Why is SWOP Behind Bars?

There are more than 200,000 women currently behind bars in the U.S., and that number is on the rise. In fact, women are the fastest growing segment of the prison population in the country, and the rate of incarceration for women has been growing nearly twice as fast as that of men since 1985, according to the ACLU, and account for about 7% of the total prison population in the U.S.  The fastest growing population behind bars is black women. Prostitution is one of the few crimes where women are arrested more frequently than men, but prostitution alone does not explain the growing numbers of Black, Latino, and trans-women behind bars. If we are going to make reforms to crimes based on morality, we need to consider laws that disproportionately affect women, such as the prohibition of sex work.

Sex workers are often subject to the same “revolving door” punitive approach that people convicted of drug offenses receive; women do time, but never receive the resources, social, economic and, psychological support that would enable them to leave the industry if they choose. We don’t often consider that sex work can be an intentional choice. Whether or not it is a symptom of poor economic conditions or volition it is always considered inherently immoral.

In order to address this we need to widen the discussion to include issues that Black, Latino, and trans women are disproportionately affected by. The illegal purchasing of sex is ultimately what sustains the market and forces sex work underground. The stigma has to be removed around the discussion of sex work in order to protect the human rights and, as recently suggested by Amnesty International, the dignity of the women in it who often need access to housing and, health care. By decriminalizing both the buying and selling of sex we can focus our efforts on those who truly need assistance and making other avenues of employment available, especially for trans women.

Laws prohibiting sex work are based on a moral code that doesn’t fully consider the implications. If we are going to reform non-violent crimes like drug use and selling that are founded on societal beliefs, we also need to consider other non-violent crimes, regardless of stigma and moral objections. The question of decriminalization or legalization cannot be limited to marijuana, but needs to be expanded to encompass sex work. We need to rethink the way we currently differentiate and treat between violent and non-violent persons convicted of offenses and push for decriminalization of sex work and the correlation to decreasing crimes against women; these progressive reforms normalize and regulate sex work rather than further stigmatizing and conflating an underground industry with human trafficking. With these efforts we can reduce sexual violence in the US, ameliorate conditions for a marginalized portion of the population, and destigmatize what is a reality for many women.