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.

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Inherently Harmful?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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