The framework of reproductive justice was created to center marginalized women within the movement for reproductive freedom, by prioritizing the needs of Indigenous women, women of color, and transgender people. At its core, reproductive justice protects a person’s right to maintain bodily autonomy. It requires uplifting the most marginalized people, who have faced the brunt of the harms from the denial of bodily autonomy and from reproductive oppression. In order to ensure the right to bodily autonomy for all, the movement needs to center sex workers, as they are constantly denied such rights through criminalization, discrimination, and violence. Decriminalizing sex work is crucial in ensuring that the choices of sex workers are protected and not punished.
As a result of engaging in the sex trade, sex workers are constantly facing criminalization, incarceration, deportation, discrimination, and other harmful consequences from state regulation. Black and brown women, transgender women, and immigrant women who are involved in the sex trade, are the most disproportionately harmed by the criminalization of sex work. The constant policing, prosecution, and incarceration of sex workers violate their bodily autonomy, as their choice to participate in the sex trade is repeatedly policed and denied by the carceral state. As a result, sex workers have become leaders in the fight against state regulation of people’s bodies — through fighting for decriminalization and destigmatizing sex work. In order to achieve the right to bodily autonomy for all, sex work needs to be decriminalized.
With the ongoing and growing rates of criminalization of abortion and pregnancy, how the criminal legal system infringes on the right to bodily autonomy has never been clearer. Since the overturning of Roe v. Wade, the criminalization and policing of people’s bodies due to their reproductive decisions has significantly increased across the United States. The overturning of Roe has also given conservative states the authority to criminalize abortion, through enacting new legislation and enforcing pre-Roe criminal statutes to prosecute people who can get pregnant — drastically limiting people’s ability access reproductive health care and increasing their suffering of collateral consequences, including loss of employment and public benefits.
Even before the Dobbs decision, the criminal legal system has been weaponized against marginalized people in order to arrest and incarcerate people for their reproductive choices. The criminalization of pregnancy and pregnancy loss has been an ongoing issue in the U.S. that has disproportionately targeted Black women and poor women. Pregnant people have been arrested and prosecuted for potentially harmful conduct during their pregnancy, including substance use and refusing medical interventions, and people who have endured miscarriages and stillbirths have been charged with causing the death of a child.
This policing of people’s bodies is not new, but rather has been used as a tool of the state for decades to control and regulate people who engage within the sex trade. The ever-growing criminalization and policing of reproductive choices in the post-Roe world have highlighted the overlap between the criminalization of sex workers and the criminalization of abortion — as both penalize people for sexual conduct that is outside of society’s proscribed boundaries. Control over marginalized people through criminalization of their bodies is a tool of white supremacy and the patriarchy, in order to disempower these communities. Reproductive oppression has been historically used, and is still actively used, to ensure state dominance over marginalized individuals.
Bodily autonomy cannot be achieved, while sex work is criminalized. Sex workers should be recognized as leaders within the fight for bodily autonomy, as their lived experiences through police surveillance and incarceration uniquely situates them as experts in understanding the impact criminalization of bodies has. They must also be understood as experts in fighting back against the state control over their bodies. The current movement against criminalization of abortion and pregnancy can learn from the decades of organizing and advocacy of sex workers, who have been consistently fighting against state regulation of their bodies and their choices.
Reproductive justice requires the decriminalization of sex work, and until sex workers are free from state policing, reproductive justice cannot be achieved. To advance protections for all, the movement must stand up and support sex workers by joining the fight to decriminalize sex work.
Sex worker advocates in D.C. are currently working to decriminalize adult, consensual sex work within in the district. As members of the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition (SWAC), advocates — including sex workers, activists, community groups, and advocacy organizations — are working to decriminalize sex work. SWAC is an ever-growing coalition, working alongside members of the community and organizational partners to ensure that sex workers and their choices are protected from the violence of criminalization and their bodily autonomy is respected.