Stop Singling Out Street-Based Sex Workers

As I write this post, South Australia’s Legislative Council approved a bill to decriminalize prostitution. The next step would be a vote in that state’s House of Assembly. One of the reasons to be optimistic is that every attempt to amend the bill was defeated, including one that would have kept street-based sex work illegal. Similarly, social conservatives in New Zealand have been trying to get a ban on street-based sex work in Christchurch, without considering the various factors behind the problems involved (e.g., loss of public lavatories and other facilities due to earthquake damage).

Too often, moderates propose a “compromise” which excludes streetwalkers from the rights and recourse to be given other sex workers. Escorts and brothel girls? Sure, let them be legal. But not for those who ply their trade on the street. If other sex workers are able to do their business indoors, then so should they – not out in the open like that.

One of the times I heard an acquaintance make such an argument, I couldn’t help pointing out the irony that he’d just bought a hot dog and a soda from a vendor on the street. Yes, we allow folks who might afford a cart to sell food or hats or other goods out in the open, applaud the initiative of kids who offer their services mowing lawns or shoveling snow, and even let our neighbors sell all sorts of items from their yards or garages – but when the same principle is applied to commercial sex, too many of us still take exception.

When moderates separate street-based sex workers from others in their profession, they are helping to perpetuate the twin stigma of whorephobia and whorearchy. It’s bad enough that prohibitionist fanatics exploit their stereotyped image and marginalized status as fodder for propaganda. When they are singled out by appeals to respectability, they open the door to undue restrictions on all sex workers, and the problems that are likely to spill over from that. From banning commercial sex on the street, to restricting where incalls may be located, or that “legitimate” sex workers be registered and subjected to invasive mandatory health checks, legalization schemes never seem to stop at the street corner.

The major objection given to allowing street-based sex work is the “nuisance factor” perceived to be associated with it, especially when it takes place in residential areas. Establishing a commercial zone away from residential ones makes sense, but these are often implemented poorly, with said zones often having their own problems. If local governments want such a scheme to work, then they need to involve sex workers in the process of determining the best site for such a zone, as well as any resources they would need (such as drop-in clinics and help centers, SRO hotels providing short-term rentals, and access to public transportation). Local authorities also need to facilitate dialogue between sex workers and other members of the community, so that all sides may better understand one another’s needs.

The idea of viewing and treating street-based sex work as different from others does nothing to alleviate the risks involved. If anything, removing both legal restrictions and societal stigma is essential to finding ways to remove other obstacles to their health and safety. Decriminalizing the commercial sex industry means decriminalizing it in total, and not merely those we perceive as somehow more acceptable.

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The Road to Decrim: A Hopeful Scenario

Given current realities, how would the full decriminalization of sex work be accomplished in the United States? Realistically, it would involve not just many tactics and strategies, and the influence of events in other countries, but many political changes. While I have no crystal ball, I do have both an active imagination and a touch of whimsy. So, without further ado, here is a proposed timeline of how that might take place in the near future …

2018

  • After considerable consultation and pressure, Canada’s government introduces a bill to decriminalize sex work along the lines of the New Zealand model; meanwhile, police in several Canadian cities and provinces declare that they will adopt the guidelines used in British Columbia’s cities of Victoria and Vancouver, where sex worker safety is given priority over enforcement of laws criminalizing various aspects of the sex industry (these guidelines are called the Victoria-Vancouver Protocol).
  • Increasing political scandals in the United States leads to a massive upset in Congressional elections; the Republican Party collapses, displaced by the Libertarians, while the Democrats achieve a plurality and form a coalition with Greens and independents to elect Linda Sanchez as Speaker.
  • South Australia becomes the second state in that country, and the third jurisdiction globally, to enact full decriminalization of sex work.
  • Laura Lee wins her lawsuit against Northern Ireland’s version of the Swedish model, but reform is stalled by Stormont’s government

2019

  • Police chiefs in three U.S. municipalities adopt the Victoria-Vancouver Protocol, also applying its principles around drug possession and usage.
  • Canadian parliament passes full decrim, with specific requirements that municipal and provincial governments “engage in full consultation with peer-led sex worker organizations regarding formulation and implementation of any particular regulations of the sex industry.”
  • After lengthy internal debate, U.S. Green Party changes platform to endorse full decrim, and new leadership releases formal apology to sex worker community.
  • Congress begins hearings on articles of impeachment, but Donald Trump is forced to resign for “health reasons”; President Mike Pence resigns after only a few months, declaring current political situation unworkable; House Speaker Linda Sanchez is sworn in as President, Senator Cory Booker quickly confirmed as V.P.

2020

  • Debates rage in United States over immigration, drugs, and prostitution; police in three more cities adopt “Vic-Van” protocol.
  • Sanchez and Booker elected by plurality of popular vote and slim Electoral College majority.
  • Australian state of Victoria adopts full decrim.

