Sex workers are being targeted in Huntington. Police stings are routinely rounding up women. More stings are said to be planned. Captain Ricky Johnson told reporters that the goal is to get sex-workers help. While we believe the Huntington Police Department has good intentions, criminalizing sex work does not help the people who engage in it. And the court system is ill-suited to provide help.
It's undoubtedly true that many people who become involved in the legal system need help. They may have experienced past trauma, suffer from mental illness, struggle with addiction, be victims of cyclical poverty or some combination of the above. And it's true that the legal system can sometimes be a gateway to treatment for these issues. But our reliance on the legal system is problematic. It clogs the courts, it creates a lifetime of unintended secondary problems, and often it blocks access to necessary services for people who have not been convicted of a crime.
Courts already face a huge backlog. Jobs are lost, families suffer and rights are trampled on while people are held in jail just waiting for trial. This is a very inefficient and ineffective way of "helping" a person. This doesn't mean that there aren't people who come out better, but for every success story, there are many others who are saddled with stigma, legal fees, loss of employment, unrealistic terms of probation, and traumas of legal involvement that only perpetuate their underlying problems. In a state where demand for treatment exceeds our capacity to treat, it also means that many people who want to, or do, seek treatment are turned away because beds are filled by people with court orders.
For sex workers, in particular, this view of "help" is paternalistic. Most of us probably don't think much about sex workers, and when we do, we tend to immediately assume the worst stereotypes. When you speak to people who have been directly or indirectly involved in sex work, you quickly learn that they come into it for many reasons. For some, it may have been survival, addiction, or exploitation. For others, it was a choice - an enjoyable way to earn money.
Criminalizing sex work just allows the dark side to flourish. When sex-work is driven underground, victims of violence and exploitation feel the need to hide. Addicts are less likely to seek treatment. People who are just barely hanging on worry about losing vital income - or the children they are trying to feed. Sex workers facing criminal sanction are less likely to report rape and violence committed by their customers, and they are more likely to take risks like unprotected sex when they operate entirely outside the law.
If we were really concerned with protecting the women, men, and transgender individuals who engage in sex work, we would set up a legitimate legal framework in which they could operate. This would allow them to conduct their business in a safe setting and with legal protections. It would allow us to identify the victims of exploitation. And it would give us the ability to set up a network of resources for those who are driven to the work by addiction or necessity and want to leave it. We would also avoid the many pitfalls of involving people in our court systems.
Eli Baumwell is policy director of the American Civil Liberties Union-West Virginia, based in Charleston.