Sex Workers Are Workers

Demonizing sex work is dangerous and unhelpful. Illustration: Elena Fleischman · The Sentry

sex addiction is never a valid excuse for violence

Demonizing sex work is dangerous and unhelpful.
Illustration: Elena Fleischman · The Sentry

People often refer to prostitution as the oldest profession in human history—at least, ever since the writer Rudyard Kipling made that claim in 1889. Yet, sex work remains a highly controversial topic in the United States and other countries. It seems that time has come for society to acknowledge that sex work is real work.

Sex work takes a variety of forms around the world, with prostitution on the streets, brothels, escort services, and more recently online. Pornography accounts for a huge section of the internet. Long before the pandemic made people learn how to chat on Zoom, cam models perfected the art of internet conversation and monetization through sites like Chaturbate and OnlyFans. 

Much of the objection to prostitution and other forms of sex work originates from a perception of immorality. Las Vegas even gained the title “Sin City” because of the idea that sex work goes against Christian values—even though church leaders considered Jesus’ partner Mary Magdalene a prostitute for centuries. While sex work is legal in rural parts of Nevada, it remains illegal in Las Vegas and Clark County generally. Sex work once had a significant role in the identity of Denver as well, as brothels sprung up around the city during the 19th century to accommodate the influx of miners and other laborers. Sites like the Navarre Building in downtown Denver, which now houses the Anschutz Collection at the American Museum of Western Art, serve as a reminder of that history. 

After the tragic murders of eight people in Georgia, most of whom were Asian women, the issue of decriminalizing sex work entered the national spotlight in 2021. As investigators consider whether this event was a hate crime, the killer supposedly claims to have a “sex addiction” that drove him to commit these atrocities, according to local police. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms admitted that while some massage parlors illegally operate as brothels—a situation that exists nearly everywhere that sex work is criminalized—none of the businesses involved were suspected as such. 

New York Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez recently announced support for decriminalizing prostitution, tweeting that “Sex work is work” even before what happened in Georgia. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also supports the idea, as the District Attorney there dismissed almost 700 cases relating to prostitution in the last few weeks.  

According to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), decriminalizing sex work would help to reduce the possibility of violence from police or clients; it would also allow sex workers to protect their own health, would help advance equality for LGBTQ+ communities, and would alleviate mass incarceration in the United States. Since 1975, the ACLU has spoken out in support of sex workers, asserting that “We can bring sex workers out of the dangerous margins and into the light where people are protected — not targeted — by the law.”

This is a selection from the April 7 issue. To view the full issue, visit:

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