Being Careful with the Facts

Check my social media footprint, and you’ll find a plethora of articles about sex work, from news items to academic research. One group of studies, however, is conspicuously absent. The reason? I’m not convinced of the conclusion they share.

That may seem contradictory for two reasons. The first is that I’m willing to articulate just about any argument for decriminalizing sex work. That’s because I understand that different arguments appeal to different audiences. Hence, I’ll make certain arguments to free-market libertarians, other arguments to feminists and progressives. However, being “all things to all people” for the sake of winning over a broad base does not mean I’m willing to put forward an argument which I think is weak.

This leads to the second question. If three studies make the same conclusion, doesn’t that satisfy the “reproducible results” requirements for scientific evidence? Not if these studies also repeat the same flaws, which seems to be the case here.

The studies in question – one focused on Rhode Island, one on the Netherlands, and the third on New York City – claim that legal or tolerated indoor prostitution means reduced incidents of rape in those areas. At their most basic level, these studies make one of the most common mistakes in social science research: equating correlation with causation. For all we know, the two factors being studied could very well be cause by a third factor, such as changes in attitudes towards sexuality and a better understanding of consent. They could also be connected to different factors, or combinations of factors. Also, the researchers looked at reported rapes and sexual assaults, without discussing in depth how various social and cultural factors may affect the proportion of actual crimes which are reported.

This is not the first time I’ve been skeptical of some research which seemed to support some political or ethical stance. Many LGBTQ rights advocates, for example, have opined that homophobes are really raging closet cases, mostly based on sensational anecdotes, but often citing a University of Georgia study “proving” that. Except there are a number of flaws with that study, the three biggest being the small sample size, the lack of heterogeneity in that sample, and the means of measuring arousal or interest in its subjects. And with no other real evidence to back it up, I’m not ready to jump on that bandwagon.

One of the most powerful arguments against prohibitionism is the lack of evidence that it works or produces the results its adherents keep saying will happen. All the more reason for supporters of decrim and sex workers’ rights to be careful with our facts. Let the other side do their sloppy studies, and parrot their collective claims with fanatical faith.

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Purity is a Luxury That Activists Cannot Afford

When we began working for marriage equality in Massachusetts in the 1990s, we fully expected opposition from social conservatives. What we didn’t quite expect was reluctance on the part of two supposedly natural allies. Among some LGBTQ folks, marriage was considered an oppressive institution; and a number of libertarians thought it best that government stay out of marriage entirely.

“All well and good,” we replied, “but those goals are a long way off. Meanwhile, there are couples and their families who would benefit enormously from having their unions legally recognized. So why not work with us on this for now, and your ideal goals over the long haul?”

That argument swayed some, but not all. Fortunately, those who insisted on remaining pure in their purpose were quite small, and we had plenty of folks across the political spectrum willing to work on achieving our goal.

I shudder when I think what might have happened if it was our side which was dominated by ideological purists – welcoming only left-wing LGBTQ people, viewing allies with suspicion, rejecting help from groups who endorsed same-sex marriage for the “wrong” reasons. It would have been a disaster.

This post is a warning to those in the sex worker rights movement who have adopted such a purist approach. My experience in social activism spans three and a half decades. I’ve seen my share of successes and mistakes. One of the most consistent factors is the more a group embraces purism, the more likely it is to either die or stagnate into irrelevancy. Purism has an understandable appeal, of making you feel comfortable in the short run, safe within a tribe. But in the long run, activism is not about staying in a safe place – it is about taking risks to achieve what change is possible and desirable, one step at a time.

Maggie McNeill draws the analogy of a bus stuck in the mud. Do you really care that much who helps you push it out? Because if you sit there waiting for the “perfect” people to help you in the “ideal” way, you’ll likely find that the bus has sunk in deeper and the mud dried out and hardened. If your bus is stuck in the mud, you get out and push, and you call on anyone passing by to help you.

But purism is not just impractical. It’s an approach to seeing the world which is rooted in bitter and cynical nihilism. As Alexis Shotwell, associate professor at Carleton University notes: “Purism is a de-collectivizing, de-mobilizing, paradoxical politics of despair. This world deserves better.” While purists condemn efforts at reform, they are failing to see how such efforts are not only more realistic, but more hopeful and inspiring.

