Opinion: 'Prostitutes Are People, Not Criminals' by Belle Knox

"The time has come for the world's oldest profession to be legalized for public health, safety and opportunity"

Credit: Hillary Fox/Getty

As a porn actress, one of the perverse tragedies of public policy I often contemplate is the fact that people can pay to watch me have sex on camera but are considered criminals if they pay to have sex behind closed doors. I'm talking about prostitution, a practice that continues to be shunned in the United States, pushing countless Americans trying to make an honest living onto the streets despite centuries of human history proving that governments cannot eliminate market demand for sex. The time has come for the world's oldest profession to be legalized in the so-called Land of the Free for public health, safety and opportunity.

First and foremost, I'd like to clear up a myth that remains pervasive in any discussion about sex work. Prostitution opponents love to promote images of abused hookers and human traffickers to trump up hostility towards sex work. While it's true ill-intentioned criminals do exist and should be prosecuted to the full extent of the law, these conditions do not apply to the vast majority of sex workers. We should especially not conflate the sex industry with the abuses of human trafficking because it delegitimizes the workers and creates a moral panic that manifests itself in harmful legislation. The fact of the matter is that most sex workers enter the industry via their own consent and genuinely enjoy their work.

That's certainly the case for me. While it's true that paying my tuition at Duke was my initial motivation for entering the porn industry, I've grown to appreciate the empowerment opportunities that sex work has provided me. In porn, I can speak openly about my experiences without fear of punishment, work in a safe and professional environment and play a vital role in the creative process. Of course, not everyone can be a porn star, but more sex workers could enjoy this same level of autonomy and fulfillment if prostitution was legalized.

Save for a few counties in Nevada, prostitution is criminalized in every state and locality across the country. As a result, sex workers are pushed onto the street, leaving too many at the whims of pimps and dangerous johns without access to police protection and labor representation. If only the practice was brought indoors, sex workers could have more freedom to perform on their own terms in a safe, legal environment like I do. 

This is not just theory, but hard fact. Barbara G. Brents of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, studied the Silver State's legal brothels for more than 15 years and found that "employees report that they feel safe, are free to come and go and are bound only by their contract." In fact, 84 percent of the brothel workers her team surveyed said their job "felt safe," and no evidence of trafficking could be found.

Legal prostitution wouldn't simply result in greater safety, but improved health as well. While it's not well-known, Rhode Island unintentionally legalized prostitution in 1980 as the result of a legal loophole. Between the time a criminal case brought the loophole to public attention in 2003 and when it was recriminalized in 2009, gonorrhea infection among women plummeted by 39 percent, according to a study by the National Bureau of Economic Research. Similarly, reports of rape declined by 31 per cent.

Prostitution opponents love to point to the so-called "Swedish model" as a halfway measure of dealing with sex work by criminalizing the demand (clients) while decriminalizing the supply (sex workers). However, this approach only punishes decent clients patronizing sex workers in an honest way. Clients are not just the creepy old men that prostitution opponents make them out to be. Most have a story that explains why they seek companionship. Perhaps they've watched their partner's sex drive wane after years of relationship. Perhaps they're physically impaired, socially awkward or physically unattractive and have trouble finding a body to hold and satisfy humans' most natural and intimate desires. Or, perhaps they simply enjoy indulging their fantasies in a safe environment. Every client and sex worker has a story to tell, and the current regime of criminalization over compassion only mutes their voices and pushes them to the fringes of society where danger may lurk.

Although porn is legal, I am nonetheless proud to classify myself a sex worker and call on my colleagues to stand up for our right to make a living, access the same protections as everyone else and not feel ashamed for doing honest work. We are nobody's rescue project, and we deserve rights, not handcuffs.

Miriam Weeks is a Young Voices Advocate best known for her porn acting under the name Belle Knox (@belle_knox)Weeks is a sophomore studying Women's Studies at Duke University.