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 become a fixture of fascination and pity for Bickle, who later goes to the brothel where Iris work 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.

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.

Swanee Hunt’s Archaic Essentialism

Perhaps the most well-known and influential prohibitionist today is Swanee Hunt, the founder of Demand Abolition. Her large inheritance, extensive social connections, and saccharine Southern charm make her a formidable advocate for this or any cause. But unlike so-called “radical feminist” academics and theoreticians with their belief that sex is a construct for male domination, or evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who conflate sex outside of heterosexual marriage with sin, Hunt seems to draw on yet another ideological source.

I base this on how she has invested the resources of the Hunt Alternatives Fund. Along with Demand Abolition, she has established two other projects:

  • Political Parity – The front page declares: “Elevating the number of women in the highest levels of government is more than a matter of representation. It’s essential to shaping a more just society.”
  • Inclusive Security – “We’re changing who makes decisions about war and peace,” because, according to Hunt, “a greater role for women is essential to global stability.”

Essential. It’s not just a matter of equity to include women in government and peacemaking. Hunt believes that there’s something about being a woman which makes it necessary. The language she uses echoes that of centuries before, that women are somehow the guardians of morality, hence equally if not better qualified than men to govern society.

This belief stemmed from the “separate spheres” ideology, promoted by opponents of women’s suffrage. They argued that the biological sexes were meant to function in different areas of life – men in the public sphere of politics and commerce, women in the private sphere of motherhood and domestic care. Anti-suffrage advocates opined that women did not need the vote, because they were able to influence society profoundly by instilling moral virtues in their sons.

Suffragists such as Christabel Pankhurst responded to this, and the increasingly sexualized attacks on women during the suffrage campaign, with a synthesis. Since women were given the responsibility for moral education, and since men clearly had failed to show moral character in the public sphere, it was therefore necessary for women to gain the vote so as to make the political and public spheres more moral. Pankhurst and other suffragettes hence expanded the original slogan of “Votes for Women” to include “Chastity for Men”.

This blend of feminist indignation and Victorian moralism also led to the anti-prostitution stance of many leading activists. Just as male employers forced their attentions on female staff, and male police and prison guards molested and tortured female inmates, so it must be that prostitution consisted of men commercially coercing women to satisfy men’s libidos. The answer was tougher laws, homes for friendless women, and taming men’s sexual appetites.

Given Hunt’s background, it should be no surprise that her own rhetoric shows traces of such ideas. In her own biography, she describes being raised in a conservative and privileged environment where women were not expected to engage in public affairs, but to be hostesses, wives and mothers. From a culture of feminine domesticity to a belief in women’s “essential” role as moral caregivers – and moral guardians – is no great leap.

I have no doubt that Swanee Hunt would argue that she is no essentialist. I’m sure she would contend that she bases her beliefs on the experiences of women. Granted, women around the world share many common experiences, but (a) there are still significant differences based on other factors such as race and class, and (b) that doesn’t mean that every individual women is automatically qualified for political leadership, or that one woman may dictate the sexual and occupational choices of others. If anything, her overgeneralizing about women’s experience seems just another variation on the essentialist theme.

At best, Hunt’s vision is simplistic and limited. At worst, her ignorance of complex intersectional realities, and her brazenly privileged assertion that she somehow knows what’s best for others, is harmful.