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.

The Question Anti-Prostitution Zealots Refuse to Answer

[Originally posted December 12, 2016]

Like any well-organized endeavor, the movement seeking to do away with commercial sex has worked hard to come up with responses to various questions. When asked about people who say they do sex work willingly and happily, they will either accuse them of being brainwashed or dismiss them as “not representative”. When called to account for distorting or fabricating evidence, they insist there’s a “greater truth” that needs to be heard.

But there’s one question I’ve never heard any prohibitionist address, even when they’ve been asked directly: What about the repeated abuse of sex workers by police?

As much as these so-called “abolitionists” keep trying to pin the blame on clients and people inside the industry, sex workers will tell you that they have more to fear from law enforcement – not just being arrested, but systematic harassment, assault, and exploitation. Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason magazine published a summary of almost forty cases of police sexual misconduct in the course of 2014 and 2015. Brown’s report is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also this Associated Press analysis that almost one thousand law enforcement officers nationwide lost their badges over a five-year period over sexual misconduct, with one-third of those involving people under eighteen. From Oakland to Baltimore, various public and private sources confirm what sex workers have been saying for years about cops robbing, raping and even pimping them out. And it’s not just in the United States. This report from Great Britain shows that police in England and Wales have been sexually assaulting prostitutes and other vulnerable women there as well.

Police in Sweden and Norway – so admired by prohibitionists for their efforts to “crush the sex trade” by “ending demand” – have chosen a different tactic. They bully the sex workers’ landlords, threatening to arrest them for pimping or brothel-keeping, unless they evict the women. Amnesty International’s report shared this particularly disturbing story from Mercy, a Nigerian-born sex worker living and working in Oslo:

A little guy came to the house with a knife. I answered the door. There were nine of us in the house. He threatened us with a knife and robbed our money and phones… He forced us to have sex with him. The police took two or three hours to come. They took us all to hospital and got us a hotel for two nights. Later, we went back to the house and, two days later, the landlord threw us out … The police put pressure on the landlord. She gave us half a day to get out … I had to wander around Oslo for hours with my bags until I found somewhere to stay.

It’s not just that prohibitionists fail to check their facts. They are failing to check their privilege. White and affluent Americans tend to view police as public servants dedicated to keeping their communities safe, with abuses dismissed as individual aberrations. But among marginalized communities, police are seen as an occupying army sent to impose social control, not just with guns and handcuffs, but a variety of weapons and tools, both legal and extra-legal. Now, take a look at the list of major prohibitionist leaders – overwhelmingly white and wealthy. Privilege lays the foundation for denial, and the interdependence of the movement with law enforcement continue to pile upon it.

History, however, shows that such piles of denial inevitably collapse. That happened almost a century ago, when the American experiment with banning alcohol was abandoned as a failure. Despite repeated claims by advocates that it would lead to significant reductions in crime, the Prohibition Era actually saw criminal activity increase – including rampant bribery and corruption of police and public officials. The temperance movement, now dwindled to irrelevance, has paid the price for their denial. And I have no doubt that this prohibitionist movement will encounter the same fate as more people become aware of the facts.