2021

  • Police in five Rhode Island municipalities consider adopting “Vic-Van” while decrim bill is introduced in that state’s legislature; polls indicate support for decrim is at 62 percent; radical feminist Donna Hughes threatens to immolate herself on state capitol steps, prompting Libertarian Party leader Tania Markowitz to respond: “Burn, baby, burn!” and pro-decrim activists embrace this as a slogan; after decrim is passed overwhelmingly, Hughes retires from her post at the University of Rhode Island and disappears from public view.
  • Irish government commission declares that republic’s version of Swedish model “an abysmal failure” and recommends reforms; radical feminists and Catholic nuns criticize report and push for law to be retained.
  • Proposals for decrim introduced and debated in five Latin American countries.

2022

  • San Francisco becomes first major city to adopt “Vic-Van” while California governor Kamala Harris declares “all-out war against commercial sexual exploitation”.
  • Norway’s government repeals sex-purchase ban and adopts legalization scheme; sex worker organization PION praises move while pledging to continue fight for full decrim.
  • Netherlands adopts law allowing full decrim in certain cities (Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht) while giving other municipalities option for stricter regulation or prohibition.
  • Radical feminists invade legal Provincetown brothel and assault several people, in name of “resisting violence against women”; incident leads to major shift in U.S. public opinion on sex work.

2023

  • Several significant setbacks for anti-prostitution movement, as numerous leaders are either exposed as frauds or indicted on criminal charges ranging from bribery to abduction and assault.
  • France abandons Swedish model and adopts legalization scheme; STRASS and other sex worker groups commend “positive step” but recommit themselves to achieve full decrim.
  • Ireland’s Dail retains Swedish model by one vote, provoking massive march in Dublin and prolonged occupation of several churches by sex workers.
  • After election of left-of-center coalition government in Bundestag, German Greens introduce decrim bill crafted with input by sex workers.
  • Brazil, Thailand, and two Indian states adopt full decrim.
  • One-fifth of U.S. municipal police departments have adopted “Vic-Van” protocol.

2024

  • Swedish sex workers simultaneously occupy three churches in Stockholm, Malmö, and Uppsala; supporters ring churches to prevent police from entering to evict and arrest occupiers; within two weeks, five more churches are occupied.
  • Alliance, Green, and Social Democratic Labour parties form coalition government in Northern Ireland; begin debate on decrim proposal.
  • Netherlands passes reform to decriminalize outcall and incall sex work nationwide.
  • In U.S. Presidential election, decrim becomes major issue in primaries; Sanchez and Booker re-elected, but Greens and Libertarians make major gains in Congress and state legislatures.

2025

  • In California legislature, Greens and Libertarians co-sponsor bill calling for full decrim; Governor Harris vows to veto.
  • Lawsuits, bills, and other actions for decrim continue in many other states, as almost one-third of municipal police departments embrace Vic-Van.
  • British Labour party leads coalition government with Liberal Democrats and Greens; LibDems introduce full decrim bill in House of Commons.
  • Vote of no confidence in Sweden over government’s handling of church occupations and protests leads to snap elections; newly formed Sex Worker Rights Party gains fourteen seats, holds balance of power in formation of center-right government, and negotiates peaceful end to occupations.
  • Demand Abolition closes its doors.
  • Decrim debated in Cambodian parliament.
  • German Bundestag passes decrim bill, to be implemented in stages.

2026

  • Western Australia and Tasmania pass decrim laws.
  • Coalition Against Trafficking in Women forced to declare bankruptcy and dissolve.
  • Scottish parliament begins debate on decrim bill.
  • Having achieved piecemeal gains, sex workers in India form political party with allies to push for full decrim and other reforms nationwide.
  • South Africa passes law devolving decision on commercial sex to provincial legislatures; Gauteng and Western Cape adopt laws allowing sex work in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria; other provinces either retain previous criminalization scheme or stall in making any reforms; sex workers file suit in Constitutional Court.
  • California passes decrim over veto of Governor Harris.
  • New York passes bill allowing decrim, but with strong local control, leading to hodgepodge of restrictions; three sex workers and two clients file lawsuits.
  • Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland almost simultaneously pass decrim.
  • Libertarians and Greens in U.S. Congress lead effort on major reforms in drug policy, commercial sex, civil asset forfeiture, and other issues.

2027

  • U.K. passes decrim bill, to be implemented in stages.
  • Sweden reforms laws around sex work, based on Norwegian law; Rose Alliance and Sex Worker Rights Party accept proposal as “realistic compromise” but vow to continue push for full decrim.
  • Icelandic sex workers occupy government offices; Prime Minister personally engages in negotiations for several days, and agrees to introduce reforms.
  • Decrim passed in Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wyoming; eight more lawsuits filed by sex workers and sex work clients.

