Decriminalizing Sex Work: Some Activists Say It's Time Opponents of decriminalization say the multi-billion-dollar industry exploits sex workers. But activists and academics say legalization would protect workers and benefit public health.

Should Sex Work Be Decriminalized? Some Activists Say It's Time

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We're going to spend the next few minutes looking at the national debate over decriminalizing sex work. So a warning - this next story may not be appropriate for all listeners. Sex work is illegal in most of the U.S., but Democratic presidential candidate Kamala Harris, who was once California's attorney general, has become the highest-profile politician to suggest that sex work should be legal when it's between two consenting adults. NPR's Jasmine Garsd reports.

JASMINE GARSD, BYLINE: Cecilia Gentili left her native Argentina because she was being harassed by police in her small town. She thought she'd be better off when she moved to New York, but as a transgender, undocumented immigrant, she says she had few options.

CECILIA GENTILI: (Foreign language spoken).

GARSD: "Let's be realistic," she says, "for people like me, sex work is not one job option; it's the only option." These days, Gentili is one of many activists who is advocating for the passage of several bills to decriminalize sex work in New York City and state. Any way you slice it, it is a multibillion-dollar industry in America. One government-sponsored report from 2007 that looked at several major cities found sex work brings in around $290 million a year in Atlanta alone. Economist Allison Schrager says the Internet has increased demand and supply.

ALLISON SCHRAGER: Women who pre-Internet - or men - who wouldn't walk the streets or sign with a madam or an agency now can sell sex work, sometimes even on the side to supplement other sources of income.

GARSD: So what happens when you take this massive underground economy and decriminalize it? Nevada might offer a clue. In Schrager's book, called "An Economist Walks Into A Brothel," she looks at brothels, which in certain counties are legal and, on average, 300 percent more expensive than illegal sex work. She thinks it's because workers and customers prefer to pay for the safety and health checks of a brothel.

SCHRAGER: Sex work is risky for everyone. I mean, you take on a lot of risk as a customer, too, and when you're working in a brothel, you're assured complete anonymity. They've been fully screened for diseases.

GARSD: In fact, activists say decriminalization is a public health issue. Take the case of Rhode Island - a loophole made sex work practiced behind closed doors legal between 2003 and 2009. Economist Scott Cunningham from Baylor University and his colleagues found that during those years the sex trade grew. But Cunningham points to some other important findings. During that time period, in the entire state, the number of rapes reported to police declined by over a third. Also, gonorrhea among all women declined by 39 percent. Of course, changes in prostitution laws might not be the only cause. But Cunningham says...

SCOTT CUNNINGHAM: The trade-off is, if you make it safer, to some degree, you grow the industry.

GARSD: Rhode Island made sex work illegal again in 2009, in part under pressure from some anti-trafficking advocates. The debate about sex work always gets linked to trafficking; people who get forced into it against their will. Economist Axel Dreher, from the University of Heidelberg in Germany, teamed up with the London School of Economics to analyze the link between trafficking and prostitution laws in 150 countries.

AXEL DREHER: If prostitution is legal, there is more human trafficking simply because the market is larger.

GARSD: It's a controversial study. Even Dreher admits that reliable data on sex trafficking is really hard to find. But many believe the sex industry is just fundamentally vicious, and decriminalizing it will make it worse. Rachel Lloyd is the founder of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services, a nonprofit for sexually exploited women in New York. She says there's nothing that will equalize the power imbalances in the sex industry.

RACHEL LLOYD: The commercial sex industry is inherently exploitive. The folks who end up in the commercial sex industry are the folks who are the most vulnerable and the most desperate.

GARSD: When she was a teenager, she sold sex in Germany, where it is fully legal. For Rachel Lloyd, fully legalizing sex work would be condoning the same industry that brutalized her and the women she works with. Decriminalization activists say sex work has and always will exist, and they say bringing sex work out of the shadows can only help. Jasmine Garsd, NPR News, New York.

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