The gray world of sex work

Francisco Ruiz

Kay Walker, the Stop the Hate chair of the WSUSA Diversity and Unity Board, wants Weber students to understand the complexities of sex work.

While conservative groups and sensibilities may advocate for legal restrictions against sex work, Walker advocates for legalization as the way to combat trafficking. Walker believes legalization will help to provide legal protection for sex workers.

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Even when society won't do anything, awareness to the problems of acceptance to sex work can help (Israel Campa / The Signpost)

According to a recent report by “The Independent” newspaper, an increasing number of college students are turning to sex work. Rising rents, tuition and living costs are driving young people to sex work as a way to make ends meet.

Sex work includes an increasing number of “sugar baby/sugar daddy” relationships between younger women and older men.

Due to the illegal nature of sex work within the majority of jurisdictions, researchers encounter difficulty with obtaining exact numbers in regards to sex work. The internet, however, provided insights into the profession as researchers have been able to study online postings and dating app usage.

Service providers would post classified ads to sites such as Craigslist and Backpage. This was preferable to “working the street,” as online postings allowed providers to screen clients.

The websites were not without their flaws. Sex traffickers also used the websites to find clients and new victims. People of color and transgender individuals are especially vulnerable to the potential perils of sex work.

In the effort to reduce sex trafficking, the U.S. Senate and House passed the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act in April 2018.

The new law criminalized assisting, facilitating or supporting sex trafficking and made websites like Craigslist and Backpage liable for ad content. As a result, Craigslist discontinued their “Personals” section and the FBI seized Backpage.

Walker believes the passed acts did more to hurt voluntary sex workers than to prevent trafficking.

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The attendees listen attently to Kays' research on sex work (Israel Campa / The Signpost)

“They are real people. They have lives. Yet, we sweep them under the rug because of their profession,” Walker said. “We need to stop equating sex work with trafficking. The reasons people go into sex work are complicated.”

According to Walker, the illegal status of prostitution in many jurisdictions means providers have no legal recourse in the event of abuse from pimps, clients or law enforcement. Additionally, the criminal records of sex workers may prevent them from obtaining legal employment.

Walker said that the law has not helped to reduce trafficking. They cited reports from the World Health Organization and Amnesty International in support for the legalization of sex work.

Walker’s presentation was not without some inconsistencies. They initially claimed sex workers faced felony charges. Upon further investigation — prompted by a question from the audience — Walker discovered that most states classify prostitution as a misdemeanor.

Walker likened the high workload and low wages of a fast food worker to the exploitation a sex worker may encounter from a pimp or belligerent client.

During the event, Walker voiced their opinion on Utah’s predominant religious culture and the efforts of conservative groups — such as Operation Underground Railroad and the National Center on Sexual Exploitation — as counterproductive to a healthy dialogue about sexuality and sex work.

“I found some of the information to be a little ‘iffy,’” one attendee, who asked to remain anonymous, said.

Going forward, one certainty remains. The internet and mobile apps will continue to facilitate both voluntary sex work and sexual exploitation.

Whether and how governments and legislatures intend to address the issue remains undetermined.