Pitting purism against purism never works. Prohibitionists may try to sell their “end demand” approach as reform, but it is in fact a purist attempt at social engineering, built on a simplistic view of both economics and human sexuality. Decrim is the hopeful reform, not because it will transform society by itself, but because it will empower and inspire sex workers to improve their own lives.

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.

The Road to Decrim: A Hopeful Scenario

Given current realities, how would the full decriminalization of sex work be accomplished in the United States? Realistically, it would involve not just many tactics and strategies, and the influence of events in other countries, but many political changes. While I have no crystal ball, I do have both an active imagination and a touch of whimsy. So, without further ado, here is a proposed timeline of how that might take place in the near future …

2018

  • After considerable consultation and pressure, Canada’s government introduces a bill to decriminalize sex work along the lines of the New Zealand model; meanwhile, police in several Canadian cities and provinces declare that they will adopt the guidelines used in British Columbia’s cities of Victoria and Vancouver, where sex worker safety is given priority over enforcement of laws criminalizing various aspects of the sex industry (these guidelines are called the Victoria-Vancouver Protocol).
  • Increasing political scandals in the United States leads to a massive upset in Congressional elections; the Republican Party collapses, displaced by the Libertarians, while the Democrats achieve a plurality and form a coalition with Greens and independents to elect Linda Sanchez as Speaker.
  • South Australia becomes the second state in that country, and the third jurisdiction globally, to enact full decriminalization of sex work.
  • Laura Lee wins her lawsuit against Northern Ireland’s version of the Swedish model, but reform is stalled by Stormont’s government

2019

  • Police chiefs in three U.S. municipalities adopt the Victoria-Vancouver Protocol, also applying its principles around drug possession and usage.
  • Canadian parliament passes full decrim, with specific requirements that municipal and provincial governments “engage in full consultation with peer-led sex worker organizations regarding formulation and implementation of any particular regulations of the sex industry.”
  • After lengthy internal debate, U.S. Green Party changes platform to endorse full decrim, and new leadership releases formal apology to sex worker community.
  • Congress begins hearings on articles of impeachment, but Donald Trump is forced to resign for “health reasons”; President Mike Pence resigns after only a few months, declaring current political situation unworkable; House Speaker Linda Sanchez is sworn in as President, Senator Cory Booker quickly confirmed as V.P.

2020

  • Debates rage in United States over immigration, drugs, and prostitution; police in three more cities adopt “Vic-Van” protocol.
  • Sanchez and Booker elected by plurality of popular vote and slim Electoral College majority.
  • Australian state of Victoria adopts full decrim.

2021

  • Police in five Rhode Island municipalities consider adopting “Vic-Van” while decrim bill is introduced in that state’s legislature; polls indicate support for decrim is at 62 percent; radical feminist Donna Hughes threatens to immolate herself on state capitol steps, prompting Libertarian Party leader Tania Markowitz to respond: “Burn, baby, burn!” and pro-decrim activists embrace this as a slogan; after decrim is passed overwhelmingly, Hughes retires from her post at the University of Rhode Island and disappears from public view.
  • Irish government commission declares that republic’s version of Swedish model “an abysmal failure” and recommends reforms; radical feminists and Catholic nuns criticize report and push for law to be retained.
  • Proposals for decrim introduced and debated in five Latin American countries.

2022

  • San Francisco becomes first major city to adopt “Vic-Van” while California governor Kamala Harris declares “all-out war against commercial sexual exploitation”.
  • Norway’s government repeals sex-purchase ban and adopts legalization scheme; sex worker organization PION praises move while pledging to continue fight for full decrim.
  • Netherlands adopts law allowing full decrim in certain cities (Amsterdam, The Hague, Rotterdam, Utrecht) while giving other municipalities option for stricter regulation or prohibition.
  • Radical feminists invade legal Provincetown brothel and assault several people, in name of “resisting violence against women”; incident leads to major shift in U.S. public opinion on sex work.

