I’m A N.J. Sex Worker: Decriminalizing Prostitution Would Help Everyone | Opinion
By Janet Duran
October 28, 2016 at 9:00 AM
The recent backlash in response to calls to decriminalize sex work after a Newark sting operation has revealed a deep need for a public conversation on approaching our community’s concerns in a humanitarian way.
The New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance, an organization by and for sex workers, stands proudly with the ACLU-NJ in opposing Newark’s unjust arrests of prostitutes.
Let’s begin with some basic facts about the sex trade.
Sexual services have been sought and offered throughout human history, and no attempt to abolish prostitution has ever come to fruition. As we’ve seen in Newark, outlawing sex work drives often-vulnerable people further underground.
It’s time to stop sweeping consenting adult sex workers into the criminal justice system. We need models that protect their rights, their health and their safety.
That’s one reason why organizations like the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS), Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Open Society Foundations, Lambda Legal, and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women all advocate for the decriminalization of sex work and their clients.
New Jersey’s sex workers exist in all neighborhoods and look as diverse as the communities they come from, whether they’re street workers in Bergen County or employees of brothels in Cape May. Newark-based sex workers in our organization, as well as sex workers we’ve met through our outreach, do their work to earn money in order to live — just as any other worker does. It’s a way to survive, especially in an area where economic opportunities are limited.
As a former sex worker and Newark resident, I’ve grown increasingly tired of seeing the police portrayed as justly enforcing laws. On the one hand, they’re targeting our most marginalized populations and waging a war on the poor. On the other, I’ve seen them providing security in uniform for many of Newark’s brothels.
For me, I don’t know where I would be if it was not for sex work. I suffered domestic violence at the hands of the father of my child, and sex work provided the funds I needed to escape and provide for my family. I find no shame in my sex work, but pride.
Mounting evidence suggests criminalization of sex work injures human rights and threatens public health. The sad truth is sex workers struggle with harassment and exploitation on a regular basis from police officers, as reported by the Urban Justice Institute’s Sex Workers Project.
“Sex workers are sometimes coerced into providing sex to police in exchange for freedom from detainment, arrest and fines,” UNAIDS wrote in 2015. In New Jersey, sex workers have shared stories with us about being raped and beaten by police officers, who rely on the existing laws to shield themselves from accountability.
In a recent piece against decriminalization, Star-Ledger columnist Mark DiIonno described sex workers he spoke to as “pockmarked with lesions,” “scabbed,” and “skin and bone.” The women described themselves to the reporter with great dignity, yet he chose to portray them as a demeaning stereotype — diseased and optionless victims, not the mothers, daughters and sisters they are. Ironically, many of the indignities he highlighted are not from sex work itself, but from its criminalization.
In addition to the dangers criminalization brings, saddling sex workers with criminal records and jail time makes it that much harder to find another occupation. An arrest threatens access to housing, educational opportunities, and jobs. We do not need more arrests, fines and prison sentences. Instead of abusing, dehumanizing, or infantilizing sex workers, we should fix the root of our problems — and sex work isn’t it.
A change is happening in New Jersey: Sex workers like us now have a voice of our own. We don’t need someone claiming to speak for us.
The ACLU has ignited the debate after criticizing the Newark police for making prostitution-related arrests.
As a stinging reminder of how much work still must be done about our situation, after a recent New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance meeting, a member of our organization was stopped by a Newark police officer.
“You’d better not be out here working,” the officer said as she waited for the bus, clearly profiling her as a sex worker. A group of women watched until he drove away, and started talking, first about the officer and then about the stories in The Star-Ledger.
“That one gets real flirty sometimes,” said one girl, after discussions came up on how we need to “take care” of officers to get out of arrests, “That’s the real story they should be reporting.
Janet Duran, a Newark resident, is a co-founder and North Jersey regional director of the New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance. Currently on hiatus, she has been in the sex trade on and off for more than 20 years.