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This post is a direct follow-up to my previous blog entry, wherein I discussed parallels between the hacker community (of which I am a part) and the sex work community (where I have many friends).  I offered the notion that both worlds consist mainly of people who are often misunderstood (and thus feared) by “mainstream” society… and this leads to everything from bad journalism to bad legislation.

While that previous entry was inspired by something that was said by the erudite firebrand Maggie McNeill, this post is inspired by commentary by the illustrious Mistress Matisse.  Matisse and some of her other colleagues were discussing a topic that had gained a surprising bit of momentary traction in the press: whether laws prohibiting sex work could be found to be unconstitutional.  “Given the inherent privacy and self-determination rights (specifically, sexual freedoms) codified by the Supreme Court in Lawrence v. Texas and other related landmark decisions, wouldn’t the right to engage in paid sexual acts extend to the full spectrum of sex work?” was the argument being made by scholars and lawyers.  “Even now,” people were commenting, “we allow actors to work in the adult film industry.  We allow in-person exotic performances, even ones involving lascivious bodily contact… isn’t the argument all just a matter of degree?”

Matisse and others (Maggie weighed in on the topic, as well, of course on Twitter and elsewhere) spoke enthusiastically in support of such level-headed interpretations of the law, and many in the trade talked aloud of how decriminalization has been a long-term goal of the sex work industry for ages now.  This, naturally, sparked pointed criticism of some of the media reporting… specifically, where pundits were speaking out in favor of “legalizing” sex work.

I won’t allow us to get bogged down in debating whether the following words are the best choices to represent the concepts being approached, but for quite some time now, when speaking about marginalized or underground economies, two similar-sounding terms have been earmarked as a means of discussing two very distinct and divergent concepts or proposals…

Decriminalization – Often thought of as “getting the police and the government out of the picture” with the aim to reduce harm, “decriminalization” is imagined by most as a system where criminal penalties are removed from specific statutes and people are free to conduct themselves as they wish… in this case, the buying or selling of sexual services could be conducted openly, without fear of prosecution and jail time.

Legalization – This is often contrasted with the above by calling it “getting the police out of the picture, but inviting government in.”  Consider what has happened to the cannabis trade in places like Colorado and my current home state of Washington.  Legalization has indeed removed most penalties previously associated with marijuana, but now this industry, its workers, and even its customers are faced with a litany of new rules and regulations to be followed.  Failure to adhere to them can still result in hefty fines or even jail time.

Many articles, especially on blogs and sites focused on the sex work industry, have discussed these two differing terms at length.

The general public often will either (a) not care all that much about the distinction being made in this entire argument or (b) will — for a variety of pearl-clutchy reasons — come down on the side of “legalization” as the best solution when a previously-underground market is being brought into the light.

I am not without sympathy for the viewpoints expressed by such citizens.  If we get past much of the useless “think of the children!” hysteria, we can uncover a variety of valid concerns.  People are curious how society can serve the very valid interest of protecting workers and customers in a field that has historically relied on secrecy and clandestine behavior.  “With all this being brought into the light,” people will ask in genuine desire to help others, “don’t we want to be extra certain that everything is on the up-and-up now?”  Similarly, another valid discussion point (which applies equally well to both the drug trade and the world of sex work) focuses on the fact that when relegated to the underground, clients and providers would take extra steps to validate one another for reasons of safety.  Without the police or the formal system of law to shield them from harm, those who transact with one another would use additional caution if they wanted to avoid bad consequences.  If a trade such as this is decriminalized, the pressure to know and verify details about the other party will diminish.  Lowering the barrier to interaction can make sellers or buyers less inclined to develop close relationships based on routine and ongoing commerce… potentially leading to fraud or unsafe product/services/etc.  I will not state that these arguments are wholly without merit.

However, I will push back against the notion that heaps of new government regulations and pages of new bills from lawmakers are the only appropriate answer to such concerns.

