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.

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.