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!

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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.

Trumping the Prohibitionists

Donald Trump’s latest debacle has weakened him even further by revealing that he’s not merely using the far-right as a steppingstone to power, but that he indeed supports their bigoted beliefs. This is not, however, Trump’s real Achilles’ heel. His entire methodology of “shooting from the hip” without concern for consequences, and most importantly his refusal to admit to, and apologize for, any mistakes he makes, is what will lead to his ultimate undoing.

This is the same weakness in the prohibitionist camp – their own sense of self-righteousness and absolutism prevents them from seeing when they make mistakes, much less owning up to them.

When journalists began to question Somaly Mam’s story, then expose her pattern of deception and fraud, did “anti-trafficking” activists in this country step back and take stock? Hardly. Many like Nicholas Kristof tried to minimize the damage, and some like Susan Sarandon even supported her efforts to form a new foundation in her name.

Groups like Polaris continually claimed that “the average age of entry into prostitution is thirteen” – and when this was thoroughly debunked those groups waffled and took their time pedaling back on the bogus figure.

Anti-prostitution activists and law enforcement have been pushing the panic around sex trafficking so much, they are now seeing histrionic claims multiply beyond their own control – yet they are still unwilling to admit that their own distortions and confabulations are the fatal flaw. Let’s also not forget the radical feminist concept of “re-framing experiences” by embellishment, exaggeration and even outright fabrication.

This is no reason, however, for sex worker rights groups to be overconfident. Just as Trump tries to divert attention from his errors as part of his “doubling down” tactic, it makes sense that prohibitionists will do the same. They will look for any flaw, any error, any shortcoming in their opposition, and exploit it for their own purposes. We need to anticipate these attacks, own up to any mistakes, show how we responded, and most importantly, bring the conversation back to the core issue of empowering sex workers by removing legal barriers, and holding the architects of the prohibitionist movement accountable for the harms they have caused.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Big Lie of “Partial Decriminalization”

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. – George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

Two kinds of language are often employed in propaganda: simple yet emotionally loaded, and seemingly sophisticated obfuscations. The former is most frequently used by opponents of sex workers’ rights, especially in appeals to “fight human trafficking”. Yet it is careful use of the latter which has allowed prohibitionists to sell the so-called “Swedish Model” as an alternative.

Specifically, prohibitionists have marketed this scheme as “partial decriminalization” – the supposed decriminalization of those who sell sex, while outlawing those who would buy sex. It’s appealing on two levels. First, it plays upon common stereotypes of the prostitute as victim and “john” or “punter” as lecherous deviant. Second, it appeals to both misgivings about the status quo and uncertainties around full decriminalization. But it also depends upon a suspension of basic logic, and ignorance of both the full legal context and real-life implications, behind this model.

In the first place, whenever an action is made a crime, any other actions necessarily linked to it are also outlawed. This is why a person who knowingly buys stolen merchandise is just as culpable as the one who knowingly sells it. Likewise, it inevitably becomes impossible to separate the sale of sex from its purchase; outlaw one, and the mirror image is complicit in its commission.

Further, the Swedish Model is not limited to just a ban on buying. Sweeping laws against “brothel-keeping” and “living off the avails of prostitution” also remain in place, and are used to penalize sex workers and deprive them of safety. Thus the full legal context of this scheme reveals it to be near-total criminalization, nowhere near the supposed “middle ground” that its proponents would have people believe.

The proponents of this scheme would argue that “prostituted women” would no longer be the targets of police, but instead would be offered social services to help them exit. That’s the theory – but reality is a different matter, with police in Sweden and Norway routinely watching and intimidating sex workers, even bullying their landlords to get them evicted. As for the social services, that only applies if the sex worker repents and embraces the government’s party line; otherwise, they are refused help, even denied condoms to help protect them from HIV and other STIs under the rationale that, because “prostitution is inherently dangerous”, there is no point in helping them reduce any risk of potential harm.

It is a lie to repeatedly refer to the “Swedish Model” as a form of decriminalization, because in fact it still gives police the power and authority to control sex workers. If those who sell sex are to be free of such control – and the abuses that inevitably come with it – the answer is full decriminalization of consensual commercial sex, allowing existing laws against assault and exploitation to protect them. This is what has worked in New Zealand and New South Wales, and what sex workers themselves rightly demand.

Options for Fighting Sex Trafficking Under Decriminalization

Repeatedly, prohibitionists claim that their punitive approach to “end demand” for commercial sex is the only effective way to fight sex trafficking. Problem is, not only have they failed to make good on their promise, but their strategy is hopelessly flawed on many levels:

  • By failing to distinguish between consensual sex work and coercive sex trafficking, this approach harms far more people than it helps.
  • Punitive measures also drive the commercial sex industry further underground, making it harder to gather the reliable information needed to understand and deal with trafficking and other abuses.
  • The emphasis on punitive measures over providing social support deprives people from seeking or gaining the assistance they need, whether to escape coercion or transition out of sex work on their own terms.
  • So-called “awareness campaigns” give supporters of this approach a false sense of accomplishment; for example, there is little or no accountability that the proceeds from the sale of “survivor-made” merchandise actually goes to programs that assist trafficking or abuse survivors.

The response of prohibitionists to these criticisms – the few times they do respond to critics – is to insist that decriminalizing sex work would only make things worse instead of better. Thing is, this claim isn’t supported by the evidence. Five years after decriminalizing sex work in New Zealand, the government report showed reduced harms, and no evidence that decrim encouraged sex trafficking as predicted by the law’s opponents.

Of course, full decrim by itself doesn’t halt or reduce trafficking. But it does provide the framework of accountability and transparency needed to do so. That includes requiring employers to show that they are not coercing or abusing their workers, or hiring anyone underage – just as with other businesses. It means sex workers being able to organize like other workers for better working conditions, more equitable laws, and reduced social stigma.

There’s another way to combat sex trafficking which would work under the New Zealand model, one based on existing campaigns to address labor trafficking and abuses in other industries, and which would involve sex work clients in collaboration with their providers. This is a strategy of ethical consumerism.

fairtrade
The primary example is the Fair Trade movement, which provides certification for businesses in various industries – from coffee and cocoa to textiles and jewelry – that they adhere to standards regarding labor conditions and sustainable agriculture. It is then left to consumers to only purchase, or at least show a preference for, goods which are so certified, thus shifting market demand to encourage more businesses to follow suit. While the system is not perfect, it has shown a measure of success in some areas; Fair Trade consumerism was a contributing factor in improving conditions in India’s tea industry.

Legal recognition of commercial sex businesses only partially assures clients that their providers are not being coerced or abused. Specific principles and goals would need to be spelled out, just as with existing Fair Trade businesses. This small bordello in Whangarei, New Zealand, is one example of a commercial sex enterprise doing just that.

banchocolate
If we followed the all-or-nothing thinking of sex work prohibitionists, we would ban chocolate. After all, much of it is produced by child laborers under harsh conditions. Forget that there is an option that encourages better conditions. Forget that driving an industry underground, and using police resources to arrest black market merchants and their customers, has never been shown to succeed. We need to send a message!

Well, there are more effective ways of sending messages, whether you’re buying and selling chocolate, chamois shirts, or a charming time with an erotic professional. Decriminalization opens the door to those options.