OK, I normally don’t show this side of myself here on my blog, but I think it would be disingenuous not to right now, given the recent (August 11th) announcement by Amnesty International that they now officially support decriminalization of all forms of sex work worldwide. They’ve been discussing this for a while now, much to the chagrin of prostitution prohibitionist groups and the celebrities they’ve convinced to support them (under the guise of the “anti trafficking” cause).
Sidenote: the term “sex worker” refers to anyone who works in the sex industry: escorts and courtesans, exotic dancers, cam performers, porn actors/actresses, full service providers, professional companions, pro-dommes, street workers, sensual massage providers, phone sex operators, etc. The term does not apply to people in the business who do not provide the actual services (strip club managers, porn producers, escort agency owners/managers, etc.).
As a sex worker and an activist, I often run into prohibitionists who are absolutely married to the idea that no woman would ever choose to engage in full service sex work, and that any woman who does engage in it is being exploited by a man–be it her “pimp” or her “john” (yes, they use those words, even though those words aren’t really in widespread use among sex workers themselves). They see sex work as inherently exploitative to women, and they see women as victims in need of rescue. I refuse to call these people feminists–anyone who insists on infantilizing women and denying them agency is not a feminist. Anyone who refuses to help women by working to secure labor rights for all workers is not a feminist. Anyone who advocates police brutality against and confinement of poverty-stricken women so that they can be “reeducated” and “rehabilitated” into sweatshop workers is. not. a. fucking. feminist.
“But what about the men?”
“But wait,” you say. “What about male sex workers? Are they being exploited, too? And for that matter, what about trans girls (‘TS’ in the biz, or ‘T-girls’)?”
I can answer that in one (sort-of) word: LOL.
Prohibitionists prefer to ignore the fact that men are also sex workers. It doesn’t fit their neat, clean predator/victim paradigm. As for trans women, well…most anti-prostitution prohibitionists don’t consider them women at all. I’m not sure they even know that trans guys exist.
In their world, there are three kinds of people:
- heterosexual, male-assigned-at-birth men
- basically asexual female-assigned-at-birth women
- “enlightened” prostitution prohibitionists, er, “anti-trafficking activists”
Oh yeah, and then there’s us. By “us” I mean the people who support sex workers rights, and the rights of all adults to have consensual sex–to share our bodies in one of the most basic, personal, human ways available to us. This is a basic human right that people of all stripes have been fighting for for years (even in the US, there are states that still have anti-sodomy laws on the books!), and anyone with any sense of logic and/or justice supports that right…except for when it comes to women and the exchange of money, because it’s just plain easier to see the fairer sex as weak, naive, innocent, and pure than to acknowledge that adult women are sexual beings with agency and ideas, desires, needs, and goals independent of men.
The “Pimp Lobby”
And you know what the prohibitionists call us? The “Pimp Lobby.” Because they refuse to believe that we are speaking our minds, or that female providers would actually–gasp!–defend the rights of adults to engage in consensual sex, regardless of the reason. They actually believe that we are “lobbyists” for “pimps.” They believe “pimps” control us sexually, financially, and ideologically. They believe that we are paid or coerced by men to pretend we have chosen this work. I’m not sure how they explain all the research (with sound methodology even!) that points to full decriminalization being the best approach, but I guess denial is a powerful thing. Powerful enough to convince prohibitionists to ignore evidence and soldier on with their mission to force a moralistic view that results in harm to real people.
…Or maybe they don’t really believe it. Maybe that’s just their way of convincing people to ignore us. Maybe that’s their way of persuading the public to completely disregard what is said by the people actually doing this type of labor–the very people these prohibitionists spend time and energy ostensibly trying to “protect”–since we don’t, in fact, want or need what they say we do. Pretty sinister.
So yes, you could say I’ve got a lot of pent-up anger for these people. Especially since they refuse to listen to sex workers who speak out, and instead insist that our voices don’t count because we’re the privileged ones, the exceptions to the rule of poor imprisoned girls who are raped multiple times a day for their pimp’s profit. Nevermind the illogical nature of this claim (Where are these millions of imprisoned girls? Why are they never found? And are there really that many men willing to pay to rape a woman? As far as I know, the vast majority of rapists just rape–they’re not going to pay another man for something they can do for free.).
“I’m not a sex worker, but I played one in a movie once…”
Anyway, so on an article about all the Hollywood celebrities (some of whom played prostitutes in movies! So, ya know, they know all about the reality of sex work) who signed an open letter penned by CATW International urging Amnesty International not to adopt any policy that supports the full decriminalization of the sex industry, one particularly stubborn person in the comments section posted a link to a document titled “Prostitution Statistics,” referring to it as “cold, hard facts” (good lord, please take a research methods course, stat):
(Update: As of December 2016, the University of Hawaii has removed that document from their website. It appears that happened sometime within the last year–I don’t want to flatter myself, but I kinda hope someone on their web admin team noticed the sudden uptick in links to that page, which appeared to be nothing more than some undergrad’s improperly-sourced, slapped-together assignment. Too bad they didn’t do that before it was cited as a legitimate source by various nonprofits all over the internet. Still, if you’re interested, here’s an archived copy of it via the Wayback Machine.)
