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?

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 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.

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.

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.

“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.

“Signs” of Trafficking to Make You Wonder

Last weekend, I flew out of town to attend a conference where the annual meeting of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom was being held, having been invited to co-present on sex workers’ rights for the Coalition’s leaders. I took just a small backpack crammed with clothes, papers, and other items. The room was paid for by another NCSF activist, who was staying in a suite with their partner. As is my usual practice, I kept the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the entire time, as well as leaving the TV on, because I’m one of these folks who is more comfortable with an unmade bed than having others go through my things.

Believe it or not, I might have been tagged by a hotel employee as a possible sex trafficker.

“Huh!? What did you do wrong?” Well, according to a checklist provided to hotel employees by the Department of Homeland Security, I displayed at least three “general indicators” of human trafficking:

  • Few or no personal items when checking in.
  • The same person reserving multiple rooms.
  • “Do Not Disturb” sign used constantly.

Oh, and the fellow activist who paid for my hotel room? They hosted get-togethers in their suite throughout the weekend, inviting conference attendees to learn more about NCSF – another red flag: “Constant flow of men into a room at all hours.”

Now, to be fair, these are just four out of some four dozen indicators, some of which are clear warning signs of coercion or abuse. But the four I mentioned, and several more, are so vague or subjective that, when read out of context, could lead to invasions of privacy and false accusations.

Here are some others:

  • Individuals avoid eye contact and interaction with others – Whoever came up with this probably never knew that this is not uncommon for people on the autism spectrum, or who rank high on the introversion scale.
  • Individuals appear to be with a significantly older “boyfriend” or in the company of older males – How old is “significantly older”? Does this mean May-December relationships are now automatically suspect? What about a young woman accompanied by an older relative?
  • Evidence of pornography – Uh huh. Remember, we’re talking hotels here. Many of which have adult pay-per-view. Some have newsstands that sell Hustler and Penthouse. Or maybe the government has bought into the idea that nude photos in a magazine is some sort of “gateway drug” …
  • Extended stay with few or no personal possessions – Because airlines never lose people’s luggage. Right?
  • Provocative clothing and shoes – Excuse me, but has anyone noticed the trend in many high schools to declare virtually any female student’s attire short of a prairie dress as “provocative”?
  • Excessive amounts of sex paraphernalia in rooms (condoms, lubricant, lotion, etc.) – Okay, I’m sure some readers are wondering why I put this here. Set aside the vagueness of “excessive” for a moment. This particular “indicator” gives no mention of context. My recent trip was an example. The conference in question was for members of the BDSM community. So, yes, folks are going to bring all sorts of erotic accoutrements (and that’s not even touching on the various merchants and sex educators setting up booths there). And given that BDSM, swinger and polyamory conferences try to be discreet, just imagine a hotel worker not being informed of their presence and seeing a room filled with … get the picture?
  • Room paid for with cash or pre-loaded credit card – Because people with credit problems who are thus unable to get “real” credit cards never need to stay at a hotel, hm?
  • Minor taking on adult roles or behaving older than actual age (paying bills, requesting services) – Seems like a legit concern, right? Well, have you ever encountered a family where the parents are recent immigrants, and the kids have a higher proficiency in English? I have. The kids not only translate for their parents, they learn out of necessity how to deal with all sorts of situations, including how to handle money.
  • Room rented has fewer beds than patrons – Because college kids don’t trying to save money by cramming four people into a room with two beds. Or a family displaced by fire, or eviction. Yeah, those never happen.
  • Car in parking lot regularly parked backward, so the license plate is not visible – Yeah, absolutely no one has a car with a front license plate. And except for evil traffickers, everyone parks front first, right?
  • Patron claims to be an adult although appearance suggests he/she is a minor – Ask anyone who works at a bar if they’ve had to card an adult who looked younger than they are. Yup, it happens. Happened to me when I was thirty-five. And about half a dozen other people I know.

This is not to say that people who engage in trafficking and other nefarious activities don’t do these things. They do – and so do lots of other people. If a survey showed that a majority of traffickers spoke two or more languages, it doesn’t mean that being able to speak another language indicates that someone is a trafficker. It’s also typical of anti-trafficking rhetoric that these assumptions are rooted in biases about gender, race, class, and immigration status. Imagine a hotel employee, with superficial “trafficking awareness” training, reporting a guest – perhaps even you – on the basis of such hasty generalizations.

Human rights abuses should not be fought by the abuse of other rights. If we are to bring criminals to justice, or help victims find relief, then let’s make sure we are well-prepared to do it right, rather than run roughshod over innocent people.

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.

Double Whammy Against the Swedish Model

So many proponents of the “Swedish Model” criminalizing clients claim that it’s important to the fight against sex trafficking. Let’s put aside that proponents too often lump consensual sex work in with sex trafficking. Just how are police expected to find victims of trafficking or abuse, especially in an industry that’s been driven underground?

Well, just as law enforcement found Backpage a valuable resource here in the States, their counterparts in other countries also get a significant amount of tips from sex work clients. Even the Swedish police relied on clients for help – that is, until their “sex-purchase” ban was put into place:

[C]lients are less visible than previously and that they are less willing to cooperate in bringing to light coercion, Trafficking in Human beings, or underage persons involved in prostitution. (p. 53)

This is further confirmed by independent researchers, such as anthropologist Don Kulick …

Police report that their efforts to prosecute pimps and traffickers has been made more difficult, because clients, who before the passage of the law were sometimes willing to serve as witnesses, are now disinclined to cooperate, since they themselves are guilty of a crime. (p. 204)

… and public policy consultant Dr. Jay Levy:

[T]he [sex-purchase law] can act as disincentive for sex buyers to report suspected trafficking or abuse, for fear of essentially confessing to the crime of buying sex. One sex buyer I interviewed recalled two or three instances where he had not contacted the police to report suspected trafficking, for fear of legal consequences. He had left the premises without buying sex, and had tried to make other clients aware of the situation via online forums. (p. 8)

But this fact doesn’t just undermine the claim that the Swedish Model helps to fight trafficking and abuse. It also challenges the fundamental premise that clients are all exploiters who don’t care about those who sell sex. It doesn’t make sense to paint all “johns” or “punters” in this way when you have evidence from the police themselves that people looking to pay for sex were willing to come forward and report suspicions of coercion and abuse.

There are also studies like this one from Canada that indicate a significant percentage of sex work clients expressing concern for the well-being. Of course, rabid ideologues like Meghan Murphy predictably dismiss this. But when police are confirming that they know of clients willing help to uncover abuses, what then? That locks the prohibitionists into more of a conundrum – which is to be expected from a movement that puts simplistic beliefs above complex realities.

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.

you-keep-using-that-word

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.