In this post last week I questioned the assumption of anti-prostitution laws as a solution to the trafficking problem. The failure to consider the consequences of these laws for trafficked persons – even if it could be shown (which it hasn’t been) that they have their desired effect – is a really good example of the logical gaps and short-term thinking employed by sex work abolitionists.
But that short-term thinking is evident even without bringing trafficking into the equation. The very notion of ending sex work through anti-prostitution laws is inherently flawed, and I don’t even need to point to statistics to make this argument (but what the hell, I will anyway).
The flawed reasoning goes like this (apologies for the gendered language here but I’m talking like an abolitionist and let’s face it, men who sell sex and women who buy it simply aren’t on their radar): criminalise the purchase of sex, and men will stop buying it. With no more market for paid sex, women will stop selling it.
Yeah, ok and… then what?
Before I continue, there are a couple things I should mention in passing. First, there is absolutely no evidence that criminal laws make men stop buying sex (as opposed to telling pollsters that they’ve stopped buying it, while really just buying more discreetly). Secondly, even the “buying more discreetly” effect can have really negative consequences for the sex workers deemed by those clients to pose too big an arrest risk. Emi Koyama has a good concise summary of the reasons for this here and I’ll just point out that the Swedish and Norwegian experiences corroborate her arguments, and leave it at that.
Because what I really want to focus on is not whether criminalisation makes a change in buyers’ behaviour, but rather in sellers’. So let’s assume that these laws actually did dry up the market and force sex workers to find another source of income. Well, here we see a big ol’ gaping hole in abolitionist logic, because their entire notion of sex workers-as-victims (I’m sorry, “prostituted women”) is premised on the assumption that they are in the industry because they don’t have any alternate source of income. To imagine that you could take away their customers and they would then just leave the sex trade is to admit that they could have left the sex trade all along, if they had wanted to.
In saying this, I’m not denying that there are some sex workers who really don’t have any alternatives, such as those who are literally held in the industry, by another person(s), against their will. But I don’t think even the staunchest abolitionist believes that’s the case for most adult sex workers (with the possible exception of Senator Fiach Mac Conghail, whose speech during the recent Seanad debate on the Swedish model was a genuine masterpiece of half-baked mythology and propaganda). I also wouldn’t count shoplifting and drug dealing as “alternatives”, which some drug-using sex workers said in this study was what they were doing before settling on sex work as the preferable option. Take away that option, and what happens to these sex workers? Watch your purse, Rescue Lady.
To be fair, organisations like Ruhama do provide assistance to those who (want and) need it to find mainstream work, and the Swedish government has provided funding toward this end. But all this assistance isn’t going to help people find jobs that don’t exist in the first place. As I write this, the Irish unemployment rate is 14.4% – which means that sex workers who want to leave the industry will face a hell of a lot of competition for what jobs are still out there. If they have a criminal record (as many in this sector of the industry do), beating the competition will be that much harder. For ethnic minority and trans women, harder still. And if they have an immigration status that doesn’t allow them to work in the first place, well, “skills training” is about as useful as an elephant with a skip-rope. Sweden’s unemployment rate is lower but it isn’t immune to these problems either. And that’s not even getting into the Global South, where the phrase “survival sex” can take on meanings unimaginable here. To take away these sex workers’ livelihoods before you’ve made absolutely certain they have something to replace it with not only does them no favours, it is cruel, unethical and evinces a lack of perspective that can only come from people who either don’t care about sex workers’ lives or are too cocooned in their own privilege to recognise the harm their “good intentions” cause.
There’s a deep irony here, in that abolitionists claim that it’s precisely this category of sex worker that their campaign seeks to protect. Decriminalisation, they argue, is for the “elite” prostitutes, the ones who are lucky enough to really have a choice. This of course ignores that all the evidence shows it is the “elites” who suffer least from the harmful effects of criminalisation – which nearly always targets the more visible and vulnerable sectors. Indeed, the very way that we conceptualise “prostitution” has a distinct class bias: it covers only the types of immediate, short-term gains that are easily associated with low-income people – things like cash, drugs and alcohol – while excluding those transfers more likely to be made amongst the upper strata, such as real estate, diamond rings and credit card accounts at Dolce & Gabbana. Sweden’s WAGs can rest easy knowing that only “casual” sexual relations, at least according the official translation of the penal code, will trigger the law.
Even college fees, it seems, might be too high-class to matter. This recent Examiner article, about Irish students seeking “sugar daddies”, does not even contemplate the possible illegality of such arrangements under the prostitution laws that the Examiner has been the Irish media’s biggest cheerleader for. That piece appeared only a week after the Seanad debate linked above, so the possibility really should have been fresh in the editors’ minds.
I’ve digressed a bit but the point is this: the category of sex worker who would be able to just walk off and start a new life if criminalisation really did eradicate their client base is not the category of sex worker that abolitionists are concerned with. The centrepiece of their “solution” to survival sex work is a policy that would only drive their “prostituted women” even further into destitution and perhaps homelessness, crime and substance abuse.
I am all for “exit strategies” for those sex workers who wish to leave the industry (although I agree with Thierry Schaffauser about the problematic nature of the “exiting” concept and the desirability of a less stigmatising term). But a strategy is only that. It is a roadmap out, but without guaranteed jobs, work permits and the ability to overcome discrimination and stigma, for many of these sex workers it is likely to be a road to nowhere. Like criminalising abortion without making adequate provision for births, criminalising sex buyers without real, concrete, guaranteed alternative incomes for sex sellers is a myopic policy rooted in ideology rather than reason. And if it is not already having a devastating impact on the survival sex workers operating under it, that is only because “end demand” strategies don’t end as much as demand as abolitionists think they do.