With the news that New York state intends to bring in a bill to decriminalize sex work, prostitution in the United States is back in the headlines. The response from anti-prostitution activists was fast and furious, and they immediately began lobbying and picketing to stop this from happening.
To criminalize or decriminalize: that is the polarizing question feminists have been asking themselves since the feminist sex wars of the 1980s.
The arguments on the anti-side are bleak. Prostitution is violence against women. Prostitution oppresses women. Women won’t be free until prostitution is eliminated. Therefore, the only responsible policy is to recognize that women are abused in prostitution, and to target the male buyers and pimps to end demand. Anti-prostitution activists favor the so-called Nordic model where the buyers are criminalized, and the sellers are given the resources they need to get out of the trade.
Sex work should be decriminalized, not legalized. The legalized model still criminalizes sex workers who can't fulfill various bureaucratic responsibilities and makes the situation of those who are already marginalized more precarious. https://t.co/cMIUsoSKyY pic.twitter.com/6X3Jk5cXaR
— Veronica Valenta (@VeronicaValenta) July 16, 2018
Until a few years ago, I too was an anti-prostitution scholar and filmmaker. But interviewing and getting to know sex working women who choose sex work challenged my thinking on the Nordic model, amongst many other things. The women I met made me see that the Nordic model is not a stop-gap to women’s eventual sexual equality; it simply prolongs our inequality by continuing and reinforcing the stigma against women’s sexuality and sexual freedom.
Stigmatizing Sex Work
I have come to see that stigmatizing sex work is the real problem for most sex working women. Anti-prostitution activists, with all good intentions, and conservatives, perhaps not so much, are inadvertently continuing the stigma against women who work in the sex trade and reinforcing the slut-shaming of all women.
If sexuality wasn’t so stigmatized perhaps sex work wouldn’t be either. Most of the activists in the anti-prostitution movement are non-sex working women or ex-sex working women. Using sensationalist and misogynist language about the invasion of women’s orifices does not lead to better public policy or eliminate the shaming and stigmatizing of women’s bodies or of sex work itself.
Hearing from those who are currently working in the industry about what helps them in the here and now, not the imagined future when prostitution doesn’t exist, means listening to all their good and bad stories. And when we listen to sex workers, they are unanimous: decriminalize sex work and use other criminal code elements to prevent violence, force, fraud or coercion.
Decriminalizing Sex Work
Decriminalizing sex work between consenting adults is the bare minimum needed to begin to address the abuses within the industry and stigma against sex working women.
If you believe that no one could possibly do sex work by choice, then you are implicitly stating that those who do work in the industry are somehow deluded or don’t know their own interests and can paternalistically be rescued.
Sex workers work for many reasons but (no surprise) mainly for the money. Taking away their main form of income does nothing for them but continue their poverty. Taking away their online venues for finding and screening clients makes them more vulnerable to abuse by clients and third-parties.
Currently working sex workers who unanimously call on governments to decriminalize sex work join international organizations like Amnesty International and the World Health Organization that recognize that the harms of criminalization and stigma are greater than the harms of the average client.
This is not to say that abuse doesn’t happen in sex work, but criminalization of the clients just creates an underground economy and helps to keep the stigma alive.
Consequences of Division Among Feminists
Feminists have accomplished much in the approximately 100 years since women in many parts of the world got the right to vote. They have worked together to make pay equity an issue, organized against violence against women, fought for the right to control one’s own body reproductively, and have supported LGBTQ+ rights.
There have been divisions of course, but the reason these issues have been partly solved is because feminists of all types came together on them. Sex work is not one of those issues and feminists continue to be divided. What are the unintended consequences of this division?
For one, we continue to criminalize and shame women for their choices to be sex workers and paternalistically re-stigmatize their work. Rather than seeing sex work as male oppression personified, perhaps we need to shift our perspective and see the issue as one of women’s autonomy, particularly bodily and sexual autonomy.
Meet Luna, a trans woman from the Dominican Republic and an activist for the rights of sex workers. Being part of Amnesty's global movement means you're standing with Luna and many other people defending human rights. 💪 pic.twitter.com/QUzviRqOP7
— Amnesty International Australia 🕯 (@amnestyOz) April 3, 2019
When we see the connection between whore stigma and slut-shaming, we understand the need to end the stigma against sex work. If slut-shaming can only end when whore-phobia ends, then we have to end the stigma against the actual whore.
Continuing the quest to eliminate sex work by vilifying (and criminalizing) the clients and making victims of the “prostituted” women will not end whore stigma because it continues the separation of women into good and bad categories and reinforces the good girl/bad girl binary.
By actively encouraging the stigma against sex work, anti-prostitution activists are promoting whore stigma, inadvertently or not. It is not in abolishing sex work, then, that we will end the stigma, but in creating conditions for the work to be done with respect and dignity.Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial position of The Globe Post.