Love For Sale: Should Prostitution Be A Crime?

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By The New York Times

ast November, Meg Muñoz went to Los Angeles to speak at the annual West Coast conference of Amnesty International. She was nervous. Three months earlier, at a meeting attended by about 500 delegates from 80 countries, Amnesty voted to adopt a proposal in favor of the “full decriminalization of consensual sex work,” sparking a storm of controversy. Members of the human rights group in Norway and Sweden resigned en masse, saying the organization’s goal should be to end demand for prostitution, not condone it. Around the world, on social media and in the press, opponents blasted Amnesty. In Los Angeles, protesters ringed the lobby of the Sheraton where the conference was being held, and as Muñoz tried to enter, a woman confronted her and became upset as Muñoz explained that, as a former sex worker, she supported Amnesty’s position. “She agreed to respect my time at the microphone,” Muñoz told me. “That didn’t exactly happen” — the woman and other critics yelled out during her panel — “but I understand why it was so hard for her.”

Muñoz was in the middle of a pitched battle over the terms, and even the meaning, of sex work. In the United States and around the globe, many sex workers (the term activists prefer to “prostitute”) are trying to change how they are perceived and policed. They are fighting the legal status quo, social mores and also mainstream feminism, which has typically focused on saving women from the sex trade rather than supporting sex workers who demand greater rights. But in the last decade, sex-worker activists have gained new allies. If Amnesty’s international board approves a final policy in favor of decriminalization in the next month, it will join forces with public-health organizations that have successfully worked for years with groups of sex workers to halt the spread of H.I.V. and AIDS, especially in developing countries. “The urgency of the H.I.V. epidemic really exploded a lot of taboos,” says Catherine Murphy, an Amnesty policy adviser.

Onstage, wearing a white blouse with lace, her face framed by glasses and straight brown hair, Muñoz, who is 43, looked calm and determined as she leaned into the microphone to tell her story. She started escorting at 18, after she graduated from high school in Los Angeles County, picking up men at a dance club a couple of times a week and striking deals to have sex for $100 or so, at a hotel or their apartments. She had a part-time job as a restaurant hostess, but she liked feeling desired and making money on the side to spend on clothes and entertainment. “I really, really did love the work,” she told her Amnesty audience of more than 100. “I was a little reckless.” The same recklessness led her to methamphetamine. When her parents found out she was using, they sent her to rehab. She stopped escorting and using drugs and found a serious boyfriend. When she was 24, the relationship ended, and around that time her parents sold their house. Muñoz started living on her own for the first time. With rent and car insurance to pay, and a plan to save for college, escorting became her livelihood. “I was moving toward a goal, and sex work helped me do that,” Muñoz told the crowd.

A few years later, however, another ex-boyfriend, with whom she was still close, started to take advantage of the underground nature of Muñoz’s work. At first, she told me, he asked her to pay to get his car back after it was towed. Then he started demanding more money and dictating when she worked and which clients she saw. Muñoz didn’t exactly seem like a trafficking victim; she was driving her own car, going to school and paying her expenses. But looking back, she says that’s the way she sees herself. “Because the work I was doing was illegal, he started to hold it over my head. He blackmailed me by threatening to tell everyone, including my family.”

The man was violent, and Muñoz extricated herself with the help of a friend, whom she later married. Haunted by the control her ex-boyfriend had exerted over her, she founded in 2009 a small faith-based group calledAbeni near her home in Orange County, to help other women escape from prostitution, as she had. A couple of years later, Muñoz, who now has four children, started letting herself remember the period earlier in her life when escorting served her well, as a source of income and even stability. Struggling internally, she had a “crisis of conscience,” she says, and came to regret her assumptions about what was necessarily best for Abeni’s clients. She stopped taking on new ones, and then turned Abeni into one of the few groups in the country that helps people either leave sex work or continue doing it safely.

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