De-Facto Decrim and How It Would Work

An author friend of mine has a series of books primarily set in a fictional city where the police chief, made painfully aware of the problems created by criminalizing sex work, has come up with the solution of having his department operate as though commercial sex work was already decriminalized, even establishing a “special district” where street-based sex workers are able to operate with relative safety.

In fact, such a policy has been in place in the Canadian cities of Victoria and Vancouver for some time, resulting in significant improvements in sex worker safety in those locations. Here in the United States, Democratic candidate for Queens District Attorney Tiffany Cabán has pledged not to prosecute sex workers or their clients if elected – a similar policy of de-facto decriminalization

Such a pragmatic approach is not without precedent, and is rooted in the discretionary authority given to law enforcement. Usually such “selective enforcement” is done on a case-by-case basis – such as when a police officer gives a driver a warning for a minor violation rather than write a ticket – but there are also cases where an organization determines that strict (or any) enforcement of a particular law does not serve the public interest.

I would argue that a local-level policy of de-facto decrim is just such a case, and should be a goal for advocates of sex worker rights to pursue as an interim step towards actual full decriminalization. Such a policy not only assures greater safety for sex workers and those associated with them, but better serves the public by allowing more resources to be dedicated towards addressing acts of violence and other major crimes, including and especially police corruption and abuse.

This raises two general questions:

  1. What exactly would “de-facto decrim” (or DFD) look like?
  2. How would it be implemented?

As mentioned before, DFD could be implemented simply as a standing policy of a municipal police department, as in Victoria and Vancouver. Similarly, a local prosecutor’s office could implement a policy of not pursuing prostitution charges when there is no evidence of violence, coercion or fraud. The only issue here is when police and prosecutors are not in sync, so even if a prosecutor refuses to pursue certain charges, police may continue to make arrests. Both of these agencies may also be hesitant to implement any such policy if local government is not supportive. Ideally, then, a synchrony of these organizations would make sense, but it would still be feasible for DFD to begin with one of these groups implementing it in whole or in part, and the rest establishing concurrent policies and practices later on.

Returning to the first question, the simplest start for DFD would be to institute a moratorium on arrests for prostitution-related charges, whether of sex workers or their clients – a position which the Massachusetts Pirate Party is petitioning the Boston Police Department to implement. On a broader scale, this would mean non-enforcement of any laws against the consensual exchange of sexual services for pay, so long as no violence, coercion or fraud has taken place. A more detailed delineation of how this would be put into practice would include:

  • No arrests, investigations or sting operations against sex workers, their clients or third-party associates regarding any consensual activities between them.
  • Laws against brothel-keeping, which are too often used against sex workers who operate out of a shared space to ensure greater safety, would also not be enforced; in the event of a third party forcing two or more people to provide commercial sex from a given location, charges of false imprisonment and involuntary servitude could and should be employed instead.
  • Laws against “pimping” – already so vaguely worded that any individual who receives money from a sex worker could be arrested – would likewise not be enforced against any third-party facilitator, so long as the sex workers involved have no problem with how said facilitators operate. If there were problems of fraud or abuse, then again the police and prosecutors should enforce other laws to provide recourse for the workers involved.
  • Sex workers, sex work clients and third-party associates would be assured blanket immunity when reporting crimes to police and prosecutors, whether against themselves or another member of the community.
  • Police would work with sex worker organizations to address violence against sex workers, using proven community policing strategies. This would include addressing abuses by police officers, through changes in departmental policies and practices.
  • Complaints from residents about sex work activity would be addressed through conflict resolution involving sex worker organizations and social service agencies, with a goal of finding a resolution which best addresses the needs of all parties involved.
  • Police may establish a “tolerance zone” for street-based sex work, in consultation with sex worker organizations, with officers specifically trained to address the issues faced by sex workers, based on a community policing model. This would also include police providing information on “bad tricks” to sex workers operating in said area.
  • Incall and outcall sex work would likewise be allowed to operate without interference, so long as the activities engaged in are consensual.

