“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.

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Inherently Harmful?

A key component of prohibitionist ideology is the assertion that commercial sex is “inherently harmful”, with variations such as “inherently violent”, “inherently degrading”, and so forth. This is the apparent justification behind rejecting any attempt at harm reduction or reform. In their minds, amelioration is pointless because it’s not just a case of prostitution having “bad things” associated with it, but that prostitution is inherently bad.

Ask the question of what makes selling sex “inherently” bad for the seller, and you hear one of several theories about what sex “really is” or “ought to be”, and how applying that theory to something other than sex isn’t right because “sex is different” because, well, it just is, okay? Yeah, prostitution is “inherently” bad because sex is “inherently” different.

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For an action to be inherently bad or harmful, then there must be unavoidable negative consequences in every case regarding said action. Consuming sugar, for example, is not in itself harmful. Indeed, we depend upon glucose to stay alive, and it’s only when the amount consumed becomes so large as to overwhelm the metabolism that harm is created.

On the other hand, being hit with an axe is inherently harmful. Even if the edge is dull, and the force not too great, it’s still sufficient to cause pain and possibly a bruise. Certainly better than losing a body part or bleeding to death, but harmful nevertheless. That doesn’t mean, however, that axes themselves are inherently harmful, and indeed properly using one brings about benefits. Also, even though using an axe in this way causes harm, there are a few contexts where doing so constitutes a lesser harm than not doing so, such as amputating a trapped limb where the alternative is abandoning the person to die.

Prohibitionists will often respond by posing the loaded question: “So, are you saying that prostitution is harmless?” To which I would explain that commercial sex, like any other activity, carries a risk of potential harm, and that any actual harm is dependent upon many factors, some simple (using condoms) and some complex (psychological disposition). For some people, consensual sex work is not only very low risk, it may actually provide benefits. A 1986 doctoral dissertation by Dr. Diana Prince, for example, indicated that 97 percent of escorts surveyed experienced increased self-esteem after entering the profession. For others, sex work is either the best available or least deleterious option available to them. To date, I’ve yet to see a reliable study showing anything more than ten percent of prostitutes being forced, while a number of studies reveal that many people choose to enter commercial sex for a number of reasons.

So the available evidence does not support a hard-and-fast dictum that selling sex is inherently harmful. Instead, we see a complex continuum of diverse experiences. That leads us to the question of which approach best applies to all such contexts; more specifically, who is best qualified to determine whether a person may engage in sex work. Given that our society regards both sexual and commercial interactions as generally best decided by those autonomous individuals so involved, it follows that such a principle extends to the buying and selling of sexual services, with any regulation for health and safety being formulated and implemented primarily by the individuals engaged in said work. In short, the full decriminalization of sex work by consenting adults, which provides the fullest range of options for both preventing and ameliorating any potential harm that may occur.

Of course, the prohibitionists would have none of this, and even some well-meaning moderates and liberals would call for some degree of government regulation and containment (“legalization”). The problem with any form of criminalization and stigmatization is that it deprives those involved in sex work of the tools they need to minimize the risk of potential harm, from negotiating power to legal recourse. And while legalization may ameliorate some conditions, too often it leads to a “back-door criminalization” for many sex workers. This also applies to those who have been coerced into selling sex, as Amnesty International notes:

[C]riminalization of sex work can hinder the fight against trafficking – for example, victims may be reluctant to come forward if they fear the police will take action against them for selling sex. Where sex work is criminalized, sex workers are also excluded from workplace protections which could increase oversight and help identify and prevent trafficking.

If anything, the prohibitionist drive to continue criminalizing commercial sex is what is inherently harmful to sex workers.

Woozle Effects and Heffalump Atrributions

[With thanks to Cris Sardina]

In the stories of Winnie the Pooh, he becomes concerned that certain creatures will try to steal his honey – namely, Heffalumps and Woozles. At one point, he and Piglet go on a Woozle hunt, walking about a clump of trees until they find some tracks and follow them, growing more worried as the number of footprints grows and grows. Then Christopher Robin comes along, and points out that the two have been walking in circles, and the tracks they are following are their own. Later on, Pooh is out on a search when he falls into a pit on top of Piglet. He remembers that he would dig such pits as a trap for Heffalumps, and now wonders if the Heffalumps dug this pit to catch him. It’s later suggested that this is one of Pooh’s own pit-traps.

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Oh, bother.

