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.

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.

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.

Shell Game

I’ve now decided that, when dealing with American prohibitionists, I will no longer acknowledge that they support the Swedish model. Claim to support it, or allegedly support it, but not actually doing so. Because, in fact, they have done nothing to implement it here in the United States.

You see, the Swedish model makes paying for sex a crime, but not selling it, based on the assumption that the people selling are helpless victims, and that the very act of paying constitutes “violence against women”. That’s the legal reality in Sweden, Norway, and four other countries or jurisdictions – but not the United States.

Yes, prohibitionists like Swanee Hunt and Dorchen Liedholdt like to say that they want to “decriminalize the sellers,” but I do not believe them. If you want to change the law, then you either lobby for new legislation or you file suit to have the law changed on constitutional grounds. And not one single prohibitionist leader or organization has lifted a finger to do that. Not one.

They have spent a great deal of time and money pushing other legislation for more and harsher penalties, all in the name of “fighting trafficking” and “saving children” – yet when I posed the question to Demand Abolition (via their Facebook page) of why they’ve never proposed any laws in line with their beloved Swedish model, suddenly they claimed that being a 501(c)3 organization “prevented” them from doing so. Uh huh.

I’ve been an activist for decades, facing all sorts of foes – creationists, anti-abortionists, warmongers and hatemongers. Every one of them has put forward a legislative goal, and actually invested resources to get that goal accomplished. This is the first time I’ve seen a movement hold up a specific law as its main goal, but never get a single bill to propose it in any state legislature. When I also consider the distortions and fabrications they use to justify their moralistic crusade, it’s the most dishonest approach to activism I’ve ever seen.

It’s a classic shell game. Show them the pea, put it under one shell, shuffle the shells around, and watch as your mark makes one bet after another, hoping they’ll find the pea. Of course, your mark doesn’t know that you’ve palmed the pea … Same thing here. They show the Swedish model as some wonderful alternative, then sneak it away while taking your money to finance sham rescues and more oppressive legislation and police crackdowns.

The game is played a little differently in Sweden, but it’s essentially the same con. The police claim they’re targeting clients when they’re really harassing and punishing sex workers. Social service agencies claim to be helping sex workers, but only if they confess to being helpless victims of patriarchy. Ana Skarhed’s 2010 report is filled more with circular reasoning than with any evidence that the “sex-purchase law” has been effective.

Literal shell games cheat marks of their money. The prohibitionists use their shell game, however, not only to take and squander money – both from willing donors and unwilling taxpayers – but to inflict harm on people in the commercial sex industry, all in the name of helping them and making society better. But fraud done in the name of social betterment is still fraud, especially when the promise of Utopia is a large part of the lie.

Swanee Hunt’s Archaic Essentialism

Perhaps the most well-known and influential prohibitionist today is Swanee Hunt, the founder of Demand Abolition. Her large inheritance, extensive social connections, and saccharine Southern charm make her a formidable advocate for this or any cause. But unlike so-called “radical feminist” academics and theoreticians with their belief that sex is a construct for male domination, or evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who conflate sex outside of heterosexual marriage with sin, Hunt seems to draw on yet another ideological source.

I base this on how she has invested the resources of the Hunt Alternatives Fund. Along with Demand Abolition, she has established two other projects:

  • Political Parity – The front page declares: “Elevating the number of women in the highest levels of government is more than a matter of representation. It’s essential to shaping a more just society.”
  • Inclusive Security – “We’re changing who makes decisions about war and peace,” because, according to Hunt, “a greater role for women is essential to global stability.”

Essential. It’s not just a matter of equity to include women in government and peacemaking. Hunt believes that there’s something about being a woman which makes it necessary. The language she uses echoes that of centuries before, that women are somehow the guardians of morality, hence equally if not better qualified than men to govern society.

This belief stemmed from the “separate spheres” ideology, promoted by opponents of women’s suffrage. They argued that the biological sexes were meant to function in different areas of life – men in the public sphere of politics and commerce, women in the private sphere of motherhood and domestic care. Anti-suffrage advocates opined that women did not need the vote, because they were able to influence society profoundly by instilling moral virtues in their sons.

Suffragists such as Christabel Pankhurst responded to this, and the increasingly sexualized attacks on women during the suffrage campaign, with a synthesis. Since women were given the responsibility for moral education, and since men clearly had failed to show moral character in the public sphere, it was therefore necessary for women to gain the vote so as to make the political and public spheres more moral. Pankhurst and other suffragettes hence expanded the original slogan of “Votes for Women” to include “Chastity for Men”.

This blend of feminist indignation and Victorian moralism also led to the anti-prostitution stance of many leading activists. Just as male employers forced their attentions on female staff, and male police and prison guards molested and tortured female inmates, so it must be that prostitution consisted of men commercially coercing women to satisfy men’s libidos. The answer was tougher laws, homes for friendless women, and taming men’s sexual appetites.

Given Hunt’s background, it should be no surprise that her own rhetoric shows traces of such ideas. In her own biography, she describes being raised in a conservative and privileged environment where women were not expected to engage in public affairs, but to be hostesses, wives and mothers. From a culture of feminine domesticity to a belief in women’s “essential” role as moral caregivers – and moral guardians – is no great leap.

I have no doubt that Swanee Hunt would argue that she is no essentialist. I’m sure she would contend that she bases her beliefs on the experiences of women. Granted, women around the world share many common experiences, but (a) there are still significant differences based on other factors such as race and class, and (b) that doesn’t mean that every individual women is automatically qualified for political leadership, or that one woman may dictate the sexual and occupational choices of others. If anything, her overgeneralizing about women’s experience seems just another variation on the essentialist theme.

At best, Hunt’s vision is simplistic and limited. At worst, her ignorance of complex intersectional realities, and her brazenly privileged assertion that she somehow knows what’s best for others, is harmful.