Why some advocates are pushing back against decriminalization in the sex trade

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Activists and sex workers march in the streets of Miami Beach for the decriminalization of sex work on December 5, 2020. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)
Activists and sex workers march in the streets of Miami Beach for the decriminalization of sex work on December 5, 2020. (Photo by CHANDAN KHANNA/AFP via Getty Images)

Editor's note: This show contains explicit discussions of sex, prostitution and sex trafficking. Please keep that in mind when deciding when and where to listen. The National Sexual Assault Hotline is 1-800-656-4673.

There’s an effort underway to fully decriminalize the sex trade in the U.S. It's horrifying many who know that life first hand.

"This idea that it's her body, her choice and she has power and autonomy in the sex trade is a fallacy," says Melanie Thompson with the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.

Thompson was just 12 years old when she was kidnapped by a pimp and forced into prostitution. She says full decriminalization lets pimps and buyers off the hook. Instead, Thompson advocates for partial decriminalization – meaning the sex workers aren’t arrested, just buyers and brothels. But others say only full decriminalization can help those in the sex trade to make a living.

"It makes sense to me that if people feel like it's messing with their ability to get paid, I totally understand that," says Yasmin Vafa, co-founder and executive director of Rights4Girls. "But the reality is that prostitution cannot be the answer to poverty."

Today, On Point: A personal story in the policy debate over decriminalization and the sex trade.


Melanie Thompson, Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator at the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. She’s also a survivor of domestic sex trafficking. She was trafficked and sold into prostitution in New York at the age of 12.

Ariela Moscowitz, Director of Communications for Decriminalize Sex Work, a national advocacy group working to end the prohibition of consensual adult prostitution in the U.S.

Also Featured

Yasmin Vafa, Co-founder and executive director of Rights4Girls.


Part I

MEGHNA CHAKRABARTI: This is On Point. I'm Meghna Chakrabarti. Melanie Thompson is with us today. She's in New York. Hi there, Melanie.

MELANIE THOMPSON: Hi. How are you?

CHAKRABARTI: I'm well. Thank you so much for joining us. About a decade and a half ago, your life completely changed, didn't it? You were kidnapped --

THOMPSON: Yes, it did.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. You were kidnapped and forced into prostitution. How old were you when that happened?

THOMPSON: I was 12 years old.

CHAKRABARTI: How did it happen?

THOMPSON: I was on the way home from the movie theaters with two of my friends in the sixth grade and we ran into some boys that we knew. They were a little bit older, that had previously graduated our middle school, so they were about 16 and 17.

And at first it was really innocent. You know, one of my friends had a crush on one of the boys. They invited us back to what we thought was their house. They fed us a lot of alcohol and I ended up blacking out. And when I woke up, I was being raped by one of those boys, unfortunately. My two girlfriends were gone, and when I tried to run out of the house, he, the one who just finished doing what he did to me, came back with an older man who told me that I wasn't going anywhere. So he brought me to an abandoned house across the street and locked me in the closet, and that's where my journey started.

CHAKRABARTI: How long were you in that house?

THOMPSON: Initially I was there for a few weeks before I ended up dealing with law enforcement.

CHAKRABARTI: And what happened during those few weeks?

THOMPSON: It was horrible. I was — I was put into the sex trade. I was taken in and out of the house to different parts of the street, underground strip clubs, posted up online. Different men kept coming in and out, and I just had to do what I was told or I would have to suffer consequences.

CHAKRABARTI: So you were — you were forced to — into having sex with strangers.

THOMPSON: Absolutely.

CHAKRABARTI: What did that do to you?

THOMPSON: It's a lifelong healing journey, really. It caused a lot of PTSD now in me, depression, a lot of mental health issues, things of that nature. I was very fearful. And then eventually that turned into anger. But it definitely caused a different way that I saw myself for a long time.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm. I hope you don't mind me asking this, but I think the reality of what happens to children when they're trafficked in this way hasn't really fully settled upon people who don't know about sex trafficking in children. When the first person that you were forced to have sex with came in the room wherever you were, can you just tell me how you were feeling? Not while that person was doing whatever they were doing to you, but just when they first came into the room? Because you talked about fear.

