Should Prostitution Be a Crime?
A growing movement of sex workers and activists is making the decriminalization of sex work a feminist issue.


Last 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 called Abeni 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.

At the Amnesty conference, Muñoz told the crowd that she thinks decriminalization would have benefits for many people by bringing the sex trade out from underground. “I believe in the empowered sex worker,” she said. “I was one. But the empowered sex worker isn’t representative of the majority of sex workers. It’s O.K. for us to be honest about this.” She was referring to the social and economic divide in the profession. Activists in the sex-workers’ movement tend to be educated and make hundreds of dollars an hour. The words they often use to describe themselves — dominatrix, fetishist, sensual masseuse, courtesan, sugar baby, whore, witch, pervert — can be self-consciously half-wicked.

Some of their concerns can seem far removed from those of women who feel they must sell sex to survive — a mother trying to scrape together the rent, say, or a runaway teenager. People in those situations generally don’t call themselves “sex workers” or see themselves as part of a movement. “It’s not something people we work with would ever talk about,” says Deon Haywood, the director of Women With a Vision in New Orleans, an African-American health collective that works with low-income women and trans clients. Some of them sell sex, Haywood says, because it’s more flexible and pays better than low-wage work at businesses like McDonald’s.

Human rights advocates tend to focus on people in grim circumstances. “Like many feminists, I’m conflicted about sex work,” says Liesl Gerntholtz, executive director of the women’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, which took a stand in favor of decriminalization four years ago. “You’re often talking about women who have extremely limited choices. Would I like to live in a world where no one has to do sex work? Absolutely. But that’s not the case. So I want to live in a world where women do it largely voluntarily, in a way that is safe. If they’re raped by a police officer or a client, they can lay a charge and know it will be investigated. Their kid won’t be expelled from school, and their landlord won’t kick them out.”

Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, along with other groups that support decriminalization — U.N.AIDS, the World Health Organization, the Global Commission on H.I.V. and the Law and the Open Society Foundations — acknowledge that there can be grave harms associated with the sex industry, but say that they see changes in the law as a precondition to reducing them. Last year, an analysis in The Lancet predicted that “decriminalization of sex work could have the largest effect on the course of the H.I.V. epidemic,” by increasing access to condoms and medical treatment. Governments can free themselves to crack down on trafficking and under-age prostitution, human rights advocates argue, if they stop arresting consenting adults.

It’s a pragmatic argument. But the sex-workers’ movement also hinges on an ideological conviction — the belief that the criminal law should not be used here as an instrument of punishment or shame, because sex work isn’t inherently immoral or demeaning. It can even be authentically feminist. “Once you’ve done it, you always know: When it comes down to it, I have everything I need to survive,” says Anna Saini, a former escort who is now a sex-worker activist and law student living in Brooklyn. “That’s powerful.” This view poses a deep challenge to traditional Western feminism, which treats the commercial sex industry as an ugly source of sexual inequality.
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The activists themselves are a fractious bunch. They belong to a variety of small and sometimes competing groups and question one another’s bona fides on social media and a blog called Tits and Sass. Women who publicly argue the case for decriminalization tend to be white. Women of color say that it’s harder for them to get an audience; they also don’t want white women to speak for them. Trans women raise similar objections. “Don’t tell my story in support of a cis woman’s story,” Monica Jones, who is black and transgender, cautioned me. She did sex work without qualms to help pay the tuition for her social-work degree at Arizona State University. “If you want to be with me, you’re going to pay me or buy me a ring,” she says frankly of her partners. Two years ago, she accepted a ride to a bar with a man and was found guilty of prostitution; her case became a cause célèbre when she challenged her conviction, saying she was just going out for a beer that night, and won her appeal.

Some opponents of decriminalization call themselves abolitionists, consciously invoking the battle to end slavery as well as the one for equality. “If prostitution is legal, and men can buy women’s bodies with impunity, it’s the extreme sexualization of women,” says Yasmeen Hassan, the global executive director of Equality Now, a women’s rights group that campaigns against trafficking. “They’re sexual objects. What does that mean for how professional women are seen? And if women are sex toys you can buy, think about the impact on relationships between men and women, in marriage or otherwise.”

