incarcerated.

Arrest and prosecution are punishments, and therefore a harmful expression of society’s ill regard for the people who engage in sex work. Prosecuting clients similarly places women in danger by forcing their conduct further underground. Criminalization closes rather than opens doors, and does not address the often times root causes of hunger, trauma and housing instability that need to be addressed in order for sex workers to make other choices, if desired. State’s Attorney Marilyn Mosby’s strategy is one that centers sex worker voices, moves us toward a public health approach and ends the cycle of criminalization that is so destructive for so many people.

Katie Evans (Kevans44@jhmi.org) is the outreach coordinator for SPARC, A Center for Women, located in Pigtown. Susan Sherman (ssherman@jhsph.edu) is the founder of SPARC and a Bloomberg Professor of American Health at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. The opinions expressed by Ms. Sherman are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of Johns Hopkins University.

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