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.

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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.

“End Demand” is to Sex Work What “Build a Wall” is to Immigration

Our major obligation is not to mistake slogans for solutions. — Edward R. Murrow

Politics has always included sloganeering. Slogans and catchphrases are effective psychological tools for conveying basic values and concepts to a mass audience. The downside is when they become loaded language, using emotional appeals to reduce a complex issue into a simplistic “problem-solution” dualism.


Donald Trump’s approach to immigration policy is one such example. He appealed to nativist fears by conflating Mexican immigrants with dangerous criminals, and Muslims with terrorism. From these simplistic premises, he proposed simplistic solutions – “build a great, great wall” along the border with Mexico, and institute a ban on Muslims entering the United States. Forget that only a small fraction of violent crimes are perpetrated by immigrants, or how the wall and the ban would adversely affect our economy, or the harm such policies would cause to real people and their families. Forget also that these policies would have no effect on crime or unemployment. Forget those inconvenient facts – just build that wall, okay?

It’s no coincidence that such anti-immigration policies and rhetoric have pervaded the contemporary crusade against commercial sex. Not just that they hope tightening border controls will somehow aid their so-called “fight against human trafficking”, or that the beginnings of “end demand” in Sweden were linked to fears around migrants entering that country. Trump’s approach follows the same pattern of thought and action as the prohibitionist fanatics.

Both “build a wall” and “end demand” are deceptively simple reductions of complex issues, and the basis for policies that fail to address real problems while creating or exacerbating others. And before the prohibitionists clamor to accuse groups like Amnesty International of doing the same, they should look at the full scope of Amnesty’s recommendations for defending the human rights of sex workers, and the process by which they arrived at their policy. They need to look beyond both rigid ideology and emotional appeals, and listen to the people most directly involved – sex workers themselves.

Putting Away a Childish Argument against Sex Work

[Originally posted May 2, 2016]

I have a friend who is doing a kind of work that, as a young girl, she never thought she’d be doing. She started, albeit grudgingly, because she considered it her least-worst option. Over time, she began to see benefits to doing this work, such as flexible hours and the ability to choose her clientele. As a result, it has become a major source of income, and even with its down sides, she considers it a good job.

No little girl dreams of doing medical coding and billing.

I bring up this story because, if you replace the job description above with “prostitution”, then you have one of the most specious arguments for continuing to criminalize and stigmatize sex work. It is an example of the moral solipsism of so-called “abolitionists”: since they view the selling of sexual services with displeasure or disgust, then they project that every woman must share that view, and certainly our innocent children. To them, a youngster’s hopes for the future are somehow equal to an adult’s real-life attempts to find a job that pays the bills.

There are many reasons why children imagine themselves in certain jobs and not others. Ballerinas and movie stars appear more glamorous than cashiers and telephone operators. Likewise, firefighters and police seem more heroic and respected than garbage collectors and street sweepers. Other jobs are simply unseen and thus unknown by younger folks – warehouse stockers, sewer workers, call center managers, and so forth.

There’s also a reason why young people begin to change their minds about what jobs they want to do. They may become aware of the risks that come with the job, and determine that they are not worth assuming. Ballet dancers, for example, require years of rigorous training and practice, often leading to multiple injuries, all in a highly competitive environment. A cashier, on the other hand, is able to start with simple training, with opportunities for advancing to management and above. Also, young people learn that, in order to make money and gain experience in the work force, they need to start by working in jobs they wouldn’t otherwise choose.

The pressures of parents, peers, and society not only affect people’s job choices, but also the attitudes they assume about themselves. We lift up doctors, lawyers, actors, professional athletes, and that sense of prestige is reflected in their pay. We look down on minimum-wage workers, often seeing them as interchangeable as machine parts, even useless, while still relying on their labor whenever we order a hamburger or buy new clothes. This doesn’t always correspond, of course – look how we speak of the noble calling of teachers, while paying them so little – but how we look at different jobs often becomes a mirror for those who hold them.

The argument of “abolitionists” is that sex work does not qualify as work. If, as Barbara Ehrenreich says, “work is what we do for others”, and transactional sex involves providing pleasure and companionship to others, then their proposition makes no sense. They might retort that sex shouldn’t be work, because it “ought to” involve caring and intimacy, but this in turn ignores the caring and intimate work of nurses, nannies, and other professional caretakers, as well as the actual interactions between many sex workers and their clients.

What bothers me most when I hear or read that “no little girl dreams of becoming a prostitute” is how it perpetuates archaic gender attitudes. We assume that boys must grow into men, and endure the rough and dirty path in that direction – but girls must somehow remain virginal and pure, even if we must paternalize and infantilize them well past puberty.

Women and men make choices that they would not have considered as girls and boys. Their reasons are likewise as varied and nuanced as adulthood itself. Our approval is not the issue; assuring their safety, and affirming their humanity, is what matters.