THOMPSON: Yeah, absolutely. I was terrified. I mean, I was already, you know, when I was first taken, I didn't have time to assimilate, for lack of a better term. I didn't get to learn the rules of the street. I didn't know what I was supposed to do. I didn't really actually fathom what was happening to me overall. And it was only within the first 24 hours that the first man came to the room. So at that point, I'm still trying to understand what's happening to me, why this trafficker just took me, trying to understand where I was, how I was locked in a closet from the inside.

And then when I see this man walk in and he's just looking at me and he's panting and sweaty and has his hand on his belt already, I think for me that initial moment was just shock. I didn't really know how to proceed. I didn't know what I was supposed to do, but I know he was looking at me as if I was food and I didn't like that.

CHAKRABARTI: And you were 12.

THOMPSON: Yeah. I think he liked that. I think he liked that I was very young. I think that he liked that I looked scared. And I mean, I didn't have a mirror in front of me, but I'm pretty sure you can see the fear on my face.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

THOMPSON: So I think — I think he found pleasure in that.

CHAKRABARTI: How did you get out of being trafficked?

THOMPSON: Unfortunately, it's not a beautiful fairytale story. I wasn't, you know, picked up on a white horse or something. I ended up getting arrested. My pimp had ran away at the time, so he, I guess, knew that trouble was coming before I did, and he kept me locked in that closet. The cops came and was looking for him.

But they took me instead and brought me to the precinct, and then I went to court and from that point I was put into the foster care system. So I went through many different facilities, mental hospitals, residential treatment centers for a few years all before I landed my — in my first foster family home.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm. So to be clear, you went to juvenile court, is that right?

THOMPSON: Yes. Mm-hmm.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay. Could we call that a form of you being prosecuted as a juvenile?

THOMPSON: I think so. I was picked up on a missing persons warrant at first.


THOMPSON: But the detectives who arrested me were not nice to me, so they continued to perpetuate some of those things that I was seeing.

CHAKRABARTI: I see. But it wasn't a formal prosecution, it was to get you into the child welfare system?


CHAKRABARTI: Okay. But obviously you had spent — after that, you spent what? Years in foster care?

THOMPSON: Yes, over nine years.

CHAKRABARTI: Nine years. Okay. Well, since then you have become a very powerful advocate for trafficked women and children. And I should say that Melanie is now the outreach and advocacy coordinator at the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women in New York.

And she's joining us today — and we'll have some other folks on a bit later — to talk about two competing ideas that are currently in the New York state legislature. There's a similar debate going on in places like Washington, D.C., Massachusetts, about either full or partial decriminalization of the sex trade. And we'll talk more about that in a couple of minutes.

But Melanie, you did a — I want to call it miraculous, but it's not a God-given miracle. You did the work to rebuild your life and you eventually graduated from high school and went to college. Is that right?

THOMPSON: Yes. Correct.

CHAKRABARTI: And you majored in gender studies?

THOMPSON: Yes, I graduated with my bachelor's in Women and Gender Studies, and I'm going for a Master's in social work.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm. That's amazing. There's — when Nick Kristof in the New York Times resurfaced your story not that long ago, in it, he mentioned that you kind of had this cognitive dissonance in some of your classes in college when there would be discussions about the sex trade. Can you tell us the story of what he was talking about?

THOMPSON: Sure. I mean, I've had multiple experiences like that. But I think the most recent one that comes to mind — right before I graduated with my bachelor's, I was sitting in the back of a transnational feminism course that was required for my major. And my teacher was trying to explain to the class that sex work is work, that it's progressive, that we need to use this terminology and that this was something that she wanted everybody to get behind. And when, you know, some students were on board immediately and some students raised some questions.

And when the students were asking questions she made an example, right? She tried to give an anecdote. And not far from my school, there were a bunch of construction workers that we see every morning that are there from 6 to 7 a.m.  And they wait outside of this paint store. And I'm assuming they're waiting for their job or their contract, I'm not sure. But she made a statement that said, "What's the difference between sex workers and those men that stand outside waiting for work?" And what I started to see was a shift in the class. A lot of the students somehow understood that to equate to sex work as being a job like any other and being considered progressive. But it really upset me.

And this is not the first time that I've sat in the back of a class, usually in some kind of gender studies discourse, where they are kind of putting down our throats this idea that sex work is work, that we need to use this terminology, that we even need to call the sex trade "sex work." And that it's this form of progression and, you know, bodily autonomy and empowerment. It's very upsetting for survivors of the sex trade who have lived through this, who have seen the harms firsthand, forced or unforced.