I couldn’t help myself. I went on a rant and couldn’t stop, and it became a rant to every and any of these people I’ve encountered or will encounter EVER. And here it is:
Oh, honey…those are not “facts,” much less cold, hard ones.
I’m sorry, this is going to sound incredibly condescending, but what’s your education level? Because no one who knows a damn thing about research would post that link in an attempt to gain footing in an argument. That looks like an undergrad’s report on prostitution, sourced entirely from hooker rescue projects and modern “white slavery” hysteria. How the hell would they even come up with “Most prostitutes have been victimized, at some point in their lives, by sexual violence. More than 90% suffered childhood sexual abuse…” What? And really, why would that be the focus of anyone’s research? What would that accomplish? How would that help anyone? Sex workers don’t need to justify their reasons for engaging in consensual sex; their government needs to justify its reasons for criminalizing consensual sex between adults.
And this: “At least 2/3 of prostitutes began working in prostitution before the age of 16” has been thoroughly debunked. The origins of that (and other similar “stats” you’ll hear, like “The average age of entry into prostitution is between 12 and 14”) are hard to track down, but as far as we can tell, they originate from a survey done in the early 80s with a very small sample size of participants taken exclusively from a program that worked with minors who had exchanged money for sexual services. As in, everyone participating in the survey was under 18, because that’s who the program/facility was there to serve. And then they averaged those numbers, claimed they were representative of the experiences of sex workers in general, or someone else misunderstood them. So the highest possible age of entry would be 17. Of course the average would be low. They never asked any adult sex workers their age of entry. And the media, law enforcement, advocacy groups, and people like you have been running with that number for 30 fucking years.
What you don’t understand is that your view of sex workers shows a fundamental disrespect for women. When someone’s oppressed, you don’t help them by infantilizing them; you help them by arming them with rights, and by supporting them in their fight for those rights. You don’t want people to be exploited for their labor? You support them in their fight for labor rights, fair pay, legal protection, etc. I said it before, but maybe you didn’t catch it: no one gives a shit about all the human trafficking going on in agriculture, fishing, construction, and hotel housekeeping companies, but let’s say they did. You don’t want women slaving away, cleaning hundreds of toilets for 18 hours a day, while their boss holds their papers and their paychecks, all to pay some “debt” to a “job recruiter”? Let’s talk about immigration policy. Let’s talk about fair wages and labor laws. That’s what we’re talking about, after all: exploiting sex workers for their sexual labor. You don’t want women to have to have sex with men they don’t want to have sex with and then be forced to hand over their earnings to an abusive “pimp”? Fine. Decriminalize their work so that they don’t need “protection” (in the form of an abusive man who makes them work all day and takes their money) from police. And decriminalize their clients so they don’t need “protection” from, say, a man who can rest assured his victim won’t go to police to report him, and even if she did, she wouldn’t know his name, anyway. When your work and your clients aren’t criminalized, you can easily “screen” your clients before meeting with them—your client won’t be afraid to disclose identifying info because he’s not afraid of being arrested for meeting with you. You can also employ a bodyguard or driver without your client freaking out and thinking you’ve brought some dude there to kick his ass and rob him (because, when you and your client are not committing a criminal act, you can assume that both of you are law-abiding citizens, especially if you’ve screened him in advance), and without you AND said bodyguard/driver fearing that cops will mistake him for a “pimp.”
I understand you’re fighting what you think is the good fight. Apparently, at some point in your life, you joined up with some rescue project and did some “work” that seemed incredibly important and life-affirming to you at the time. I don’t want to take that away from you—for all I know, you helped some people. But if you care about justice in the world, you will continue to educate yourself about the issues you claim to care about, no matter how much it hurts to find out you’re wrong. Decrim is the safest thing for all of us. Not just me (or other women you dismiss as “too privileged” to know anything about the business we’ve worked in for years). For ALL of us.
There is no dichotomy of “happy hooker” and “sex slave forced to endure rape for someone else’s profit.” This topic is incredibly complex and nuanced. No, not everyone enjoys sex work. No, not everyone finds it empowering. No, not everyone would choose something else were it available (I wouldn’t). Yes, some of us were sexually abused as children (as were many teachers, lawyers, home makers, doctors, social workers, etc…). Yes, some of us started very young (though most of us start when we’re in our 30s or 40s). The point is that it doesn’t matter what our individual situations are, criminalization hurts ALL of us. And yes, that includes the Nordic model.
