Michael Cox, a leader in sex work decriminalization and abolition advocacy in Massachusetts, and Rayna Danis, an up-and-coming public health practitioner, have worked tirelessly to create awareness around sex worker rights and how sex work criminalization harms public health.
Cox and Danis worked together with the Getting to Zero Coalition dedicated to eliminating new HIV and AIDS diagnoses in Massachusetts. The group of advocates evaluated how sex work criminalization and stigma contributes to the HIV/AIDS crisis in Massachusetts and oppresses people working in the world’s oldest industry. They gathered the expertise of current and former sex workers to analyze different avenues toward decriminalization, advocated for Massachusetts House Bill 1867, a sex work decriminalization bill, and created a 25-minute documentary, “Out of the Shadows: The Movement to Decriminalize Sex Work.”
The fight for sex work decriminalization and sex worker rights is nothing new. Criminalization exacerbates existing barriers that sex workers often face to housing, government support programs, and health care. Street-based sex workers are particularly vulnerable and are thwarted in many ways as they struggle to improve their quality of life. Sex workers have been working for decades to attain worker rights, increase access to STI and HIV testing and treatment, and eliminate the stigma that fuels sex work criminalization.
Danis spoke passionately about the movement and recommends looking at sex work decriminalization through an economic, labor rights lens. “Criminalizing sex work means there is less safe sex work and there is more violence, disease, and illness when working in sexual services due to the criminalization and severe stigma. Decriminalization not only empowers sex workers to be able to take on their own rights and make more money, but also make more money safely, perhaps without the use of pimps or working in dangerous areas.”
Cox described the many avenues the U.S. might take toward decriminalization. The Nordic Model, also called the Equality Model, is currently being used in Sweden, Norway, Ireland, and Canada. It decriminalizes selling sex, but buying sex is still illegal. In New Zealand, by contrast, anyone age 18 or older can legally sell or buy sex. And sex workers rights are protected through the 2003 Prostitution Reform Act.
Cox’s lived experience as a sex worker richly informs the conversation and powers his advocacy for sex work decriminalization policy. From his perspective, the Nordic Model “takes some of the criminalization off of sex workers, but there’s a lot of other ways sex workers continue to be prosecuted under that model, such as being caught in a car and having drugs in possession, perhaps for trespassing or loitering in an area. There are a lot of red flags since the client is still being criminalized. Sex workers in countries where the Nordic model has been implemented still report high rates of violence, rape, and bad relationships with police. The model that I’m advocating for is full decriminalization of the buying and selling of sex. This model was adopted in New Zealand, and they have seen more sex workers supporting one another, almost like a union. Sex workers have also reported it’s easier to use condoms as well as improved relationships with police.”
Danis emphasizes how sex workers advocate for both the Nordic and New Zealand models, but Cox points out a societal misconception that often comes out in this advocacy work, “sex work is often conflated with trafficking. Nobody wants trafficking. Nobody wants trafficking less than current sex workers.”
Decriminalization efforts have been gaining speed over the past decade with decriminalization bills making their way onto the house floor. Massachusetts House Bill 1867 is a sex work decriminalization bill that was introduced in the 2021-2022 legislative cycle. The bill is now being studied by a house committee before being reintroduced in the 2022-2023 session. Danis explains that “the bill would target several laws in Massachusetts legislature to take away the criminal penalties of sexual services for the trade of money. This would give sex workers the ability to unionize, attain better access to health care, and report instances of violence without fear of prosecution.”
Danis warmly recalls, “This bill was so important to us because there were so many current and former sex workers that came out to testify how the bill would impact them. I really love the bill because it was written by sex workers. It was so important that the lived experience was at the heart of policy creation when it usually just is not.”
Cox closed the conversation, “Sex workers are just looking to make ends meet like anybody else. Whether you agree or not, criminalization only makes it more dangerous when you have to operate in the shadows. I think we need to recognize that people have autonomy over their own bodies. People can make the best choices that they can for themselves. If people want to support sex workers, they can offer resources instead of the police and prisons and jails and courts.”
Note: This is a part of a series this month examining how the criminalization and stigma of sex work affects workers in various sectors of the sex industry.