2028

  • Iceland adopts full decrim; ban on striptease is also lifted, with strong labor protections introduced based on input from exotic dancers.
  • Scotland joins rest of United Kingdom in passing full decrim.
  • U.S. Presidential election, with several candidates expressing support or openness to decrim; deadlock in Electoral College throws final decision to Congress, which chooses Cory Booker for President, independent geolibertarian Valerie Chang for V.P.

2029

  • Australia’s Northern Territory tables decrim proposal, leading to protests in its capital; Queensland passes decrim measure.
  • South Africa passes full decrim of sex work nationwide.
  • Split decisions in U.S. appellate courts bring lawsuits on sex worker rights to Supreme Court; in 6-3 ruling, criminalization of consensual adult commercial sex declared unconstitutional.

Again, don’t take this (too) seriously. I claim no powers of precognition. But one may always hope.

Sex Robots: No Reason to Panic

People are going to be having sex with robots within five years – Henrik Christensen (2006)

Robots have always provoked fascination and fear. Adding sex creates a synergistic effect. From the classic tale of Pygmalion and Galatea, to the current television series Westworld, the very idea of creating machines to act as our lovers continues to provoke us on many levels. But as the quote above demonstrates, there is desire and imagination, and there’s reality. So before we ask what the social and ethical ramifications of having sex robots might be, we still need to ask about both the technological feasibility and economic accessibility of such devices.

Just around the corner?

Reading various news articles, I’ve observed several entrepreneurs claiming to be able to get a working sex robot available within a certain number of years – and none of them have reached that goal. Perhaps the one company that has come closest is Abyss Creations, founded by Matt McMullen and manufacturer of the RealDoll silicone sex dolls. Yet McMullen acknowledges that there are many hurdles to overcome, from animation to vocal interactions. Even a simple breakdown of the technology involved – and the costs behind them – shows how daunting the challenge is behind this project:

  • Realistic appearance – McMullen’s dolls have come closest to resembling actual humans, both visually and tactilely. They are also quite expensive, starting at $5,500 and with more customized models going over seven thousand. While other companies provide similar models under two thousand, that’s still quite a dent in one’s bank account.
  • Animated limbs – Medical prosthetics have come a long way, now using microchips and advanced materials. The cost of a full limb can reach, or in some cases, exceed $10,000. Even so, there are still significant limits in terms of the mobility of smaller and more complex joints in the hands and feet, not to mention combining all of that with a realistic appearance.
  • Facial animation – Yes, some robots are able to move eyes and lips, even appear to make simple expressions. McMullen’s Abyss Creations has been working on such a project as a steppingstone towards a full sex robot, with its projected cost at $15,000 each. But even these prototypes are rather primitive compared to the desired goal, so expect both the timeline and the final price tag to be many times that of current expectations.
  • Passing the Turing test – McMullen has said that the biggest challenge to his project is having a robotic lover that is capable of realistic behavior and interaction. Add to that keeping the hardware and software responsible within the confines of a realistic animated human figure, and one appreciates the difficulty. McMullen is working on an app, where users would be able to “create” an artificial personality with which to interact. Still, he admits it’s much tougher than he expected.

All of this technical complexity means that folks like McMullen are still a long ways off from achieving their goal. Even when that goal is achieved, the first models are likely to be priced in the six or seven figure range.

Crossing the uncanny valley

Robotic roustabouts, gardeners, firefighters and the like need not resemble humans too closely to fulfill their tasks. Indeed, the most commercially successful robot looks like an oversized hockey puck. For a robotic lover, however, appearance and behavior are absolutely crucial. With an automated vacuum cleaner, you program it to clean a certain area of floor in a certain time period, and you’re done. But sex isn’t just about completing some task – it involves interaction with another, in a manner that will (hopefully) provoke positive emotional and physiological reactions. That requires a blending of complex abilities with aesthetic presentation and the ability to perceive and respond to one’s partner.

This brings up the concept of the uncanny valley – the idea that human simulacra appearing not quite like real people will elicit discomfort or even revulsion in many who see or interact with them. The concept has been accounted for by animators, video game designers, and even some media critics. When applied to dolls and robots created for sex, it pushes the production standards practically to a state of perfection, especially regarding the movement and behavioral responses of the latter. Imagine having a romantic partner who provided no emotional cues, from facial expression to vocal tone to body language, or who reacted in ways that seemed inappropriate or “out of sync” to you. Preventing that in a robotic partner is perhaps the greatest technological gap; add the other challenges involved, and one realizes why previous attempts at sex robots – such as Roxxxy, introduced in 2010 – have never taken off.