And it's upsetting for us to have to sit in the back and subscribe to this. And, you know, a lot of survivors that I know who have gone through similar experiences, they're — they feel like they get stuck between a rock and a hard place. Because you want to state your opinion and tell your teacher, "No, you're wrong. Let me tell you why." But at the same time, you run the risk of potentially failing that course or something of that nature.

So it, you know, it's just very upsetting for me to have to constantly fight that internally. But it's also very disheartening to hear multiple professors — and I've been to four different universities — so it was, it was very difficult for me to have to transfer schools and continue hearing the same thing over and over again.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm. So I gather you never felt like you could say, "Well, I have a different experience?"

THOMPSON: You know, I actually did in that class. And that's because my teacher called on me. I think she saw that — I think she saw on my face that I wasn't really agreeing with the rest of the class, so she was like, you know, "Melanie, I want you to express your opinion."

And I had said to her, "Listen, my opinion is disagreeing with yours." And she says, "Great. We welcome disagreements in this course." So I told the entire class that this was — this was inaccurate. And you know, "I can tell that nobody in the class has been in the sex trade before." And when I started to explain what the harms look like — and the realities — and I explained that the term sex work is sanitizing those inherent harms and sugarcoating what it looks like day in and day out, I started to see the students' minds changing. But my teacher just became angrier. So that's an experience that's very common and for me and for many other survivors.

CHAKRABARTI: Did you say specifically — did you use the first person? Did you say --



THOMPSON: I disclosed — I definitely said, you know, "I'm going to share with you guys. I am a survivor of sex trafficking. And I'm somebody who has seen it both as a kidnapped child and somebody who was put into it as an early adult and seeing, you know, the differences of having a pimp and not having a pimp. The harms were still the same."

And I think what I wanted the class to walk away with was the notion that sex buyers don't differentiate, you know, how you identify. If you identify as a sex worker or if you identify as a sex trafficked kid or if you say that you were forced into prostitution — the harms remain the same because the demand doesn't care how you choose to — you know, what terminology you choose to use.

CHAKRABARTI: Interesting to hear that your professor just got angrier.


CHAKRABARTI: Well, we're now at a time and a place where essentially that tension that you're describing in the classroom has moved into state legislatures. So we're gonna talk about competing ideas and competing bills regarding decriminalization of the sex trade, and we'll learn more about that when we come back.

Part II

CHAKRABARTI: Today Melanie Thompson joins us. She's Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator at the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. She joins us from New York. She's a survivor of child sex trafficking. And Melanie's joining us today, as will some other folks, because we're talking about competing ideas in several state legislatures, including New York, Massachusetts, when it comes to decriminalizing the sex trade in the United States.

There's either advocates who wanna fully decriminalize or some who wish to partially decriminalize. We'll talk more about that in a minute. Now, in fact, earlier this summer, June of this year, Maine became the very first state in the country to decriminalize the selling of sex. But buying it, though, is still illegal.

Now, this form of partial decriminalization is known as the Nordic model. It's also sometimes called the equity — or equality model, I should say — and pimps and brothel owners under this model can still be arrested and prosecuted. But the people working, whether by force or by choice, in those places will not be prosecuted. Yasmin Vafa is the co-founder and executive Director of Rights4Girls. It's a group that helped lead the partial decriminalization effort in Maine.

YASMIN VAFA: In Maine, for a number of years, there was, you know, survivors on the ground who had been working to promote policies to better protect, you know, survivors who have felt that it is just a gross injustice to punish individuals in the sex trade for what amount to acts of survival.

CHAKRABARTI: Now the effort in Maine was mostly survivor-led, but Vafa says what made the difference was having Lois Reckitt, a motivated state legislator to champion the bill.

VAFA: And she is a longtime women's rights advocate, LGBTQ rights advocate in the state. And she really took to this issue from all the work that she had done around domestic violence advocacy and LGBTQ rights advocacy. And so she worked hand in hand with survivors on the ground to really put forward this effort.

REP. LOIS RECKITT: Because the only way we're gonna ever get rid of the selling and buying of sex is to stop people from buying it. I mean, it's a demand reduction strategy.

CHAKRABARTI: That's Democratic State Representative Lois Reckitt of South Portland there from an interview on WMTW Channel 8 in Maine.

