Updated: Nov 3, 2020
If you have ever taken my Madams of DC tour, this is a refrain you may have heard me state a couple of times: #Prostitutesarepeople #Sexworkisrealwork. Even if you never take the tour, there is an ongoing conversation about the legalization, or at least de-criminalization, of sex work. I am a proponent. I'll tell you why. When sex work was made illegal in the United States with the Mann Act in 1915, it suddenly became much more dangerous. The downstream impacts of what was at the time well-meaning legislation that was pushed by suffragists, feminists, and the morality police, led to an entirely new set of problems faced by people who were just trying to make a living.
Primarily, the power dynamic between men and women (which is the primary way sex work is portrayed and historically recorded, though I KNOW that there was plenty of it amongst the LGBTQ community but it was just not written about) completely changed. When prostitution was legal, even if it was frowned upon, the people in charge were mostly women. Primarily, Madams. They had houses, establishments where their employees lived, ate, slept, and dressed. They were protected, because law enforcement didn't see them as law breakers and so Madams didn't hesitate to call the authorities in the case of misbehaved clients, just as they would anyone else who was being roughed up. Madams invested in their employees, providing them sustenance and a roof over their heads, even occasionally health care. You had WOMEN taking care of WOMEN. While it was not the most above-board life, for many it was a way for them to earn far and away more money than any other profession available to women at any point in time and even have a measure of independence.
When prostitution was forced to go underground after it was made illegal (because making something illegal never staunches the demand, just makes it harder to get), suddenly the women needed protection from someone other than the law because the law was now against them. This exposed them to exploitation on behalf of those that could theoretically protect them, and thus ushered in the rise of pimps. While Madams continued to exist, it was much more difficult for them to run an establishment. They couldn't physically provide much protection either, unless they hired security. Pimps stepped in to provide physical protection from unruly clients, but in exchange they exacted a large cut of the wages and took advantage to physically and emotionally abuse their girls. Sorry to say it, but men don't take care of women as much as a woman would in this regard. In addition, no longer having a set establishment prostitutes had to resort to street walking which exposed them to the elements, thus endangering their health. If they became sick they had very few options to get treatment save for charities, and later, emergency rooms.
While we are now in an age when digital sex work is becoming the more and more prevalent, there are many people out there who physically sell their services under dangerous conditions and have very little recourse if they are abused in the course of their work. There are no standards generally in the US for sex workers, no requirements for STD tests, or access to health care because they don't have official "employers" or can count themselves as "self-employed." The moral judgement levied towards sex workers is archaic. We've generally become more accepting as a society that some people just prefer to exchange sex or sexual acts for money for a living and we should legislate it accordingly. It's only been around for thousands of years, after all. Keeping it illicit just maintains a dangerous status quo that doesn't benefit anyone except exploiters and people who prefer to look down their noses at sex workers while secretly logging onto YouPorn. I can't even get into sexual slavery because I don't know enough about it, but there is also that sinister side of having an illicit market for sex work.
The point is, #sexworkersarepeople. I highlight the lives of some of these people during my #madamsofdc tour and tell this story, because it's worth bringing it to light as a part of DC's history. I'm no expert in this particular area of social justice, and I defer to experts who are. If I have mischaracterized any aspect of this feel free to comment. At the very least what we need to realize as a society is that sex work is real work, and sex workers are as deserving of labor protection as anyone else. #sexworkisrealwork