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Spellman’s children are grown now, with children of their own — she even has a great-grandchild.
But when they were young, she said, “those arrests really took away from my babies.” The solution, for Spellman and other sex workers’ rights advocates, is decriminalization: the removal of criminal penalties for selling and buying sex.
“The only difference is that we charge for it.” Spellman has been a sex worker in Washington, DC, for more than 30 years.
In that time, she’s faced a stream of abusive behavior from police.
“After a girl was gang raped, they said, ‘Forget it, she works in the street.’” These problems are longstanding, and people who sell sex have been advocating for their rights in America for generations.
As Molly Smith and Juno Mac write in their 2018 book tens of thousands of people are “arrested, prosecuted, incarcerated, deported, or fined” for sex work-related offenses in the US every year.
In a 2003 survey of street-based sex workers in New York City, 80 percent said they had been threatened with or experienced violence, and many said the police were no help.
But in the United States, where buying and selling sex is illegal everywhere except for a few counties in Nevada, decriminalization has been a tougher sell.
That’s starting to change, though, thanks to a combination of sex worker activism, increased attention to racial justice and workers’ rights and, perhaps, backlash to the 2016 election.