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How criminalizing sex work can make people unsafe

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A police officer searches the purse of a suspected sex worker
A police officer searches the purse of a suspected sex worker. One such worker says raids like this need to stop.
Brendan Smialowski | AFP | Getty Images

Editor's note: This story and audio interview contains raw descriptions of sex work and an incident of sexual assault.

The appointment started out normally for the sex worker. Then the man reached for the clothing rack behind him and grabbed a coat hanger.

"He told me I would enjoy it," recalled the sex worker, who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution. "And I said, 'I can't imagine ever enjoying that.'"

The sex worker said she usually tries talking her way out of situations like this, or forcefully telling the client no. But this time, her protests didn't work and the man kept coming toward her with the hanger.

"I just kept my mouth shut just to get through it," she said. "When you struggle, you just don't know what will start to happen."

She usually stays to talk with the client, but ended this session early. She went to a gas station bathroom and found she was bleeding.

She has this man's address, his name and could describe how he looks.

"You can't get rid of sex work. It's always gonna be there ... But you can definitely do legal things to it that make it incredibly unsafe."

"But I can't send the police to his house to arrest him for violating my consent, for raping me, because I'll be taken in as a criminal as well," she said.

That's just one reason why she says how sex work is viewed in our culture and treated under the law needs to change to make workers safe. The woman shared her story in an interview with MPR News host Tom Weber.

She wants the public to think of sex workers as holding a political stake and opinions, not as a victim demographic. 

"Think also about why I can't prosecute the man who assaulted me," she said. "And think about how we can give power back to oppressed groups like sex workers by listening to them rather than telling them what we think they need to hear."

This woman is a sex worker by choice. She has no pimp. 

One reason she got into sex work is because she said she has mental health issues that don't allow her to leave the house some days. So, by doing sex work, she can earn money on her own schedule. 

Asked why she likes the job, she said: "I love people." She said most of each session is spent in conversations with the client.

She said that a good part about money changing hands in an intimate situation is that there are fewer expectations.

"When you enter an intimate situation with somebody, there's this idea that you have to impress them and that you have to do it right the first time," she said. When you pay for it, "you're completely free to communicate what you want."

For those who tell her she's an unknowing victim, doesn't know what she wants, or say they know how to keep her safe, this sex worker has a message:

"That's wrong. That is wrong and that makes me angry. That makes me genuinely angry," she told Weber. "Don't tell me what I want. I know what I want. I am an adult person ... I am a person who controls what happens to their body and who is capable of deciding what I do."

It's a "fallacious narrative" that all sex workers are being exploited, she said.

"I think that's a lot of people projecting their moral standpoint onto what we do, and I think that's wrong," she said. "There are certainly people who are forced into it by other people or by circumstances, but I don't think that means those people deserve to be any less safe than workers in other industries."

The sex worker noted that workers in other industries have unions, minimum wages and people looking out for their rights, which isn't the case in sex work.

"Because this industry is regulated, essentially by the police, it's secretive," she said. "And people all sort of have a knife to each other's throats because if somebody tells, you bring down the whole ship."

She says sex work should be decriminalized to make it safe, and that police raids and stings should stop. She questions why sex work is illegal in the first place.

"I think what it comes down to is that people are so morally opposed to it," she said. "The implication that because it's sex and it should be somehow special and it should be not a part of commerce, that sort of opinion makes our industry unsafe. 

"You can't get rid of sex work. It's always gonna be there. We call it the oldest profession for a reason. But you can definitely do legal things to it that make it incredibly unsafe."

 Use the audio player above to hear the full interview.