The Problem with Moderates

Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I’ve dealt before with friends and acquaintances who, relatively uninformed about sex work issues, would express their support for legalization, beginning a conversation about how that differed from decriminalization, and why the latter was preferable. Usually, the results were either:

  • The person’s idea of “legalization” was actually decriminalization.
  • The person didn’t know that the regulations which they thought were “reasonable” actually caused more harm than good.
  • The person only had a general understanding, but once they were more informed, embraced decrim.

Then there are the “moderates” …

They start by agreeing that criminal prohibition doesn’t work. They want an alternative to that. But they think decrim “goes too far” and may cause even more problems. No, they argue, we have to mandate testing for STIs, and keep the pimps at bay, and maybe even some kind of “Swedish Model Lite” where we just ticket the clients instead of throwing them in jail or making them go to “johns schools” …

They think legalization is some sort of acceptable “middle of the road” solution. Much like moderates on the marriage equality issue who thought “civil unions” would somehow solve the problem. Not a temporary bridge to our ultimate goal, as pragmatists like myself viewed it. They thought it was a permanent solution because, well, marriage is for heterosexuals to have children, and while gay people should have protections, it’s not the same thing …

That’s the major difference between moderates and pragmatists. It’s not whether a compromise is viewed as temporary or permanent. It’s the reason why moderates want it to be permanent: They are unable to get past many of the prejudices which led to the problem in the first place.

When it comes to sex work issues, moderates want mandatory testing because they still see sex workers as spreading disease. They want laws against pimping because they still think no one would actually choose to do sex work. They don’t think sex workers should have any input in the decision-making process around the laws and policies that affect them because they doubt that sex workers have the competence to make good decisions in the first place. And actually pay attention to what sex workers have to say? Oh, heaven forbid!

For all their good intentions, moderates still cling to a shallow understanding of sex work issues, rooted in paternalistic attitudes. That doesn’t mean they can’t be educated. It just means they need to do more work, not only about the facts behind sex work, but how they view the people involved in it.

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Kay Khan’s Crazy Contrivance Against Commercial Sex

Some weeks ago, I posted about the prohibitionists’ misleading re-branding of the “Swedish model” of criminalizing the purchase of sex, but not its sale, as “partial decriminalization”. Apparently, Massachusetts state representative Kay Khan has gone into outright deception. Her proposed bill, H. 3499, is being called An Act Decriminalizing Prostitution – and it does no such thing.

First of all, Khan would have the law relabel “prostitution” as “commercial sexual exploitation”. Indeed, the definition is worded so that providing sex and receiving any material gain might be construed as such. So if your date buys you dinner, and you later consent to have sex, your date just might be arrested for “commercial sexual exploitation”.

Second, while providing sex for money is no longer a crime in itself, the following clause would give one pause to offer to do so:

Whoever commits offensive and disorderly acts or language, accosts or annoy another person, lewd, wanton and lascivious persons in speech or behavior, keepers of noisy and disorderly houses, and persons guilty of indecent exposure shall be punished by imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than 6 months, or by a fine of not more than $200, or by both such fine and imprisonment.

Third, Khan’s proposal makes it clear that paying for sex, or even offering or agreeing to pay for sex, would remain a crime, with a fine of up to $10,000, a prison sentence of up to two and a half years, or both.

Fourth, the classic provisions against being a pimp (defined as someone who “live[s] or derive[s] support or maintenance, in whole or in part, from the earnings or proceeds of [another person’s] prostitution,”), running a brothel (called a “house of ill fame”), and procuring are still retained.

This is no more “decriminalization” than using lean beef in a bacon double cheeseburger makes it “low-calorie”.

The author of this bill is clearly subscribing to the dogma that “all prostituted women are victims” who should be instantly infantilized, while anyone who even offers to pay a sex worker is automatically engaging in exploitation. Not being a mind-reader, I’m unable to discern whether Khan has proposed this out of misinformed naïveté or shared zealotry, but given her past associations with Swanee Hunt of Demand Abolition, its origins seem all too obvious.

It’s also obvious that Khan never considered any scenario where a person willingly enters sex work, whether in an existing business or as a sole proprietor. Indeed, perhaps the largest segment of sex workers are independent escorts, both incall and outcall. Khan’s proposal may be presented as a weapon against sex trafficking, but like similar laws in other countries, it’s more likely to cause collateral damage – much like throwing a hand grenade into a crowd to get a single suspected terrorist.