Unpacking the panic

So, if fully functional and economically accessible sex robots are that far off, why are people like Kathleen Richardson – founder of the Campaign Against Sex Robots – so determined to preemptively ban them? Richardson is no Luddite (she supports the use of robots in providing therapy to children with autism), yet she’s convinced that the very idea of robot sexual partners will somehow promote greater gender inequality and exploitation. Her logic appears to be that, since robots are objects, sex robots would promote sexual objectification of women and children (apparently, she doesn’t realize that women could have sex with male robots).

But she believes without hesitation that sex robots are bad despite the fact that there are no sex robots around with which to test her thesis. Apparently, because another person wrote that he saw a parallel between sex robots and sex work, and because she opposes prostitution as inherently exploitative, that means that using sex robots would promote exploitation. By this logic, because some people think consuming cow’s milk is unhealthy, then substitutes like almond milk and soy cheese ought to be banned.

Keep in mind, I’ve yet to take a position here on whether sex robots are good or bad. I tend to think that, unless you’re able to prove that a given technology will unavoidably cause harm while providing no demonstrable benefit, I’m not ready to defend its prohibition. Explosives, for example, have been used to cause enormous harm, but careful and knowledgeable application of them also yields great benefits. So, it may be possible for people to utilize sex robots for therapeutic ends, such as becoming more comfortable with nudity, or learning basic interaction skills. Robots could also be programmed with safeguards and instructive dialogue, thus providing negative reinforcement against potentially harmful actions.

So if positive applications may be found for robots designed as surrogate sex partners, then why prohibit this based solely on ideological conjecture? Indeed, if Richardson is so concerned about men having sex with robots, why isn’t she crusading against the high-end lifelike sex dolls that are already out there, and have been on the market for more than two decades? Why not do an impartial study to see if the use of sex dolls has actually changed the attitudes of their owners towards women, and in what way? Did any of them manage to find flesh-and-blood sex partners, and did they find having the doll beneficial towards that end? Granted, there is still speculation involved in going from a study of people who have sex dolls to the possible consequences of having sex robots, but at least such a study would provide a more empirical grounding.

Technology is rarely “good” or “bad” in itself. It is how people choose to use them with which we need to be concerned. Given how far off in the future the likelihood of this technology appears to be, I’d say we have plenty of time to think about how it might be put to good use. Of course, some would argue that sex robots will never replace real people as erotic partners, whether romantic or professional. In that case, there is not only no harm in speculating on positive applications of sex robots, but that such thought experiments could encourage improvements in the interactions between sex workers, their clients, and the rest of society.

The Need for a Skeptical Feminism

Recently, an acquaintance of mine from college recognized me via social media, and we began some online chats about the issues surrounding sex work, the anti-trafficking movement, and feminism. Having embraced the more radical form of feminism in her youth, my former classmate had gone on to obtain a law degree, then to focus her legal practice on civil cases that advanced women’s rights, most notably in the area of sexual harassment.

What eventually disillusioned her from the ideas of Dworkin, Mackinnon and other radical feminists was when she was invited to talk about her work at a feminist conference. By this time, she had handled a total of seventy-seven cases involving sexual harassment. Reviewing the files, she broke them down as follows:

  • 68 of the 77 involved a man harassing a woman; four involved a woman harassing a man, three involved a man harassing another man, and two involved a woman harassing another woman.
  • Fourteen cases involved a man making a single inappropriate comment, then apologizing and not engaging in any harassing behavior, and no long-term negative impact on the woman’s career; in all of these cases, the attorney advised the plaintiff that the case had insufficient merit to pursue.
  • One case involved a woman making a false accusation which the attorney found was motivated by malice against the defendant; another case involved a woman who was found to have serious mental health issues resulting in confabulation.

Based on this, my acquaintance presented a conclusion that should have been uncontroversial for this conference: that sexual harassment was still predominantly an issue of men using their power over women. After all, two-thirds of cases were bona-fide incidents fitting that narrative. But as soon as she presented her figures showing that individual men could be victims, individual women could be perpetrators, and that a minority of claims were either overblown (18%) or false (2.6%), she saw herself being attacked and denounced by the more strident participants at the conference, and she was never invited back. Fortunately, she found support among the oft-despised liberal and libertarian feminists, whom she said “had no problem seeing the facts as they were, and discussing them thoughtfully”.

In her mind, the “radical feminists” have become authoritarian ideologues, for whom even the slightest disagreement was considered unforgiveable heresy and treason. She has since embraced the label of a “skeptical feminist” – based on the book by British philosopher Janet Radcliffe Richards – and, in her own words, “always takes a step back before taking sides”. This is certainly the case with her view of the anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking movements, having seen “outrageous” and “absolutist” claims with scant evidence, and leading her to consider full decriminalization as “a more workable approach” (again, her words).

