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.

Mandating Tests for Sex Workers Doesn’t Get a Passing Grade

[Originally posted December 20, 2016]

Often when I engage in conversations with folks about sex work and public policy, I’m asked how I feel about mandatory testing of sex workers for sexually transmitted infections (STIs). And, when I answer that I don’t support such measures, they’re frequently astonished. “I thought you said that you support harm reduction methods! So why not this? Wouldn’t requiring sex workers to be regularly tested reduce the spread of HIV and other STIs?”

No. Testing doesn’t “prevent” anything. It provides information towards that end, and only if it’s done right.

Let’s take the argument for mandatory testing to its logical extreme. Sex workers are a relatively small segment of the total number of sexually active people out there, and according to the best studies out there, contribute very little to STIs overall, and virtually none of HIV transmissions. So if we were to mandate STI testing, then it makes sense to do that for all sexually active adults and adolescents, not just sex workers. Of course, it’s reasonable to assume that a significant number of people would lie about being sexually active, in order to avoid being tested. The answer then would be to test everyone from the age of thirteen up.

This would, of course, be met with a number of objections, from cost to loss of freedom to invasions of privacy. And yet, some would still argue that, since STIs constitute an “occupational hazard” for sex workers, then mandatory testing therefore qualifies as an occupational health and safety measure.

But again, this doesn’t make sense when applied to comparable circumstances. Hospital workers, for example, are exposed to far more diseases, some of them far more dangerous, and far more often. Yet hospitals do not regularly test every employee for every disease they might have been exposed to. Instead, they find it more effective to implement preventative measures, much as full-service sex workers use condoms and other safer sex measures to reduce the risk of contracting HIV or other infections.

There’s also the question of how such measures are best mandated and enforced. More often, they are mandated as a condition of employment rather than by legal regulation; even when laws or government regulations are put in place, it is usually left to employers to maintain and enforce, with government agencies making spot checks or responding to employee complaints. Also, the most effective systems are when lawmakers institute a general mandate to assure health and safety, while leaving specifics to another body which may adapt more quickly to changes in evidence as to the best means of assuring this.

An example of which I’m personally aware is cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). I’ve been trained and recertified many times over the years, and have noticed how the protocols change as new evidence comes in, most significantly the use of an automated external defibrillator (AED). While there are laws determining who may train and certify people, those laws do not specify the protocols for performing CPR; instead, the groups that train and certify pay attention to new scientific data, and update protocols accordingly.

Compare that system to how Nevada mandates STI testing for sex workers in their legal brothels. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend that people with multiple sexual partners should be screened every three to six months, based on the best available medical studies; more frequent tests do not produce more reliable results. Nevada’s legal requirements, relatively unchanged since 1937, are that women working in brothels are required to have weekly medical exams, and at their own expense. With consistent condom usage, and STI rates reported at zero, where is the sense in having sex workers required to be tested at thirteen times the rate recommended by public health officials?

There is no good reason to impose such a requirement on sex workers when other people in similar circumstances are not similarly required. To impose such a burden is nothing more than discrimination, rooted in stigma and unnecessarily perpetuating it. Sex workers have long known how to minimize these risks, as proven by empirical studies. They need neither bureaucrats nor moralists to require anything further. If anything, the rest of us would benefit from listening to their collective experience.

The Case for Decriminalizing Pimping

[Originally posted July 7, 2016]

Recently, the UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee issued a recommendation to decriminalize certain aspects of prostitution. While some sex worker rights organizations and activists hailed the move, others have expressed caution. Too often, those who have advocated the so-called “Swedish Model” claim that it “decriminalizes sex workers” while supposedly tackling “exploitation”; in reality, this regime is best described as asymmetrical criminalization, with its real-world results being disastrous for the very people supposedly being “helped” by this approach. Is it any wonder that Norway’s government actually stated in a report that the hardships meted upon sex workers in that country was considered a sign of success?

It thus bears repeating that what the vast majority of sex workers want is full decriminalization of their work, including their relationships with third parties. In response, those who wish to keep or expand criminal prohibitions drag out the tired trope of the “abusive pimp” – now labeled a “sex trafficker” – using manipulation and coercion to “lure” and “enslave” young girls into the trade. Even so-called moderates who support half-way measures for making prostitution legal wind up swallowing this blue pill; yes, they say, let people sell sex if they want, but let’s keep the ban on those evil pimps.

There are two major problems with this, rooted in the dichotomous definitions given to the word pimp. The first is that the best research actually shows that the villainous stereotype is such an anomaly that some sex workers consider it a myth. A goodly percentage of escorts are “independents” who operate as sole proprietors; in fact, many of these independent escorts are employers themselves, retaining the assistance of others for everything from website design to office administration to transportation and security.

This leads into the second problem with regard to anti-pimping laws. While the public has been given a narrow and loaded stereotypical definition, the law defines the act more broadly as deriving financial benefit from the prostitution of another. As a result, those employed by independent escorts are deemed to be “exploiting” them, simply because of the way the law is worded. Indeed, this overly sweeping definition may also be applied to anyone who receives any significant funds from sex workers, from those who rent or sublet apartments, to their children or other relatives. If we really wanted to take this to the extreme, we could consider any and all transactions done with “the profits of prostitution” to make just about everyone a pimp – newsstands, coffee shops, dry cleaners, even the neighbor holding a yard sale.

I’m sure those seeking a comfortable middle ground would advocate for a “reformed” anti-pimping law, where the focus is on abuse rather than mere financial gain. This raises the question of what constitutes abuse, and why new laws need to be created when current laws already address such problems. Using violence? We have laws against assault and battery. Taking money from someone who works for you? Laws against theft, and labor protection laws, also provide for that. Turf wars between pimps? Assuming this part of the myth is also true, that would fall under existing racketeering and anti-trust laws. Et cetera, et cetera. If the existence of these laws proves anything, it is that just about every business has some history of exploitative outliers. If the sex industry has more than its fair share, it seems more because of the stigma and lack of transparency which comes from continued criminalization.

Like any group of service providers, prostitutes don’t always work in isolation, even when they do so as sole proprietors. They depend upon various support services, as well as supporting both biological and chosen family members. Decriminalizing sex workers while criminalizing those connected to them in this way is just as asymmetrically unworkable as the criminalization of their clientele. And before we attach the stigmatized label of “pimp” to those so connected, let’s remember how deep those connections may run – even to ourselves.