Why legalising sex work could protect women

In the course of the series of interviews that became the YNaija documentary on sex workers, one wish made up the majority of what the sex workers who featured in it would love to have – a dignified job.

“If I can get a job that pays N50, 000 a month, I will quit sex work. That is enough for me to take care of myself and my children,”  Wunmi Adeniyi said.

You can watch the documentary here.

Barely a year ago, a conversation with a friend who has made a career of sex work, with a fully laid out plan that includes retirement savings and investments as well as health insurance had convinced me that legalising sex work is the future. For various reasons.

The transactional exchange of sex has been around longer than modern civilisation. Taverns and brothels were a feature of early iterations of towns from the Ottoman Empire to Timbuktu. They were exploitative features too because the operation and protection of brothels and the business they house were loaded over by titled men who profit from the dehumanisation of the women whose bodies were the commodity and not the sexual service itself.

Criminalisation follows on the heels of religious revival. That pattern can be seen across time and space. From medieval Europe to the Salafi revival era of Northern Nigeria in the ’90s.

All the concerns that drive are rooted in morality, be it religious or not.

Pro-criminalisation advocates posit:

  1. There is nothing more dehumanising than forcing women to sell their bodies for financial survival. 
  2. It is a form of violence against women, criminalizing it is protecting women.
  3. A majority of women are forced into sex work, hence legalizing it will be legalising human trafficking.
  4. Normalising sex work is counter to the puritan ideal of all the major religions and will erode the fabric of the pristine society these religions have made possible.

My career-sex-worker friend asked a question as we examined these things which are far from exhaustive, “Who does criminalisation benefit?”

It is a salient question that has no clear-cut answer.

Nigeria’s constitution makes no provision for the Prohibition of sex work at the individual level. No crime is committed therefore if two consenting adults agree to exchange sex for money, at least in the southern region of the country. All Northern states that practice Shariah are unambiguous about the illegality of sex work, and raids of suspected sex workers are a common occurrence in Kano for instance where I grew up.

Nigeria’s stance presents a perfect case study for the pros and cons of legalisation specifically because we can observe what not legalising sex work does to the women who are in the business. The Constitution sits on the fence and doesn’t interfere with the individual in one region and another branch of the law hounds and dehumanised them in another.

“The police are our friends. They check-in and you give them something and everyone is happy,” a sex worker acquaintance in Oyo said when asked whether the police protect sex workers.

It is a coy response that diminishes what this entails. Because the police understand the law doesn’t protect the sex worker even if it doesn’t criminalize her, and the prevailing culture turns its nose up at sex work, sex workers are easy prey for extortion.

The handouts to officers of the Nigeria Police is appeasement to prevent getting violated. Something that happens nightly in many red-light districts in southern Nigeria. The police, in essence, are the pimps the constitution criminalizes.

In the North where the law meets the culture and closes the gap between ambiguous allowance and strong disapproval, the police turn worse than pimps.

The case of the women arrested for suspected sex work in 2019, many of whom later revealed they were sexually assaulted by the police while in custody is one case that made the news out of 100s that go unheard.

In Kano, women arrested on charges of sex work are given the chance to repent and in some cases set up in arranged marriages as a way to “get them out of sex work.” Many of these marriages shatter in a few years and not without the woman having been scarred sometimes worse than the state violence that got her in the marriage in the first place.

Where sex work is legalised and/or regulated, sex workers are able to seek justice for abuse by clients, pimps, or criminal state actors.

“It is men who benefit from criminalization,” my friend said emphatically.

Assistant Professor of Economics at the University of Tampa, Abigail Hall-Blanco PhD, concurs in her paper  “Legalized sex work Is Safer.”

“[C]riminalizing sex work makes sex trafficking more likely … Instead of breaking apart sex-trafficking rings, prohibition increases their profitability, making trafficking more appealing to criminal enterprises,” she wrote.

And as we have seen in Nigeria’s case, not legalising opens new avenues for dangerous men uniformed as well as civilians to capitalise on the muzzling of sex workers by law and culture.

While there may not be an easy answer to what the solution is, prioritising the protection of sex workers is very vital if we care to protect the rights and dignities of all citizens.

It is a first step towards making available a way out for people like Wunmi who will like to but is hindered but by the scarcity of the dignified work of her dreams and the stigma associated with being a former sex worker.

It is noteworthy that all the conversation against sex work is framed around women, male sex workers, as well as clients, do not receive the same backlash.

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