DePaul Law student sex worker and Chicago House Legal Director speak at Notre Dame
Across the country, the slogan “Sex Work is Work” has found its footing at protests, midterm candidate platforms, and social media. Last week, the movement to decriminalize sex work arrived at Nore Dame.
The LGBT Law Forum, a student-led group, hosted two speakers for an event titled “Decriminalizing Sex Work.” Cruel Valentine, a Depaul Law student who self-identifies as a black transgender sex worker, and Chicago House Legal Director Elizabeth Ricks argued that decriminalization was the best way to reduce violence and abuse in the sex worker community, especially non-cis-gender people and people of color who are disproportionately affected. They believe that sex workers deserve the same right to work as in any other industry.
Indiana currently outlaws selling, buying, or promoting sexual acts in exchange for money or property. The first two convictions result in Class A misdemeanors—a third conviction results in a Level 6 Felony.
“I wanted to have an event where hopefully people come in and critically make their own decisions on the facts of the issue.” LGBT Law Forum President Sebastían Ramirez told the Rover. Vice President Erin Owens added, “In a legal context, it’s important that we discuss how to protect the rights of people in the industry, but those conversations aren’t led by people in the industry. It was really important to have both Ricks and Valentine because we had that legal perspective and that personal perspective.”
When asked how a Catholic university should approach the topic of sex work, Ramirez responded, “Dean Cole made it very clear that we [the University] are Catholic in the sense that we have a Basilica, a chapel in the Law School … but the underlying purpose of the Catholicism in terms of the Law School itself is that Catholicism is about serving others, and making sure that we are amplifying the voices of people who are typically not heard.”
Dean Cole has stated previously, “From time to time, speakers will be invited by the Law School, faculty, student groups, or organizations affiliated with the University of Notre Dame, to speak at the Law School … As long as they are here at Notre Dame Law School, they are free to say whatever is on their mind within the bounds of law.”
The event itself began with Valentine and Ricks defining sex work and setting ground rules to talk about sex work. Valentine stated that sex workers “are not a monolith. They bring vast and incredibly nuanced perspectives to the table.” Valentine presented a graphic on the “whorearchy” as an example, which displayed the different tiers and privileges associated with the sex industry.
Valentine also requested that the audience exclude biased terminology against sex workers. One should avoid the terms “prostitute” (except in cases of legislation), “street walker,” “whore,” “prostitution,” “selling oneself or one’s body,” “trick,” and “john.” Instead, one should use the terms “full-service sex work(er),” “outdoor or ‘street based’ sex worker,” “erotic labor,” “client patron,” and “buyer.”
Ricks rejected the concept of “empowering” sex workers. She noted that when people seek “empowerment” for sex workers, they mean “sex work is only okay if the worker is empowered.” She claimed that seeking empowerment for sex workers is rooted in misogyny, purity, and classism.
Ricks also argued, “Criminal convictions create barriers for a sex worker’s employment, housing, access to credit and banking, and custody of children.” For example, many banks are weary of providing services to clients engaging in sex work. Sex workers often lose access to their bank accounts or are blacklisted from receiving financial services.
According to Valentine, Indiana’s anti-sex work laws “impact community safety measures that workers may put in place to help each other.” Valentine stated, “Many sex workers fear reporting violence or crime against them because of the consequences of potential prosecution under prostitution laws.” Ricks explained, “Clients can also weaponize stigma because they know the worker can’t go to law enforcement.”
Valentine stated that “police are primary perpetrators of violence against sex workers.” Valentine shared reports of police asking for sex in exchange for not arresting a worker and lamented that Black and Latino workers were detained disproportionately compared to their white counterparts.
On the topic of sex trafficking, Valentine and Ricks distinguished the difference between sex work and trafficking. They defined voluntary sex work as consensual sexual activity, whether out of dire financial need or personal preference. Sex trafficked workers, on the other hand, do not consent to sex work and are coerced into the industry.
Valentine and Ricks claimed that society holds an unfair interest in criminalizing voluntary sex work. Ricks explained, “Trafficking is not just limited to sexual conduct. 80% of forced labor is textile labor, domestic labor, and farm labor, but we don’t hear about that nearly as much, partially because there is a lot of money found in engaging in the [sex trafficking] rescue industry.” Valentine stated on the topic of rescue groups, “Never rescue someone without their permission. It’s not a good look.”
Valentine closed the event by recommending ways to be an ally to sex workers: “We just want to encourage you to be better co-conspirators … Listen above all things.” They also added that when approaching a sex worker with questions, one should keep in mind that “sex worker’s time is not free, so be prepared to pay their labor fee” and “when you see a sex worker in public, let them approach you first.”
During the Q&A, the Rover asked about a 2012 World Development study of 116 countries that found increased sex trafficking inflows in countries with legalized prostitution and decreased trafficking inflows with the presence of criminalization. Ricks was familiar with the study and responded that an American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) report “found that trafficking isn’t being increased. Sometimes reporting goes down, so more people cannot get out of trafficking. But the stats on that [2012 World Development study] are manipulated a bit. So I would look at that report.”
But the mentioned ACLU report’s findings state, “One key study suggests that legalizing sex work (specifically, prostitution) is associated with increased trafficking rates; however, the authors of this study caution against using these findings to oppose decriminalization or legalization given their model does not account for other potential positive impacts, such as improved worker safety.” ACLU’s counter-study did not reflect Ricks’ argument about its misleading statistical manipulation.
The speakers neglected to mention any moral concerns with sex work and the dignity of sex workers. The Rover asked Ramirez if he thought decriminalizing sex work was compatible with Catholic principles; he responded, “I think it can be. In 2018, Pope Francis [stated] that there should never be any forced sex work. I think some people gloss over the fact that he talked about the evils of forced prostitution rather than prostitution as a whole … We all can agree that forced prostitution is something we need to eradicate. If we do agree about that principle from a catholic perspective, and if we’re serious about [having people who are affected by laws in the room], then a big part of [tackling sex trafficking] is seeing sex workers as an ally.” He added, “If we’re Catholic and serious about protecting the vulnerable, sometimes our preconceived ideas about what is moral and what is right may not result in the policy goal that we’re looking at.”
Ramirez stated further, “I personally don’t have any moral qualms with the idea that people are voluntarily engaging with sex work … I think there is some moral clarity, or maybe even moral neutral[ity] in allowing any individual to do what they want with their body as long as they are not causing harm to others or society.”
In the case of those financially pressured into sex work, Ramirez refined his point by adding, “If people do think that sex work is morally reprehensible, then people need to figure out how they can stop it from happening as much as they can, such as expanding social safety nets like access to food stamps, easier access to dignified housing, and ensuring dignified wages.” Owens agreed, adding that “there are ways to discuss our moral beliefs without automatically criminalizing something.”
Elsewhere at the law school, the St. Thomas More Society hosted an event on “The Dignity of Work in the Catholic Tradition,” which was held concurrently with the LGBT Law Forum’s “Decriminalizing Sex Work.”
Mia Tiwana is a senior studying political science and theology. She loves to bother her neighbors early in the morning by singing dramatically in different languages. You can find Mia by following the scent of fresh cappuccinos. Alternatively, reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.