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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If You Think “End Demand” is a “Progressive” Program, You Need to Read This

People who label themselves political or social progressives like to think of themselves as both forward-thinking and freedom-loving. That has not always been the case, however. Progressives have at times been divided on certain issues, just as they are today over sex workers’ rights. Those who currently favor the so-called “end demand” policies first instituted by Sweden in 1999 (hence its nicknames of “Swedish model” and “Nordic model”) follow a basic logic of social engineering:

  1. X is bad for society.
  2. If X were eliminated, it would benefit society.
  3. Therefore, government should institute policies for eliminating X.

Where this logic fails is in identifying “X” in utterly simplistic ways. Alcohol, for example, was considered “bad for society,” leading to failed experiments in prohibition which increased crime, thus making things worse for society. Homosexuals were (and in many places still are) branded as harmful deviants, subject to criminal penalties and dubious cures.

Progressives forget that, from the late 19th century until well past the end of World War II, there was a movement dedicated to improving humanity through a series of programs, all justified by the mantle of science. In fact, primitive forms of this form of social engineering had been practiced in ancient societies, and supported by philosophers like Plato. The ideas behind this organized movement began with an eminent scientist, motivated by his cousin Charles Darwin, and were promoted in many countries in Europe, the Americas, and Australia. In the United States, feminists and other progressives embraced the movement, leading to the adoption of laws in many states and the Federal government. In Great Britain, they found support across political lines, from conservatives like Winston Churchill to members of the Fabian Society. Sweden adopted elements of the movement’s agenda as part of the folkhemmet envisioned by Social Democrats and other reformers. Of course, the movement did have its critics, from public intellectuals like G. K Chesterton to notable scientists like Franz Boas and J. B. S. Haldane. Still, many embraced the ideas of the movement, even after witnessing its most brutal implementation in Nazi Germany.

That movement was eugenics.

Sir Francis Galton first conceived of the idea that, if animals could be selectively bred for certain traits, then the same principle ought to be applied to humans. He also suggested that those considered unfit “could find a welcome and a refuge in celibate monasteries or sisterhoods,” and that prospective immigrants should be screened for their potential fitness (thus anticipating policies to be enacted in the United States, Australia, and other countries). While he was motivated by Darwin’s ideas of natural selection, his illustrious cousin did not openly embrace his views; indeed, his writings indicated that he preferred that such choices be left to individuals rather than the state. But others picked up where Galton left off, and started a worldwide eugenics movement to improve the human race, whether by positive means (e.g., “Fit Family” competitions) or negative ones (compulsory sterilization of the mentally ill and “feeble-minded”).

A vocal minority raised serious questions. They worried about who was to decide whether someone was “fit” enough to breed, and how. They raised the point that many supposed weaknesses were not inheritable at all. They pointed to outstanding intellects and artists who also exhibited supposedly congenital weaknesses. G. K. Chesterton argued that the vague definitions of unfitness could very well lead to an unjust imposition of conformity: “Every tramp who is sulk, every labourer who is shy, every rustic who is eccentric, can quite easily be brought under such conditions as were designed for homicidal maniacs.”

Sure enough, eugenics programs were being implemented to rationalize exclusion of racial minorities, forced sterilization of “degenerates,” presumption of guilt in criminal cases based on pseudoscientific theories, and other violations of human rights. Sex workers were especially victimized by these programs, as prostitution and other “lewd and lascivious behavior” was considered a sign of degeneracy, leading to governments on both sides of the Atlantic including them in their compulsory sterilization programs. When the Nazis were questioned about the barbaric measures they took to achieve their goal of “racial purity,” they tried to argue that the only differences from the eugenics programs being implemented in countries like Sweden and the United States was a matter of scale.

Nowadays, many self-described progressives are so horrified at the idea of eugenics that it leads them to be skeptical about everything from reproductive surrogacy to genetically modified foods. They need to remember that their ideological predecessors were some of the biggest supporters of this failed program – and that the same simplistic logic behind it is now being used to promote the cruel failure of the Swedish model and other prohibitionist policies against sex workers.

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 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.

“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.

The Self-Perpetuation of “End-Demand” Fantasies

[Originally posted April 7, 2016]

France has now joined the list of countries who have adopted the so-called “End-Demand” approach in opposing prostitution, by criminalizing the clients of sex workers in the vain hope that the steady drop in demand will lead to the eventual eradication of “white slavery”. Forget that Sweden, which first adopted this approach in 1999, has seen no measurable drop in either supply or demand. Forget that this may only be enforced with highly intrusive surveillance and harassment of sex workers and clients alike. Forget that this whole thing is being propagated by extremist ideologues who concoct spurious research based on their lurid fantasies instead of actual empirical data.

Let’s imagine a large island nation, governed as a federation of five states. A plant grows there — we’ll call it “Gudstoff” — which, when its fruit is consumed, produces a moderate and temporary state of euphoria and relaxation. Some citizens are overly concerned about this plant, and spread myths about it being addictive and causing psychotic breaks. Legitimate scientists see no harm in moderate consumption, and perhaps even some benefits. But, like all politicians, the leaders in all the regions decide that the sale, purchase, possession and consumption of Gudstoff will be misdemeanors punished by fines.

Eventually, a split develops between the political parties. One is led or influenced by anti-Gudstoff ideologues, who push for these offenses to be upgraded to felonies, coupled with eradication procedures. The other, after paying attention to empirical research, favors legalizing Gudstoff and deriving tax revenue, paired with education to address potential abuses. Three of the regions are won by the “anti” party, who institute their strict measures, while the other two become “legal” states.

Anyone with a basic understanding of economics would see that, as the supply of Gudstoff becomes less accessible in the “anti” states, those demanding Gudstoff will simply travel over the border to obtain it in the “legal” states. Result: a seeming increase in demand within the “legal” states, which is met with howls of “we told you so” by those who think Gudstoff is poison. Now I deliberately said “a seeming increase” because, in fact, it is merely a shift in where demand is met, based on local efforts to restrict commerce. The overall demand in the entire island has not changed. But, that doesn’t matter to the “antis”; they see Gudstoff sales spike in the “legal” states, and they are quick to blame legalization.

This is exactly what we have seen in Europe when Sweden and Norway cracked down on sex workers and their clients (and make no mistake, they are targeting sex workers), and with France now making the same mistake, we should see that trend continue as more French and Scandinavian sex work clients travel to “legal” states like Germany and the Netherlands. And if the militant “antis” get their way, and they convince more countries to adopt this approach? Making it harder to buy or sell something doesn’t make it go away; it only leads to changes in strategy.

It’s time that those concerned with the harms connected to prostitution to change their strategies, before they cause even more harms. These harms, if not directly linked to criminalization in any form, are exacerbated by them. This has been noted by a wide range of groups that embrace decriminalization, from the sex worker rights movement to the World Health Organization and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women. Decriminalization is not a complete solution in itself, but it opens the doors for real solutions to happen. And if we want real solutions, it’s time we listened to both the empirical evidence and the experience of sex workers themselves – not misguided prohibitionists.