2023

  • Several significant setbacks for anti-prostitution movement, as numerous leaders are either exposed as frauds or indicted on criminal charges ranging from bribery to abduction and assault.
  • France abandons Swedish model and adopts legalization scheme; STRASS and other sex worker groups commend “positive step” but recommit themselves to achieve full decrim.
  • Ireland’s Dail retains Swedish model by one vote, provoking massive march in Dublin and prolonged occupation of several churches by sex workers.
  • After election of left-of-center coalition government in Bundestag, German Greens introduce decrim bill crafted with input by sex workers.
  • Brazil, Thailand, and two Indian states adopt full decrim.
  • One-fifth of U.S. municipal police departments have adopted “Vic-Van” protocol.

2024

  • Swedish sex workers simultaneously occupy three churches in Stockholm, Malmö, and Uppsala; supporters ring churches to prevent police from entering to evict and arrest occupiers; within two weeks, five more churches are occupied.
  • Alliance, Green, and Social Democratic Labour parties form coalition government in Northern Ireland; begin debate on decrim proposal.
  • Netherlands passes reform to decriminalize outcall and incall sex work nationwide.
  • In U.S. Presidential election, decrim becomes major issue in primaries; Sanchez and Booker re-elected, but Greens and Libertarians make major gains in Congress and state legislatures.

2025

  • In California legislature, Greens and Libertarians co-sponsor bill calling for full decrim; Governor Harris vows to veto.
  • Lawsuits, bills, and other actions for decrim continue in many other states, as almost one-third of municipal police departments embrace Vic-Van.
  • British Labour party leads coalition government with Liberal Democrats and Greens; LibDems introduce full decrim bill in House of Commons.
  • Vote of no confidence in Sweden over government’s handling of church occupations and protests leads to snap elections; newly formed Sex Worker Rights Party gains fourteen seats, holds balance of power in formation of center-right government, and negotiates peaceful end to occupations.
  • Demand Abolition closes its doors.
  • Decrim debated in Cambodian parliament.
  • German Bundestag passes decrim bill, to be implemented in stages.

2026

  • Western Australia and Tasmania pass decrim laws.
  • Coalition Against Trafficking in Women forced to declare bankruptcy and dissolve.
  • Scottish parliament begins debate on decrim bill.
  • Having achieved piecemeal gains, sex workers in India form political party with allies to push for full decrim and other reforms nationwide.
  • South Africa passes law devolving decision on commercial sex to provincial legislatures; Gauteng and Western Cape adopt laws allowing sex work in Cape Town, Johannesburg, and Pretoria; other provinces either retain previous criminalization scheme or stall in making any reforms; sex workers file suit in Constitutional Court.
  • California passes decrim over veto of Governor Harris.
  • New York passes bill allowing decrim, but with strong local control, leading to hodgepodge of restrictions; three sex workers and two clients file lawsuits.
  • Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland almost simultaneously pass decrim.
  • Libertarians and Greens in U.S. Congress lead effort on major reforms in drug policy, commercial sex, civil asset forfeiture, and other issues.

2027

  • U.K. passes decrim bill, to be implemented in stages.
  • Sweden reforms laws around sex work, based on Norwegian law; Rose Alliance and Sex Worker Rights Party accept proposal as “realistic compromise” but vow to continue push for full decrim.
  • Icelandic sex workers occupy government offices; Prime Minister personally engages in negotiations for several days, and agrees to introduce reforms.
  • Decrim passed in Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Wyoming; eight more lawsuits filed by sex workers and sex work clients.

2028

  • Iceland adopts full decrim; ban on striptease is also lifted, with strong labor protections introduced based on input from exotic dancers.
  • Scotland joins rest of United Kingdom in passing full decrim.
  • U.S. Presidential election, with several candidates expressing support or openness to decrim; deadlock in Electoral College throws final decision to Congress, which chooses Cory Booker for President, independent geolibertarian Valerie Chang for V.P.

2029

  • Australia’s Northern Territory tables decrim proposal, leading to protests in its capital; Queensland passes decrim measure.
  • South Africa passes full decrim of sex work nationwide.
  • Split decisions in U.S. appellate courts bring lawsuits on sex worker rights to Supreme Court; in 6-3 ruling, criminalization of consensual adult commercial sex declared unconstitutional.

Again, don’t take this (too) seriously. I claim no powers of precognition. But one may always hope.

