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Let’s Talk About Sex Work

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Dannie Kyle
March 25, 2022

In the context of the opioid crisis, many are now familiar with the term “harm reduction.” As explained by the National Harm Reduction Coalition, “harm reduction is a set of practical strategies and ideas aimed at reducing negative consequences associated with drug use.”

Reflecting on this definition, as well as the principles put forth by the National Harm Reduction Coalition, I would like to recommend that policymakers consider a similar stance on another area of illicit activity within the United States: sex work.

Much like drug users, sex workers are stigmatized, often in the name of morality or legality. When it comes to actual policy alternatives to the United States’ current model—which criminalizes most cases of prostitution, except for a few rural counties in the state of Nevada—I recommend looking to the voices of those currently in this occupation, which is why I will instead suggest the harm reduction model. Regardless of one’s moral, ethical or legal concerns with sex work, harm reduction reinforces the humanity of those who partake. Additionally, it can provide avenues of support and provide a framework through which policy can develop.

Sex Work as Precarious Work

The Worker Rights Centre describes precarious work as referring to work that is “poorly paid, unprotected and insecure.” This leaves employees without access to labor rights, and given the black-market nature of most sex work in the United States, it would fall under this definition. Like other precarious occupations, there are various reasons an individual may choose sex work—and public administrators play a role in mitigating the negative consequences faced by those involved.

The consequences of precarious work, as described by the Worker Rights Centre, include insecure living arrangements—failing to meet landlord requirements—and social isolation.

The National Harm Reduction Coalition’s principles, when applied to sex work(ers), can provide guidance. Their website holds a section on sex work, and provides additional information on the similarities between sex work and drug use. For instance:

  • Accepting, for better or for worse, that licit and illicit sex work is part of our world and choosing to work to minimize its harmful effects rather than simply ignoring or condemning it.
  • Establishing the quality of individual and community life and well-being—not necessarily cessation of all sex work—as the criteria for successful interventions and policies.

Harm Reduction in Sex Work as an Equity Issue

The American Civil Liberties Union’s 2022 Research Brief, “Is Sex Work Decriminalization the Answer? What the Research Tells Us,” gives insight into the current situation of sex workers within the United States. Administrators must consider the presence of sex work and sex workers through an equity lens, as with any other policy area, but with special attention to the additional need as marginalized identities intersect.

The ACLU’s brief included the review of empirical research which found that criminalized sex work disproportionately harms LGBTQ individuals, people of color and immigrants. In the case of the United States, it was found that transgender women of color faced disproportionate harm under its current model. My home state of Illinois has a page on harm reduction for drug users on the Department of Public Health’s website, detailing resources available, alongside relevant policy information, as well as educational resources for medical professionals who may interact with the individuals impacted by drug use.

 When I tried to find a similar page on sex workers for the State of Illinois, I did find a fact sheet, that mentioned “harm reduction,” but no dedicated page. The fact sheet also did not mention any governmental resources towards harm reduction for sex workers, despite the fact that—as covered in the ACLU’s research brief—many do not feel comfortable turning to the police for assistance, necessitating alternatives such as medical professionals, as suggested for those impacted by drug addiction.

While nonprofits need to be part of the effort to support harm reduction for sex workers, governments—at both the state and local level—can commit to legitimizing the effort. Administrators are all responsible for seeing their role in contributing to positive change and providing resources for marginalized populations, including those most at risk within the sex work industry.

 A harm reduction approach to sex work provides the opportunity to alleviate inequities, as well as address public health concerns surrounding the well-being of those who partake.


Author: Dannie Kyle is a second-year Master of Public Administration student at the University of Illinois at Springfield. Her research interests include public sector diversity, equity and inclusion practices, critical nonprofit studies, and urban development. In her free time, Dannie cares for two pigeons and learns arias. She looks forward to contributing more to PA Times Online, and you can reach her via email ([email protected]) or Twitter (@dk_almostmpa).

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