Consider, then, the following … A woman chooses, without compulsion, to be an incall escort. She has a disabled sibling living with her, who occasionally helps by doing online background checks of prospective clients. One of those individuals asks for an intense BDSM session, which she politely declines, then refers him to another willing provider in the area. Note that there is no force or fraud, no harm, and in the specific case described, no actual exchange of sexual activity for money.

But it is all still criminalized, despite the contrivances of Khan and Hunt. The prospective client’s mere inquiry is considered an illegal attempt to exchange sex for money. The disabled relative is considered not just a mere accomplice but a pimp. And, to top off this looney logic, the escort is guilty of pandering and running a “house of ill fame” while simultaneously being labeled a “commercial sexual exploitation victim” of the gentleman whom she declined.

If Khan still believes that the “Swedish model” relieves sex workers of being burdened by police, she needs to read these excerpts from the memoirs of Simon Häggström, head of the Stockholm Police Prostitution Unit. This is not decriminalization by any reasonable measure – it is an attempt to re-brand a failed attempt at repressive social engineering that has caused harm to thousands of sex workers and those associated with them.

Hollywood and the Prohibitionists

It’s not just that prohibitionists love having celebrities on their side. It’s not just that they keep accusing supporters of sex worker rights of “falling for the fantasy” of Pretty Woman. Prohibitionists are in love with Hollywood because, like the film industry, they prefer to package things in eye-catching tropes that doesn’t strain the brain.


Two films highlight the obsession with sex trafficking. The most recent is Eden, released in 2012 with Beau Bridges as a corrupt lawman in charge of a ring who kidnap underage girls and turn them into sex slaves for profit. Said to be “inspired” by the stories of Chong Kim – who claimed to be a survivor of trafficking, and was later found to be a fraud – the movie is filled with lurid and shocking imagery, from warehoused girls in undies to outright torture. The film’s narrative goes even more overboard than Kim’s own confabulations (which had also grown more sensational over time).

The “sex slave” trope was also used in the 1972 film Prime Cut, starring Lee Marvin as a mob enforcer sent by his boss to collect a debt from another boss (Gene Hackman) and rescuing one of several girls (Sissy Spacek) who are drugged and kept naked in cattle stalls for auction. Seeing it after Eden, one has to wonder if Prime Cut was even more of an inspiration than Chong Kim’s tales.


Prohibitionists also fixate on street prostitution and the pimps who supposedly seduce runaway teens into the trade – the central theme to the 1985 movie Streetwalkin’ with Melissa Leo as Cookie and Dale Midkiff as her abusive pimp/boyfriend Duke. This film is so laughable in its cheesy portrayals, I almost imagine Melissa Farley or Donna Hughes “consulting” on the set.


Perhaps the most iconic image of prostitution would be that of Iris in Taxi Driver, played by Jodie Foster opposite Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle. Iris becomes a fixture of fascination and pity for Bickle, who later goes to the brothel where Iris works and unleashes his violent rage against the pimp and other nefarious fellows. Forget that, throughout the film, we’ve been witness to Bickle’s disturbing descent. Forget that his attack came after a failed attempt to assassinate a Presidential candidate. Bickle took down the bad guys, and helped Iris get back home, so now he’s a hero – a fantasy that now feeds the contemporary “anti-trafficking” movement.

Hollywood is fueled by fantasy. Even when it draws from real life, the writers and directors and actors tend to distill it into a more sensational – and saleable – version. The problem, however, is not with Hollywood’s selling of fantasy. It is when certain viewers are unable to distinguish the fantasy from fact, and even present fantasy as fact. Unfortunately, that is what many prohibitionists are doing, such as when two Seattle organizations held a screening of Eden in May 2013, followed by a panel of “anti-trafficking experts” leading a discussion. When a movement uses a fictional film based on fraudulent claims as though it were a documentary, you have to wonder just how credible they are.


Of course, this doesn’t mean every film about prostitution is unreal. Lizzie Borden’s 1986 movie Working Girls has been hailed as a more realistic portrayal that shows sex work as a job – alternately tedious and humorous like any other, and neither glamorous nor pitiful. Borden was able to do this by actually listening to sex workers about their lives. It’s too bad that Swanee Hunt and other prohibitionists seem unwilling to do the same.

