Sex Workers Need Protection If We Ever Hope To Safely Decriminalize It & This Shocking Study Proves It

A study published Monday found that men who buy sex are more prone to sexual coercion and are more likely to report a history of sexual violence, reports TIME. Specifically, the study found that men who hire sex workers tend to have less empathy for women and share characteristics with sexually violent men. This study, combined with horrifying statistics on sexualized violence against women, shows why we need more protections for sex workers if we hope to ever safely decriminalize sex work.

The findings of the study are pretty scary. Specifically, UCLA professor Neil Malamuth, who co-authored the study, said it indicated that men who commit sexual violence and men who pay for sex "tend to have a preference for impersonal sex, a fear of rejection by women, a history of having committed sexually aggressive acts and a hostile masculine self-identification," according to TIME. He also noted that the study found that men who pay for sex see the prostitute as "intrinsically different from other women."

It's this intrinsic difference — this idea about women who have lots of sex or even have sex for money — that makes them the targets of sexualized violence. The fact that our culture surrounding sex and power has socialized men to believe it's OK to be violent towards certain women or view them as lesser shows us a few things: we need to change how we talk about sex and women having sex, hostile masculinity that can lead to violence against women, and we have a lot of work to do before decriminalizing sex work can be safe for sex workers.


Contrary to popular belief, a lot of sex work isn't forced, it isn't dirty, and it isn't violent, according to Understanding Sex Work. The move to decriminalize sex work has gained more momentum after Australia and New Zealand found that decriminalization actually helped keep the work safer and easy to regulate, according to Think Progress. However, anti-prostitution advocates and a number of celebrities have spoken out against decriminalization because they say it will worsen gender inequality. They say men will also have the superior hand, because though there are male sex workers, the field is predominantly women who serve men — a pervasive cultural power dynamic.

The argument about gender inequality and the argument for blanket decriminalization face the same problem, though: neither of them address the real issues, which is years of movies, jokes, and college culture that says taking sex from women, often in a violent way, is OK. The same culture also says that some women — specifically women who enjoy sex or want to make it a career — deserve a lesser form of treatment than other women. Criminalizing sex work doesn't combat this ideology. Actually, it reinforces the idea that women who want to sell sex are lower or lesser than other women. And decriminalizing without creating more protections for violence committed against sex workers also condones that lesser-than status while perpetuating the gender inequality created by sexualized violence against women.

What's the answer, then? Make it easier for sex workers to report violence without discrimination. Ensure that punishments are just as harsh for people who commit violence against sex workers as it is for people who commit violence against women they work with, or women on the street, or their spouses. The statement that violence against women — any woman — will be much louder than the absence of a statement combined with a judgmental side-eye.

Tom Meagher's wife, Jill Meagher, was brutally raped and murdered in 2012 during a night out in Melbourne, Australia, according to The Irish Times. The man convicted of her murder, Adrian Bayley, had previously served a short time in prison for raping sex workers, according to a Guardian op-ed by Kelly Hinton and Kathleen Maltzahn, who work for a project that challenges violence against sex workers. They quote Tom Meagher, who told Australia's ABC News that he doesn't believe his wife would've been murdered if Bayley's crimes had been committed against women who weren't sex workers, because then his sentence would have been longer:

I'm aware his previous victims in previous cases before Jill were sex workers, and I'll never be convinced that doesn't have something to do with the lenience of his sentence. Put it like this: if he'd raped five people like Jill that many times in that brutal a fashion, I don't think he would have served eight years in prison.
Paula Bronstein/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Since his wife's murder, Meagher has become a vocal advocate for reforming the way Australia talks about violence against women, even if those women are sex workers. He said socializing boys with a "boys will be boys" mentality equates power and domination with masculinity. That coupled with a culture that says sex is dirty and makes you less of a person is what worsens violence against women — not the act of decriminalizing sex work.

In their work for Project Respect, Hinton and Maltzahn have encountered many sex workers who say violent sex is something that men want because they can't get it anywhere else. These men turn to sex workers because they are the only ones who will take it. "Jo," who was renamed for safety purposes, told Hinton that one man was repeatedly violent and objectifying toward her. So, she said, "I'm not a doll, I'm a human being. You need to treat me better," according to The Guardian.

His response? "If you're a human being, then why are you doing this?"

It's this culture of sexual women being "less than other women" that we need to change in order to make the world safer, not only for sex workers, but for all women. If we institute more protections for sex workers who experience violence, then we're also saying that violence against all women isn't something you can sweep under the rug with "boys will be boys."