I know I’m coming into the conversation a little late, but it’s one we need to keep having. Headlines were made when the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) recruited a bunch of actresses and celebrities to sign a petition against Amnesty International’s intention to endorse the decriminalization of sex work, claiming that “it will support a ‘system of gender apartheid’ where ‘one category of women may gain protection from sexual violence and sexual harassment,’ but those who are forced against their will into the sex trade are ‘set apart for consumption by men.’ ”
However, Amnesty International decided to go ahead with their proposal, stating that “Sex workers are one of the most marginalized groups in the world who in most instances face constant risk of discrimination, violence and abuse. Our global movement paved the way for adopting a policy for the protection of the human rights of sex workers which will help shape Amnesty International’s future work on this important issue.” After studying the issue and talking to actual sex workers, they state “The violations that sex workers can be exposed to include physical and sexual violence, arbitrary arrest and detention, extortion and harassment, human trafficking, forced HIV testing and medical interventions. They can also be excluded from health care and housing services and other social and legal protection.” I, like Lacy in the video says, am no expert, but seems to me that, if you want to protect marginalized people in the sex work industry, everything we’ve seen seems to point to decriminalization.
But isn’t prostitution inherently bad? It’s selling sex, selling your body; how can we say that’s anything but immoral and criminal?
First, we ought to ask ourselves why we think it’s so wrong? What is so criminal about it? What makes the act of exchanging money for sexual service all that different from any other service industry?
The most common answer is that the act of sex makes it different. That there’s something about the sex act—the intimacy or sacredness of it—that makes this different than, say, a waiter who serves you food in exchange for a wage or a doctor or therapist who takes a fee for treating your illness or a church who asks for donations in order to keep its doors open. It puts sex on some kind of moral pedestal that thinks exchanging money for it taints it in ways we don’t associate with all the many, many other services we already provide for financial compensation. It’s the same rationale—that sex is some sacred thing solely reserved for sacramentally-specific times with sacramentally-approved people in sacramentally-sanctioned relationships—that prioritizes virginity, particularly in in women, and is willing to shame them, sometimes to death, for violating that sacred prize and that believes that sex outside of a narrow set of some arbitrary person’s standards of sacredness—straight, vanilla, procreative, wedded, what-have-you—is wrong.
And, as an extension of this same argument, there are those who assume that no one would ever want to make a living by having unsatisfying, obligatory sex with desperate, pathetic, or predatory men. Or, on the flip side, claims that no one ought to buy sex from diseased, damaged, desperate, coerced women with no other choices or skills.
One, not everyone who engages sex workers are desperate, pathetic, predatory, or men. And not every sex worker has an STI, past trauma, or debilitating condition or is under duress, under-privileged, under-skilled, or a woman. There is no one definitive sex work experience; it can be unsatisfying and obligatory, but it can also be rewarding, intimate, and fulfilling. For both parties. It can involve intercourse or not. It can be a one-time thing or a sustained relationship between worker and client. It can mean the end and betrayal of a marital relationship, but it can also save and sustain others. Stereotypes, by definition, cannot encapsulate the full experience of a person or a profession and our laws shouldn’t be based on them.
Two, by giving sex workers more rights and power over their own livelihoods, they have more opportunity to select their own clients based on their own standards. And, by bringing it out of the shadows, clients can better find workers who provide the kinds of services they want to the standards they’re looking for. And, by decriminalizing it, it provides a plethora of other protections for both workers and clients that would be otherwise unavailable.
And, three, whether or not you can imagine anyone wanting to do so, or whether you approve of it or not, has no bearing on the issue. There are people who do want to do this; your desire not to is never infringed by allowing them the freedom. Decriminalizing consensual sex work in no way forces or even encourages people who don’t want to do this to engage in sex work. In fact, the opposite is true. And, in the same way legalizing gay marriage in no way affects straight marriages or in the same way people consensually enjoying kinky sex in no way impacts or impedes other people from consensually enjoying vanilla sex, allowing people who want to engage in sex work in no way affects people who do not want to engage in it. And, if it doesn’t affect those people, those people’s opinions on it shouldn’t matter.
Sex is great. I love sex. Sex, in all its many varied forms, is one of my favorite things to think about and do. It’s great, but let’s not make it more than what it is. It is in no way intrinsically morally significant. There is nothing about it that inherently makes it morally better or worse, or morally more important or less important, than any other act.
Consent is a moral issue—obtaining and prioritizing it in everything we do is one of the most important moral issues—the actual act of sex isn’t.