The United States has some of the world’s most sweeping laws against prostitution, with more than 55,000 arrests annually, more than two-thirds of which involve women. Women of color are at higher risk of arrest. (In New York City, they make up 85 percent of people who are arrested.) So are trans women, who are more likely to do sex work because of employment discrimination. The mark left by a criminal record can make it even harder to find other employment. In Louisiana five years ago, 700 people, many of them women of color and trans women, were listed on the sex-offender registry for the equivalent of a prostitution misdemeanor. Women With a Vision, Deon Haywood’s group, won a lawsuit to remove them in 2013.

Because abolitionists see these women as victims, they generally oppose arresting them. But they want to continue using the criminal law as a weapon of moral disapproval by prosecuting male customers, alongside pimps and traffickers — though this approach still tends to entangle sex workers in a legal net.

Last July, the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, an abolitionist group, accused Amnesty of supporting “a system of gender apartheid,” in which some women are “set apart for consumption by men,” in a letter with 400 signatories, including Gloria Steinem, Lena Dunham, Kate Winslet and Meryl Streep. Anna Saini, the Brooklyn sex-worker activist, went from feeling betrayed by the celebrities to feeling victorious. “They threw all this fame and name recognition at us, and Amnesty is still doing what’s right,” she said. “That was super exciting.” The fight has become, Liesl Gerntholtz of Human Rights Watch says, “the most contentious and divisive issue in today’s women’s movement.”

The battle lines among American feminists over selling sex were drawn in the 1970s. On one side were radical feminists like the writer Andrea Dworkin and the lawyer and legal scholar Catherine MacKinnon. They were the early abolitionists, condemning prostitution, along with pornography and sexual violence, as the most virulent and powerful sources of women’s oppression. “I’ve tried to voice the protest against a power that is dead weight on you, fist and penis organized to keep you quiet,” wrote Dworkin, who sold sex briefly around the age of 19, when she ran out of money on a visit to Europe.

Other feminists, who called themselves “sex positive,” saw sex workers as subverters of patriarchy, not as victims. On Mother’s Day 1973, a 35-year-old former call girl named Margo St. James founded a group in San Francisco called Coyote, for “Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics.” Its goal was to decriminalize prostitution, as a feminist act. In its heyday, Coyote threw annual Hooker’s Balls, where drag queens and celebrities mixed with politicians and police. It was a party: In 1978, a crowd of 20,000 filled the city’s Cow Palace, and St. James entered riding an elephant.

By the 1980s, Dworkin’s argument condemning prostitution moved into the feminist mainstream, with the support of Gloria Steinem, who began rejecting the term “sex work.” St. James and the sex-positivists were relegated to the fringes.

The abolitionists moved into the fight against global labor trafficking in the 1990s, focusing on sex trafficking, though most estimates suggest that the majority of trafficking victims are forced into domestic, agricultural or construction work. The abolitionists wanted to erase the traditional legal distinction between forced and consensual prostitution by cracking down on all of it as trafficking. In 1998, they tried to persuade President Bill Clinton — and Hillary Clinton, who was the honorary chairwoman of the Clinton administration’s council on women — to adopt their broad definition in an international crime treaty and a federal trafficking bill. It was a striking effort to expand and stiffen criminal punishment, a strategy Elizabeth Bernstein, a Barnard anthropologist who studies sex work and trafficking, termed “carceral feminism.” Abolitionists “have relied upon strategies of incarceration as their chief tool of ‘justice,’ ” she wrote in 2007. They lost the fight to define all prostitution as trafficking during the Clinton administration. “Those were depressing years,” Donna Hughes, an abolitionist researcher and women’s studies professor at the University of Rhode Island, said in an interview in National Review in 2006.

When George W. Bush was elected in 2000, Hughes and other abolitionists formed a coalition with faith-based groups, including evangelical Republicans, to lobby the new president. The Bush administration funded Christian groups, like the International Justice Mission, to rescue girls and women abroad. I.J.M. helped to raid brothels in Cambodia, Thailand and India, working with local police officers who broke down doors while American TV cameras rolled. Donations poured in to I.J.M. from the United States.

But local human rights and women’s groups complained about the tactic. After some raids by police forces in India and Indonesia, girls and women were deported, detained in abusive institutions and coerced into sex with the police, according to a 2005 bulletin by the World Health Organization and the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS. Two years earlier, when I.J.M. reported that there were minors in a brothel in Thailand, the police raided it and locked the women who were working there in an orphanage. The women strung together bedsheets to escape from a second-story window.