Naturally, this is not a complete list, and certainly different localities would address specific needs in their implementation. But the common pattern is that police and other municipal agencies would start from the premise of what sex workers want in order to improve their lives, and resort to arrest only when violence or other abuses have taken place.

Aside from the practical benefits of increasing sex worker safety and well-being – as seen in Victoria and Vancouver – well-executed DFD models would also provide further evidence of the need for actually changing the laws to full decriminalization and the recognition of sex workers’ rights. Thus while it is not a complete solution, it is an applicable step towards developing and implementing more permanent ones in the areas of law, public policy, and community policing practices.

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Taking Sex Workers for a Ride

Here in Boston, there is an organization for homeless and at-risk youth called Bridge Over Troubled Waters. They began in the 1960s as a group of women offering sandwiches and a supportive ear to runaway, throwaway and neglected teens in Boston Common and Harvard Square. Over the decades, they grew into a model organization, with a mobile medical van as part of its street outreach, and the first emergency shelter for homeless youth in the country.

One of the reasons they have been as effective as they are is that they take the time to build rapport with street youth. They don’t impose their will on them; they meet them where they are, or wait for them to come.

That, I have learned, is vastly different from the vision of those who seek to “rescue” people from sex work, especially street-based sex work. Seattle is one example of this, where police don’t simply refrain from arresting street-based sex workers, they take them for a ride to members of the city’s “Organization for Prostitution Survivors,” which touts itself as offering “counseling and advice” to sex workers.

If that’s anything like the “counseling and advice” given by Peter Qualliotine in Seattle’s “john school” program, then sex workers in that city would be wise to steer clear. Qualliotine – an art college dropout whose only qualifications for running such a program is that he worked for prohibitionist fanatic Melissa Farley – attempts to indoctrinate members of his “STOP Exploitation” classes in a noxious hodgepodge of extremist ideology and shame-filled pseudoscience, all wrapped up with a speech reminiscent of an evangelical preacher’s temperance sermon abjuring the faithful to swear off liquor.

Of course, I would expect Peter Qualliotine, Alisa Bernard, and others at OPS to scoff at my description, denouncing me as a “sex trafficking apologist” or member of their mythic “pimp lobby” for daring to question their dogma. Let me pose a couple of important questions for them: If commercial sex is so universally terrible, and if you are offering such beneficial services, why do you need undercover police officers to bring street-based sex workers to you under false pretenses? If you’re so convinced that no one really consents to selling sex, how is using the police to deceive and intimidate women into listening to you any better?

Frankly, I don’t expect an answer from them. But for anyone else reading, think about the use of such disingenuous means to achieve their ends. And remember that this is being done on the taxpayer’s dime.

After the Gascon Case

Yesterday, a panel from the 9th Circuit court of appeals ruled against the plaintiffs in a civil suit filed by the Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education, and Research Project, calling for the decriminalization of full-service sex work on Constitutional grounds.

I am, of course disappointed – but neither surprised nor discouraged.

Judges are just as much mindful of public opinion as legislators and other politicians, hence unwilling to make dramatic changes in law without sufficient public support. Nor is one adverse ruling the end of the road towards reform. Both of these lessons are clearly demonstrated in the efforts for marriage equality.

The first lawsuit to allow same-gender couples the right to legally wed (Baker v. Nelson) was in 1971; it was rejected by the Minnesota high court, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear it. That did not end the effort to get such relationships recognized, even when leading LGBTQ rights activists considered it a distraction from what they considered more basic nondiscrimination rights. For many same-gender couples and their family members, however, the obstacles that came with lack of equal recognition had very real consequences. Thus, while mainstream organizations worked for “domestic partnership” ordinances at local and state levels, a few brave people continued to press for full marriage rights.

Evan Wolfson best outlined the strategy for achieving marriage equality, based on his research of previous civil rights efforts. He put forward that the fight would be accomplished on multiple fronts – judicial and legislative, from local to state and Federal – and most importantly would depend upon shaping public opinion through careful and continual education and messaging.