Our discussions brought us back to a basic concept in the philosophy of ideas – the distinction between open and closed systems of thought. Open systems, while embracing certain core values or principles, are receptive of new evidence and ideas, and thus relatively flexible to change. Closed systems, by contrast, present a comprehensive set of doctrines to explain how the world works, and either explains away any conflicting evidence or rejects it outright.

It is no surprise that the prohibitionist camp sees sex work in overly simplistic and absolutist terms. This is, after all, the methodology of its parent ideologies – religious fundamentalism, and radical feminism. Some of the unchallenged presumptions of this system include:

  1. Sexual perfectionism – Sex must be confined to vanilla activities within either marriage or “committed relationships”; any expression outside of this is presumed to be “harmful” and/or “exploitative”.
  2. Gender essentialism – Men view sex a certain way, women view sex another way; this leads to the reduction of prostitution as “men buying women”, thus neglecting or ignoring the reality of male and genderqueer sex workers, and female and genderqueer sex work clients, as well as the complex reasons why people either enter sex work or seek the services of a sex worker.
  3. Punitive/corrective approaches – The way to address commercial sex is to “end demand” by either punishment (fines, jail, public shaming) or so-called therapeutic approaches (e.g., “johns schools”).
  4. Intolerance to opposition – This is exhibited by such methods as:
    • Ignoring questions and/or criticisms, often refusing to answer them.
    • Dismissive labels applied to other side (“not representative”, “pimp lobby”, etc.).
    • Controlling discourse to minimize or eliminate dissent and/or opposition.

This is not to say that the sex worker rights movement does not have its own faults, or that certain elements within it are more closed than others. But there is a greater tendency to base their beliefs upon evidence than ideology, and a greater diversity of viewpoints and approaches than seen within the contemporary prohibitionist movement. This raises the question of which approach is more compatible with the core values of human rights and democratic polity generally, and the feminist principles of achieving greater gender equality and personal autonomy. Is it any wonder that my former classmate and I, and many other “skeptical feminists”, have decided to support this movement?

The Social Contexts of Sweden’s Sex-Purchase Ban

Ever since Sweden passed its “sex-purchase ban” in 1999, those seeking to eliminate commercial sex have been trying to duplicate its supposed success in other countries. What these prohibitionists fail to understand is the cultural, political and historical contexts in which this legal scheme emerged.

Scandinavian societies – Norway, Denmark and Sweden – are known for their peaceful and egalitarian cultures, and their comprehensive social programs. What most outsiders may not recognize is that they are relatively more conformist than other Western societies. Dano-Norwegian author Aksel Sandermose coined the term “Jante Law” (Janteloven in Danish and Norwegian, Jantelögen in Swedish) to refer to the traditional communitarian attitudes against excessive individual pride, if not individualism in general. The name derived from the fictional town of Jante, where its elder citizens enforced through various means the admonition: “You are not to think you’re anyone special, or that you’re better than us.”

In Sweden, this principle was combined with the Social Democratic Party’s concept of folkhemmet – “people’s home” – where the society is to be modelled on the family unit, with every member contributing to the prosperity of the whole. This vision emerged at a time when Social Democratic ideology was being revised to a more corporatist model of class collaboration, with the state serving as arbiters between labor and capital, thus encouraging a more stable and cohesive society. In their zeal to create such a society, they not only strove to level the playing field between the classes, but to improve society through a number of “social engineering” programs, including some eugenics policies starting in the 1930s. [See Introduction in “Criminalising the Purchase of Sex: Lessons from Sweden” by Jay Levy (Routledge Press)]

Many critics of the sex-purchase ban have referred to it as “a failed experiment in social engineering”, but its roots precede the advent of the Social Democrats’ folkhemmet ideology. In 1724, Swedish law required that unmarried women officially certify that they had a “legitimate” source of income, or face arrest and imprisonment in a workhouse to prevent them “indecently” earning a living. Even women who did have a legal profession were not exempt from state scrutiny and control; police often raided pubs and coffee houses owned and operated by women, on the pretext that they might be fronts for prostitution, and compel waitresses to undergo medical examinations for sexually transmitted diseases. The early 20th century saw prostitutes pathologized, arrested for “vagrancy”, and even subjected to forced sterilization under Sweden’s eugenics policies. While the Sexual Revolution of the 1960s saw traditional mores questioned, the old “vagrancy” law was replaced by a law against “antisocial behavior”, until it was challenged in court. Throughout this period, Swedish feminists attempted to stress a focus on demand, but failed to overcome the prevailing stigma against commercial sex. Indeed, the negative attitude towards “social deviance” in Sweden is not confined to sex workers; people who use drugs face persecution under “zero-tolerance” policies, and HIV-positive people risk summary confinement if they fail to report their status to sexual partners.