Woozle Effects and Heffalump Atrributions

[With thanks to Cris Sardina]

In the stories of Winnie the Pooh, he becomes concerned that certain creatures will try to steal his honey – namely, Heffalumps and Woozles. At one point, he and Piglet go on a Woozle hunt, walking about a clump of trees until they find some tracks and follow them, growing more worried as the number of footprints grows and grows. Then Christopher Robin comes along, and points out that the two have been walking in circles, and the tracks they are following are their own. Later on, Pooh is out on a search when he falls into a pit on top of Piglet. He remembers that he would dig such pits as a trap for Heffalumps, and now wonders if the Heffalumps dug this pit to catch him. It’s later suggested that this is one of Pooh’s own pit-traps.

woozlehunt
Oh, bother.

At any rate, the first story has given rise to the concept of the Woozle Effect, whereby a study of dubious veracity is cited over and over, and as a result of such repetition is assumed by more and more people to be true, without ever checking the original source. The anti-prostitution camp is particularly prone to the Woozle Effect, with examples such as:

  • The average age of entry into prostitution is thirteen – This “statistic” was actually manufactured by drawing from and misrepresenting two separate sources: a 2001 study of young people under 18 years old, and a 30 year-old survey of 200 sex workers who were asked what age they first had sexual intercourse. Despite being repeatedly discredited, many prohibitionists keep repeating this claim, often never citing the source.
  • The Super Bowl and other major sporting events are magnets for sex traffickers and sex buyers – Again and again, so-called “anti-trafficking” groups keep raising this alarm (and raking in donations as a result). Police in the locales where these events are held rush in to “rescue the victims”, often estimated to be in the tens of thousands. The reality? According to this study by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women: “There is a very wide discrepancy between claims that are made prior to large sporting events and the actual number of cases found. There is no evidence that large sporting events cause an increase in trafficking for prostitution.”
  • Most prostitutes suffer from PTSD and low self-esteem – The only source for the PTSD claim was a study done by Melissa Farley, which was roundly criticized for both its evaluative and sampling methodologies. As for the self-esteem question, this seems to be more an assumption based on cultural prejudice, whereas actual research indicates that “97% of the call girls [surveyed] reported an increase in self-esteem after they began working in prostitution”.
  • The vast majority of prostitutes are controlled/coerced by pimps – I’ve heard this from people I meet several times, and I always respond with two questions: “How many is this ‘vast majority’?” and “Where are you getting your information?” In response to the first, every single individual who has provided a percentage has given me a different one, ranging from 65 to 97 percent. As to the second, not one person has been able to cite an actual study, with most saying that they heard or read it “somewhere”.

heffalump
This leads to what I call the Heffalump Attribution, where people reductively assign cause for a behavior or social phenomenon to the deliberate actions of some outside agent. At the least, this is a sloppy misuse of Occam’s Razor; at worst, it’s scapegoating. Either way, attributing prostitution to some person or organized group isn’t just prevalent with contemporary prohibitionists, it’s a foundational article of faith. Since they believe that no woman would choose to sell sex, they must have been coerced in some way by one or more people. And who are they?

  • Pimps and traffickers – The most obvious choice, with pimps being stereotypically portrayed as abusive overseers. Problem is that there’s no evidence to support for such a claim, even when studying underage sex workers.
  • The Pimp Lobby, a.k.a. Pro-Prostitution Mafia – Prohibitionists not only believe that pimps control all “prostituted women” (or, “prostituted people” on the rare occasions when they acknowledge that men and transfolk also sell sex); they insist that pimps, traffickers and other evildoers are part of some vast conspiracy to push to make their business legal. Now, who are the principal group of folks advocating for commercial sex to be decriminalized? Sex workers. And how do prohibitionists respond? By accusing those very same sex workers of “actually being pimps” or “coerced by pimps” or just plain “not representative”. It’s ironic that the sex worker rights movement is the only labor movement in history which is routinely accused of being a front for their supposed bosses.
  • Sex work clients, a.k.a. “johns”, “punters” and/or “sex buyers” – Demonized as pathetic losers or sick deviants, the only disagreement among prohibitionists appears to be whether they should be rehabilitated through so-called “johns schools” or just plain locked up. I’m sure that clients have also been accused of being part of the mythical Pimp Lobby, despite the fact that client activism for sex worker rights has only very recently gotten off the ground.
  • Backpage, preceded by Craigslist, preceded by alternative weekly papers – The legal pressure to close any and all venues by which sex workers may advertise their services and communicate with potential clients is based on the belief that the folks running such venues aren’t just businesspeople trying to make money, but part of the grand conspiracy to “sell women and girls”. Forget that the best evidence shows the overwhelming percentage of advertisers to be the sex workers themselves. Forget that Backpage did more than any other site like it to identify and report suspected trafficking of minors. Forget that closing such sites increased the dangers to the most marginalized and vulnerable sex workers. They must be blamed, shamed and punished at all costs! And now that they have shut down their adult section, just how much trafficking has been stopped? None.
  • Amnesty International – I could go on a rant about this, but I think the satirical video below captures it splendidly:

Dorothy Allison noted that “Things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies.” Whether the Woozles and Heffalumps of the prohibitionists are the result of rationalization or deliberate deceit, the best way to hunt and trap them is by simply asking – even demanding – to know the source for such assertions, and to keep questioning in the press for proof. No one who is genuinely confident of the truth of their claims should object to such scrutiny – and no one is obliged to believe anyone who tries to avoid it.

The Demons of Prohibitionism

Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. – Eric Hoffer

During the satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980s and 1990s, it wasn’t enough to raise the alarm about isolated sociopaths using pentagrams and occult practices to control others. No, the crusaders warned of massive conspiracies, infiltrating all levels of society and government, exploiting and killing who knows how many innocents. The fact that they had no real evidence to support their claims did not deter them. After all, simplistic messages are much more effective at rallying people to your cause – and raking in the bucks.

Fast forward to the present day, and we see the same tactic being employed by those seeking to “abolish” commercial sex rather than assure greater safety. In their case, the principal “demons” are those who supposedly seduce or coerce women and youth into selling sex – the evil and abusive pimp. In the minds of prohibitionists, virtually all prostitutes are under the thumb of some pimp or other procurer who sends them off to be degraded at the hands of some desperate “john” or face hideous consequences.

But just as the conspiracy theories of the satanic panic eventually unraveled, so we’re beginning to see with the distortions of the prohibitionists. Not only is the stereotypical pimp a rarity, but in many cases where a third party helps with bookings or other aspects of the business, it’s the sex worker who is the boss.

In 2008, the John Jay College of Justice in New York City published a report on minors involved in commercial sex (click here for a copy). The results contradict many of the assumptions around sex work and survival sex, including the involvement of so-called pimps, referred to by the authors as “market facilitators”. According to this study, only ten percent of underage people who sell sex in NYC work with such a facilitator, and only eight percent reported being coerced by one. Indeed, 84 percent of female youth in the study had never even encountered a pimp.

Now, if a vast majority of runaway, throwaway and neglected teens who engage in selling sex do so without a pimp or “facilitator” around, it follows logically that adults who enter sex work are doing so in similar fashion, and in similar numbers. While many use social media and other online platforms to connect with clients, some will hire people to do web design and screen calls. These third parties may be “living on the avails of prostitution” but they hardly fit the stereotype of a controlling pimp.

Of course, it’s all too easy for prohibitionists to argue that anyone taking a percentage of a sex worker’s earning is “exploiting” them, especially at the rates that some insist upon. Setting aside the numbers for a moment, think about what’s going on. Person A is looking for clients, and Person B is offering to use their skills and time to help Person A to do so more effectively and safely. Why shouldn’t Person B receive payment for such services? Literary agents receive commissions for helping authors to get published, art dealers get a cut for selling a painting, and so forth – and we generally consider such arrangements to be acceptable business practices, so long as both parties mutually agree to the terms.

Yes, in some cases, the arrangements between sex workers and such market facilitators could be more fair. But this reality only strengthens the case to decriminalize the commercial sex industry. Let’s stop demonizing those who facilitate the affairs of sex workers and their clients, and provide all of them with greater transparency and accountability.

Surviving Fanaticism

In previous writings and conversations, I’ve referred to the current anti-prostitution movement as “zealots”, “extremist” and “fanatical”. Recent events surrounding the Women’s March on Washington only served to confirm that.