That was the strategy we followed in Massachusetts. We built a broad coalition, starting with the LGBTQ community and their allies like P-FLAG, expanding into the progressive religious community and other constituent groups. We talked to whomever would listen: student organizations, churches and synagogues, professional associations, political candidates and their operatives. Our goal was to expand our base by persuading members of the “mushy middle” to our side.

We did this by keeping our message simple, appealing on many levels, and showing that marriage equality harmed no one while giving same-gender couples and their families the tools they needed to assure their well-being. We also heeded the advice of legal experts not to rush into a lawsuit until our efforts at educating and organizing had borne sufficient fruit at the grassroots. In our first meeting, the more seasoned activists were convinced it would take some five or ten years before that foundation had been laid. They were just about right.

The Gascon case is analogous to the Baker case – an early effort to achieve rights which will be seen as “ahead of its time” once those rights are considered settled law. To repeat the successes of the marriage equality movement, sex workers and their allies in the United States should look at how to apply their organizing and messaging strategies towards reshaping public consensus in favor of full decriminalization.

Tea, Consent, and Commercial Sex

You may have heard about the video which explains sexual consent by making an analogy with tea:

I like the use of analogies and metaphors to get a point across. I also enjoy tea better than the average American, some acquaintances saying my love of tea could rival that of the British and Irish. With that in mind,…

Let’s say that someone has heard about my knowledge and skill regarding tea, and would not only like me to brew and serve some tea for them, but would be willing to pay me for it. I give it a moment’s thought, and agree. The table is set, the tea is brewed and served with suitable edibles, the whole experience enjoyed by my guest, who pays the agreed-upon remuneration plus a gratuity.

Not bad.

So, why not make this a business? I spread the word about my willingness to make and serve tea to paying customers, from word-of-mouth to the World Wide Web, and build a customer base. I set some limits on what I will and won’t do, establish a schedule of fees for different levels of service, and build a base of regular and occasional clientele. Sometimes I enjoy it, sometimes it’s tedious or even annoying – but so long as no one uses force or deceit to get me to make them tea, or doesn’t pay the agreed-upon fee, I’m good.

Now imagine that I run into people who have a problem with this. Some argue that, to “protect” me and/or my clients, I need to be licensed – not the same kind of licensure that a restaurant or catering company goes through, but special licensing through the police, along with excessive and intrusive health checks, severe limits on advertising and location, and constant political and social scrutiny. Others would argue that, while there’s nothing wrong with serving tea for free, as soon as you exchange it for money, some nefarious force robs tea-service-sellers of consent, and all tea-service-buyers are selfish and abusive, not to mention the people who run those filthy teahouses, so let’s “rescue” the poor tea-service-sellers and punish those nasty buyers and bosses by making it a crime to pay for tea service, or living off the avails of tea-service-selling, because you should only consent to making or having tea when you truly love the other person.

What about if a tea-service-seller argues they’re not being forced, they don’t hate what they do, the majority of their clients are not abusive assholes, and they don’t need the police or anyone else interfering in their business? Well, the ones who argue that all tea-service-selling is a form of modern-day slavery dismissively argue that those poor sellers are “not representative” and deluded by “false consciousness,” so no one should listen to them. The stigmatizing narrative of the “anti-sellers” even begins to negatively affect the sellers’ community, yet still they persist and protest, based on the basic premise that the only people who get to decide who has tea with whom, and under what terms, are the people themselves.

Money is not magic. It doesn’t have any mysterious power to erode or negate consent. And if it’s possible to give and receive something consensually, then it’s also possible to buy and sell it consensually.

Email to Massachusetts Legislators: Don’t Bring the Swedish Model Here!

