Thursday, Feb. 23, the MWSU Politics Club sponsored an open forum on the hypothetical repercussions of the legalization of sex work in the United States.
The forum was led by a panel of three professors from the department of Criminal Justice and Social Work to give their opinions and discuss the legal, economic and social ramifications if sex work were to become a legal practice.
Currently, sex work is legal in 49 nations excluding the United States. While many in St. Joseph might assume that prostitution is irrelevant to their community, Politics Club member Taylor McGrath wants people to consider the direct correlation between prostitution and areas with high numbers sex trafficking cases.
“A lot of people consider St. Joseph to be a pretty small town, but they need to keep in mind that we are very close to Kansas City. Kansas City and St. Louis are huge hubs for sex trafficking. The business of sex trafficking is a multibillion dollar industry and it effects all of us simply because we all live under that economy. The effects of that may seem invisible, but they do apply to everyone,” McGrath said.
Criminal Justice Professor Dave Tushaus believes some of these invisible effects may be leading to the forced formation of a second class citizenship for sex workers.
“When you criminalize prostitution, you create a situation where anyone engaging in prostitution has no legal rights to come forward if something happens to them while they are working. If they are raped or abused by someone while they are working they are very unlikely to go to the police for help. We create a class of second class citizens. We victimize them additionally by making the work they do criminal,” Tushaus said.
Some students took it as far as to compare the social stigma of prostitution to the overall sexulaization of women in America.
“People look at Beyoncé or Miley Cyrus and they say ‘it’s such a shame that this woman is being sexualized by the media.’ It depends on if they are choosing to do it themselves or if society is forcing it upon them. You can’t say it definitively either way, but you have to give a woman credit over the jurisdiction of her body,” McGrath said.
Politics Club President Madeline Marx was excited for the open discussion of such a hot button issue.
“My whole goal of this [program] is to show people how much of an effect legalizing [prostitution] would have on America. The topic of marijuana was brought up several times with the mentality of ‘if you are going to do it, you might as well tax it’. I believe in that statement for a different reason. I believe that we need to protect everyone and this is a means of protection, not an encouragement to go out and sell your body. It is a way to protect both women and men, from health issues such as STDs as well as protection from violent situations. I believe the first step to destigmatize [the profession] is through education,” Marx said.
Marx suggested that if sex work were to become legalized, people within the sex industry should also have access to services that promote a safe environment both for the worker and customer. Some of these services would include screenings for HPV, STDs, cervical cancer and free access to contraceptives.
While there is no guarantee that everyone engaging in sex work will use a condom, Tushaus believes that implementing regulations will lead to an overall safer environment.
“Condoms are like seatbelts, if you require their use, their use will go up. It won’t be 100 percent, but it will increase. Similarly, making people get tests for STDs will increase the safety of the prostitute and the customers,” Tushaus said.
Former police officer Monty Smith was cynical about the regulations of legalized sex work and remained skeptical about the health examination of both the sex worker and the client.
“Yes we can have regulations and require tests and regulations, but if the average street level prostitute has some kind of disease that would keep her from working [lack of certification] isn’t going to stop her. She is going to continue working to buy drugs. Some agency level workers might comply with it, but if it doesn’t work for them then they will just start working on their own,” Smith said.