Now the bill also proposed expunging the criminal records of people in the sex trade who had been prosecuted. But the bill's success wasn't at all certain. In fact, in June of 2021, a similar bill was passed by both the House and Senate in Maine. But Gov. Janet Mills vetoed it.

VAFA: And from the veto letter, it's very clear that the governor herself was a little bit confused about the differences between the various models of sex trade reform. The differences between things like full decriminalization, partial decriminalization, legalization. And so the second time around, it was a much more strategic and thoughtful effort. There was a lot more education on the ground, a lot more advocates were brought in that had experience in training and working with survivors on the ground.

CHAKRABARTI: Vafa is now working on efforts in Massachusetts and New York to get similar bills passed there. But at the same time, she's fighting to end efforts that she thinks would go too far. That is full decriminalization, meaning that buyers, pimps and brothel owners would also no longer be prosecuted.

VAFA: There's something about this industry where it's like liberals have completely lost their mind. And are somehow arguing that complete deregulation will save the day. And it's just — it's wild. I just — I've never understood it. I've absolutely never understood it. And the only thing I can come up with — it's misogyny. It's like, when it comes to women's bodies, you know, the let the free market roam.

CHAKRABARTI: Vafa looks at the way some feminist slogans championing female bodily autonomy have been adopted by advocates who want to fully decriminalize the sex trade.

VAFA: When you say, "My body, my choice," you are erasing him from the equation. You are erasing the dude or the middleman, right? The, you know, exploiter in the scenario if there is a pimp, right? You are erasing the buyer from the scenario. You're erasing the brothel manager from the scenario. You know, people don't see any of that when you say, "My body, my choice."

And I think it's very unfair to put the entire focus on the woman and erase the ecosystem around her. Because prostitution is a system and it's much more about those actors than it is about her. When you believe in full decriminalization, when you truly believe the fact that, you know, sex work is a job like any other — prostitution is like any other job and is legitimate like any other job, then you don't believe like we do that you should help people out of it, right? That it's harmful.

Like if you don't believe it's harmful and traumatic, then you don't believe you should help people out of it, right? Like we don't believe in offering people exit support out of teaching or hairdressing, right? So, you know, it makes sense to me that if people feel like it's messing with their ability to, you know, get paid, I totally understand that. But the reality is that prostitution cannot be the answer to poverty.

CHAKRABARTI: That was Yasmin Vafa, co-founder and executive director of the Group Rights4Girls. Now, in a minute or two we're going to hear from an advocate for full decriminalization of the sex trade. But Melanie, first I wanted to turn back to you.

There are these two bills currently pending in New York. One would adopt the full decriminalization model. And another one follows that so-called equality model or the partial decriminalization of the sex trade, where people who are in it, again, by choice or by coercion, those folks wouldn't be prosecuted, but the Johns and brothel owners and the pimps would be. Which model do you support?

THOMPSON: I support the equality model, that partial decriminalization model. It's the only model, in my opinion, that works and that's been proven to work in many different countries, which we're seeing in Maine and what we've seen in places like Rhode Island in the past.

CHAKRABARTI: Okay, so I'm gonna talk to you a little bit more later about why you think that one works. But let me first introduce into the conversation Ariela Moscowitz joining us from Miami. Ariela is Director of Communications for Decriminalize Sex Work. It's a national advocacy group working to end the prohibition of consensual adult prostitution in the United States. Ariela, welcome to On Point.

ARIELA MOSCOWITZ: Thank you. Thanks for having me.

CHAKRABARTI: So first of all, what problem do you think partial decriminalization of the sex trade does not solve that full decriminalization would?

MOSCOWITZ: Well, partial decriminalization doesn't address the fact that sex work is not inherently violent or exploitative. It's the criminalization of it that makes it violent and exploitative. Because when we push things underground, as we've seen with prohibition, you know, of a number of things over the years, we allow for brutality to thrive.

So partial decriminalization, which is is a bit of a misnomer because even though in theory and technically, the sex worker would not be arrested for selling sex, sex work is still criminalized. The buyer, the client is still criminalized, and therefore sex work is taking place in a criminalized space, and that's what makes it dangerous and allows for trafficking to thrive.

CHAKRABARTI: Can you tell me more about why you think sex work or the sex trade is not inherently violent or exploitative?