When the March organizers posted their statement, they included “solidarity with the sex workers’ movement”. Then, days before the March, it was noticed that this phrase was removed and replaced with a statement of support for “those exploited for sex and labor”. The reaction by sex workers and their allies was immediate, with emails and tweets calling on March organizers to reinstate the original wording. Within hours, the statement was revised again, this time including both phrases. While some opposed making any concession to those who conflate consensual sex work with trafficking, others were content with the final result, even pointing out that sex workers have been fighting sexual and labor exploitation for decades.

Contrast this with the reaction of prohibitionists. Alisa Bernard labeled the original solidarity statement as a sign of “patriarchal leanings”, opposed the compromise wording, and rattled off supposed statistics with no links or citations to substantiate them. An “Open Letter from Sex Trade Survivors” also condemned the inclusion of sex workers in the March, asserting “that ‘sex workers’ rights’ are synonymous with ‘pimps’ rights’ … Don’t believe us? — We couldn’t blame you. It is thoroughly incredible. — So go and ask them. The movement you’re supporting will be happy to tell you that pimps are ‘managers’ and that since they facilitate ‘sex work’ they’re ‘sex workers’ too!” Again, no citation to support their claim.

And, to clarify for those readers who are less familiar with the nuances: While sex workers do prefer the term “third-party managers” to the more pejorative “pimp”, they would only include a manager among their ranks if they had also done actual sex work (like many of the women who run escort agencies). Sex workers also acknowledge that abuse and exploitation by third parties in commercial sex does happen – which is why they support full decriminalization, to provide more accountability and transparency.

Of course, this is completely lost on the prohibitionist camp, who prefer to see things in black and white. They take the most extreme negative narrative – the helpless victim abused by a pimp to be used and discarded by a seemingly endless string of entitled johns – and refuse to accept any other perspective. It’s all bad, so it must all be abolished, and we need tougher laws and more stings and sweeps to “rescue prostituted persons” (arrest sex workers) and “hold buyers accountable” (arrest sex work clients). And when current and former sex workers present different and more complex narratives, or social science research reveals that the facts don’t fit the prohibitionists’ beliefs? Either ignore them, or accuse them of being part of a mythic “Pimp Lobby” that wants to perpetuate “the selling of women and girls into sexual slavery”.

Because I recognize the complex reality of commercial sex, I recognize that coercion and abuse do occur. Where I disagree with the prohibitionists is the numbers they put forward in their claims, and the methods they favor to address the problem. And I’m not just talking about their excessive focus on punitive law-and-order measures. I’m talking about the way that survivors of abuse and exploitation are used and discarded by the very movement that lays claim to rescuing them.

One of the worst examples is Jenny Williamson, founder and CEO of Courage Worldwide, Inc. Her “Courage House” facility in California, intended to provide housing and support to young victims of sex trafficking, shut its doors in June 2016 amid state licensing investigations and complaints from former staff that it was “an exploitative organization that cared more about promoting its cause than caring for the teen runaways it claimed to be saving.” And this isn’t the only so-called “anti-trafficking” group with problems. According to a 2015 investigative piece by Truthout on the anti-trafficking industry, “these groups have shown a remarkable lack of fiscal accountability and organizational consistency, … [they] fold, move, restructure and reappear under new names with alarming frequency, making them almost as difficult to track as their supposed foes.”

Unlike the sex worker movement, which is led by current and former sex workers themselves, the prohibitionist movement’s leadership is dominated by religious conservatives, radical academics, and wealthy benefactors. Yes, there are “survivor leaders”, but more often than not survivors serve as props for publicity and fundraising. More troubling is the extent to which people claiming to be survivors turn out to be fraudulent – Somaly Mam, Chong Kim, Samantha Azzopardi, Valerie Lempereur, a.k.a. Patricia Perquin, and who knows how many more. Given the penchant that prohibitionists have of clinging to beliefs before checking facts, is it any wonder that such problems remain a feature in their movement?

I’m not saying that survivors of abuse and trafficking should not be heard. What I am saying is that the narrative presented by people like Alisa Bernard and the signatories of the Open Letter are not the only ones out there, nor do people with similar narratives necessarily share the same beliefs or reach the same conclusions. Survivors for Decrim is an example of how supporting survivors of abuse and the rights of consensual sex workers need not be mutually exclusive.

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.