Françoise Girard was director of the public-health program at the Open Society Foundations when she met with Gary Haugen, the leader of I.J.M., and Holly Burkhalter, a senior adviser, in 2007. “I.J.M. said, ‘If we can save one girl, it’s worth it,’ ” says Girard, who is now president of the International Women’s Health Coalition. “I said, ‘What happens to the girls?’ And they couldn’t answer.” Burkhalter says she doesn’t remember Girard’s question, but the police did not permit I.J.M. to go on the raid in Thailand. “If we had, it would have gone much better,” she says, adding that now, when I.J.M. helps with raids, “each victim has a case worker.”

The Bush administration also funded abolitionist research on the harmful effects of prostitution, prominently featuring references to that work on the State Department’s website. Hughes, the abolitionist women’s-studies professor, denounced strip clubs and lap-dancing in a 2005 report on trafficking that was funded with more than $100,000 from the State Department. Melissa Farley, a psychologist who received Bush funds, wrote in 2000 in the journal Women and Criminal Justice that any woman who claimed to have chosen prostitution was acting pathologically — “enjoyment of domination and rape are in her nature.” Non-abolitionist researchers criticized her for presenting the brutal harm of some experiences of prostitution as the near-universal reality without solid evidence.

In part as a response to lobbying by feminist abolitionists and evangelicals, in 2003 Congress barred groups that aided trafficking victims from receiving federal funds if they supported the “legalization or practice of prostitution.” The same year, President Bush committed $15 billion to the international fight against AIDS, but required all recipients of the funding to sign an anti-prostitution pledge. The result was a head-on collision between AIDS prevention and abolitionist ideas. Brazil turned down $40 million in American funds. Sangram, a public-health and human rights organization that was distributing condoms in Sangli, a red-light district in rural southern India, refused to sign the pledge and returned American funds in 2005, at a time when U.N.AIDS cited it as a trusted source on H.I.V. and human rights. “We were distributing 350,000 condoms a month,” says Meena Seshu, the director of Sangram, who has a master’s degree in social work and has published in The Lancet and won an award from Human Rights Watch. “Do you actually work with people, or do you give them morals? That was the choice.”

The Obama administration continues to fund organizations involved in rescue missions. In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down the anti-prostitution pledge for groups in the United States, ruling that it violated their free-speech rights. But the decision didn’t apply to foreign groups, which still cannot receive federal funding to fight AIDS if they support the sex-workers’ rights movement.

Patronizing a Prostitute
The figures above don’t reflect the population of men who hire prostitutes in New York, sex workers and defense lawyers told me. “That’s not our client base — it’s who police target,” says Anna Saini, a former escort who is now a sex-worker activist and law student living in Brooklyn. Mogulescu agrees: “There’s a real reluctance to disturb areas where power operates,” she says. “If you target lower-income men of color, their entry into the criminal justice system won’t make waves.”

The current debate over sex work in the United States is often framed as a choice between international legal systems. Abolitionists embrace what they call the Swedish (or Nordic) model. In 1999, at the urging of feminists, Sweden’s Parliament passed the Sex Purchase Act, making it a crime to buy sex. Prostitution itself had not been a crime, but the new law deemed it “a serious harm both to individuals and to society,” giving the legislation a moral underpinning and aiming to “flush the johns out of the Baltic,” as a media campaign declared. A decade later, Sweden announced a reduction in street prostitution by as much as 50 percent and proclaimed the law a success. Though no one had recorded data on street prostitution before the law passed, the claimed drop became the chief selling point for a system that punished men. Yet online advertising for sex increased in Sweden, leading researchers to conclude that the small market was shifting indoors. Norway and Iceland adopted the Swedish model in 2009, and in the last two years, Canada and Northern Ireland enacted modified versions.

Sex-worker activists reject this model. “People think the Swedish state criminalized clients, and not us, because they cared about us, but that was not the case,” says Pye Jakobsson, a Swedish sex worker who is the president of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects. “The law is about protecting society, and we’re seen as a threat.” Some sex workers say that criminalizing male behavior pushes them to take greater risks. “Women who worked on the street used to have safe spots where they would tell the client to drive,” Jakobsson explains. “Now clients say no, because of the police. They want to go someplace else remote. How can the woman be safe there?” In December, a Bulgarian sex worker was found brutally murdered in a deserted parking lot at the harbor in Oslo. Her friends — also migrants from the Baltic States, like many women selling sex in Sweden and Norway — looked for her when she went missing. But they did not go to the police until they found her body.