So long as informed consent is always present and no actual damage is done during the act—just as it ought to be in every act, sexual or not—we need to stop seeing sex as a judge-able moral offense. And that includes offering it—again, in its many varied forms—as a service. The sexual nature of it shouldn’t justify all the extra moral baggage and outrage that it too often does. After all, "If you don't respect my yes, how can you respect my no?" Knowing what we know, cross-culturally and historically, about human sexuality, we should know better by now.
Especially some of the people from whom so much of the ire is coming from.
Too many feminist voices claim that sex work—even completely consensual sex work—is always and already degrading to women. That it always and already treats women as commodity to be bought, sold, and used. That it always and already reduces them to mere bodies to be taken advantage of by men. Which I can see your point, if you believe that sex, for some reason, has some intrinsic value in women that makes the consensual financial exchange of it a moral ill. If you believe that, because of the value you place on it, you deserve the right to decide how other people consensually engage in it. If you believe that your beliefs and opinions matter more than that of the very women you claim to want to protect. If you believe that advocating your beliefs—that are not supported by facts or statistics but are rather misapplied and over-reaching extensions of philosophies and ideologies—should mean “arresting, fining and jailing people over consensual sex.”
Because that’s what’s happening. These people have unilaterally taken consenting women and "claimed her body as a crime scene."
Which is what made the letter from CATW and all the activists and celebrities who signed it so offensive. I’m sure that, like all the other people who take this position, “the celebrities opposing Amnesty International ‘probably have good intentions,’ they’re far too quick to pat themselves on the back.” Instead of actually looking at facts or asking the people most involved, they make assumptions, often based in prejudice and ignorance. “Look, they’re misinformed, they’re parroting back what they’ve been told to say, as actors do, and they got their names in the headlines, as actors like.”
Believing something about other people’s experiences doesn’t make it true. And it hardly makes any of those celebrities authorities on those experiences and it really doesn’t give any of them the right to put other people’s fates in their hands. “The fact that celebrities who have no stake in this and will not be impacted by it are getting the largest voice is frustrating and, frankly, dehumanizing. Weighing in on a situation that doesn’t impact your life is absolutely going to be harmful because it’s saying the people who are impacted don’t deserve to speak and your voice is more important.” They can believe what they want but, if no one’s being harmed and no one’s consent is being violated, where’s the crime? What right does anyone have to intervene?
Well, what about the inherent dangers involved in sex work? Doesn’t that make a difference? Doesn’t that make protecting the women in the industry—from the industry—more of a priority?
Except, one, we would never use that argument to keep people—particularly women—from working in law enforcement, firefighting, the military, science, or really almost any employment, since most carry some amount risk. Not anymore. Again, we know should know better by now. “There are all sorts of institutions, and all sorts of legal employers, that harm women but there no other jobs that we point to say, ‘The women doing that job have to be arrested—and arresting them is rescuing them!’ ”
The attempts to “protect women” by criminalizing sex work have failed miserably to actually protect women. Sex work has existed for a very long time in human history, at least since Ancient Greece; it’s not going anywhere. And trying to pretend like it will because of disapproval is not only willful folly, it’s harmful. “This modern debate has roots in Victorian England, which branded prostitutes as wicked, depraved and a public nuisance. Yet a shift in social thought throughout the era introduced the prostitute as a victim, often lured or forced into sexual slavery by immoral men.” The concern is too often veiled prejudice. “Everybody thinks they’re helping us. They never stop to talk to us […] They just want to make it disappear.”
Most often, when you hear people talking about this debate, you hear the argument that, while there are people who engage in sex work consensually, there are those who are forced into it through sex trafficking, “pointing out an increase in human trafficking and arguing that many women are forced into sex work.” And that any law that protects the people who consensually engage in sex work would devastatingly harm those who are coerced into it, since it’s often hard to discern between the two.
But the statistics simply don’t back this up.
But, for the sake of argument, even if it’s hard to distinguish the two at first glance, shouldn’t we make the effort to? As I said in my post about abuse and BDSM, we already do this for other things. There is a difference between consensually selling your own property and selling property that isn’t yours. We have language and laws that distinguish the two, labeling one commerce and the other fencing. There is a difference between having someone consensually work a job and forcing someone into labor. Our laws call that the difference between employment and slavery. We know the difference between these things, adding sex into the mix doesn’t change definitions.
A person consensually selling sex as a service ought to be seen as legitimate and lawful work.
Selling an unwilling person to provide a service that happens to be sex ought to be seen for what it is: human trafficking in sex slaves.
