Panel Discusses Prostitution and the Sex Industry


Hauser Hall

Last Wednesday, Unbound: Harvard Journal of the Legal Left hosted “Beyond Coercion: Radical Voices on Sex Work, Feminism, and the Law,” the last panel in Unbound’s Spring Speaker Series. The Speaker Series aimed to foster critical dialogue regarding a wide-range of legal issues. Focusing on prostitution and the sex industry, “Beyond Coercion” drew a sizable crowd to Pound 200.

The panel featured Sapna Patel, an attorney with the Sex Worker Project of the Urban Justice Center, Eliyanna Kaiser, Executive Editor of $pread Magazine, and Charito Suarez, an outreach worker with TransCEND, which is part of Cambridge Cares About AIDS. It was moderated by Professors Janet Halley and Libby Adler of Northeastern University School of Law. As defined by the panelists, sex workers are individuals who exchange erotic service for something of value, and, thus, the term encompasses more individuals than just prostitutes, although many prostitutes may engage in other types of sex work.

Patel spoke first, highlighting the work of Sex Worker Project and discussing the main issues sex workers face. Explaining that the Sex Worker Project seeks to be a legal advocate for sex workers regardless of how a particular individual entered the industry, she stated that sex workers enter the industry in one of three ways: they are coerced into the industry; they are forced into the industry by the circumstances of their lives, such as a lack of economic opportunities; or they enter the industry by choice even though they have access to other means of sustenance. According to Patel, the majority of sex workers are pushed into the industry because of life circumstances. Further, Patel explained that some sex workers enter, exit, and then re-enter the industry, often moving between these categories.

Focusing on those individuals who are coerced into the industry, Patel spoke briefly about the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000, which defines “sex trafficking” as “the recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of commercial sex act,” and allows individuals who have been trafficked to obtain a visa that permits them to stay in the United States for four years. Patel noted that these visas are difficult to qualify for, although the Sex Worker Project has helped some clients facilitate their visas. It is the level of coercion inherent in the definition of “sex trafficking” that informs Patel’s first category of how sex workers may enter the industry.

Patel went on to address the largest issues sex workers face, pointing to the stigma and discrimination that often accompanies sex work. She noted that this stigma permeates all aspects of sex work, inhibiting access to mainstream services, increasing instances of police harassment of sex workers, and limiting to a great degree alternatives for sex workers who want to leave the industry. Although, as noted by Patel, the majority of sex workers are pushed into sex work by life circumstances that seem to be compounded by being sex workers, Patel ended by explaining that some individuals in prostitution do not feel victimized, some may only be victimized at certain times, and some may not want to exit the industry.

Kaiser’s presentation primarily focused on who sex workers are. She stated that most sex workers are women, and an over-represented minority is transpeople and gay men. They tend to enter the industry young and expect to exit in their thirties or forties, when they no longer can make enough money. Assuming they can find a job that allows them to exit the industry at that time, they often “retire” to organizations that provide services to sex workers. According to Kaiser, most sex workers work indoors, although many begin by working on the street, where drugs are prevalent. Further, many prostitutes are single mothers, new immigrants, and college students. They mainly enter the industry for the money, although some, such as single mothers, enter for scheduling flexibility, or for personal reasons that make participating in the mainstream economy difficult. As noted by Patel, a few are drawn to the work itself.

Kaiser also discussed how laws affect sex workers, primarily referencing Canada, and to a lesser extent Sweden, and noting that certain laws may make work more dangerous. For example, Kaiser pointed to “body house” laws, which prevent women from working together in the same area (or house) and, thus, from monitoring and protecting each other.

Suarez spoke last, emphasizing the experience of transpeople in the sex industry. Drawing on her work with TransCEND, she explained that counseling sex workers, especially transpeople, involves balancing giving meaningful, but realistic hope to individuals and responding to their feelings of stigmatization. Referencing Patel and Kaiser, Suarez added that transpeople in particular may enter the industry for the power it may appear to bring, in order to feel wanted and to feel in control. Further, Suarez noted that sex work may be all some transpeople know, and that they may view it as their only survival option.

The panel ended with questions from the audience, which included questions concerning the interaction of family law and sex work, how individuals providing services to sex workers can best reach them, and how to negotiate the divergent interests of sex workers given that a majority are forced into sex work-either under the “sex trafficking” definition of coercion or because of life circumstances-while only a small minority (who often have the most resources) affirmatively choose to be in the industry.

The panel was co-sponsored by Gender Justice and the European Law Research Center.

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