When the police investigate whether a man has bought sex, “they use it as a reason to check women’s documents,” says May-Len Skilbrei, a criminology and sociology professor at the University of Oslo. She says that these inspections can lead to deportations. Sex workers also face the possibility of losing custody of their children and being evicted. “If the police tell the landlord they think you’re escorting out of your apartment, he has to evict you, or he could be prosecuted,“ Skilbrei says. The Norwegian police called a long-running Oslo crackdown on prostitution Operation Homeless.

The Swedish government has been clear that it considers the problems the law causes for sex workers an acceptable form of deterrence, reporting in 2010 that the negative effects “must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution.” When France adopted the Swedish model in April, the bill’s sponsor in Parliament said one goal was to “change mentalities.” On social media, American sex workers poured out their sympathy for their French sisters, who were marching in protest.

Sweden may not be a relevant model for the United States, where the kind of hardship that often pushes people into street-level sex work is more widespread and the safety net much weaker. The difference is relevant, says Rachel Lloyd, the founder and C.E.O. of Girls Educational and Mentoring Services (GEMS), based in Central Harlem, which helps about 400 girls and young women in New York annually who have been involved in prostitution. She opposes legalization, because she thinks it will increase trafficking. She visited Stockholm two years ago and found it significant that there are so many family services, that few teenagers are in foster care and that most have access to state-funded universities. “I came away thinking: In the U.S., we’re not there,” she says about adopting the Swedish model. “We don’t have the social services.” Lloyd says that not enough of the tens of millions of dollars in government funds and donations in the United States that go to fight trafficking are used for services, like housing for teenagers leaving foster care; 70 percent of GEMS members have been in that system. “When you’re trying to move forward, you need an apartment,” Lloyd says. “You need to go to school.” (In Sweden, she was also surprised to learn that men who are caught buying sex are fined rather than arrested, paying an amount that depends on their income and generally ranges from $300 to $4500, according to a news report.)

Advocates for decriminalizing sex work emphasize that low-income women, women of color and trans people are most likely to be arrested. Lawyers who handle prostitution cases are also concerned about what they see as the targeting of homeless women. “Economic vulnerability makes people much more likely to agree to accept money for sex if they are approached,” says Kate Mogulescu, supervising attorney of the Exploitation Intervention Project at Legal Aid in New York. ‎

Over a two-month period this year, at least 19 women have been arrested for prostitution within five blocks of the HELP Women’s Shelter in East New York, Brooklyn, court records show. The annual number of arrests there has climbed as high as 87, in 2013. Even a verbal exchange can have fateful consequences: “I was walking back from the subway, after a job interview in Manhattan, at 6 p.m.,” says one 35-year-old woman, who has no previous arrest record for prostitution. “A car pulls up. The guy offers me a ride. I get in and he offers me $20 to have sex with him.” She said yes, she told me, because she needed to buy shampoo, deodorant and underwear, which the shelter doesn’t supply. “Then we go around the corner, and there are lights flashing in my face, and they’re putting handcuffs on me.”

Although Mogulescu disputes the assertions, the New York Police Department says the blocks around the shelter are “a known prostitution area” and that undercover police officers do not solicit women. “A woman accepted an offer of $20 to have sex, and you find it odd that we’re looking at that area?” a detective in the public information office asked. “Would you have sex for $20?”

Australia has adopted a very different legal model from Sweden’s. In 1999, the Australian state of New South Wales repealed its criminal laws against prostitution, freeing consenting adults to buy and sell sex and allowing brothels to operate much like other businesses. (Other Australian states have a variety of laws.) Four years later, New Zealand implemented full decriminalization. Abolitionists predicted explosive growth of prostitution. But the number of sex workers stayed flat, at about 6,000 in New Zealand and somewhat more in New South Wales. Condom use among sex workers rose above 99 percent, according to government surveys. Sex workers in brothels in New South Wales report the same level of depression and stress as women in the general population; rates are far higher for women who work on the street, who are also often intravenous drug users. While the New Zealand government has found no evidence that sex workers are being trafficked across the country’s border, last November, the Parliament of New South Wales gave the police more power to monitor brothels, after reports that some were linked to organized crime and prosecutions for “sexual servitude” and exploitation. One involved a Thai woman who was recruited in Bangkok and told she would learn to be a hairdresser.