In May, I posted about Massachusetts state representative Kay Khan’s attempt to introduce the Swedish model to my home state. Since then, it has gone to the legislature’s Joint Committee on the Judiciary. Already, sex worker rights activists have begun a campaign to oppose this harmful proposal. Below is the content of my email to forty Representatives and Senators:

I am writing as a concerned citizen regarding H. 3499, which claims to “decriminalize” prostitution while fighting sexual exploitation. This bill, modeled on legislation ratified in Sweden in 1999 and promoted by that country, is in no way a form of decriminalization, has not been shown to reduce either sex work or sexual exploitation, and has only led to increased harms against sex workers.

H. 3499 only removes criminal penalties for accepting remuneration for sexual services, while increasing penalties for their purchase, as well as retaining penalties for engaging in commercial sex indoors (MGL Ch. 272 Sec. 24), or even being hired and paid by a sex worker to provide administrative or other related services (MGL Ch. 272 Sec. 7). Indeed, there are eight specific sections in Chapter 272 of the Massachusetts General Laws which affect individuals involved with consensual adult sex work, whether as providers, clients, commercial third parties, or even dependents who receive support from the income of a sex work provider. This bill fails to address the majority of these sections, not to mention the complex social and economic realities behind commercial sex.

The reasoning behind H. 3499 is based on the flawed and simplistic assumption that, by pressuring sex work clients with punitive measures, this will “end demand” and thus lead to a concomitant reduction of supply in sexual services. Such an assumption fails to account for the economic circumstances of many sex workers, especially those who work at subsistence level. When an individual is engaging in any work at subsistence level, with few to no alternatives available, and demand for the service or product they provide is reduced, their response is to merely increase supply to make up for any deficits caused by said reduction in demand. This is what development economists refer to as “negative income elasticity,” and it is the reality faced by street-based sex workers and others on the lower end of the income scale in commercial sex. The Swedish model and other “end demand” strategies fail to account for this, leading to an increase in harms against sex workers, and no measurable reduction of either demand or supply.

Proponents of this bill, and “end demand” approaches generally, also fail to note the means by which Swedish police have enforced this model. They have employed overly invasive methods of surveillance towards sex workers, even observing them engage in sex with clients before arresting the client and insisting that the sex worker accompany them to the police station as a “witness,” only to be subjected to humiliating strip searches and questioning, and often returning home to find that their landlords have been threatened with pimping or brothel-keeping charges if the sex worker is not immediately evicted. While Sweden is touted as a bastion of human rights progress, including its humane police and prison practices, their stigmatization and harassment of sex workers is a disturbing departure from this.

For these and other reasons, the model which H. 3499 represents is rejected by groups such as the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, Freedom Network USA, Anti-Slavery International, the World Health Organization, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. These groups and many others embrace a harm-reduction model which empowers sex workers to assure their own safety, well-being and dignity. This model, employed in New Zealand and the Australian state of New South Wales, calls for full decriminalization of all aspects of voluntary adult commercial sex, combined with comprehensive social support services. Full decriminalization has been shown to increase sex worker safety, transform the relationship between sex workers and law enforcement from adversarial to collaborative, and without any measurable increase in the number of providers or clients. I would therefore urge the members of the Massachusetts General Court to reject H. 3499, and instead to form a commission to explore alternatives to addressing the needs of sex workers in our Commonwealth.

If you or your staff have any further questions, I would be happy to address them. Thank you for your consideration in this matter.

Sincerely,

Desmond Ravenstone
Roslindale MA

Being Careful with the Facts

Check my social media footprint, and you’ll find a plethora of articles about sex work, from news items to academic research. One group of studies, however, is conspicuously absent. The reason? I’m not convinced of the conclusion they share.

That may seem contradictory for two reasons. The first is that I’m willing to articulate just about any argument for decriminalizing sex work. That’s because I understand that different arguments appeal to different audiences. Hence, I’ll make certain arguments to free-market libertarians, other arguments to feminists and progressives. However, being “all things to all people” for the sake of winning over a broad base does not mean I’m willing to put forward an argument which I think is weak.

This leads to the second question. If three studies make the same conclusion, doesn’t that satisfy the “reproducible results” requirements for scientific evidence? Not if these studies also repeat the same flaws, which seems to be the case here.

