De-Facto Decrim and How It Would Work

An author friend of mine has a series of books primarily set in a fictional city where the police chief, made painfully aware of the problems created by criminalizing sex work, has come up with the solution of having his department operate as though commercial sex work was already decriminalized, even establishing a “special district” where street-based sex workers are able to operate with relative safety.

In fact, such a policy has been in place in the Canadian cities of Victoria and Vancouver for some time, resulting in significant improvements in sex worker safety in those locations. Here in the United States, Democratic candidate for Queens District Attorney Tiffany Cabán has pledged not to prosecute sex workers or their clients if elected – a similar policy of de-facto decriminalization

Such a pragmatic approach is not without precedent, and is rooted in the discretionary authority given to law enforcement. Usually such “selective enforcement” is done on a case-by-case basis – such as when a police officer gives a driver a warning for a minor violation rather than write a ticket – but there are also cases where an organization determines that strict (or any) enforcement of a particular law does not serve the public interest.

I would argue that a local-level policy of de-facto decrim is just such a case, and should be a goal for advocates of sex worker rights to pursue as an interim step towards actual full decriminalization. Such a policy not only assures greater safety for sex workers and those associated with them, but better serves the public by allowing more resources to be dedicated towards addressing acts of violence and other major crimes, including and especially police corruption and abuse.

This raises two general questions:

  1. What exactly would “de-facto decrim” (or DFD) look like?
  2. How would it be implemented?

As mentioned before, DFD could be implemented simply as a standing policy of a municipal police department, as in Victoria and Vancouver. Similarly, a local prosecutor’s office could implement a policy of not pursuing prostitution charges when there is no evidence of violence, coercion or fraud. The only issue here is when police and prosecutors are not in sync, so even if a prosecutor refuses to pursue certain charges, police may continue to make arrests. Both of these agencies may also be hesitant to implement any such policy if local government is not supportive. Ideally, then, a synchrony of these organizations would make sense, but it would still be feasible for DFD to begin with one of these groups implementing it in whole or in part, and the rest establishing concurrent policies and practices later on.

Returning to the first question, the simplest start for DFD would be to institute a moratorium on arrests for prostitution-related charges, whether of sex workers or their clients – a position which the Massachusetts Pirate Party is petitioning the Boston Police Department to implement. On a broader scale, this would mean non-enforcement of any laws against the consensual exchange of sexual services for pay, so long as no violence, coercion or fraud has taken place. A more detailed delineation of how this would be put into practice would include:

  • No arrests, investigations or sting operations against sex workers, their clients or third-party associates regarding any consensual activities between them.
  • Laws against brothel-keeping, which are too often used against sex workers who operate out of a shared space to ensure greater safety, would also not be enforced; in the event of a third party forcing two or more people to provide commercial sex from a given location, charges of false imprisonment and involuntary servitude could and should be employed instead.
  • Laws against “pimping” – already so vaguely worded that any individual who receives money from a sex worker could be arrested – would likewise not be enforced against any third-party facilitator, so long as the sex workers involved have no problem with how said facilitators operate. If there were problems of fraud or abuse, then again the police and prosecutors should enforce other laws to provide recourse for the workers involved.
  • Sex workers, sex work clients and third-party associates would be assured blanket immunity when reporting crimes to police and prosecutors, whether against themselves or another member of the community.
  • Police would work with sex worker organizations to address violence against sex workers, using proven community policing strategies. This would include addressing abuses by police officers, through changes in departmental policies and practices.
  • Complaints from residents about sex work activity would be addressed through conflict resolution involving sex worker organizations and social service agencies, with a goal of finding a resolution which best addresses the needs of all parties involved.
  • Police may establish a “tolerance zone” for street-based sex work, in consultation with sex worker organizations, with officers specifically trained to address the issues faced by sex workers, based on a community policing model. This would also include police providing information on “bad tricks” to sex workers operating in said area.
  • Incall and outcall sex work would likewise be allowed to operate without interference, so long as the activities engaged in are consensual.

Naturally, this is not a complete list, and certainly different localities would address specific needs in their implementation. But the common pattern is that police and other municipal agencies would start from the premise of what sex workers want in order to improve their lives, and resort to arrest only when violence or other abuses have taken place.