MOSCOWITZ: Well, to put it in very simple terms, you know, to say that two consenting adults who have decided to exchange something of value — you know, to have sex — is not inherently violent. It's kind of, you know, the difference between, you know, the main term there is consent. And so it's the difference between consenting as you would in another sexual encounter or even in another job. You know, there's some laws around the country criminalizing sex work that also are so antiquated. They go so far as to criminalize indiscriminate sex.

You know, Vermont's prostitution laws bar sex for hire and indiscriminate sex. So when we see those things kind of really right next to each other, we have to ask the question: "What is so different about two consenting adults having sex for something of value as opposed to two consenting adults having sex?"

CHAKRABARTI: Mm. Help me understand this a little bit more. Because, you know, I'm thinking in the past many years there's been a growing conversation, let's say on college campuses, about what exactly forms consent between two adults and there's various views of that. Like some, some people say, well, it has to be, you know, affirmative and very sort of demonstrative consent because sometimes there's a big gray area. How can you discern what like, true consent is in the sex trade?

MOSCOWITZ: Well, I think we need to listen to sex workers. Who are saying, you know, that they have chosen of their own volition to engage in consensual adult sex work. There are — just as, you know, there are a number of different people — a number of different types of people engaged in sex work. They engage in it for all different reasons. Most of them, for the same reasons anyone would engage in any other type of work.

And so I think, you know, when we ask people and they say, "This is my choice, whether it's my first choice or my, you know, third or fourth choice for a way to support myself and my family. It is my choice." And we cannot ignore folks who are saying that and are saying it as loudly as they can in places where these conversations are taking place. And, as you pointed out, they're taking place more and more in state legislatures.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. I'm gonna come back to Melanie Thompson in just a second, but I will admit to both of you that it's challenging to find really definitive numbers or statistics about the sex trade in the United States, and that's probably because of the fact that it is criminalized.

Ariela, do you have any insight about to how many people in the sex trade in the United States are people who want to do that work and are fully consenting in the, you know, maybe couple of million people who at least, you know, according to the Department of Justice or FBI are, you know, within the world of the sex trade in the United States?

MOSCOWITZ: Yeah, so as you correctly pointed out, you know, it is a criminalized space, so exact numbers are hard. We do know that the vast majority of individuals engaged in the sex trade are consenting adults.

CHAKRABARTI: How do you know this? Yeah.

MOSCOWITZ: Because why — why wouldn't that be the case? You know, that is, that is the majority, and we have laws in this country that address trafficking, and we have laws that address prostitution. And so based on the numbers we have, which you know, aren't great. But across the country we see --  two years ago, the FBI Uniform Crime Report, you know, showed that arrests for prostitution in this country outpace arrests for trafficking 38 to one.


MOSCOWITZ: And so those numbers can be difficult to come by. What's — the numbers that that aren't difficult to come by are the evidence and the studies out of countries that have implemented the equality model versus countries that have implemented decriminalization. And there is massive amounts of empirical evidence that show that the "equality" model, "end demand" model — we call it the "entrapment" model — actually puts sex workers and survivors of trafficking in further danger.


MOSCOWITZ: And that is why the leading human rights organizations around the world — UNAIDS, World Health Organization, U.N. High Commissioner on the Rights of Women (sic), you know, on and on, Amnesty International — all recommend the full decriminalization of consensual adult sex work in order to reduce and hopefully extinguish trafficking into commercial sex.

CHAKRABARTI: Right. I wanna get into more detail about those those studies that you referenced a little bit later in the show. But Melanie Thompson, let me turn back to you. Ariela just said that even in the absence of hard data about the sex trade in the United States, why wouldn't someone want to engage in — willingly and consensually in what is currently an illegal activity. And we're talking about adults here. Obviously it's very illegal to traffic children. And so therefore, full decriminalization should be the best option. What is your response to that, Melanie?

THOMPSON: So one thing that we all agree on — you, Meghna, myself, Ariela, and so many other individuals and groups — is that there — it is very difficult to get the data under a criminalized society. There are so many people that are still missing. There are people who unfortunately have passed away. There are people that are in hiding. So the numbers are very difficult to get. However, what we are not talking about is the harms of the sex trade.