A couple of years ago, a Seattle dominatrix and outspoken activist who goes by the name Mistress Matisse flew to Australia for three weeks and spent a week working. “I just had to see what it was like,” she says. At home, she writes for The Stranger, Seattle’s alternative weekly, and frequently tweets about the practice and politics of sex work to her 27,000 Twitter followers.

In Australia, Matisse worked at a small brothel called the Golden Apple (small bar, six bedrooms) in Sydney, which is in New South Wales, and a larger one called Gotham City. “I thought: I won’t be Mistress Matisse. I’ll just be a girl doing full service” — intercourse — “which I hadn’t done for years,” she says. She saw three or four clients a night and then went to the beach.

Matisse contrasted working in Australia with working in a brothel in Nevada several years ago. She much preferred Australia. Nevada limits legal prostitution to a small number of brothels in rural areas, and they are subject to strict licensing requirements. “In Australia, you go home every night, and you can have a cigarette, go on a date, stay in a normal head space,” Matisse said. “In Nevada, you had to be in the brothel 24/7. It was like a cross between summer camp and a women’s prison.” Most prostitution in the state takes place illegally outside the brothels, in Las Vegas and Reno, with more freedom but also more risk.

Germany has a similar two-tiered market. The country became a growing destination for sex tourism after introducing in 2002 new regulations for the legal sex trade, with an estimated 400,000 sex workers. Migrant women working underground, some of whom are lured into crossing the border, face the same threat of deportation as in Sweden. Meanwhile, licensing requirements raised the cost of setting up brothels, favoring chains and big businesses, including a 12-story, neon-lit brothel in Cologne. “What’s strange is how industrial the brothels are,” says Skilbrei, the professor at the University of Oslo. “They control the women, for example with health checks.” That’s not the model sex workers are fighting for, because it diminishes their autonomy.

Amnesty distinguishes the laws in Germany (and the Netherlands, where sex work is legal only in Amsterdam) from those in New Zealand and Australia, which place “greater control into the hands of sex workers to operate independently, self-organize in informal cooperatives and control their own working environments,” the human rights group states. Melissa Farley, the psychologist and abolitionist researcher, rejects all of these models. “The state functions as a pimp, collecting taxes, which I consider blood money,” she wrote in an email last December. In the most recent government research, a 2008 survey of 770 sex workers by the New Zealand government, most reported that they were not likely to report violence to the police, which the government attributed to their sense of stigma. Farley sees this as proof that “wherever prostitution exists, the harm goes with it, regardless of legal status.”

To Amnesty, the lesson is that decriminalization isn’t like flipping a switch — it takes time for attitudes to shift. There are signs that this has begun: In the 2008 New Zealand survey, 40 percent of sex workers also said they felt a sense of camaraderie and belonging, suggesting that their relationships with one another may provide an antidote to stigma. Annah Pickering, who does street outreach for the New Zealand Prostitutes’ Collective, describes a more recent dynamic with the police that would be unthinkable almost anywhere else. “We used to wave the police down for help, and they’d keep driving, but now they take sex workers’ complaints seriously,” she said. She told me about an incident in South Auckland last year. “One client negotiated with a street worker; she did the act, and he refused to pay. She waved a cop down, and he told the client he had to pay and took him to the A.T.M. to get the money.”

Sixty years ago, after Gloria Steinem graduated from Smith College, she spent two years in India on a fellowship observing village-based land reform. Returning to the country in 2014, she called prostitution “commercial rape,” making headlines. Until recently, Indian feminists shared Steinem’s views of prostitution, but many have gradually shifted their thinking. In 2014, Lalitha Kumaramangalam, the chairwoman of India’s National Commission on Women, came out in favor of decriminalization, saying it would help protect sex workers from violence and improve their health care. Reaction within India was mixed. But the refusal of Americans like Steinem to rethink their broad-brush condemnation of sex work, or the wisdom of rescue tactics, angers some feminists there. “Why have you locked yourself into saving sex workers in India and not engaged with the larger women’s movement?” asked Geeta Misra, who runs the human rights group C.R.E.A. in New Delhi, which tries to build feminist leadership and expand sexual and reproductive freedom.