Aside from the practical benefits of increasing sex worker safety and well-being – as seen in Victoria and Vancouver – well-executed DFD models would also provide further evidence of the need for actually changing the laws to full decriminalization and the recognition of sex workers’ rights. Thus while it is not a complete solution, it is an applicable step towards developing and implementing more permanent ones in the areas of law, public policy, and community policing practices.

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After the Gascon Case

Yesterday, a panel from the 9th Circuit court of appeals ruled against the plaintiffs in a civil suit filed by the Erotic Service Providers Legal, Education, and Research Project, calling for the decriminalization of full-service sex work on Constitutional grounds.

I am, of course disappointed – but neither surprised nor discouraged.

Judges are just as much mindful of public opinion as legislators and other politicians, hence unwilling to make dramatic changes in law without sufficient public support. Nor is one adverse ruling the end of the road towards reform. Both of these lessons are clearly demonstrated in the efforts for marriage equality.

The first lawsuit to allow same-gender couples the right to legally wed (Baker v. Nelson) was in 1971; it was rejected by the Minnesota high court, and the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear it. That did not end the effort to get such relationships recognized, even when leading LGBTQ rights activists considered it a distraction from what they considered more basic nondiscrimination rights. For many same-gender couples and their family members, however, the obstacles that came with lack of equal recognition had very real consequences. Thus, while mainstream organizations worked for “domestic partnership” ordinances at local and state levels, a few brave people continued to press for full marriage rights.

Evan Wolfson best outlined the strategy for achieving marriage equality, based on his research of previous civil rights efforts. He put forward that the fight would be accomplished on multiple fronts – judicial and legislative, from local to state and Federal – and most importantly would depend upon shaping public opinion through careful and continual education and messaging.

That was the strategy we followed in Massachusetts. We built a broad coalition, starting with the LGBTQ community and their allies like P-FLAG, expanding into the progressive religious community and other constituent groups. We talked to whomever would listen: student organizations, churches and synagogues, professional associations, political candidates and their operatives. Our goal was to expand our base by persuading members of the “mushy middle” to our side.

We did this by keeping our message simple, appealing on many levels, and showing that marriage equality harmed no one while giving same-gender couples and their families the tools they needed to assure their well-being. We also heeded the advice of legal experts not to rush into a lawsuit until our efforts at educating and organizing had borne sufficient fruit at the grassroots. In our first meeting, the more seasoned activists were convinced it would take some five or ten years before that foundation had been laid. They were just about right.

The Gascon case is analogous to the Baker case – an early effort to achieve rights which will be seen as “ahead of its time” once those rights are considered settled law. To repeat the successes of the marriage equality movement, sex workers and their allies in the United States should look at how to apply their organizing and messaging strategies towards reshaping public consensus in favor of full decriminalization.

Tea, Consent, and Commercial Sex

You may have heard about the video which explains sexual consent by making an analogy with tea:

I like the use of analogies and metaphors to get a point across. I also enjoy tea better than the average American, some acquaintances saying my love of tea could rival that of the British and Irish. With that in mind,…

Let’s say that someone has heard about my knowledge and skill regarding tea, and would not only like me to brew and serve some tea for them, but would be willing to pay me for it. I give it a moment’s thought, and agree. The table is set, the tea is brewed and served with suitable edibles, the whole experience enjoyed by my guest, who pays the agreed-upon remuneration plus a gratuity.

Not bad.

So, why not make this a business? I spread the word about my willingness to make and serve tea to paying customers, from word-of-mouth to the World Wide Web, and build a customer base. I set some limits on what I will and won’t do, establish a schedule of fees for different levels of service, and build a base of regular and occasional clientele. Sometimes I enjoy it, sometimes it’s tedious or even annoying – but so long as no one uses force or deceit to get me to make them tea, or doesn’t pay the agreed-upon fee, I’m good.

Now imagine that I run into people who have a problem with this. Some argue that, to “protect” me and/or my clients, I need to be licensed – not the same kind of licensure that a restaurant or catering company goes through, but special licensing through the police, along with excessive and intrusive health checks, severe limits on advertising and location, and constant political and social scrutiny. Others would argue that, while there’s nothing wrong with serving tea for free, as soon as you exchange it for money, some nefarious force robs tea-service-sellers of consent, and all tea-service-buyers are selfish and abusive, not to mention the people who run those filthy teahouses, so let’s “rescue” the poor tea-service-sellers and punish those nasty buyers and bosses by making it a crime to pay for tea service, or living off the avails of tea-service-selling, because you should only consent to making or having tea when you truly love the other person.

