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.