Shell Game

I’ve now decided that, when dealing with American prohibitionists, I will no longer acknowledge that they support the Swedish model. Claim to support it, or allegedly support it, but not actually doing so. Because, in fact, they have done nothing to implement it here in the United States.

You see, the Swedish model makes paying for sex a crime, but not selling it, based on the assumption that the people selling are helpless victims, and that the very act of paying constitutes “violence against women”. That’s the legal reality in Sweden, Norway, and four other countries or jurisdictions – but not the United States.

Yes, prohibitionists like Swanee Hunt and Dorchen Liedholdt like to say that they want to “decriminalize the sellers,” but I do not believe them. If you want to change the law, then you either lobby for new legislation or you file suit to have the law changed on constitutional grounds. And not one single prohibitionist leader or organization has lifted a finger to do that. Not one.

They have spent a great deal of time and money pushing other legislation for more and harsher penalties, all in the name of “fighting trafficking” and “saving children” – yet when I posed the question to Demand Abolition (via their Facebook page) of why they’ve never proposed any laws in line with their beloved Swedish model, suddenly they claimed that being a 501(c)3 organization “prevented” them from doing so. Uh huh.

I’ve been an activist for decades, facing all sorts of foes – creationists, anti-abortionists, warmongers and hatemongers. Every one of them has put forward a legislative goal, and actually invested resources to get that goal accomplished. This is the first time I’ve seen a movement hold up a specific law as its main goal, but never get a single bill to propose it in any state legislature. When I also consider the distortions and fabrications they use to justify their moralistic crusade, it’s the most dishonest approach to activism I’ve ever seen.

It’s a classic shell game. Show them the pea, put it under one shell, shuffle the shells around, and watch as your mark makes one bet after another, hoping they’ll find the pea. Of course, your mark doesn’t know that you’ve palmed the pea … Same thing here. They show the Swedish model as some wonderful alternative, then sneak it away while taking your money to finance sham rescues and more oppressive legislation and police crackdowns.

The game is played a little differently in Sweden, but it’s essentially the same con. The police claim they’re targeting clients when they’re really harassing and punishing sex workers. Social service agencies claim to be helping sex workers, but only if they confess to being helpless victims of patriarchy. Ana Skarhed’s 2010 report is filled more with circular reasoning than with any evidence that the “sex-purchase law” has been effective.

Literal shell games cheat marks of their money. The prohibitionists use their shell game, however, not only to take and squander money – both from willing donors and unwilling taxpayers – but to inflict harm on people in the commercial sex industry, all in the name of helping them and making society better. But fraud done in the name of social betterment is still fraud, especially when the promise of Utopia is a large part of the lie.

Options for Fighting Sex Trafficking Under Decriminalization

Repeatedly, prohibitionists claim that their punitive approach to “end demand” for commercial sex is the only effective way to fight sex trafficking. Problem is, not only have they failed to make good on their promise, but their strategy is hopelessly flawed on many levels:

  • By failing to distinguish between consensual sex work and coercive sex trafficking, this approach harms far more people than it helps.
  • Punitive measures also drive the commercial sex industry further underground, making it harder to gather the reliable information needed to understand and deal with trafficking and other abuses.
  • The emphasis on punitive measures over providing social support deprives people from seeking or gaining the assistance they need, whether to escape coercion or transition out of sex work on their own terms.
  • So-called “awareness campaigns” give supporters of this approach a false sense of accomplishment; for example, there is little or no accountability that the proceeds from the sale of “survivor-made” merchandise actually goes to programs that assist trafficking or abuse survivors.

The response of prohibitionists to these criticisms – the few times they do respond to critics – is to insist that decriminalizing sex work would only make things worse instead of better. Thing is, this claim isn’t supported by the evidence. Five years after decriminalizing sex work in New Zealand, the government report showed reduced harms, and no evidence that decrim encouraged sex trafficking as predicted by the law’s opponents.

Of course, full decrim by itself doesn’t halt or reduce trafficking. But it does provide the framework of accountability and transparency needed to do so. That includes requiring employers to show that they are not coercing or abusing their workers, or hiring anyone underage – just as with other businesses. It means sex workers being able to organize like other workers for better working conditions, more equitable laws, and reduced social stigma.