What about if a tea-service-seller argues they’re not being forced, they don’t hate what they do, the majority of their clients are not abusive assholes, and they don’t need the police or anyone else interfering in their business? Well, the ones who argue that all tea-service-selling is a form of modern-day slavery dismissively argue that those poor sellers are “not representative” and deluded by “false consciousness,” so no one should listen to them. The stigmatizing narrative of the “anti-sellers” even begins to negatively affect the sellers’ community, yet still they persist and protest, based on the basic premise that the only people who get to decide who has tea with whom, and under what terms, are the people themselves.

Money is not magic. It doesn’t have any mysterious power to erode or negate consent. And if it’s possible to give and receive something consensually, then it’s also possible to buy and sell it consensually.

Kamala Harris: Whorephobic Enforcer in Progressive Clothing

As Democrats try to regroup from the debacle of the 2016 election, they are looking for prospective Presidential candidates. It’s not an easy task, as such a person needs to present strong leadership with minimal scandal. Right now, one of those being lifted up is the junior Senator from California, and former Attorney General for that state, Kamala Harris. She’s photogenic, charismatic, eloquent, and giving the Trump Administration a tough time (at least in Senate committee hearings).

Ask the sex workers’ rights movement, however, and they will give plenty of reasons why they wouldn’t vote for her. Harris was the persecutor-in-chief behind the misguided scapegoating of Backpage, and quickly joined Claire McCaskill and other “anti-trafficking” fanatics in the Senate. As Zoé Samudzi pointed out in a recent blog post: “Harris, like many others, claimed to support sex workers while actively making their lives more difficult: her prosecutorial logic deliberately conflated voluntary sex work and sex trafficking in a way that was indistinguishable from the rhetorics of sex work abolitionists and sex work exclusionary feminists (SWERFs).”

But it doesn’t stop there.

Harris may be promoting bail and prison reform now, but in 2011 her office opposed efforts to relieve California’s overcrowded prisons, claiming it would deprive the state of cheap labor. Harris later claimed she was “shocked” to read about this in the newspaper (perhaps the same way Louis Renault was shocked).

Harris has a similarly questionable background on drug policy, calling for reform after having opposed legalizing marijuana to such an extent that some folks endorsed a weed-friendly Republican who ran against her.

Harris may have gotten tough with Jeff Sessions, but as her state’s top prosecutor she was in line with him on civil asset forfeiture, opposing a 2011 proposal to curtail its implementation in California, and supported a 2015 measure to have assets seized before filing charges.

One might argue that, as Attorney General, she was merely doing what was expected of her in upholding the law – but that rings hollow given that legal experts considered her prosecution of Backpage to violate Federal statutes and constitutional protections. Let’s also not forget her her office overlooking cases of prosecutorial misconduct, not to mention failing to prosecute violations of state foreclosure laws (by a major donor to her campaign, no less), as well as refusing to respond to calls for an independent investigation into the sexual exploitation of a minor by several Oakland police officers.

I myself am a political pragmatist, and fully aware that no candidate is perfect. The record of Kamala Harris, however, raises questions about her administrative abilities, her political priorities, and even her integrity. As much as some would have us believe she is a progressive reformer, her record suggests an establishment figure all too willing to compromise principles to fulfill her ambitions. Not exactly the kind of star I’d want to hitch my wagon to.

Civil Asset Forfeiture: If You Can’t Arrest Them, Rob Them

Since the United States criminalized prostitution a little over a century ago, police have used the standard methods of enforcing these laws – citations, arrests, fines, and jail time. When radical “feminists” decided that men needed special treatment, they created “johns schools” to indoctrinate them with distorted and false information, along with carefully selected horror stories to induce even more shame.

Lately, however, cops have employed another tool that doesn’t require any conviction, trial, arrest, or even proof of wrongdoing. And, if that’s not enough to get you burned up, police and prosecutors actually get to benefit financially every time they use this.

I’m talking about civil asset forfeiture – a procedure introduced by the Federal government in the 1980’s as a weapon in their “War on Drugs”, and now being used and abused all over the country. Unlike criminal asset forfeiture, which requires arrest and conviction on a criminal charge, the civil version allows police to seize cash, cars and other property by merely suspecting criminal activity. In effect, they are “arresting” your property, even if they never arrest you.

