via The Jurist, by Elizabeth Hand

Shohagi was only fourteen when her father arranged her marriage. Sent away from her home, family and friends to marry an unknown man who was much older, she quickly discovered her partner’s violent nature. The abuse sent her fleeing back home to a family that rejected her for disobeying her father, threatening her with death. No longer possessing any support system or income, she was shepherded into a brothel in Calcutta. Western perspectives on sex work require such a tale to be met with horror and sympathy. However, Shohagi describes her experience as a sex worker with hope and empowerment. Working in a brothel gives her the chance to earn an income and support herself. Distanced from the violence of both her husband and family, she prefers her life of autonomy.

Shohagi’s story is far from unusual, yet it does not conform to the usual cautionary tale that accompanies debates about sex work. Too often the narrative is one of woe and misfortune that leaves a woman with no choice but to become a prostitute, and her life rapidly decays. Adopting this typical western, feminist criticism of prostitution leaves no room for the possibility that a person chooses sex work, and is also pursuing his or her best interests. While many second-wave academics, like Catharine MacKinnon in her article Prostitution and Civil Rights, draw a distinction between indentured servitude and sex work by making the argument that a condition entered into voluntarily, prostitution, is different than one entered into involuntarily, servitude. However, functionally they are both treated as a type of slavery. This approach fails to validate a person’s choice to work as a sex worker. In the name of protecting women, MacKinnon fails to acknowledge the agency of women who choose sex work. A viewpoint like this highlights the shortcomings of western ideologies that tend to equate morality with legality. To the contrary, harm reduction strategies can offer protection to sex workers, who are at a high-risk of contracting HIV or facing sex-related violence. However, rather than focusing on harm reduction, generally criminalization is preferred, which strips sex workers of valuable protections and condemns them as immoral.

While no federal law exists that bans all prostitution across the board, Nevada is the only state that, in a few counties, has legalized some forms of prostitution. Many states enforce punishments exceeding a year in prison for this line of sex work. In essence, with the exception of a few counties in Nevada, prostitution is illegal in the US. The reasons cited for why prostitution should remain illegal range from the argument that it is degrading and base to the idea that it is a form of violence against women, or that banning it deters violence against women. Are these compelling enough reasons to justify the continued criminalization of many forms of sex work? Looking to other countries’ approaches to monitoring sex work, the US has a lot to gain from legalizing prostitution as a means to ensure sex workers’ safety, health and protection from abuse. If the US were to legalize prostitution, the government could more closely regulate it, implementing harm reduction strategies that could be pivotal in tackling HIV/AIDS, STIs, and violence towards sex workers.

The US has traditionally disfavored the implementation harm reduction strategies, preferring to take the moral high road. From needle exchanges to the regulation of sex work, the US chooses hardline stances against these activities at the cost of abandoning citizens that could be offered partial protection. Needless to say, HIV and AIDS are significant concerns when it comes to sex work, and US policy continually uses HIV/AIDS as a guise for providing a motive for eradicating sex work, specifically prostitution. However, when the government steps in to monitor and regulate commercial sex, as opposed to prohibiting it, HIV incidence is likely to go down. Without the government stepping in to police the sex trade, sex workers will continue to be at high risk of infection, while also lacking access to health care and prophylactic resources. Policies aimed at regulating brothels for public health reasons have had tremendous success in lowering not only the incidence of HIV infections in sex workers, but also the overall incidence in the population by altering behavior when it comes to practicing safer sex methods. A UNAIDS case study evaluated Thailand’s 100 percent condom use program and found that the government’s mandate of condom use within brothels, a policy aimed at combating rapidly rising HIV at the onset of the global AIDS epidemic, made sex work safer and altered cultural norms surrounding sexual practices for the entire nation.

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