By the 1990s, Swedish law did not outlaw either the purchase or sale of sex, but did prohibit various related activities (pimping, pandering, brothel-keeping) as well as allowing immediate deportation of any immigrant found to be engaging in prostitution. It was during that time that various political groups, including the Social Democrats, became increasingly concerned with the influx of immigrants from Eastern Europe, Africa and East Asia, many of them women engaging in commercial sex. While some politicians considered total criminalization as the answer, radical feminists proposed through the Social Democrats and other left-wing parties that only the purchase be banned, constructing the argument that prostitution was “violence against women” and that those who engaged in selling sex were to be considered victims. Unfortunately, this model did not take into account the longstanding stigmatization of prostitutes as social deviants, thus resulting in further victimization of sex workers by police, social workers, and other government agencies.

While Sweden tries to present its sex-purchase ban as a progressive innovation, it is in fact the latest in a long line of efforts to suppress sex workers based on rigid social attitudes against nonconformity, a political tradition of paternalistic social engineering, and radical feminist ideological constructs being appropriated during a period of heightened anxiety around increased immigration and Swedish identity in a changing Europe. While terminology and demographic factors may change, one constant remains in all of these futile attempts to deal with prostitution: Sex workers themselves have never been allowed a voice in the political process in which these decisions are made about them. This is in stark contrast to the situation in New South Wales and New Zealand, where sex worker organizations were important stakeholders in developing laws and policies that improved the lives of their constituents. Whether and when Sweden will learn from these examples – and their own repeated failures – remains to be seen.


I’m indebted to Dr. Jay Levy, who conducted extensive fieldwork and research on the impact of Sweden’s sex-purchase law and related policies; click here for his webpage, with links to his books and articles for more information.

A Very Large Grain of Salt

Recently, someone posed a question via the Contact page: “You seem very skeptical of the anti-trafficking movement. What about the women who share their experiences of being trafficked? Do you actually think they’re lying?”

I should preface my answer with the caveat that the various anti-trafficking organizations do not make up a single monolithic movement. There are at least two major anti-trafficking trends:

  • Those who oppose sex work, conflating it with trafficking, and are ideologically driven to favor punitive measures directed mostly against clients while claiming to help “prostituted women”; these are represented by neoliberal groups like Demand Abolition, radical feminists like Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, and “faith-based” organizations like Shared Hope International.
  • Those who make a distinction between sex work and sex trafficking, generally supporting a rights-based approach that often includes harm reduction and decriminalization of voluntary commercial sex; they include groups such as Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women and Freedom Network USA.

As you might guess, I favor the latter over the former. A major reason for this is that the rights-based groups are very careful in their research and presentation; they are not only rights-based, but fact-based, including an appreciation for the nuance and complexity of lived experiences for both sex workers and sex trafficking survivors.

If a rights-based group presents the story of a sex trafficking survivor, I’m much more inclined to accept it as is. The track record of such organizations suggests that they have checked it and not altered the narrative in any way (at least not without the consent of the survivor). So, why not accept narratives from the more ideological anti-trafficking groups?

Look at their track record. These groups and their leaders have a history of distortion, embellishment and fabrication in order to advance their goals. Stories are often presented second-hand, with no means of verifying them, almost invariably following the same narrative template. Even when survivors are given space to tell their stories, they are “encouraged” to “re-frame” them.

In social and behavioral science, re-framing usually refers to shifting the perspective from which one views an event or piece of information. It does not, however, include or support embellishing the narrative in question. Unfortunately, as survivor Jill Brenneman noted in an interview: “As difficult and extreme as my experiences were, [ideological anti-trafficking activists] wanted me to re-frame them, meaning add things that didn’t happen to make it worse.” In an even more notorious and flagrant example, Long Pros, a young Cambodian woman, was coached by Somaly Mam to recount a story of being stabbed in the eye by a vicious pimp – until her parents and doctors provided evidence to refute that account.

Let that sink in.

Is it any wonder, then, that individuals such as Somaly Mam, Chong Kim, Stella Marr, Justine Reilly, and others have been able to misrepresent themselves as “victims” and “survivors” within such organizations, or to set up shop on their own to bilk donors of their cash? Or how evasive these groups become when the game is played out?

I’m certainly not accusing every survivor connected with these groups to be fraudulent. I’m sure many have suffered, and turned to these groups for support. But given the propensity for these groups to twist facts and manipulate others into doing the same, these survivors should not be surprised when I and others take their stories with a very large grain of salt. And if, indeed, you were persuaded to embellish your own story in the name of “re-framing”, I would hope that you come clean and speak out. Such truth-telling is not an act of betrayal, but of personal integrity.

A Paradox of Prohibitionism

The reader will note the use of the singular article in the title, as there are indeed many paradoxes to the anti-prostitution position. For this post, I’ll be discussing one which recently has come to the fore.