But it doesn’t stop there. While our criminal courts presume that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, the administrative hearings for determining the outcome of assets seized under these laws presumes that your property is guilty until you prove otherwise. These hearings are also not presided over by a judge, but by either a prosecutor or a specially contracted attorney, both of which have a stake in keeping your assets in the government’s hands, because the law allows local police and prosecutors to keep most or all of those assets, and contracted attorneys are paid on a commission basis based on the amount they rule to be forfeited.

Hello, Mister Fox, will you please guard our henhouse?

Think about it. You’re driving in your car. The police pull you over on some pretext, and start asking you questions; they may even ask you, point-blank, if you have a large amount of cash in the vehicle. Then they tell you that they “suspect” that your money or car is being used for some criminal purpose, and seize them. But don’t worry, there will be a hearing where you will have to prove that the cops are wrong before you’re able to get your stuff back – and the person in charge of the hearing has a vested interest in keeping your stuff.

Sex workers, their business associates, their clients, their family members and even people who have been wrongly accused of prostitution-related offenses have been frequently subjected to this legalized form of robbery. And I’m sure that Swanee Hunt, Dorchen Leidholdt, Donna Hughes, and other “abolitionists” will argue that such blatant violations of privacy and due process are necessary to combat a greater evil and “keep women and girls safe”. Obviously, none of them have been pulled over and had their money or other property taken on mere suspicion. At least not yet.

Benjamin Franklin rightly warned that “Those who would give up essential Liberty, to purchase a little temporary Safety, deserve neither Liberty nor Safety.” Unfortunately, too many people in this country across the political spectrum have failed to heed this. The abuse of civil asset forfeiture not only robs people of their belongings, but of their privacy, dignity and autonomy. Not only must we abolish laws against the consensual exchange of sex for money, we need to abolish the laws which allow cops to become robbers, threatening us all.

Stop Singling Out Street-Based Sex Workers

As I write this post, South Australia’s Legislative Council approved a bill to decriminalize prostitution. The next step would be a vote in that state’s House of Assembly. One of the reasons to be optimistic is that every attempt to amend the bill was defeated, including one that would have kept street-based sex work illegal. Similarly, social conservatives in New Zealand have been trying to get a ban on street-based sex work in Christchurch, without considering the various factors behind the problems involved (e.g., loss of public lavatories and other facilities due to earthquake damage).

Too often, moderates propose a “compromise” which excludes streetwalkers from the rights and recourse to be given other sex workers. Escorts and brothel girls? Sure, let them be legal. But not for those who ply their trade on the street. If other sex workers are able to do their business indoors, then so should they – not out in the open like that.

One of the times I heard an acquaintance make such an argument, I couldn’t help pointing out the irony that he’d just bought a hot dog and a soda from a vendor on the street. Yes, we allow folks who might afford a cart to sell food or hats or other goods out in the open, applaud the initiative of kids who offer their services mowing lawns or shoveling snow, and even let our neighbors sell all sorts of items from their yards or garages – but when the same principle is applied to commercial sex, too many of us still take exception.

When moderates separate street-based sex workers from others in their profession, they are helping to perpetuate the twin stigma of whorephobia and whorearchy. It’s bad enough that prohibitionist fanatics exploit their stereotyped image and marginalized status as fodder for propaganda. When they are singled out by appeals to respectability, they open the door to undue restrictions on all sex workers, and the problems that are likely to spill over from that. From banning commercial sex on the street, to restricting where incalls may be located, or that “legitimate” sex workers be registered and subjected to invasive mandatory health checks, legalization schemes never seem to stop at the street corner.

The major objection given to allowing street-based sex work is the “nuisance factor” perceived to be associated with it, especially when it takes place in residential areas. Establishing a commercial zone away from residential ones makes sense, but these are often implemented poorly, with said zones often having their own problems. If local governments want such a scheme to work, then they need to involve sex workers in the process of determining the best site for such a zone, as well as any resources they would need (such as drop-in clinics and help centers, SRO hotels providing short-term rentals, and access to public transportation). Local authorities also need to facilitate dialogue between sex workers and other members of the community, so that all sides may better understand one another’s needs.

The idea of viewing and treating street-based sex work as different from others does nothing to alleviate the risks involved. If anything, removing both legal restrictions and societal stigma is essential to finding ways to remove other obstacles to their health and safety. Decriminalizing the commercial sex industry means decriminalizing it in total, and not merely those we perceive as somehow more acceptable.

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 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.

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.