I get where you’re coming from, though. When I first started working, I heard about the Nordic model, and honestly, I thought it sounded pretty damn good. I hadn’t been working long enough to understand how the business really works, and I sure as hell hadn’t discovered the sex workers’ rights movement. I was still indoctrinated with the media images and the statistics gleaned from sloppy, often unethical research. I didn’t have a “pimp,” and I didn’t know anyone who did, but I still assumed that the vast majority of sex workers were being forced to fuck dozens of men a day while some evil bastard kept their money and beat them for fun. So yeah, the Nordic model sounded awesome. Put those evil, money-grubbing fuckers in jail!
While I didn’t have a “pimp,” when I first started escorting, I did have a “manager.” He was the guy who answered the phone and directed clients to one of the 10 or 15 girls at the agency. We set our own prices, and we spent as many hours as we wanted with each client. We sent him $100 for each client he referred to us. I didn’t even meet him in person until maybe 3 months after I started working for him, and by then I was already preparing to strike out on my own as an independent.
Did you catch the fact that my manager would have counted as one of those “evil, money-grubbing fuckers” I imagined getting their due via the Nordic Model? I didn’t. Did you catch that I was, if you go by the definition of the loudest voices in this conversation, a “trafficking victim”? I didn’t catch that, either. I would NEVER claim to be one, but by THEIR definition—one of the many absurd ways prostitution prohibitionists define “trafficked”—I was a trafficking victim. They count all third parties as traffickers. If you are a sex worker helping to support your unemployed/unemployable/just f-in broke partner, non-minor child, or other adult family member who lives with you, that person can be considered a trafficker. If you are a migrant worker who voluntarily crosses borders to work independently, you are counted as a trafficking victim.
Soon after that, I realized how wrong I was. But I admit I had a weird, visceral reaction to letting go of my “Jail the pimps!! Go after them!” position. I sort of wanted to cling to it. I don’t know why. Did I enjoy the boogeyman simplicity? Maybe. Or was I just trying to avoid the feeling of finding out I’d been had? I’m not sure. But I guess that’s what happens when you learn more about a subject, and you realize that the facts contradict what you’ve always thought to be true—what sources you’ve trusted have always told you was true.
And the longer I’ve been in the biz, and the longer I’ve been an activist for sex workers’ rights, the more I’ve learned. There’s tons of data. There’s a reason Amnesty International, the World Health Organization and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women support us. And honestly, if you were to work in this business, you’d understand that common sense supports us.
The truth is, this is a very, very old problem steeped in racism and xenophobia. In the 1910s they referred to it as White Slavery (see the Mann Act), and now it’s sex trafficking. Nevermind the fact that there are more than enough willing sex workers that there’s really no need to force women into it (I hate talking about supply and demand, because it’s so much more complex than that, but in the simplest of terms, the supply already meets the demand. Trust me, usually people are whining about how they aren’t getting enough business). And nevermind the fact that, even if supply didn’t meet demand, people don’t want to pay to have sex with someone who doesn’t want to have sex with them. Rapists don’t pay to rape people; rapists just rape. But we cling to this idea that there are zillions of women all over the world being kidnapped, drugged, and forced into prostitution while men profit. Why, even though the numbers (upon inspection, and not just taken at face value) show us that this isn’t true? Well, because a lot of people have a vested interest in keeping this moral panic alive. Follow the money: it usually leads to those pushing an agenda centered on female “purity,” or those who are directly profiting, i.e., the rescue industry (Hey there, Somaly Mam!).
Please, please just stop talking about this until you’ve taken the time to listen to sex workers all over the world (Even in Eastern Europe and SE Asia!). Because you know the way you feel about your perspective? Like it’s a desperate situation and you have to fight, fight, fight for those who are in danger, are suffering injustices, and have far less privilege than you do? Yeah, that’s how I feel, too. Except people listen to you, and I’m the one who will have to deal with the consequences. They hurt me, they hurt my friends, and they hurt people all over the world every day. You’ll be able to walk away thinking you accomplished something, score 1 for the good guys, etc., and you’ll never have to look back, and you’ll never have to fully comprehend the mess you’ve made. And you’ll leave us to clean up, and then you’ll wonder why we’re so fucking angry with you.
BTW, it may not please you to know that sex workers in poor, “developing” countries can and do organize for their rights, but it’s true! And look what they have to say about decrim! Listen to them!)
And here’s more on “supply” and “demand,” in case it interests you. Here’s one on myths about sex trafficking and sex work (mostly about the Olympics, the World Cup, the Superbowl, and other major sports events being huge attractions for sex traffickers, etc., but there’s a lot of other good stuff in there, too) I found pretty fascinating too when I first got started on my mission to kick ass and take names until hookers all over the world are free to hook safely.
And here’s a flippin’ awesome rant about the rescue industry and two of the biggest figures in it (Nikolas Kristoff and Somaly Mam).
And of course I got no response. I never do.
Via Ava Grace in Brisbane:
And here’s a little bit of perfection from Ava St. Claire: