Speak for Yourself, Don’t Speak for Me: Democratizing Discourse and Sex Work Reform


  • Hosana Seyoum John Jay College of Criminal Justice


Sex work, Policy Reform, Discursive power


 This analysis of the various legal models addressing sex work aims to contextualize and reframe the discussion of regulating prostitution from an essential but overlooked perspective: that of sex workers. International and domestic legislation reflects a disconcerting trend of increasingly punitive approaches to legislation regarding sex work, culminating in detrimental impacts on the safety and labor conditions of sex workers, as well as contributing to the incarcerated population. Evidently, there is a disjuncture between the body of organizations shaping policy and the communities facing its ramification. Upon identifying the role of recent anti-trafficking initiatives and radical feminist discourse in shaping prohibitive policies, the importance of re-orienting legal discourse to center the exigencies of sex workers cannot be understated. Foundational to understanding recent policy trends is an outline of the socioeconomic imperatives and ideological perspectives underpinning contemporary sex work legislation.

Considering the discursive influence of legal and political actors in catalyzing policy, the position of sex workers should take precedence in determining the legitimacy and regulation of their labor. Designing policy conducive to safe and equitable work conditions can only be actualized with the contribution of the communities in mind. This framework for policy analysis will employ findings from participatory action research to measure the satisfaction of sex workers directly impacted by legislation and their suggestions for policy reform. Additionally, identifying the risks and benefits inherent to various legislative models concerning sex work will serve as a basis for assessing the practicality and implementation of legislation. A correlative analysis between punitive approaches to sex work policy and recent trends towards carceral feminism will position the criminalization of sex work as a contributing factor in a disfigured criminal justice system.