[Image description: three different shades of lipstick, each with unique indentations and erosions from their users’ lips. Part of Stacy Greene’s “Lipsticks”]
Content note: whorephobia, mentions of violence, exploitation
Sex worker activists resolutely call for the full decriminalization of sex work and human rights organizations are beginning to listen. Yesterday, Amnesty International released their policy calling for the full decriminalization of sex work. Women’s organization against austerity cuts to domestic violence services, Sisters Uncut, released a policy brief today which explicitly supports sex workers and sex workers’ rights, and advocates decrim.
An alternative “Nordic model”—so named for its origins in Sweden, adopted in 1999—which criminalizes people who buy sexual services (sex workers’ clients) is favored by many feminist groups. This is allegedly beneficial to sex workers and does not directly target them, but in reality the Nordic model makes sex workers less safe in many ways: police use sex workers’ reports of other crimes to facilitate their eviction or deportation, and the clients willing to break the law to see sex workers are more dangerous. It also gives police another way to arrest and incarcerate people who are disenfranchised—particularly people of color and migrants—for the “crime” of partaking in a consensual transaction between adults. Criminalization laws do nothing to help sex workers who suffer violence at work or want to exit the industry; instead they contribute to stigma and directly cause violence toward them. It has since adopted in Norway and Iceland (both in 2009), Canada (2014), and Northern Ireland (2015), and online it’s known as #EndDemand.
The Sex Worker Open University published a report in 2013 called “Swedish Abolitionism As Violence Against Women” and advocates for full decriminalization, as do Scottish sex workers’ rights group Scot-Pep, Thai sex worker organization Empower, Sex Workers Education & Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) in South Africa, Scarlet Alliance in Australia, Sex Professionals of Canada (SPOC), and the English Collective of Prostitutes (ECP). Sex workers’ organizations around the world have been fighting for labor rights since the 1970s. Sex workers are organized and are self-empowered.
White feminists who have never done sex work sometimes appoint themselves “saviors” and try to “rescue” sex workers from their jobs, conflating sex work with sex trafficking or forced sexual labor. These “rescues” are actually police raids which drag workers to stations and make them present their IDs and immigration documents—these scenes poignantly captured by the Sex Workers’ Opera (along with many others; if you’re in London, go see it this weekend). A police representative from Oslo admitted to Amnesty (in their report on Norway), “We deport trafficking victims. Many of them don’t know that they are victims, but they are according to the law.”
In addition to being humiliating and unhelpful, this approach denies the agency of sex workers to make their own decisions regarding their work. Feminism is a plurality, but surely the object of feminist gender politics should be to empower women and girls and femmes to have complete agency over their lives; not to punish them for making choices that we find uncomfortable, which usually ignores the systemic factors that led them to make those choices.
Full service sex work is mischaracterized as “women’s bodies for sale”. Putting aside that lots of sex workers aren’t women, this is reductive and untrue. Do massage therapists sell their hands? Do singers sell their voices? Obviously not; they sell their time and their skilled labor, and so do sex workers.
Abolitionists, more accurately described as sex worker exclusionary feminists (SWERFs, yes, like TERFs), are very concerned that sex work is degrading gendered violence, yet they offer no support to women who do other “degrading” feminized jobs: carers, cleaners, housework, and service industry work are all disproportionately done by women who are paid less than the men they work with, and these jobs are difficult and emotional-labor intensive. House work is real work; sex work is real work; under capitalism, all work is shit.
The question of whether a person desperate for cash can meaningfully consent to work is vital. And that’s precisely why the term “sex work” is essential. It makes it clear that the problem is not sex, but work itself, carried out within a culture of patriarchal violence that demeans workers in general and women in particular.
To describe sex work as “a job like any other job” is only a positive reframing if you consider a “job” to be a good thing by definition. In the real world, people do all sorts of horrible things they’d rather not do, out of desperation, for cash and survival. People do things that they find boring, or disgusting, or soul-crushing, because they cannot meaningfully make any other choice. We are encouraged not to think about this too hard, but to accept these conditions as simply “the way of the world”. (x)
All waged work (and much unwaged work) is coercive, but sex work is singularly targeted as exploitative because people are uncomfortable with the implications of commodified intimacy, and patriarchy only likes to see women as sexual objects who benefit men, not sexual agents who might profit from their objectification.
SWERFs are also very concerned with men (pimps) profiting from the “prostitution” of women and children. The reality is that until sex work is decriminalized, sex workers are denied basic labor protections which treat brothel owners and sex workers’ managers as employers, like safe working conditions and legal accountability for wage theft and abuse. SWERFs also ignore that many pimps are cops and many brothels bribe the police, and that most violence against sex workers is at the hands of the state rather than clients.
New Zealand is the only country in the world where sex work is fully decriminalized for its citizens, but sex working migrants are still criminalized. In the UK, sex work is partially criminalized: sex work is legal if done by independent workers, but “brothel-keeping” (or, more than one sex worker working from the same location) is illegal.
In the US sex work is fully criminalized except in some counties in Nevada, where it is legalized: workers are not allowed to leave the premises of the brothels they work at, which are in isolated rural areas, and they are subject to forced health checks. The distinction between legalization and decriminalization is a matter of human rights. In a model of legalization, sex workers are forced to comply with rules which disempower them and further entrench stigma (like the health checks) at the risk of breaking the law, and separated from the communities where they work; and brothel-keepers are empowered to be exploitative. In New York City, condoms are still used as evidence of “promoting prostitution” (a crime which makes no distinction between third parties who are coercive or trafficking and third parties who are supportive or involved for safety). The negative affects of criminalizing people for doing the work they’ve concluded is the most viable for them—especially when they are already more likely to be vulnerable as POC, trans, single mothers, and/or undocumented, choosing sex work because they are disenfranchised—should be obvious.
Any policy which ignores the demands of those it is trying to help is doomed to be awful. Like I’ve written before: a successful #EndDemand campaign would not end exploitation. If you want to end exploitation and coercive labor, end capitalism and give everyone an Unconditional Basic Income. Empower women and girls and femmes by believing them when they say they’ve experienced sexual and domestic violence, and make it easy for them to exit violent situations. Dissolve national borders, end deportations, and allow us our unalienable human right to freedom of movement around this planet. Give us all access to healthcare and childcare. Give us all access to housing (there are more empty houses than homeless people) and abolish private property. Abolish the police and the prison system and the military and decry them as instruments of state racism and violence. Stop punishing women for making difficult choices to survive; start dismantling the systems that force them to make those choices.
Edit: amended to correct the dates in which the Nordic model was adopted in various countries.