It really cannot be beyond our judicial or law enforcement systems to be able to detect the difference. And, if for some reason, it currently is, isn’t that something worth changing? After all, “there would be a lot more resources to devote if we left consenting adults to exchange money for sex in peace.” And wouldn’t the world as a whole be better if our police and courts could identify consent better? If they took the time and effort to take consent into account better? After all, “There are also bad and abusive husbands and boyfriends but we don’t outlaw marriage. There are bad abusive bosses in non-sex work jobs”, but we don’t assume all employers are exploitative simply because they could be.
Assumptions like that would be illogical, ridiculous, and would cause more problems than they would solve. And keeping all sex work illegal is doing the same, hurting people the laws purport to protect. For one, “A glaring issue that Dunham, Winslet, and Co. also may not understand about the life of a sex worker is that once he or she is arrested, it is dramatically harder, if not impossible, to find a job outside of the sex trade.” If there was less of a stigma over it, that wouldn’t have to be true. If we didn’t automatically assume that sex work is an obvious evil, something we necessarily always need to save people from, we could stop, look closer, and pay better attention to the people who actually need help and those who should be left alone.
Because, yes, sex work has dangers and risks. Big ones. “ ‘I was a victim of a very brutal attack. While lying in the rape unit at the UC DavisMedical Center, I was told if I pressed charges, I would go to jail,’(Kristen DiAngelo, the executive director of Sex Workers OutreachProject (SWOP)-Sacramento) recalls. ‘I was bleeding from every hole in my body and held captive all night, but I was intimidated by police with the threat of a misdemeanor.’ ”
That can’t be the solution; “so long as sex work is criminalized someone who is being abused by a pimp or a brothel owner can’t go the police. She has no recourse, she’s very vulnerable—and the bad and abusive pimps know it.”
That can’t be what we want for these people.
But that’s what we have been doing. These are the choices we’ve left them. People like CATW “go home at night thinking they did something good and we’re cleaning up the bloodshed. We’re the ones trying to keep ourselves alive.”
The Swedish Model
Well, what about the “Nordic Model” or “Swedish Model,” where you decriminalize selling sex, but keep buying sex illegal? This “may seem like a step in the right direction—a progressive step, a feminist step. But it’s not. Conceptually, the system strips women of agency and autonomy. Under the Swedish model, men ‘are defined as morally superior to the woman,’ notes author and former sex worker Maggie McNeill in an essay for the Cato Institute. ‘He is criminally culpable for his decisions, but she is not.’ Adult women are legally unable to give consent, ‘just as an adolescent girl is in the crime of statutory rape.’”
But, beyond that, it just doesn’t work. “You can’t decriminalize half of an economic transaction.” Sure, it works if your concern is removing sex work from the public eye. But the workers? You don’t get rid of the demand by cracking down on prostitution; you just push those would would supply the service into the shadows where their clients have gone to hide from the law. Leaving them with less options, less safety, and less recourse if things go wrong. “People who oppose sex work that are fond of saying that people only do sex work if they have no other way to survive. I would say to them, If this is someone’s only way to survive... how are you being kind to them by taking that away from them? How does that help? Do you want them to die? I understand that sex work is not always everyone’s first choice of employment. But if it is someone’s only option, arresting them for exercising that option is senseless.”
The fact is the statistics speak for themselves. Like the fact that “sex workers in Germany have the right to demand proper work conditions and work safety guidelines.” And “Research has shown incidences of rape to decrease with the availability of prostitution. One recent study of data from Rhode Island—where a loophole allowed legal indoor prostitution in 2003-2009—found the state’s rape rate declined significantly over this period, especially in urban areas. (The gonorrhea rate also went down.)” And “In New Zealand, street prostitution, escort services, pimping and brothels were decriminalized in 2003, and so far sex workers and the New Zealand government have raved about the arrangement. A government review in 2008 found the overall number of sex workers had not gone up since prostitution became legal, nor had instances of illegal sex-trafficking. The most significant change was sex workers enjoying safer and better working conditions. Researchers also found high levels of condom use and a very low rate of HIV among New Zealand sex workers.”
Here's another great video talking about the unexpected benefits of decriminalizing sex work:
CATW wants to protect women from sex work without actually taking what those women—these people—want or what they’re going through into consideration. As I said, this is a consent issue. And, for all their good intentions, CATW doesn’t care about sex workers or their consent. They care about their own issues and efforts, content to see these women as victims—as a cause and a crusade—instead of as people with their own concerns and ideas for how to improve their lives.
If they’d stopped and asked actual sex workers what they think, they’d hear so many of them saying “It’s a great day. We’re all celebrating. It’s been a really ugly battle, particularly online. And while I don’t think what Amnesty did today will have an immediate impact on US legal codes, which is too bad, my hope is that in time Amnesty’s stance will inform and help reform our laws.”
Watch this video to hear Amnesty International's position from them: