As with the drug trade, much of the violence associated with sex work is exacerbated by its illegality. Violent people are more likely to prey on sex workers, confident that they won’t be reported to police. This leaves workers dependent on pimps and madams for protection, which often leads to more violence. And then there’s abuse from police. In Ireland, where prostitution is still criminalized, one study estimates that 30 percent of the abuse that sex workers report comes from police. Some estimate that police actually abuse American sex workers more often than clients do.
Illegality also forces sex work outdoors. Craigslist and Backpage should be havens for workers to connect with and vet clients from the safety of their homes. Instead, cops monitor such sites to ensnare workers and their clients. Sex workers traded safety tips and rated clients on My Redbook until the FBI seized the site, destroying the data and forcing sex workers onto other sites, or the streets.
After Germany and New Zealand legalized sex work, violence against sex workers decreased, while workers’ quality of life improved. There, occupational health and safety laws protect sex workers. And the ability to screen clients and take credit card numbers has reduced violence. “It’s been just fantastic, really,” said Catherine Healey, national coordinator for the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective.