Culture Wars/Current Controversies

Claims of protecting sex workers have long been used to punish them

The trans rights movement is the new gay rights movement, and the sex worker rights movement is becoming the new trans rights movement. I’m beginning to see articles like this in the mainstream press much more frequently.

By Anya Jabour, Washington Post

New York lawmakers are engaged in a “bloody ideological battle” over prostitution policy. Two proposals are on the table, reflecting divergent understandings of commercialized sex. One, responding to concerns about involuntary sex trafficking, would increase penalties for those who profit from or promote the sex trade. The other, representing the “pro-sex” position of some sex workers and their advocates, would decriminalize the sale of sex between consenting adults, eliminating the prosecution of voluntary participants in the sex trade. At issue: Which approach will provide the best protection for sex workers?

It’s not the first time such debates have emerged. Approximately 100 years ago, Progressive Era penal reformer and sex researcher Katharine Bement Davis also contemplated responses to “the problem of prostitution.” Both her experiences in the criminal justice system and her ideas about possible responses to commercialized sex offer vital historical context for current policy debates.

Both perceptions of prostitution and prostitution policy changed dramatically in the Progressive Era. Previously, officials had tolerated the existence of brothels in “red-light districts” set apart from residential areas but located near commercial districts. A system of fines and bribes reflected the widespread conviction that prostitution was ineradicable and perhaps even desirable as an outlet for men’s sexual urges. With the exception of a few women’s organizations, such as the New York Female Moral Reform Society, few Americans challenged the sexual double standard or considered the welfare of sex workers.


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