The studies in question – one focused on Rhode Island, one on the Netherlands, and the third on New York City – claim that legal or tolerated indoor prostitution means reduced incidents of rape in those areas. At their most basic level, these studies make one of the most common mistakes in social science research: equating correlation with causation. For all we know, the two factors being studied could very well be cause by a third factor, such as changes in attitudes towards sexuality and a better understanding of consent. They could also be connected to different factors, or combinations of factors. Also, the researchers looked at reported rapes and sexual assaults, without discussing in depth how various social and cultural factors may affect the proportion of actual crimes which are reported.

This is not the first time I’ve been skeptical of some research which seemed to support some political or ethical stance. Many LGBTQ rights advocates, for example, have opined that homophobes are really raging closet cases, mostly based on sensational anecdotes, but often citing a University of Georgia study “proving” that. Except there are a number of flaws with that study, the three biggest being the small sample size, the lack of heterogeneity in that sample, and the means of measuring arousal or interest in its subjects. And with no other real evidence to back it up, I’m not ready to jump on that bandwagon.

One of the most powerful arguments against prohibitionism is the lack of evidence that it works or produces the results its adherents keep saying will happen. All the more reason for supporters of decrim and sex workers’ rights to be careful with our facts. Let the other side do their sloppy studies, and parrot their collective claims with fanatical faith.

Book Review: “Sex, Lies & Statistics” by Dr. Brooke Magnanti

The biggest uphill battle for advocates of sex workers’ rights and dignity is the constant barrage of bogus research and misrepresentation on the part of radical “feminists” and right-wing religious fanatics. Sex workers and their allies have had to comb through the Internet, finding bits and pieces here and there, like scroungers in a prison camp gathering what meager resources are available for survival and eventual escape. Imagine you’re such a scrounger, and you come across a treasure trove of maps, blueprints and other documents providing vital intelligence for the escape committee.

Brooke Magnanti’s book is just such an invaluable trove of information. She dissects the falsehoods of the “rescue industry” being peddled as research, and presents solid evidence that the best path towards assuring safety and human rights for people in commercial sex is full decriminalization. Skilled in both writing and scientific acumen, her work is both thorough and accessible, critiquing and dismantling her opposition, while providing solid evidence for her case.

She begins in the first two chapters at the unproven assumptions and sloppy studies used to “prove” negative effects of pornography, strip clubs, and even “sexualized” imagery in mainstream media. Chapters 3 through 6 are devoted to distinguishing the various legal models around prostitution, demonstrating the practical and ethical failures of the various forms of legalization and criminalization, especially the “Swedish model” and its fallacious “end demand” ideology. Her overview of the history of prostitution in the 19th century American West shows how commercial sex provided many women with economic independence, even the wherewithal to help build their communities. She shines a skeptical light on the claims of “anti-trafficking” organizations, takes aim at various prohibitionist leaders – Melissa Farley, Julie Bindel, and Swanee Hunt of Demand Abolition – revealing their ruthless machinations and profiteering at the expense of sex workers and their families. Chapter 7 is a transcript of her appearance with Paris Lees before the UK parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee in 2016, bookended by her observations and commentary.

“Sex, Lies & Statistics” is the book for anyone who needs to sort fact from fiction regarding sex work. Get it, read it, and share it!

If You Think “End Demand” is a “Progressive” Program, You Need to Read This

People who label themselves political or social progressives like to think of themselves as both forward-thinking and freedom-loving. That has not always been the case, however. Progressives have at times been divided on certain issues, just as they are today over sex workers’ rights. Those who currently favor the so-called “end demand” policies first instituted by Sweden in 1999 (hence its nicknames of “Swedish model” and “Nordic model”) follow a basic logic of social engineering:

  1. X is bad for society.
  2. If X were eliminated, it would benefit society.
  3. Therefore, government should institute policies for eliminating X.