Prohibitionists have crowed repeatedly how their “end demand” strategy of targeting sex work clients for punishment and derision is “the most effective means” to achieve their desired goal of “ending the sex trade”. Recently, however, I’ve noticed many of these groups lamenting that sex trafficking is on the rise, even in Sweden where “ending demand” became law and public policy almost two decades ago. So, how is it that this strategy is being adopted at an increasing rate, based on claims of success, yet the evil of sex trafficking and exploitation has also increased, indicating failure?

The first likely response to this paradox is to allege that “the problem is bigger than we thought” – that all the figures cited as to the number of people and amount of profits involved were too conservative. Such a claim would make sense, except that the peer-reviewed research of scholars indicates that such estimates were not only unreliable, but frequently exaggerated. See if you’re able to follow the logic: Prohibitionists make claims about the definition and scope of sex trafficking, which legitimate researchers find dubious and likely overblown, so the same people who made the original claim now turn around with even higher numbers, again without solid substantiation.

Another problem with the original trafficking claims is that the activists who make them frequently conflate consensual sex work with sex trafficking, either for ideological reasons or as a blatant public relations ploy (see page 17 of 20 in the paper hyperlinked here). So, is it likely that what prohibitionists are doing is stretching the definition of “sex trafficking” even further, to include legal forms of sex work such as web cam performance and stripping? You already have groups linking porn to trafficking, again with little to no substantiation. Plus, on even more extreme fringes, there are those who would argue that egg donation and reproductive surrogacy ought to be banned as “human trafficking”. This begs the question of where the definition of trafficking will ever end, if at all.

It seems the most obvious reason for claiming an increase in sex trafficking is to mobilize more people to do more work and give more money to one’s anti-trafficking organization. Such appeals to urgency are not new, but eventually lose their effectiveness. Think of it – how long do you expect volunteers to work, or donors to give money, while you continually claim that the problem they’re fighting is continually growing? Sooner or later, repeated use of this tactic leads to more questions, greater scrutiny, and abandonment by once-committed individuals who now feel used and deceived.

Finally, I’d like to propose the possibility that the problems related to the commercial sex industry may indeed be getting worse to some degree – but because of prohibitionist strategies, not in spite of them. This would fit with historical precedents, such as the banning of alcohol in the United States from 1920 to 1933, the exorbitant taxation of tea in Great Britain up to 1784, and other instances of excessive government control leading to increased problems from smuggling and adulteration to corruption and violence. Once one realizes that exploitative practices in otherwise consensual activities are not prevented by prohibition, but exacerbated by it, the paradox disappears. Would that the scales fall from puritanical eyes.

Selling a Bill of Goods, Swedish Style

During my college days, one of the many issues which I actively supported was sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa. I remember seeing a video of Desmond Tutu speaking to an audience, and fielding a question about whether he endorsed sanctions. He pointed out that, if he openly did so, the regime could send him to prison.

“Which shows you,” he then quipped, “how much they don’t like the very idea of sanctions!” The crowd of supporters broke into applause and laughter.

Along with such negative sanctions, South Africa also engaged in a continuous public relations campaign to “sell” apartheid to the rest of the world, especially the United States. From exploiting fears of Communism, to printing attractive spreads and write-ups, the regime spent up to $100 million a year on burnishing its image and influencing policy, even targeting African-Americans to convince them to oppose sanctions.

Now Sweden is doing the same thing in an effort to promote its sex-purchase ban, using exaggerated and unsubstantiated claims to convince other nations to follow its lead. Both the Swedish Institute and the country’s diplomatic corps have used publications and personal appeals to evangelize their policies – yet hiding its uglier elements, such as ongoing police harassment. In an ironic twist, they invited members of South Africa’s parliament – currently considering changes in their prostitution laws – to visit Sweden and see how “successful” the ban has been. (If they do, I hope they will take the time to contact the Rose Alliance, and and see what sex workers themselves say about the reality in that country.) Norway has apparently joined the act, too. In 2012, the Norwegian Foreign Ministry shelled out $1 million to Hunt Alternatives, the parent organization for Demand Abolition. It’s possible that other prohibitionist groups have also received funds from Sweden and Norway, but given the problems of transparency and accountability with so many of these organizations, specific figures are hard to come by.

Wanting to promote a course of action is one thing. Distorting the facts, and ignoring the harm that such action creates, is quite another. That also goes for those groups who may have accepted money from other countries, and failed to be forthcoming about it.

“End Demand” is to Sex Work What “Build a Wall” is to Immigration

Our major obligation is not to mistake slogans for solutions. — Edward R. Murrow

Politics has always included sloganeering. Slogans and catchphrases are effective psychological tools for conveying basic values and concepts to a mass audience. The downside is when they become loaded language, using emotional appeals to reduce a complex issue into a simplistic “problem-solution” dualism.