The debate shifted in India largely because of the role of the country’s sex-worker collectives, which are among the largest in the world, and which exert a social and political force that has no parallel in the United States. Founded in the early 1990s, the collectives first proved adept at helping to slow the spread of H.I.V. Melinda Gates went to Sonagachi, the red-light district in the city of Kolkata, in 2004 and wrote in The Seattle Times about a sex worker named Gita and her peers, who “have helped to increase condom use from zero to 70 percent in their district, and to reduce H.I.V. infection rates to 7 percent — compared with rates as high as 66 percent among sex workers elsewhere.” Gates concluded by announcing that the foundation she created with her husband, Bill Gates, would spend $200 million to fight H.I.V. in India, an amount later raised to $338 million.

The sex-worker collective in Sonagachi, the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee (D.M.S.C., the “Unstoppable Women Committee”), now has 65,000 members and runs schools for the children of sex workers, who often face discrimination, and has established banks where sex workers can open accounts. In rural Sangli, 6,000 people belong to Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (or VAMP, “Sex Workers Fight Injustice”), an offshoot of Sangram, the public-health group.

While it’s illegal to own a brothel or sell sex on the street in India, indoor prostitution is not against the law. Enforcement is uneven, and the police sometimes demand sex or bribes. Nevertheless, the relationship between the police and sex workers can approach a tenuous détente that allows the collectives to assert themselves. A project of the Gates Foundation, from 2005 until 2011, used the collective model to organize 60,000 sex workers in Karnataka. They brought in peer educators to talk to the police and lawyers to teach sex workers about their rights not to be harassed and, often, not to be arrested. As arrests dropped, so did violence by the police, pimps and clients, along with the H.I.V. rate, according to a study last year in The Journal of the International AIDS Society.

Human rights advocates, including Amnesty, think the sex-worker collectives are a far better means of preventing trafficking and under-age prostitution than brothel raids. D.M.S.C. and VAMP run screening boards in Sonagachi and Sangli, which interview women who are new to the district, asking if they’ve entered the sex trade willingly and sometimes checking birth certificates for proof that the women are at least 18 (partly out of self-interest, because older women often don’t want to compete with younger ones). It’s not a perfect system by any means. Among other shortcomings, high-end brothels in Sonagachi, run by people called agrawalis, don’t participate in the collective’s condom distribution, say researchers, including Prabha Kotiswaran, a faculty member at King’s College, London, who conducted months of field work in Sonagachi for her book “Dangerous Sex, Invisible Labor.” “The agrawalis are a source of under-age trafficking,” Kotiswaran says. At other brothels, however, she saw D.M.S.C.’s staff trying to help girls leave and find better options than state-run protective custody, where they often wind up after raids. “That’s a nightmare, like prison,” Kotiswaran says.

Indian feminists want poor women to have alternatives for making a decent living, but they are hard to come by. Kotiswaran found that women could make roughly six times as much doing sex work in Sonagachi as they could at a garment factory. In one study in 2011 of more than 5,000 women across India, only 3 percent said they were “forced” into the sex trade, and only 10 percent said they freely chose it. The rest fell into the gray area in between, giving reasons related to poverty or issues like domestic violence or desertion.

In any other context, American feminists would celebrate tens of thousands of women organizing to improve their lives. But Steinem expresses deep suspicion of the Indian sex-worker collectives. D.M.S.C. has enabled “the sex industry to attract millions of dollars from the Gates Foundation,” creating “a big new source of income for brothel owners, pimps and traffickers,” she wrote in the newspaper The Hindu in 2012. Last fall, in an interview with Esquire, she called the foundation’s work in India a “disaster” and said there was “no evidence that women have the power to make men use condoms.” (Through a spokesman, the Gates Foundation declined to comment.) Yet studies have shown large jumps in condom use when sex workers organize, and the annual rate of new H.I.V. infections in India has fallen by half.