Where this logic fails is in identifying “X” in utterly simplistic ways. Alcohol, for example, was considered “bad for society,” leading to failed experiments in prohibition which increased crime, thus making things worse for society. Homosexuals were (and in many places still are) branded as harmful deviants, subject to criminal penalties and dubious cures.

Progressives forget that, from the late 19th century until well past the end of World War II, there was a movement dedicated to improving humanity through a series of programs, all justified by the mantle of science. In fact, primitive forms of this form of social engineering had been practiced in ancient societies, and supported by philosophers like Plato. The ideas behind this organized movement began with an eminent scientist, motivated by his cousin Charles Darwin, and were promoted in many countries in Europe, the Americas, and Australia. In the United States, feminists and other progressives embraced the movement, leading to the adoption of laws in many states and the Federal government. In Great Britain, they found support across political lines, from conservatives like Winston Churchill to members of the Fabian Society. Sweden adopted elements of the movement’s agenda as part of the folkhemmet envisioned by Social Democrats and other reformers. Of course, the movement did have its critics, from public intellectuals like G. K Chesterton to notable scientists like Franz Boas and J. B. S. Haldane. Still, many embraced the ideas of the movement, even after witnessing its most brutal implementation in Nazi Germany.

That movement was eugenics.

Sir Francis Galton first conceived of the idea that, if animals could be selectively bred for certain traits, then the same principle ought to be applied to humans. He also suggested that those considered unfit “could find a welcome and a refuge in celibate monasteries or sisterhoods,” and that prospective immigrants should be screened for their potential fitness (thus anticipating policies to be enacted in the United States, Australia, and other countries). While he was motivated by Darwin’s ideas of natural selection, his illustrious cousin did not openly embrace his views; indeed, his writings indicated that he preferred that such choices be left to individuals rather than the state. But others picked up where Galton left off, and started a worldwide eugenics movement to improve the human race, whether by positive means (e.g., “Fit Family” competitions) or negative ones (compulsory sterilization of the mentally ill and “feeble-minded”).

A vocal minority raised serious questions. They worried about who was to decide whether someone was “fit” enough to breed, and how. They raised the point that many supposed weaknesses were not inheritable at all. They pointed to outstanding intellects and artists who also exhibited supposedly congenital weaknesses. G. K. Chesterton argued that the vague definitions of unfitness could very well lead to an unjust imposition of conformity: “Every tramp who is sulk, every labourer who is shy, every rustic who is eccentric, can quite easily be brought under such conditions as were designed for homicidal maniacs.”

Sure enough, eugenics programs were being implemented to rationalize exclusion of racial minorities, forced sterilization of “degenerates,” presumption of guilt in criminal cases based on pseudoscientific theories, and other violations of human rights. Sex workers were especially victimized by these programs, as prostitution and other “lewd and lascivious behavior” was considered a sign of degeneracy, leading to governments on both sides of the Atlantic including them in their compulsory sterilization programs. When the Nazis were questioned about the barbaric measures they took to achieve their goal of “racial purity,” they tried to argue that the only differences from the eugenics programs being implemented in countries like Sweden and the United States was a matter of scale.

Nowadays, many self-described progressives are so horrified at the idea of eugenics that it leads them to be skeptical about everything from reproductive surrogacy to genetically modified foods. They need to remember that their ideological predecessors were some of the biggest supporters of this failed program – and that the same simplistic logic behind it is now being used to promote the cruel failure of the Swedish model and other prohibitionist policies against sex workers.

The Problem with Moderates

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’ve dealt before with friends and acquaintances who, relatively uninformed about sex work issues, would express their support for legalization, beginning a conversation about how that differed from decriminalization, and why the latter was preferable. Usually, the results were either:

  • The person’s idea of “legalization” was actually decriminalization.
  • The person didn’t know that the regulations which they thought were “reasonable” actually caused more harm than good.
  • The person only had a general understanding, but once they were more informed, embraced decrim.