I am not going to sit here and say that there aren't some individuals who do this by true choice. However, when you talk to these individuals and you get the full stories of how they even came to engage in the sex trade. When you actually find out where they're coming from, you realize that one of the — one of the many things on the list of precursors that make you susceptible to poverty, marginalization, victimization, so on and so forth, you realize that most of these individuals who on the surface may seem as though they engaged in the sex trade by true choice actually come from one of these different backgrounds.

And just for our listeners, you know, some of these things include: being undocumented or having some kind of a fear or risk of immigration, coming from a marginalized or impoverished background, being LGBTQ+ identifying and not being accepted at home, being homeless or a runaway, or not having money to feed yourself or your family or your children, having a substance abuse disorder and so on and so forth. There are so many things that make somebody susceptible to not only trafficking, but to feeling as though prostitution is their "only viable job option."

And I think that when we talk about you know, this notion of, "Why wouldn't somebody want to engage in this, you know, via consent?" I think that when you are somebody who is in a situation or some kind of circumstance where you have no other options to support yourself financially or to gain or have access to something of value to live sustainably, then it becomes very easy for us to look at the sex trade as a viable job option. It becomes very easy to see prostitution as something that you're like, "Well, you know what? I have nothing else. Let me just do this." But I think that we need to focus on, when we talk about consent, what is true choice and what does that look like?

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Ariela, I'm gonna give you a chance to respond in just about a minute, because we do have to take another break. So Melanie Thompson and Ariela Moscowitz, hang in here with me.

Part III

CHAKRABARTI: Today, we are talking about efforts in various state legislatures and through national advocacy groups of different beliefs about decriminalization of the sex trade in the United States. The bills and ideas tend to fall into two categories. One is the partial decriminalization of the sex trade where people who are forced or in it by choice, who are doing the "sex work," would not be prosecuted and arrested — but the people selling the sex, the pimps, or buying it, the johns, or the brothel keepers would still be prosecuted and arrested.

Another model is complete decriminalization of the entire sex trade, including buyers and participants. And I should be clear: Neither model is a legalization model. That is not what's on the table here in places like Massachusetts or New York. This is just decriminalization we're talking about.

And Melanie Thompson joins us. She's the outreach and advocacy coordinator at the Coalition Against Trafficking Women. She was trafficked as a child when she was just 12 years old. Ariela Moscowitz is also with us. She's Director of Communications for Decriminalize Sex Work. It's a national advocacy group working for a complete decriminalization in the U.S. for consensual adults.

Now, Ariela, I was gonna give you a chance to respond to Melanie, but let me sort of put a little bit more context into what she was saying. I wanna hear again from Yasmin Vafa who was with the nonprofit Rights4Girls. We heard her a little earlier in the show, And she says she has worked with hundreds of survivors of the sex trade, and many of them have said that when they were actively in the sex trade, they fully supported decriminalization.

VAFA: So I've heard two sets of things. One, when you're in it, it's about survival. You have to tell yourself that this is what you're choosing because that's the only way to get through it. But that once that person, if they've been able to exit and you ask that same person, you know, five or 10 years down the road, if they feel the same way, they have a very different view of their situation.

It's kind of like in domestic violence, if you ask someone who's currently in the relationship, "Do you want to press charges against your partner? Do you wanna be removed from this situation?" You know, they might have a very different view when they're in the situation than five years down the line.

CHAKRABARTI: Ariela, go ahead and respond to that.

MOSCOWITZ: Sure. So, you know, I think it's important to point out again that kind of no matter what our own individual thoughts about people engaging in sex work are, decriminalization really benefits and helps everyone. So whether you're there by your choice or you're there against your will, decriminalization, the evidence shows us, is really how we keep — we keep people safe.

You know,  it's interesting that Yasmin brought up the correlation with domestic violence. I've seen that in a lot of the materials of folks who are proponents of you know, so-called partial decriminalization. And what I see there is the same thing that I see now with sex work. People cannot come forward and ask for help, whether they are there consensually and a bad thing happens to them, or whether they're being trafficked because it's criminalized. And coming forward to law enforcement or others, because of the criminalization and the stigmatization, is actually, you know, what makes it dangerous and keeps people trapped.