Steinem’s guide in Sonagachi, and during part of her 2014 trip, was Ruchira Gupta, an Indian former journalist who founded a group called Apne Aap, which tries to help women leave sex work and has helped the police raid brothels. Gupta has strong ties with American abolitionists. She received funding from the State Department during the Bush administration, won a Clinton Global Citizen Award in 2009 and is scheduled to receive an honorary degree from Smith College this month. Steinem is on Apne Aap’s advisory board. Nicholas Kristof, an opinion columnist for The New York Times who has gone on brothel raids (including one in Cambodia that he live-tweeted), has called Gupta a “brilliant social entrepreneur.” When I asked Gupta about the Gates Foundation’s work preventing AIDS, she said: “They’re thinking about the 45-year-old man who is the client. Instead of protecting women and girls from rapists, they protect the men from AIDS.” Gupta similarly denounced Amnesty and Human Rights Watch: “They see a little girl in a brothel and think it’s fine, if we give her a condom.” Rachel Moran, author of the recent memoir “Paid For,” who calls herself a survivor of prostitution in Ireland, also says that “Amnesty International has taken their views directly from pimps and traffickers.” Amnesty categorically denies these accusations, explaining that it consulted sex workers along with doing extensive research. “We recognize that harm can occur in sex work, but to characterize the sex-workers’ rights movement as a front for pimps is really shocking,” Catherine Murphy of Amnesty says.

Steinem declined to talk to me. Her assistant said she would defer to Gupta as “her source on this subject.” Human rights advocates question Gupta’s approach because of the complexity of sex work in India. Many women who sell sex do so alone or in small groups, out of homes or in side streets, truck stops, parks or railway stops. Some rent rooms from women who have done or continue to do sex work. Those women are often the ones arrested on charges of brothel-keeping or trafficking, says Siddharth Dube, a public-health expert and former senior adviser at U.N.AIDS who writes extensively about sex work in India in a memoir, “No One Else.” He adds, “And this is a disaster, because this is a helpless impoverished woman in her 40s or 50s trying to survive.”

There is another side to prostitution in India, which Dube says is far less prevalent: Small rural communities in which, for some families, prostitution is intergenerational, and women or girls are expected to enter the trade. These are some of the most difficult places in which to fight trafficking. “You must try,” Dube says. “But you’re walking into a very complex and explosive situation where you can make huge errors of judgment in identifying who is a trafficker.” Like everyone I spoke to, he opposes under-age prostitution. But to address it, “you can’t just have raids in a slipshod way or seek publicity. You have to really painstakingly try to solve these problems with the community.”

Apne Aap concentrates much of its work in these kinds of communities and has brought in the media to cover raids and intergenerational prostitution. But one TV segment, “The ‘Fallen’ Women of Perna,” which was broadcast on the TV show “India Today,” provoked beatings by some family members of some of the girls and women who appeared on the show, according to former American and European interns and Indian staff members of Apne Aap who wrote letters criticizing the organization in 2014. They sent the letters to Apne Aap’s main funder, the NoVo Foundation in New York, founded by Warren Buffett’s son Peter.

Gupta questioned whether the beatings occurred and said that if they did, “it wasn’t because of Apne Aap.” She told me she hated the show’s title, but the group promoted the segment, which included an interview with her. “Through the use of occasional media,” Gupta says, “we frighten the local authorities not to collude with the traffickers, and we frighten the traffickers to think what they’re doing will go public.”

The former Apne Aap employees also wrote that “there is a disconnect” between the organization’s head office and the “needs and voices” of the field offices and the girls and women they aim to serve. After the letters, Apne Aap ended the international intern program. It also stopped renting an expensive office and house in Delhi, far from its field work, and hired Dalberg Development Associates to assess its impact over the previous five years. Dalberg praised Apne Aap’s work bringing women together, providing legal training and, in particular, helping to place children at risk of prostitution in residential schools, but recommended that the group “reduce or delink direct involvement” in brothel rescues.

Apne Aap is halfway through receiving a two-year $700,000 grant from the NoVo Foundation. In an email, NoVo said it continued to support the organization out of concern for the “marginalized girls and women who rely on Apne Aap for essential services.” The American support, in particular by Steinem, for Apne Aap’s model saddens and frustrates Indian feminists who promote the sex-worker collectives. “Gloria Steinem was one of our icons,” says Meena Seshu of Sangram. “We really looked up to her. Why doesn’t she come and listen to the people here, with respect and dignity?”

A few years ago, VAMP, the Sangli collective, made a short film, “Save Us From Saviors.” On camera, a leader in the collective named Shabana says: “I started doing sex work when I was 12 years old. One of my sisters was burnt to death. I might also have been killed, so I ran away.” In the next shot, dressed in a bright yellow sari, she sits with her two children, and one of them kisses her on the head. “It is only recently that I’ve started thinking it’s good that I’m in sex work,” Shabana says. “I don’t have to depend on anyone for anything.”