Then there are the “moderates” …

They start by agreeing that criminal prohibition doesn’t work. They want an alternative to that. But they think decrim “goes too far” and may cause even more problems. No, they argue, we have to mandate testing for STIs, and keep the pimps at bay, and maybe even some kind of “Swedish Model Lite” where we just ticket the clients instead of throwing them in jail or making them go to “johns schools” …

They think legalization is some sort of acceptable “middle of the road” solution. Much like moderates on the marriage equality issue who thought “civil unions” would somehow solve the problem. Not a temporary bridge to our ultimate goal, as pragmatists like myself viewed it. They thought it was a permanent solution because, well, marriage is for heterosexuals to have children, and while gay people should have protections, it’s not the same thing …

That’s the major difference between moderates and pragmatists. It’s not whether a compromise is viewed as temporary or permanent. It’s the reason why moderates want it to be permanent: They are unable to get past many of the prejudices which led to the problem in the first place.

When it comes to sex work issues, moderates want mandatory testing because they still see sex workers as spreading disease. They want laws against pimping because they still think no one would actually choose to do sex work. They don’t think sex workers should have any input in the decision-making process around the laws and policies that affect them because they doubt that sex workers have the competence to make good decisions in the first place. And actually pay attention to what sex workers have to say? Oh, heaven forbid!

For all their good intentions, moderates still cling to a shallow understanding of sex work issues, rooted in paternalistic attitudes. That doesn’t mean they can’t be educated. It just means they need to do more work, not only about the facts behind sex work, but how they view the people involved in it.

Purity is a Luxury That Activists Cannot Afford

When we began working for marriage equality in Massachusetts in the 1990s, we fully expected opposition from social conservatives. What we didn’t quite expect was reluctance on the part of two supposedly natural allies. Among some LGBTQ folks, marriage was considered an oppressive institution; and a number of libertarians thought it best that government stay out of marriage entirely.

“All well and good,” we replied, “but those goals are a long way off. Meanwhile, there are couples and their families who would benefit enormously from having their unions legally recognized. So why not work with us on this for now, and your ideal goals over the long haul?”

That argument swayed some, but not all. Fortunately, those who insisted on remaining pure in their purpose were quite small, and we had plenty of folks across the political spectrum willing to work on achieving our goal.

I shudder when I think what might have happened if it was our side which was dominated by ideological purists – welcoming only left-wing LGBTQ people, viewing allies with suspicion, rejecting help from groups who endorsed same-sex marriage for the “wrong” reasons. It would have been a disaster.

This post is a warning to those in the sex worker rights movement who have adopted such a purist approach. My experience in social activism spans three and a half decades. I’ve seen my share of successes and mistakes. One of the most consistent factors is the more a group embraces purism, the more likely it is to either die or stagnate into irrelevancy. Purism has an understandable appeal, of making you feel comfortable in the short run, safe within a tribe. But in the long run, activism is not about staying in a safe place – it is about taking risks to achieve what change is possible and desirable, one step at a time.

Maggie McNeill draws the analogy of a bus stuck in the mud. Do you really care that much who helps you push it out? Because if you sit there waiting for the “perfect” people to help you in the “ideal” way, you’ll likely find that the bus has sunk in deeper and the mud dried out and hardened. If your bus is stuck in the mud, you get out and push, and you call on anyone passing by to help you.

But purism is not just impractical. It’s an approach to seeing the world which is rooted in bitter and cynical nihilism. As Alexis Shotwell, associate professor at Carleton University notes: “Purism is a de-collectivizing, de-mobilizing, paradoxical politics of despair. This world deserves better.” While purists condemn efforts at reform, they are failing to see how such efforts are not only more realistic, but more hopeful and inspiring.

Pitting purism against purism never works. Prohibitionists may try to sell their “end demand” approach as reform, but it is in fact a purist attempt at social engineering, built on a simplistic view of both economics and human sexuality. Decrim is the hopeful reform, not because it will transform society by itself, but because it will empower and inspire sex workers to improve their own lives.