It’s amazing how certain social issues progress rapidly. Hell, it wasn’t that long ago that the vast majority of Americans opposed the legalization of same-sex marriage. Back when I was in college, supporting the full legalization of same-sex marriage was considered an extreme position. Today, it has so much support that even those who identify as conservative support it.
Not every issue changes so rapidly in such a short period of time. I honestly thought same-sex marriage wouldn’t be legal for decades when I graduated college. I thought it would take even longer for marijuana to be legalized. It turns out I was even more wrong about that.
As quickly as same-sex marriage gained acceptance, marijuana legalization has progressed even faster. It actually caught a lot of people by surprise. In 2012, two states legalized it through a ballot initiative. I don’t think even the most ardent weed legalization proponent expected it to progress as quickly as it did after that.
Once the precedent was set, other states followed suit. As of this writing, there are 14 states that have some form of legalized marijuana and several more states are well on their way to follow suit. I may not live in one of those states, but I’m a 20 minute drive away from one of them.
In those states that have legalized it, society didn’t collapse. A new multi-billion-dollar industry emerged. The stage is set. It’s basically a matter of time and bureaucracy. The negative effects of drug prohibition are becoming more and more apparent. It’s not at all unlikely that marijuana will be legalized nationwide in America by the end of the decade.
This trend, which I feel is objectively positive for society, is likely to spill over into other issues. That tends to happen a lot as social attitudes and norms evolve. What was considered taboo or undeniably negative for one generation is considered an issue of justice and progress to the next. We saw it with same-sex marriage in the early 2000s. Then, we saw it with weed in the 2010s.
Now, I suspect that the next issue to undergo that process might be prostitution, or sex work as it is more commonly known these days.
I make this claim with no expertise or insight. I’ve written about prostitution before, both in terms of its legality and its taboos. In terms of progress or change of any kind on this issue, there hasn’t been much since Nevada legalized prostitution decades ago. Unlike weed and same-sex marriage, prostitution has some unique challenges.
The biggest of those challenges, by far, is how policy changes affect human trafficking, an objectively horrible crime that nobody wants to help or facilitate. Whether fair or not, prostitution gets linked to human trafficking. Anytime there are proposed changes to prostitution laws, be they legalization or greater criminalization, human trafficking is often cited.
These are tough hurdles to overcome for anyone hoping to put sex work on the same level as other social issues. However, there are signs that the cultural tide regarding sex work is changing.
Back in 2016, Amnesty International made headlines by publicly endorsing the widespread decriminalization of prostitution. In their official policy, this was their position and their justification.
It recommends the decriminalization of consensual sex work, including those laws that prohibit associated activities—such as bans on buying, solicitation and general organization of sex work. This is based on evidence that these laws often make sex workers less safe and provide impunity for abusers with sex workers often too scared of being penalized to report crime to the police. Laws on sex work should focus on protecting people from exploitation and abuse, rather than trying to ban all sex work and penalize sex workers.
The policy reinforces Amnesty International’s position that forced labour, child sexual exploitation and human trafficking are abhorrent human rights abuses requiring concerted action and which, under international law, must be criminalized in every country.
When it first came out, this caused some uproar, especially among those who favored the Nordic Models of combating prostitution, which only criminalized the buyers of sex. That uproar hasn’t fully abated. There is still a great deal of disagreement on how best to reform prostitution laws to improve the situation for sex workers and combat human trafficking.
Then, the pandemic hit and like so many other things, we all had to rethink everything.
To say that the pandemic has impacted the lives of sex workers everywhere would be a gross understatement. Legal or not, this is an activity that cannot accommodate basic practices of social distancing. That’s especially true for sex workers who are minorities or otherwise disadvantaged. Amnesty International even cited racial justice as a reason for their position.
At a time when injustices of so many kinds are becoming more prominent, the time might be right for prostitution and sex work to enter the conversation. Some jurisdictions are actually proposing new, more liberal policies on sex work. The rights of sex workers are quickly becoming more entwined with human rights, in general.
That’s a path that closely mirrors what happened with same-sex marriage. It’s also a path that the pandemic has reshaped considerably. Like every other industry, the sex industry has had to adapt. Even once the pandemic is over, it’s very unlikely things will go back to the way they once were.
The need for change is apparent now. That nature and extent of that change is still unclear. However, as the fight over weed legalization settles and same-sex marriage becomes mainstream, I believe it’s very likely we’ll see prostitution and sex work become a more pressing issue in the coming years. If for no other reason, it’ll have to be addressed. If it’s ignored, then expect progress on sex robots to accelerate even more rapidly.