Lately, I’ve been reading up on the empirical research on sex work, and the effects of various policy regimes re: sex work. And the thing is… it’s almost all terrible?
I mean, I haven’t done an exhaustive search. But if there’s a huge amount of good research, well-informed people on all sides of the debate over sex work are inexplicably failing to cite the research that would support their views. Not that the researchers are idiots. They know about the methodological flaws in our studies on sex work, but it turns out that research on extremely marginalized populations is hard. Who knew.
When I first realized this, I thought, “wait a minute, shouldn’t something like the General Social Survey or The Social Organization of Sexuality have good data about sex work?” It turns out those studies provide a decent estimate of the percentage of women in the US who have ever sold sex (it’s probably about 1-2%), but they don’t provide much beyond that.
I guess the problem is that while those studies sets have good sampling techniques and are relatively large (a few thousand people), that’s will translate into at most a few dozen sex workers in the sample. So if you try to analyze that subpopulation, your result is probably going to be non-representative in some ways just by random chance.
But the absence of better research is still a little puzzling. My impression (and this is Ozy’s impression to) is that the research on gays and lesbians is better than the research on sex workers, and “people who have been paid for sex” apparently isn’t a much smaller proportion of the population than gays and lesbians. Of course, part of the difference is greater marginalization of sex workers, but part of it may also be gays becoming a major focus of research due to AIDS.
If you want a good overview of the available research on sex work, this Vox.com article is a good place to start, and matches my independent impressions. The article does claim to find a couple good studies, both of which broadly support decriminalization. (There’s also some data on sex trafficking convictions in Germany, but as the article notes, what that data means is debatable.)
But if you’ve followed the story of replication problems in science, you know that two studies don’t prove a ton. So I’m left with the main reason I support decriminalization being priors. Abuse of domestic workers is a problem (and in fact caused an international incident between the US and India last year), but making it illegal to hire a maid seems unlikely to be the best solution to that problem. I see no reason–aside from moral panic around sex–not to apply the same reasoning to sex work.