There’s another way to combat sex trafficking which would work under the New Zealand model, one based on existing campaigns to address labor trafficking and abuses in other industries, and which would involve sex work clients in collaboration with their providers. This is a strategy of ethical consumerism.

fairtrade
The primary example is the Fair Trade movement, which provides certification for businesses in various industries – from coffee and cocoa to textiles and jewelry – that they adhere to standards regarding labor conditions and sustainable agriculture. It is then left to consumers to only purchase, or at least show a preference for, goods which are so certified, thus shifting market demand to encourage more businesses to follow suit. While the system is not perfect, it has shown a measure of success in some areas; Fair Trade consumerism was a contributing factor in improving conditions in India’s tea industry.

Legal recognition of commercial sex businesses only partially assures clients that their providers are not being coerced or abused. Specific principles and goals would need to be spelled out, just as with existing Fair Trade businesses. This small bordello in Whangarei, New Zealand, is one example of a commercial sex enterprise doing just that.

banchocolate
If we followed the all-or-nothing thinking of sex work prohibitionists, we would ban chocolate. After all, much of it is produced by child laborers under harsh conditions. Forget that there is an option that encourages better conditions. Forget that driving an industry underground, and using police resources to arrest black market merchants and their customers, has never been shown to succeed. We need to send a message!

Well, there are more effective ways of sending messages, whether you’re buying and selling chocolate, chamois shirts, or a charming time with an erotic professional. Decriminalization opens the door to those options.

Keeping Sex Workers Safe: An Alternative to the Swedish Model

[Originally posted March 2, 2016]

Currently, a parliamentary committee in the United Kingdom is conducting hearings on a proposal to implement the “Swedish model” of prostitution law – one where it is legal to sell sexual services, but illegal to buy them. The English Collective of Prostitutes, along with other sex worker rights activists and supporters, have decried this approach actually making things worse for sex workers, especially the most vulnerable who work on the street.

It certainly doesn’t help that other punitive and badly worded laws would be left in place. The law against “pimping” would make anyone paid by a sex worker – web designers, accountants, drivers – a criminal for deriving financial gain from the prostitution of another. And two or more sex workers become criminals for sharing a flat, even for mutual protection, because of how the UK’s law against brothel-keeping is written. Is it any wonder that the ECP and their allies favor the New Zealand model of full decriminalization, which has already produced measurable results in terms of the relationship between sex workers and police?

I don’t expect David Cameron’s government to embrace decriminalization any time soon, especially when it seems the leaders of the “all-party committee” appear to have already made up their minds. Many believe that outlawing clients will somehow protect prostitutes from violence and abuse, just as outlawing brothels and third-party agents was intended to do. Intention is one thing, but hard fact and common sense shows that driving sex work underground only makes it more dangerous by depriving sex workers of the tools they need to protect themselves. The fatal flaw in this proposal is the assumption that every client is abusive, and that every transaction in sex work is exploitative. It’s no surprise that the most fervent supporters of the Swedish model have refused to listen to sex workers themselves, unlike the government of New Zealand, who included sex worker organizations in their consultations.

There is, however, an alternative to outlawing the clients of sex workers, one that could be implemented under the current system of laws, and which would empower sex workers instead of denying their agency. Many escorts and escort agencies screen potential clients, even developing and sharing resources to do so. Imagine if all sex workers had access to a database – created and maintained jointly by police, sex worker organizations, and other relevant agencies – allowing for quicker and more complete background checks of potential clients. Those with a history of abusive or violent behavior could be weeded out, and sex workers would still retain the right to determine whether they wanted to provide their services to the individual in question. Even street prostitutes would be able to access such a database through an app on their cell phones, and different groups and agencies could provide it free of charge.

This is by no means a perfect solution, but I feel it would be a far more effective one than outlawing all clients, regardless of whether they’re respectful regulars or abusive asses. It’s in line with proposals made by many European sex workers in the 80’s and 90’s (yes, I’ve been studying sex work issues for that long) and there are similar precedents in other commercial activities. Most important, it gives power back to the service providers themselves – and that would seem to me a much more feminist approach than paternalistic overreach.