The topic of sex work has long been a subject of societal debate, carrying with it questions of morality, safety and legality. One of the most contentious questions surrounding this issue is whether legalizing sex work could help or exacerbate efforts to combat human trafficking. Both sides present compelling arguments that are worth exploring.
To encourage thoughtful discourse on this complex topic, The Law Office of Matthew D. Sharp decided to make the legalization of sex work the focus of its annual college scholarship essay writing contest. This year’s prompt invited applicants to discuss their opinions on the legalization of sex work, posing the question:
Should sex work be legal? Why or why not? What effect would the legalization of sex work have on the problem of human trafficking in the United States?”
We’re pleased to announce that after receiving a wide range of perspectives on this pressing issue, we’ve finally chosen this year’s winner: Mitchell Leong, a first-year doctorate student at Fuller Theological Seminary School of Psychology!
Here’s his winning essay:
As a graduate student studying clinical psychology, I believe that mental health plays a crucial role in the well-being of vulnerable populations, including sex workers who face physical and mental health challenges due to the criminalization of their work. In this essay, I will discuss the arguments for the legalization of sex work and how it could have a positive impact on the mental and physical health of sex workers while addressing the problem of human trafficking.
The criminalization of sex work leads to stigmatization and social marginalization of sex workers, resulting in negative psychosocial outcomes, including depression, suicidal ideation, and substance abuse (Antebi-Gruszka et al., 2019; McCann et al., 2021). Legalizing sex work can reduce stigma, provide sex workers with greater agency, and improve their access to legal protections, ultimately reducing violence and improving their overall mental health. In fact, Lutnick and Cohan’s (2009) study showed that sex workers preferred to remove statutes that criminalized sex work to facilitate a social and political environment where they could have legal rights and could seek help when they were victims of violence. Legalizing sex work would also enable sex workers to have greater control over their working conditions and would facilitate their access to health services, leading to a reduction in the prevalence of STIs and HIV as a vector for transmission (McCann et al., 2021). Subsequently, focusing on ways to help provide for sex workers can lead to greater impacts that will ripple across different levels of society.
Furthermore, the criminalization of sex work can lead to an increase in the demand for illegal and underground markets, where sex workers are vulnerable to exploitation and trafficking. However, legalizing sex work could help combat human trafficking by providing sex workers with greater legal protections and making it easier to identify and prosecute traffickers (Cho et al., 2013). While it is challenging to produce hard evidence that decriminalization of sex work can reduce human trafficking, it is crucial to consider the potential benefits and drawbacks of sex work decriminalization and take into account the experiences and perspectives of sex workers themselves when crafting policies that affect them.
In conclusion, the legalization of sex work has the potential to promote the overall well-being of sex workers and reduce the stigma and violence associated with this industry. Addressing the mental health needs of vulnerable populations is essential for improving the general public health. Moreover, legalizing sex work could also contribute to the fight against human trafficking by providing sex workers with greater legal protections. Ultimately, it is important to consider ways that society can help protect marginalized populations and promote their mental health and overall well-being. A comprehensive approach is needed to address the root causes of exploitation and gender inequality, such as education, job opportunities, and poverty reduction measures. By taking a multifaceted approach, we can work towards creating a more just and equitable society where vulnerable populations like sex workers are protected and their mental health needs are met.
Antebi-Gruszka, N., Spence, D., & Jendrzejewski, S. (2019). Guidelines for mental health practice with clients who engage in sex work. Sexual and Relationship Therapy, 34(3), 339-354.
Cho, S. Y., Dreher, A., & Neumayer, E. (2013). Does legalized prostitution increase human trafficking?. World development, 41, 67-82.
Lutnick, A., & Cohan, D. (2009). Criminalization, legalization or decriminalization of sex work: what female sex workers say in San Francisco, USA. Reproductive health matters, 17(34), 38-46.
McCann, J., Crawford, G., & Hallett, J. (2021). Sex worker health outcomes in high-income countries of varied regulatory environments: a systematic review. International journal of environmental research and public health, 18(8), 3956.
About the winner
Mitch Leong is a student pursuing his doctoral degree in clinical psychology. With a passion for helping those of vulnerable and minority populations, Mitch’s academic focus will be on the studies of how psychologists can best serve these individuals with the best therapeutic interventions. In addition to his academic pursuits, Mitch enjoys hiking and camping. Overall, he is excited to make a meaningful impact in the field of mental health and hopes to create positive change in our society.
Interested in participating in our next scholarship essay contest?
Thanks to all of the participants for your thoughtful essays this year, and congratulations, Mitchell, on your winning essay!
If you missed this year’s contest or would like to participate again next year, check out our scholarship page for future contest details and requirements.