Seattle Prosecutor Val Richey’s Warped Idea of Consent

The basic argument for decriminalizing sex work is rooted in the basic premise that government should not interfere in the private interactions of consenting adults. Ironically, prohibitionists like King County prosecutor Val Richey would claim to agree. The problem, they assert, is that money somehow erases consent.

“What you have is someone paying this person essentially to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes,'” Richey recently told the Seattle Times. Interviewed about the massive bust in that city last year, he insists that, because the women were “doing it for the money” and not “as a leisure activity,” they must have been coerced.

Elizabeth Nolan Brown, in her recent blog post for Reason magazine, summed it up with a priceless gem of a quote:

By that logic, anyone who wouldn’t perform their job without remuneration is a victim of labor trafficking!

The simplest definition of consent is “voluntary agreement or permission” – one person wishes to engage in an activity with another, and the second person willingly agrees and permits. This also implies that the person being asked has the option to refuse. Most importantly, the principle of consent recognizes that each of us places various conditions on whether or when we agree to a given action.

Let me give some examples based on my love and knowledge of tea (and yes, the Youtube “Tea and Consent” video springs to mind). I will gladly accept a cup of tea from a friend, but not without certain conditions – no milk (given my dairy allergy), little if any sugar, and definitely not any from the Charleston Tea Plantation (which, quite frankly, is indistinguishable from having boiled three year old balls of lint). I will also gladly share stories and opinions about tea in casual conversation. But let’s say that someone asks me to taste the results of their tea-blending experiments, or to make a special blend and serve it at a special event, or to write a paper or deliver a talk. Yes, I’d enjoy doing so, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to abrogate my right to be compensated for such work. My requiring payment for the time and effort required says nothing about whether I would enjoy doing so. It is a condition to my agreeing to do so, just as much as any other condition I might impose.

The same holds true with sex work. Payment does not negate consent; it is a condition of consent, just like other limits that sex workers place on their participation. As Liz Brown rightly points out, to argue that being paid automatically equals being forced is to regard all paid labor as a form of slavery. Granted, people frequently take jobs they would rather not do. But limited choice is not the same as having no choices at all – and to tell those who enter sex work that you will limit their choices further “for their own good” is both paternalistic and hypocritical.

This is also the case with sex work clients. Their choices are often framed by circumstances beyond their control, from physical or psychological disability, to the sudden loss of an intimate relationship. They establish certain conditions, and must abide by the conditions of prospective providers. To reduce the interaction simply to money, and reduce money further into an instrument of coercion, is to ignore the full context in which client-provider interactions take place.

Money is not the instrument of coercion here. It is the archaic and inhumane laws against consenting adults agreeing to their own conditions for sexual expression. It is the enforcement of these laws which hamstring the ability of sex workers to assure their safety through screening and other measures, and to seek recourse whenever consent is violated. It is the paternalistic ideology of prohibitionism that is to blame for unduly limiting the choices available to both clients and providers. Whenever government shackles the power of individuals to consent with one another, it is tyranny.

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Five Suggestions for Improving Review Boards

Review board are both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand, they provide a convenient means for sex workers and clients to connect and negotiate. The down side, however, is that they are clearly structured to the advantage of certain clients – self-described “hobbyists” – and to the distinct disadvantage of service providers. Having read the complaints that sex workers post on their own blogs and zines, and compared this to how similar sites work in other industries (e.g., restaurants), I’ve decided to offer some recommendations on how review boards could do a better job for everyone. These are not gospel, and I certainly welcome comments from both providers and clients. I just hope these ideas spark some constructive conversation:

  1. Scoring should be based on quality, not quantity – One of the worst practices on sites like The Erotic Review is scoring providers based on what particular acts they are willing to do. Sex workers rightly complain that this puts pressure on them to engage in practices that they may not be entirely comfortable doing, especially with relatively new clients. That also violates a basic tenet for evaluating any provider in any industry: It’s not about how many things you do, but how well you do them. Many escorts who critique this system point out that theirs is a highly personalized service that is well-nigh impossible to rate by a numerical system. I’d therefore recommend that any “scoring” system depend on a few basics, such as prompt arrival for outcalls, a clean and comfortable incall, the provider’s demeanor, and the client’s impression of the experience. Yes, these are subjective, but the same qualitative approach holds true for any industry.
  2. Vet written reviews before posting – Two major problems that sex workers have in this area are fake reviews and “blow-by-blow” accounts of every aspect of a session. The first goes against the very reason that review boards are supposed to exist; the second is unnecessary, and even dangerous given that law enforcement tends to snoop on these sites to find easy ways to meet their arrest quotas. It would therefore make sense for all written reviews to be moderated, checked for veracity, and edited to remove excessive detail. Even better, board administrators could offer guidelines for writing reviews, based on input from sex workers.
  3. Set up a better system for handling complaints – This is one problem area for both providers and clients, who express frustration that complaints are either not listened to or are met with overly defensive responses, even getting people banned from a board just for trying to get a problem rectified. Given that so many boards are run by a single proprietor, it’s no wonder this keeps cropping up. A sole proprietor sees their operation as “their baby”, and may resent having anyone tell them how to do things better. Unfortunately, the longer you run any business in this manner, the better the odds that you’ll run it into the ground. I’d strongly recommend that board administrators retain at least one person to serve as an arbiter or ombudsperson for fielding complaints. When a complaint involves a problem with board administration, apologize and work to solve the problem. When it involves a dispute between two or more board participants, listen to all sides and help them reach a fair resolution. And makes sure to post an easy-to-understand guide for filing complaints and what board participants may expect.
  4. Make clear that certain things will get you kicked out … and mean it! – While many complaints require a personalized approach to resolve, certain behaviors are clearly off-limits, and should be stated as such, and any penalty attached to it enforced whenever a violating occurs. So if you make it clear that threatening another board participant will get you banned, and someone breaks that rule, ban them. If attempting to post a fake review gets you suspended for the first offense and banned after the second, follow through whenever it happens. Of course, this doesn’t mean your ombudsperson should take any allegation at face value; they still need to make sure the complaint itself is valid. But once you’ve determined that someone did violate a “hard-and-fast” rule, enforce the rule. And yes, I’d add making false complaints among them.
  5. Providers need a voice in the decision-making process – Yes, I saved this for last because I’m well aware that the last item on the list is often the most remembered. Let’s face it, review boards are not just a benefit for clients of escorts and other service providers. They are a significant benefit for providers, even with the flaws I’ve highlighted here. If review boards are going to serve their participants better, then all participants need to have a voice within their administration, and not just certain clients. At a minimum, at least one current or former provider should be on the management team of any such enterprise, and their input should be required when proposing and deciding on any policies for the board’s operation.

There you have it, folks. Kick these ideas around, ask questions, offer any critiques you may have. Hopefully, such discussions will bear fruit, either from existing boards changing how they operate, or new alternatives springing up.

Sex Robots: No Reason to Panic

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

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

Just around the corner?

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

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

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

Crossing the uncanny valley

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

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

Unpacking the panic

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

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

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

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

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

The Need for a Skeptical Feminism

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

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.