The basic argument for decriminalizing sex work is rooted in the basic premise that government should not interfere in the private interactions of consenting adults. Ironically, prohibitionists like King County prosecutor Val Richey would claim to agree. The problem, they assert, is that money somehow erases consent.
“What you have is someone paying this person essentially to turn a ‘no’ into a ‘yes,'” Richey recently told the Seattle Times. Interviewed about the massive bust in that city last year, he insists that, because the women were “doing it for the money” and not “as a leisure activity,” they must have been coerced.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown, in her recent blog post for Reason magazine, summed it up with a priceless gem of a quote:
By that logic, anyone who wouldn’t perform their job without remuneration is a victim of labor trafficking!
The simplest definition of consent is “voluntary agreement or permission” – one person wishes to engage in an activity with another, and the second person willingly agrees and permits. This also implies that the person being asked has the option to refuse. Most importantly, the principle of consent recognizes that each of us places various conditions on whether or when we agree to a given action.
Let me give some examples based on my love and knowledge of tea (and yes, the Youtube “Tea and Consent” video springs to mind). I will gladly accept a cup of tea from a friend, but not without certain conditions – no milk (given my dairy allergy), little if any sugar, and definitely not any from the Charleston Tea Plantation (which, quite frankly, is indistinguishable from having boiled three year old balls of lint). I will also gladly share stories and opinions about tea in casual conversation. But let’s say that someone asks me to taste the results of their tea-blending experiments, or to make a special blend and serve it at a special event, or to write a paper or deliver a talk. Yes, I’d enjoy doing so, but that doesn’t mean that I’m going to abrogate my right to be compensated for such work. My requiring payment for the time and effort required says nothing about whether I would enjoy doing so. It is a condition to my agreeing to do so, just as much as any other condition I might impose.
The same holds true with sex work. Payment does not negate consent; it is a condition of consent, just like other limits that sex workers place on their participation. As Liz Brown rightly points out, to argue that being paid automatically equals being forced is to regard all paid labor as a form of slavery. Granted, people frequently take jobs they would rather not do. But limited choice is not the same as having no choices at all – and to tell those who enter sex work that you will limit their choices further “for their own good” is both paternalistic and hypocritical.
This is also the case with sex work clients. Their choices are often framed by circumstances beyond their control, from physical or psychological disability, to the sudden loss of an intimate relationship. They establish certain conditions, and must abide by the conditions of prospective providers. To reduce the interaction simply to money, and reduce money further into an instrument of coercion, is to ignore the full context in which client-provider interactions take place.
Money is not the instrument of coercion here. It is the archaic and inhumane laws against consenting adults agreeing to their own conditions for sexual expression. It is the enforcement of these laws which hamstring the ability of sex workers to assure their safety through screening and other measures, and to seek recourse whenever consent is violated. It is the paternalistic ideology of prohibitionism that is to blame for unduly limiting the choices available to both clients and providers. Whenever government shackles the power of individuals to consent with one another, it is tyranny.