You know, it is a different thing than domestic violence, but the analogy you know, it is not terrible because the same reason you might not come forward to seek help in a domestic violence situation, even though you may want to, are the same reasons. Police --

CHAKRABARTI: Do you mind if I just jump in here because what you — what you just said was interesting. That people are afraid to come forward for help because they might get arrested themselves, right? Because of the criminalization. But in that case, why wouldn't the partial decriminalization model work? Because we're talking about, you know, the people doing the "sex work" who would be decriminalized. So why wouldn't that satisfy that concern that you have?

MOSCOWITZ: Right. Well, there are two reasons and they've, you know, been borne out in the evidence that we've seen from around the world.

One is that, you know, again, in theory, the sex worker, the seller, is not being arrested for prostitution. That does not mean that there are a whole host of other things they could be arrested for or systems they could be caught up in. Because the client is, you know, being surveilled or being arrested, and the stigmatization that this model continues to perpetuate around the sex industry really does an immense amount of harm to both consensual adult sex workers and survivors of trafficking.

And that is because the "end demand" model, "equality" model is based in this ideology that, right, sex work is inherently bad and we need to abolish it. And the way we do that is, is by arresting all the clients. You know, it's an ideological plan and it doesn't — it doesn't bear out. So when we reinforce that stigma around sex workers, even if we technically say they won't be arrested for prostitution, their interactions with law enforcement are strained. Their interactions with folks in almost every aspect of their lives are strained because of the stigma against them.


MOSCOWITZ: And so stigma is incredibly dangerous. And, you know, even if we say that the sex worker themselves may not be arrested for prostitution, they're very much in a criminalized space which makes it difficult to reach out for help. You may have other issues. You may have immigration issues where if, even if you're not arrested for prostitution, now you are interacting with law enforcement.


MOSCOWITZ: And now that may lead to deportation.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. Well, do you mind if I just step in here? Because you heard earlier in the show, at the beginning of the show, Melanie shared her personal story. And out of fairness, I must ask you, have you ever participated in any manner in the the sex trade?

MOSCOWITZ: No. I don't have lived experience in the sex trade. I work with a number of grassroots organizers around the country and a number of sex workers and every sex worker we speak to is in favor of decriminalization. And the main reason for that is that nobody, none of us, especially sex workers, want to see anyone engaged in sex work against their will, anyone engaged in any form of labor against their will.


MOSCOWITZ: And we know that the evidence shows us that decriminalization is our best chance at making the sex industry safe.


MOSCOWITZ: For folks involved in it.

CHAKRABARTI: I wanna explore that evidence in just a minute here. But Melanie, you've been listening along. Go ahead and respond to what Ariela has said so far.

THOMPSON: Yeah, absolutely. I think that I struggle with hearing some of this. I think that we — hearing the idea that full decriminalization is going to make things safer for everybody, and that the partial decriminalization model still puts people in criminalized spaces is confusing to me, for lack of a better term.

One of the things that we all agree on — Ariela, myself, and so many other people — is that under criminalization, it makes it very difficult for folks to come forward. We all agree on that. We also all agree that stigma around the people in the sex trade is a negative thing because there's a negative connotation with prostitution as long as we've known what that is. However, this idea that fully decriminalizing all parties involved even with, as Ariela just mentioned, you know, even with the removal of that stigma from the person that is engaging in the sex trade.

This idea that, you know, upholding the laws for sex buyers and pimps and brothel owners and so on. The idea that holding the law up for them would somehow still make the stigma remain or not disappear, is I guess what I'm struggling with. The reality is that what partial decriminalization is seeking to do is: one, remove the stigma from the people involved and stop treating us — like I mentioned, any one of us that have those prior precursors or susceptibilities — it's removing the stigma from us and changing the way that law enforcement and other folks in society view us as criminals. And it changes that cultural shift to help them understand that this was done out of a lack of necessity.

The percentage of people — and I will say ahead of time that I don't have like a statistic in front of me right now to provide — but, you know, the percentage of people, rather, the ratio of people who choose to engage in prostitution just because they were curious or just because they thought it was a fun activity to try compared to the amount of people that are in engaging in the sex trade because they don't have money, because they can't feed themselves, because they are looking for housing or because they're LGBTQ+ identifying and don't have a place to go at the moment, that ratio is definitely higher on  the need or access to resources side than it is for the side of folks who just wanna try it out.


THOMPSON: Or, you know, have no other prior precursors. So I think when we talk about full decriminalization versus partial decrim, I think it's worth it to explore what our society would look like if full decriminalization were enacted.