At any rate, the first story has given rise to the concept of the Woozle Effect, whereby a study of dubious veracity is cited over and over, and as a result of such repetition is assumed by more and more people to be true, without ever checking the original source. The anti-prostitution camp is particularly prone to the Woozle Effect, with examples such as:

  • The average age of entry into prostitution is thirteen – This “statistic” was actually manufactured by drawing from and misrepresenting two separate sources: a 2001 study of young people under 18 years old, and a 30 year-old survey of 200 sex workers who were asked what age they first had sexual intercourse. Despite being repeatedly discredited, many prohibitionists keep repeating this claim, often never citing the source.
  • The Super Bowl and other major sporting events are magnets for sex traffickers and sex buyers – Again and again, so-called “anti-trafficking” groups keep raising this alarm (and raking in donations as a result). Police in the locales where these events are held rush in to “rescue the victims”, often estimated to be in the tens of thousands. The reality? According to this study by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women: “There is a very wide discrepancy between claims that are made prior to large sporting events and the actual number of cases found. There is no evidence that large sporting events cause an increase in trafficking for prostitution.”
  • Most prostitutes suffer from PTSD and low self-esteem – The only source for the PTSD claim was a study done by Melissa Farley, which was roundly criticized for both its evaluative and sampling methodologies. As for the self-esteem question, this seems to be more an assumption based on cultural prejudice, whereas actual research indicates that “97% of the call girls [surveyed] reported an increase in self-esteem after they began working in prostitution”.
  • The vast majority of prostitutes are controlled/coerced by pimps – I’ve heard this from people I meet several times, and I always respond with two questions: “How many is this ‘vast majority’?” and “Where are you getting your information?” In response to the first, every single individual who has provided a percentage has given me a different one, ranging from 65 to 97 percent. As to the second, not one person has been able to cite an actual study, with most saying that they heard or read it “somewhere”.

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This leads to what I call the Heffalump Attribution, where people reductively assign cause for a behavior or social phenomenon to the deliberate actions of some outside agent. At the least, this is a sloppy misuse of Occam’s Razor; at worst, it’s scapegoating. Either way, attributing prostitution to some person or organized group isn’t just prevalent with contemporary prohibitionists, it’s a foundational article of faith. Since they believe that no woman would choose to sell sex, they must have been coerced in some way by one or more people. And who are they?

  • Pimps and traffickers – The most obvious choice, with pimps being stereotypically portrayed as abusive overseers. Problem is that there’s no evidence to support for such a claim, even when studying underage sex workers.
  • The Pimp Lobby, a.k.a. Pro-Prostitution Mafia – Prohibitionists not only believe that pimps control all “prostituted women” (or, “prostituted people” on the rare occasions when they acknowledge that men and transfolk also sell sex); they insist that pimps, traffickers and other evildoers are part of some vast conspiracy to push to make their business legal. Now, who are the principal group of folks advocating for commercial sex to be decriminalized? Sex workers. And how do prohibitionists respond? By accusing those very same sex workers of “actually being pimps” or “coerced by pimps” or just plain “not representative”. It’s ironic that the sex worker rights movement is the only labor movement in history which is routinely accused of being a front for their supposed bosses.
  • Sex work clients, a.k.a. “johns”, “punters” and/or “sex buyers” – Demonized as pathetic losers or sick deviants, the only disagreement among prohibitionists appears to be whether they should be rehabilitated through so-called “johns schools” or just plain locked up. I’m sure that clients have also been accused of being part of the mythical Pimp Lobby, despite the fact that client activism for sex worker rights has only very recently gotten off the ground.
  • Backpage, preceded by Craigslist, preceded by alternative weekly papers – The legal pressure to close any and all venues by which sex workers may advertise their services and communicate with potential clients is based on the belief that the folks running such venues aren’t just businesspeople trying to make money, but part of the grand conspiracy to “sell women and girls”. Forget that the best evidence shows the overwhelming percentage of advertisers to be the sex workers themselves. Forget that Backpage did more than any other site like it to identify and report suspected trafficking of minors. Forget that closing such sites increased the dangers to the most marginalized and vulnerable sex workers. They must be blamed, shamed and punished at all costs! And now that they have shut down their adult section, just how much trafficking has been stopped? None.
  • Amnesty International – I could go on a rant about this, but I think the satirical video below captures it splendidly:

Dorothy Allison noted that “Things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies.” Whether the Woozles and Heffalumps of the prohibitionists are the result of rationalization or deliberate deceit, the best way to hunt and trap them is by simply asking – even demanding – to know the source for such assertions, and to keep questioning in the press for proof. No one who is genuinely confident of the truth of their claims should object to such scrutiny – and no one is obliged to believe anyone who tries to avoid it.