My previous post drew parallels between sex workers and a community to which I am tied: hackers.  This post will draw a different connecting thread, comparing sex work to another trade where I have experience and deep connections: locksmithing.

Hear me out.

Locksmiths have a wide range of knowledge that can be used for good or for ill.  They possess and carry tools which concern others.  “We don’t want just anybody claiming to be a locksmith!” some people may shout.  “There must be regulation of this industry!”  Anyone familiar with (or who has actually started) small businesses will know that over-regulation is a manifold problem, and it manifests itself possibly nowhere more powerfully than in the realm of occupational licensing.

We don’t have to look far to see the litany of jobs that require a stamp of approval from the state, and which are hampered by demands of compliance with scores of bureaucratic red tape.  Beauticians, food vendors, electricians, plumbers, even performance artists… you needn’t look far to find examples of over-regulation many fields.  Would it surprise you, then, to learn that locksmithing is markedly not subject to licensing and other such business red tape in many jurisdictions?  Oh, don’t get me wrong, plenty of cities require locksmiths to be certified, licensed, bonded, etc… but this is not the norm everywhere.

How, then, do customers know they are dealing with a reputable person?  How are the streets not utterly filled with unscrupulous individuals who are trading as locksmiths without the knowledge and intention to do right by others?  Well, these are actually problems that exist.  But the solution is not primarily found at the hands of government.  Instead, the industry has for over half a century now taken up the task of regulating themselves.

The Associated Locksmiths of America (ALOA) has existed since 1955, and does a very admirable job of safeguarding the public by establishing recognized, mutually-agreed, and well-researched policies that its members must follow.  Numerous other skilled trades have similar professional societies.  While many in the locksmithing industry do support some forms of protectionism and are in favor of government licenses, most are perfectly happy to run their own enterprise and maintain their ALOA number by means of professional education, adherence to industry best practices, and keeping their customers satisfied.

If you are in need of the services of a locksmith, it’s not difficult to ensure you’re hiring someone reputable.  You needn’t look in their shop for a frilly-edged piece of paper printed out at town hall.  Simply ask them their name and business designation, then verify their information on the ALOA web site.

I am curious if such a solution could be applied just as easily to the world of sex work, once the time of decriminalization finally arrives.

I feel that such a system could overcome many hurdles that result in debates reaching an impasse when decrim vs legalize is on the table for discussion.  Take, for example, the “health and safety” concerns voiced by so many.  “We must have a system of regulation and licensing,” say many in the pro-legalization camp, “otherwise what is to stop the spread of sexually transmitted infection and other attendant risks that come with multiple sexual partners?”  Ask people actually in the field of sex work, however, and you will hear them routinely speak out against mandatory medical obligations and record-sharing with the government.

A professional trade organization might be able to address this, no?

If a sex worker complies with a series of best practices — as defined by the industry itself, not a list of regulations concocted on the desk of a government functionary far-removed from this world — then they could conceivably be issued a stamp of approval (and associated member number) in that professional society.  Potential customers researching amorous encounters could look for this seal of approval much in the same way that persons locked out of their home would for years check for the ALOA insignia in the yellow pages.  Customer complaints and concerns would be managed by the industry itself… with the aim of increasing everyone’s safety in order to ensure satisfaction and repeat business.  (Insert your own “Better Blowjob Bureau” joke here if you wish)

And those who might opt to not pursue membership and accreditation in such a professional society?  They wouldn’t have to face penalties and fines, in my view… they would only have to bear any market consequences that might come with possible loss of customers or business reputation.  And that’s entirely their choice.

I am not saying that this is the right solution.  I am sure there are plenty of variables in this equation of which I’m unaware.  I plan to ask many people I know who are sex workers about this topic and I hope to learn more.

Regardless of whether or not this would be accepted by all parties, I hope we can keep this conversation going.  I would hope that we all might remain open to the notion that society doesn’t have to immediately involve city hall every time a previously-outlawed commodity becomes available for sale to the general public.

That applies to pot as much as to pleasure.

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