sex work

Let’s be real: Robert Kraft isn’t the most sympathetic figure. Even ignoring that he owns the most hated sports franchise in America, he’s also the kind of person who owns sports franchises. Kraft is a philanthropist, but he also faces only a maximum of 60 days in jail, six months probation and a pittance of $500 in fines. He’s not really an underdog.

Investigators have also indicated that Kraft is one of dozens of arrests to come in connection with their bust. They probably aren’t the underdogs either.

No, the underdogs in this story are the employees of the ten spas that were shut down in Florida. While details seem scarce, it seems arrested “manager” Lei Wang and two others “lived” at Orchids of Asia Day Spa in Jupiter, Florida. Investigators have suggested Orchids of Asia, owned by Hua Zhang, was part of a human trafficking ring.

In a lot of ways, Hua Zhang, Lei Wang and the other employees of Orchids of Asia are part of a much longer narrative. In fact, it’s well-argued that sex workers used to be America’s most liberated women and were instrumental in securing women’s rights nationwide. Unconscious of that legacy though they may be, it still puts the workers at Orchids of Asia in a bitterly ironic position.

You can have this history condescendingly explained in an episode of Adam Ruins Everything.

Worldwide, 24.9 million people are trapped in forced labor resulting from trafficking rings, and it’s the fastest growing crime against women on the planet. And that’s only one of many good reasons to end America’s criminalization of sex work.

Human Trafficking and Sex Work

Legalized sex work isn’t a silver bullet by any means. There will always be a demand for something that ought to remain illegal and there will be stigma against sex workers long after a change in laws. But even the organization Equality Now, which is broadly skeptical of legalization, has decriminalized sex work and support for sex workers as part of their plan to fight human trafficking.

“An equality-based approach must recognize the vulnerability of prostituted persons by decriminalizing the selling of sex and expunging related criminal records,” Equality Now argues.

Illegal sex work makes it more difficult to separate sex workers from the sex trafficked, which is already water that is muddled by opponents of sex work. The reason being that those selectively in the industry are unwilling to report dangerous actors because they, themselves are committing a crime.

Meanwhile both sex workers themselves and Amnesty International have argued that sex work and sex trafficking are practical opposites.

“An equality-based approach must recognize the vulnerability of prostituted persons.”

Consider the analogy of medical amnesty for underage drinking. When the personal legal liability for committing a crime is lifted, calls for emergency services to provide sometimes life-saving intervention skyrocketed.

Applied to sex work, the idea follows that decriminalization of prostitution would allow those engaged in sex work to call attention to emergency situations — for instance, human trafficking — without endangering themselves or potentially the victims. And trafficking victims do get charged with prostitution.

In the case of Kraft, for instance, it can be impossible for a client to know if their sex worker is a part of the trade willingly or by force because no legal apparatus exists to separate the two throughout most of the United States.

But when consensual sex work and sex trafficking get muddled, there are far-reaching consequences.


The Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017 (SESTA) made no practical distinction between sex work in general and sex trafficking in specific. This had calamitous results for the consensual sex work industry, results that were hard to avoid as Congress has no motivation to  legitimize consensual sex work.

Technology has reshaped every industry, and consensual sex work was no slouch when it came to adopting the advances proposed by the Internet. Online platforms allowed sex workers to vet potential clients safely, without the need for an intermediary and from a comfortable distance. It provided discretion and independence.

SESTA/FOSTA shuttered a lot of those platforms. And even meeting temporary success by its own measure — decreasing advertisements for sex work online — it may have actually hampered efforts to stop trafficking in its broader attack on sex work.

To say nothing of the human cost.

“The political just got really personal.”

“Because of this bill I’ve now been forced back to the one place I barely made it out of alive the first time,” said Phoenix, Arizona-area sex worker Melissa about returning to the streets. “This stupid bill literally has taken away the one thing I felt as if I had control over in my life. The one thing that was allowing me to be a functioning, contributing member of society.”

Another sex worker, Kendall from Los Angeles, said that it was clear politicians wanted escorts either dead or easily arrested. Colette, a dominatrix in San Francisco said the industry was trying to count its casualties from a law intended to keep women safe.

“If we’re not dying from the unsafe conditions that we’re being pushed to, we’re dying because some of us have been pushed to their limits and have chosen to end their life because all of this feels like too much. It feels like we’re heading toward or living in some fucked-up dystopian world that’s growing more emboldened to oppress us.,” said Colette. “The political just got really personal.”

You know where women feel safe? Nevada.

Legal Sex Work is Safer Sex Work

Sex workers in the legal trade offer cautionary tales, but far from the grim stories from the trenches elsewhere in the country, theirs are focused on how sex work can build your future.

“I’ve talked to women that invest in real estate. They open their own businesses on the side, and now all of a sudden they have the brothel income, and they have the supplemental income from their other businesses that they’ve launched,” said Christina of the Moonlite Bunny Ranch in Carson City, Nevada. “Obviously if you invest well and you are good at saving your money, if you’re making half a million or close to it a year, you can retire early.”

The New York Times found that there wasn’t just no evidence of trafficking in legal brothels, but sex workers in those environments felt safer than those in other parts of the country precisely because they had the law and a supportive industry on their side.

“Criminalization enables the police to harass them and not prioritize their complaints and safety.”

Criminalization of sex work instead erodes trust in those institutions. 70 percent of sex workers in one study never even disclosed their profession to health workers. Rape victims are afraid to report because they don’t want to involve police in what is, under law, their own criminal culpability.

“Sex workers have told us how criminalization enables the police to harass them and not prioritize their complaints and safety,” said Senior Director for Law and Policy at the Amnesty International Secretariat Tawanda Mutasah.

Amnesty International has argued that even where sex work is legal, a cultural shift is needed. Too often, policing focuses on raids and punishing sex workers, the organization said, and not often enough on providing for their safety.

This diminished trust, and its resulting increase in stigma and vulnerability, were core factors in a paper published in the American Medical Association’s Journal of Ethics calling on the immediate decriminalization of sex work in the United States, not only to combat sex trafficking but to protect women.

Legalize It

There has been an increase in calls to legalize sex work in recent years. One article in Slate in 2014 argued that the case against legalization amounted to determining who it is still okay to hate, fear or otherwise stigmatize.

“It’s wrong to ban sex workers’ options just to make ourselves feel better.”

But since then, even John Stossel writing for Fox News made an argument in favor of legalizing sex work rooted in deeply Republican notions of personal liberty and bodily autonomy.

“We don’t have to cheer for prostitution, or think it’s nice, to keep government out of it and let participants make up their own minds,” wrote Stossel. “It’s wrong to ban sex workers’ options just to make ourselves feel better.”

Americans on an individual basis are deeply divided however. Marist found that women, in particular, are conflicted on the issue and on what practical impact legalization would have. This is, in no small way, a product of deeply divided messaging on the issue.

But we can, for certain, say that what exists now isn’t working. It isn’t working for Robert Kraft and, more importantly, it isn’t working for Melissa from Phoenix. The only people it really works for at all are politicians, who can point to SESTA/FOSTA’s “success.”


Katelyn Kivel is a contributing editor and senior legal reporter for Grit Post in Kalamazoo, Michigan. Follow her on Twitter @KatelynKivel.


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