Mass. should decriminalize sex work

Moving business out of the shadows will make it safer

AS THE AFTERSHOCK from the reversal of Roe. v Wade continues, Massachusetts has the opportunity to increase bodily autonomy and safety to women and gender-diverse residents. Massachusetts should decriminalize sex work so that it no longer has to operate in the shadows, where sex workers are more likely to experience violence. It’s a step that’s already gaining momentum in other states and around the world.

As former sex workers and leaders in the LGBTQ community, we speak from knowledge and experience. Based on Chastity’s expertise working in the transgender community and Michael’s expertise working with criminalized LGBTQ people, we know that criminalization of sex work only makes it more unsafe.

In 2021, the New York state legislature repealed the crime of loitering for the purposes of prostitution, or the “walking while trans ban.” It earned this name because the statute has been used to target Black and Brown transgender women, many of whom were arrested while simply waiting for the bus or walking under a bridge in New York City. Similar bills have been filed across the nation.

Last year, sex workers took this issue to the State House. They testified in support of two novel bills that would decriminalize their livelihoods. One such bill, An Act to Promote the Health and Safety of People in the Sex Trade, was filed by Rep. Lindsay Sabadosa of North Hampton. If passed, it would repeal the crime of common nightwalking and the selling and buying of sex between consenting adults. Rep. Liz Miranda of Boston and Sen. Julian Cyr, who represents the Cape and islands, filed another bill, An Act to Stop Profiling Transgender and Low Income Women, to repeal common nightwalking. Laws that criminalize sexual assault, kidnapping, and sex trafficking would remain in full effect.

Black and Pink Massachusetts, a prison abolition organization that supports LGBTQ people and people living with HIV, conducted a review of court records and police reports related to the crime of common night walking. It appears police profile women regularly based on the time, place, and location in which they are walking and arrest them. Massachusetts Trial Court data from 2019 and 2020 indicate 17 women were arrested under such constitutionally suspect circumstances. The majority of these cases were ultimately dismissed at the request of district attorneys.

We are very concerned about how sex work criminalization impacts the trans community. A 2015 report from the National Center for Transgender Equality found that nearly 11 percent of transgender and gender diverse people had traded sex for a fee at some point in their lives. A full 40 percent of Black and multiracial transgender and gender diverse people, who also have to contend with racism in addition to transphobia, had done so. Forcing them to operate in an underground economy only compounds their safety risks.

Here are the top three reasons Massachusetts should consider passing this legislation:

Criminalization drives this profession into the shadows where violence is more likely to occur and less likely to be reported. Imagine experiencing violence from a client and wanting to report it to the police, but deciding not to do so because you would self-incriminate yourself in the process? Within this underground economy, clients are well aware of this dynamic. Perhaps this is why a 2018 scholarly review of 33 countries found that sex workers living in countries that criminalize their profession were three times more likely to experience physical or sexual violence, and two times more likely to be living with HIV.

We also need to decriminalize sex work to reduce commercial sex trafficking. We should follow the lead of New Zealand, which decriminalized sex work in 2003. Five years later a government report found there was no growth of the sex trade or in sex trafficking. Sex workers in New Zealand report having more legal rights, find it easier to refuse clients, use condoms, and have an improved relationship with law enforcement. As is true for other forms of labor trafficking, enactment and enforcement of labor rights would reduce commercial sex trafficking.

And finally, we know firsthand that criminalization also impacts our relationship with doctors, therapists, and family, impacting whole communities. Why? Because the stigma of sex work is so great that it prevents us from having honest conversations about our livelihood. Barriers to disclosing our profession means sex workers might miss the opportunity to discuss safer sex practices like using condoms or PrEP, a medication taken daily to prevent HIV transmission.

It’s time to listen to those most impacted by these laws by giving sex workers a seat at the policy table. They are the best experts on their own health, safety, and well-being. Anyone interested in joining this work is invited to contact Black and Pink Massachusetts, and the Transgender Emergency Fund of MA.

Chastity Bowick is the executive director for the Transgender Emergency Fund of MA, a non-profit organization that supports low-income transgender people in MA. She is a former sex worker. Michael Cox is the executive director for Black and Pink MA, a prison abolition organization that supports LGBTQ people and people living with HIV impacted by the criminal legal system. He is a former sex worker.