What would decriminalization in the United States look like, if the sex-workers’ rights movement got its way? It’s hard to apply lessons from other countries. Some activists think the best way to find out would be to start with a local experiment. “You need one place to try it,” Meg Muñoz said to me, mentioning the legalization of marijuana in Colorado. “You need the right testing environment.” It’s not clear where that would be, though; San Francisco voters rejected a decriminalization referendum by a wide margin in 2008.

The way decriminalization might play out probably lies in the unsexy details of implementation. Cities could use zoning ordinances to address concerns about the effects on residential neighborhoods by confining brothels, like strip clubs, to industrial areas and limiting their size. Trafficking and promoting under-age prostitution would remain crimes. People could work discreetly in their own homes or hotels without fear of reprisal. The sex industry could become safer, as activists hope. It’s also possible that the sex trade would grow, as abolitionists warn, especially if one area turned into a sex-tourism hot spot.

Until now, abolitionist ideas about punishing men and treating women as victims have dominated legal reform in the United States. Seattle, for example, has announced a shift toward arresting male clients and connecting sex workers with services. But sex workers I spoke to around the country, in a variety of life circumstances, raised questions about how punishing buyers would make their lives better; they would still be participating in illegal transactions and have something to hide. An older escort told me that if she didn’t dread exposure and losing her business, she would report under-age prostitution and trafficking to the police if she witnessed it.

Three years ago in New York, abolitionists encouraged the establishment of Human Trafficking Intervention Courts for people arrested on prostitution charges. Judges mandate services like counseling to address trauma and can dismiss charges against those who attend and aren’t rearrested. It’s better than having a criminal record, sex workers and their advocates say, but women who don’t comply can still end up in jail, and some of those who attend say they resent being forced into the mandated counseling. The courts also authorize pretrial detention, sending women to jail to protect them from men in their lives, if a judge deems it necessary, or simply to prevent their immediate return to prostitution. These courts are an experiment in “penal welfare” because they repackage criminal intervention as social services, argues Kate Mogulescu, the founder and supervising attorney of the Exploitation Intervention Project at the Legal Aid Society. A few months before the trafficking courts opened, New York State passed a “bawdy house” law, making it easier for prosecutors to institute eviction proceedings for prostitution if landlords do not.

Last spring, with support from abolitionists and conservatives (the same coalition from the days of the Bush administration), Congress passed the Justice for Victims of Trafficking Act, which makes the crime of buying sex from a trafficking victim equivalent to sex trafficking itself. The maximum sentence is 99 years in prison. Rachel Lloyd of GEMS thinks the emphasis of reform should be on helping girls and women, not increasing penalties for men who pay for sex. In 2008, she helped pass a safe-harbor law, which treats juveniles in prostitution as victims, rather than criminals, in New York. (More than half the states have such laws.)

Talking to sex workers across the country, in a variety of life circumstances, I heard a range of feelings about what they do. A self-described East Indian courtesan in New York said she loved “playing a role, developing a fantasy we can both walk into out of our mundane lives.” A dominatrix who lives on the Upper East Side told me she sometimes felt good about making an emotional connection. Then her tone changed. “But God, I hate putting on the strap-on.” A woman in Brooklyn said her clients meant nothing to her. “I only care about my kids,” she said. “This is about providing for them.” Mistress Matisse, the Seattle dominatrix, treats some clients as friends; one does her taxes, and another, an exterminator, checks her house for bugs. She raised thousands of dollars from clients and online donors to help a woman named Heather in West Virginia, who told me she hated sex work but was doing it to buy heroin, pay for living expenses and go into drug treatment. “If you don’t want to do this work, you shouldn’t have to,” Mistress Matisse told me. “I can see how it would bruise your heart.” Other women, sounding numb or even traumatized, said that they had to dissociate to get through their time with clients. Ceyenne, an activist who was arrested a few years ago while doing “fetish work” in New Jersey, said, “Mentally and physically, it’s a lot to carry.” She wrote a memoir, and she speaks regularly to L.G.B.T. youth groups. “When I talk to these girls coming up now, I tell them to reach for more.”

The traditional feminist argument against decriminalization is that legitimizing prostitution will harm women by leading to more sexual inequality. The human rights argument for it is that it will make people’s lives better, and safer. In this fight over whose voices to listen to, who speaks for whom and when to use the power of criminal law, the sex-workers’ rights movement is a rebellion against punishment and shame. It demands respect for a group that has rarely received it, insisting that you can only really help people if you respect them.