Recently, an online site advertising escort services was shut down and its CEO found guilty of promoting prostitution. A major blow against exploitation and trafficking of women, right?
Wrong, according to Juno Mac and Molly Smith, who say, “Losing these advertising platforms pushes sex workers onto the street, where their increased visibility makes them more vulnerable to arrest, or more likely to depend on managers.” In other words, pushing prostitution further into the shadows actually increases the power of clients and managers.
This is because prostitution is not primarily a phenomenon driven by clients’ demand for sex; it is driven by the marginalization of poor people, especially women of color, migrants and drug users. It is reinforced by government policies that cut social services, keep wages low, penalize drug addicts and deport migrants.
Mac and Smith are feminist sex workers. In their book “Revolting Prostitutes,” they argue that criminalization of sex work only further marginalizes people who sell sex, at the minimum making it harder for them to get out of the business and often making their lives much worse, like when undocumented sex workers are deported back to their home countries. They point out that if criminalizing sex work significantly reduced prostitution, this country would be virtually prostitution-free. And how’s that working for us?
The authors make it clear that they consider themselves and their colleagues to be exploited. However, they point out that prostitution is not the only occupation in which workers’ bodies are subject to physical abuse and they risk compromising their health. It is not the only job that reinforces patriarchy and in which sexual harassment is rampant. It is not the only job in which people’s lives are often in danger. They argue that in an exploitative system that creates masses of poor people, only ending the system will end prostitution. In the meantime, policy should be focused on the personal safety and empowerment of the workers.
At the core of the book’s argument is that most prostitution exists because the people involved need resources to survive. The people who are most marginalized — economically, racially or because of homelessness, mental or physical disability, transgender status, drug addiction and other reasons — are those who are particularly drawn into sex work. Making it more difficult for them to sell sex only makes them more desperate.
The authors take issue with two strands of feminist thought. One is that of “sex-positive” feminists — those who advocate for decriminalization and say that prostitution can be a fulfilling and socially useful occupation. While the authors allow that this may seem true to some who are “high-end,” it doesn’t describe the reality of most sex workers who are forced into the business because they’re trying to survive and would gladly go into some other occupation that met those needs.
The other strand is what they call “pro-carceral” feminists, who argue that tolerating prostitution reinforces patriarchy and who advocate “rescuing” sex workers by jailing and/or deporting them. Smith and Mac point out the irony that trying to use the police force, which routinely harasses and abuses sex workers on the streets, is essentially using one patriarchal institution against another. They also argue against the “softer” approach of decriminalizing the act of selling sex, as in Sweden. Swedish police arrest clients and raid “brothels,” including cooperatively shared workspaces. The authors contend that, in practice, sex workers in Sweden are still harassed and arrested by police, and clients actually have more reason to demand secrecy, which increases the danger of violence toward the prostitute.
Even regulated legalization, as in Germany, the Netherlands and a few counties in Nevada, does little to improve the lives of most prostitutes. When prostitution is “legalized,” it actually splits off “legitimate,” more privileged sex workers from more marginalized ones while giving the owners and managers of brothels more power over their employees.
So, what’s the solution? The authors advocate decriminalization in which it is legal to sell and buy sex, but with full labor protections for the workers and non-punitive, supportive programs to help them exit from the profession. They advocate changing government policies that marginalize migrants, drug addicts, people on welfare and other low-wage workers.
They point to New Zealand, which decriminalized most adult prostitution, with input from a committee of sex workers. The New Zealand system has faults, including still penalizing and deporting migrants. But for most sex workers, these legal rights limit harassment from police, allow them to set boundaries with clients about what they will and will not do and increase their safety in what has always been a dangerous profession. As the authors put it, a program to help sex workers should start from the premise “first, do no harm.”
Despite the title, “Revolting Prostitutes” is only peripherally about political action by sex workers to achieve this goal, but it lays out a compelling case for the changes in policy that would give people who turn to prostitution a chance for a decent life.
Read the full October 16 - 22 issue.
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