THOMPSON: And what we're going to see, unfortunately, we don't have enough willing bodies and enough willing participants in New York state, in Massachusetts, across the U.S. that are willing to engage in this consensually to fulfill the demand, which is why the equality model is so focused on trying to uphold those laws for the demand. Because it's the demand that fuels this. If there weren't sex buyers or pimps trying to make money off of us, the sex trade wouldn't — would cease to exist because there would be no person or consumer trying to buy that.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, so Ariela, let me turn back to you because Melanie just asked can we imagine what society would look like? And you have mentioned some studies in previous answers in this conversation. Can you give me one or two specific examples or specific details about those studies and what they found about how people are benefited from full decriminalization?

MOSCOWITZ: Yeah. Absolutely. I also would just like to add quickly, you know, that we're not — I think Melanie and I in general are talking about the same population of people.

Obviously, when we're talking about decriminalizing consensual adult sex work, we are not talking about any, you know, rolling back any trafficking laws, any trafficking protections, any laws related to the exploitation of children. But the same population that we are talking about are, you know, not necessarily individuals who have decided on a whim to engage in sex work. Folks that have that kind of privilege, at that end of the spectrum aren't really, you know — we know in this country, marginalized populations are disproportionately affected by criminalization.

So, you know, sadly, because of that, we're not even really talking about those individuals that have that privilege to kind of, skirt criminalization. We're talking about individuals who turn to sex work to earn their, their daily living --

CHAKRABARTI: You'll have to forgive me for interrupting you there, Ariela. I'm just looking at the clock and we're running out of time and I do wanna give you the opportunity to give us some concrete details on what evidence there is that you see that full decriminalization benefits people. Because we've only got a little bit of  time left and then I'm gonna give Melanie a chance to respond. But go ahead, Ariela.

MOSCOWITZ: Sure. So wherever sex work has been decriminalized, we know that public health and safety increase, rates of STIs go down, trafficking and exploitation go down. And, you know, there's 20 years of data out of New Zealand to show that. There are a couple years of data out of Rhode Island to show that.

And then on the other side of the coin, there are a number of studies that show that any repressive laws around sex work are detrimental to both consensual adult sex work and survivors of human trafficking. And those repressive laws include the equality model. So in Sweden, for example, stigma against sex workers is worse than ever. And in most of these countries, in all the countries where the equality model has been implemented, it hasn't accomplished any of its stated goals and actually has made things more dangerous.

CHAKRABARTI: Mm-hmm. You know, I find in conversations like this on this show, we always end up at a somewhat unsatisfactory place because there are all sorts of studies, right? And everyone — we get knowledgeable guests on who bring studies with them, but there's so many with contradicting conclusions. Because Melanie, I'm also seeing that that decline in in STIs that Ariela was talking about coincides with an overall decline in STIs in various populations, you know, around the world. So it's hard to sort of pull — tease those two apart.

There's also another study that I was looking at that looked at 150 countries and found that trafficking actually increased when laws around the sex trade were relaxed. So we're not gonna come to a hard and fast conclusion there. But we have about a minute left, and I'm just gonna give you the last word today, Melanie, because this is a debate that's going on in state legislatures. What would you ask those legislators who are gonna think about how to cast their vote? And then perhaps governors who may or may not sign these bills to consider as they're deciding how to vote?

THOMPSON: Absolutely, and thank you. I think what I want legislators to know and what I want them to think about when they're deciding this, I want you to think about how many adults are truly consenting. How many of those adults were trafficked as children? And what would our society — I'm gonna bring it back to this question — what would our society look like if there were no penalties held for anybody?

If this was just a free-for-all, would this look like Times Square in the nineties or the eighties? Would this look like places like Brazil or the Dominican Republic? Is that the kind of country that we want?

CHAKRABARTI: Well, Melanie Thompson is Outreach and Advocacy Coordinator at the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. She joined us from New York today. And Ariela Moscowitz is Director of Communications for Decriminalize Sex Work. It's a national advocacy group working to end the prohibition of consensual adult prostitution in the U.S. She joined us from Miami. I thank you both.

This program aired on August 29, 2023.


Paige Sutherland Producer, On Point
Paige Sutherland is a producer for On Point.


Meghna Chakrabarti Host, On Point
Meghna Chakrabarti is the host of On Point.



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