Donald Trump’s approach to immigration policy is one such example. He appealed to nativist fears by conflating Mexican immigrants with dangerous criminals, and Muslims with terrorism. From these simplistic premises, he proposed simplistic solutions – “build a great, great wall” along the border with Mexico, and institute a ban on Muslims entering the United States. Forget that only a small fraction of violent crimes are perpetrated by immigrants, or how the wall and the ban would adversely affect our economy, or the harm such policies would cause to real people and their families. Forget also that these policies would have no effect on crime or unemployment. Forget those inconvenient facts – just build that wall, okay?

It’s no coincidence that such anti-immigration policies and rhetoric have pervaded the contemporary crusade against commercial sex. Not just that they hope tightening border controls will somehow aid their so-called “fight against human trafficking”, or that the beginnings of “end demand” in Sweden were linked to fears around migrants entering that country. Trump’s approach follows the same pattern of thought and action as the prohibitionist fanatics.

Both “build a wall” and “end demand” are deceptively simple reductions of complex issues, and the basis for policies that fail to address real problems while creating or exacerbating others. And before the prohibitionists clamor to accuse groups like Amnesty International of doing the same, they should look at the full scope of Amnesty’s recommendations for defending the human rights of sex workers, and the process by which they arrived at their policy. They need to look beyond both rigid ideology and emotional appeals, and listen to the people most directly involved – sex workers themselves.

Kay Khan’s Crazy Contrivance Against Commercial Sex

Some weeks ago, I posted about the prohibitionists’ misleading re-branding of the “Swedish model” of criminalizing the purchase of sex, but not its sale, as “partial decriminalization”. Apparently, Massachusetts state representative Kay Khan has gone into outright deception. Her proposed bill, H. 3499, is being called An Act Decriminalizing Prostitution – and it does no such thing.

First of all, Khan would have the law relabel “prostitution” as “commercial sexual exploitation”. Indeed, the definition is worded so that providing sex and receiving any material gain might be construed as such. So if your date buys you dinner, and you later consent to have sex, your date just might be arrested for “commercial sexual exploitation”.

Second, while providing sex for money is no longer a crime in itself, the following clause would give one pause to offer to do so:

Whoever commits offensive and disorderly acts or language, accosts or annoy another person, lewd, wanton and lascivious persons in speech or behavior, keepers of noisy and disorderly houses, and persons guilty of indecent exposure shall be punished by imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than 6 months, or by a fine of not more than $200, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

Third, Khan’s proposal makes it clear that paying for sex, or even offering or agreeing to pay for sex, would remain a crime, with a fine of up to $10,000, a prison sentence of up to two and a half years, or both.

Fourth, the classic provisions against being a pimp (defined as someone who “live[s] or derive[s] support or maintenance, in whole or in part, from the earnings or proceeds of [another person’s] prostitution,”), running a brothel (called a “house of ill fame”), and procuring are still retained.

This is no more “decriminalization” than using lean beef in a bacon double cheeseburger makes it “low-calorie”.

The author of this bill is clearly subscribing to the dogma that “all prostituted women are victims” who should be instantly infantilized, while anyone who even offers to pay a sex worker is automatically engaging in exploitation. Not being a mind-reader, I’m unable to discern whether Khan has proposed this out of misinformed naïveté or shared zealotry, but given her past associations with Swanee Hunt of Demand Abolition, its origins seem all too obvious.

It’s also obvious that Khan never considered any scenario where a person willingly enters sex work, whether in an existing business or as a sole proprietor. Indeed, perhaps the largest segment of sex workers are independent escorts, both incall and outcall. Khan’s proposal may be presented as a weapon against sex trafficking, but like similar laws in other countries, it’s more likely to cause collateral damage – much like throwing a hand grenade into a crowd to get a single suspected terrorist.

Consider, then, the following … A woman chooses, without compulsion, to be an incall escort. She has a disabled sibling living with her, who occasionally helps by doing online background checks of prospective clients. One of those individuals asks for an intense BDSM session, which she politely declines, then refers him to another willing provider in the area. Note that there is no force or fraud, no harm, and in the specific case described, no actual exchange of sexual activity for money.

But it is all still criminalized, despite the contrivances of Khan and Hunt. The prospective client’s mere inquiry is considered an illegal attempt to exchange sex for money. The disabled relative is considered not just a mere accomplice but a pimp. And, to top off this looney logic, the escort is guilty of pandering and running a “house of ill fame” while simultaneously being labeled a “commercial sexual exploitation victim” of the gentleman whom she declined.

If Khan still believes that the “Swedish model” relieves sex workers of being burdened by police, she needs to read these excerpts from the memoirs of Simon Häggström, head of the Stockholm Police Prostitution Unit. This is not decriminalization by any reasonable measure – it is an attempt to re-brand a failed attempt at repressive social engineering that has caused harm to thousands of sex workers and those associated with them.