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More on the short-term thinking behind sex work abolitionism

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.

About Wendy Lyon

Fighting a lonely battle for evidence-based policy and the proper use of apostrophes.

23 responses »

  1. After researching the abolitionist vs. pro-prostitution debate for quite some time, I’ve come to conclude that it takes a while until our perception changes. Be careful stating that abolitionists are shortsighted, because it might as well be true about the other side.

    Oh and also, quite a few researches ( not sponsored by the government) point in the direction that by choice sex workers constitute only about 5% of ALL sex workers. Now, while you are making good points defending the rights of the by choice sex workers, you are only defending the 5%. I will not be providing links to this statistic here, but Melissa Farley’s study amounting 15 years or so of due diligence research could be a good starting point. I found her research to be most free of bias because she rigorously tries to control the samples.

    Lastly, Thierry Schaffauser still falls under the incidence of sex workers minority (by choice type), therefore he might be biased towards keeping the status quo for personal reasons. Though on numerous occasions he mentions that anti-sex laws will leave him and his fellow colleagues on the verge of poverty. This, to me is reinforcing the idea that the sex workers are choice-less and stem from economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

    Reply
    • I will not be providing links to this statistic here

      Please do. Otherwise you are essentially conceding that you cannot provide evidence for your claims.

      Melissa Farley’s study amounting 15 years or so of due diligence research could be a good starting point. I found her research to be most free of bias because she rigorously tries to control the samples.

      Wow – Melissa Farley, free of bias. That is an amazing statement. Melissa Farley herself doesn’t even pretend to be free of bias; she openly states her bias at the start of every piece she publishes (and at the end, and on numerous occasions throughout…)

      I’m curious to know how you support the claim that she “rigorously tries to control the samples”. In fact one of the arguments that is regularly made against her work is precisely that she doesn’t control the samples. She chooses her subjects from particularly vulnerable sectors, she cites their responses to her questions as if they supported her hypothesis without testing the same questions on women outside the sex industry or in less vulnerable sectors. She has also refused to publish the wording of some of her questions, which makes her results unverifiable. She has misrepresented the findings of other people’s research in order to claim it supports her position when the opposite is the case, and has engaged in research without first seeking ethical approval from the relevant body, for which she is currently the subject of a complaint to the American Psychology Association.

      Melissa Farley, unbiased. I’m still shaking my head in amazement.

      As for her claims that few sex workers are in the business by choice, that particular bit of research was, as usual, carried out among vulnerable sectors (street workers, workers in brothels in countries that do not protect their rights). She recruited her subjects from among other places, an STI clinic to which sex workers had been brought by police, and from a resource centre for women trying to exit the industry. That’s automatic selection bias there. The research that has been done in New Zealand and the Australian states with legalised/decriminalised prostitution shows far more than 5% who state they are in it by choice.

      And I find it interesting that you dismiss Thierry’s point of view because he is “biased for personal reasons”. Aren’t most people biased for personal reasons about the things that will affect their lives? Is it only sex workers whose views you think should be discounted on that basis?

      Reply
  2. “Otherwise you are essentially conceding that you cannot provide evidence for your claims”. – Otherwise I was short in time for looking up the exact data. I did however point out the author. No need to exaggerate.

    Thanks for the link to Bennachie’s complaint. I will have to read it in order to feedback.
    As to Farley’s bias, you might be mixing two levels here: her personal beliefs ( which are normal to have as you state yourself re: Thierry) and research. I found her methodology to target a diverse group of people, from low end to elite escorts, across genders, underground and legalized sectors in Canada, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, United States, and Zambia, while MOST researches are much narrower in coverage than that.

    Also, Australia and New Zeeland might show a higher number of by-choicers (over 5%) but these countries are NOT representative for what prostitution is worldwide. I would also like to see research done on countries such as Ukraine, Bosnia, Moldova, Romania, Russia. I’m sure the numbers in those countries are even worse.

    “And I find it interesting that you dismiss Thierry’s point of view because he is “biased for personal reasons”. Aren’t most people biased for personal reasons about the things that will affect their lives? Is it only sex workers whose views you think should be discounted on that basis?”

    What makes you think I discriminate on the basis of occupation? As a matter of fact, what makes you believe that I may not be a sex worker myself? I discriminate on the basis of the 5% rule– what is good for the five percent is not good for the majority, hence bias dismissed. I made the context clear. Just because you expect the abolitionists to be somehow anti-human rights doesn’t mean that it’s indeed the case.

    Just to give you a glimpse of where I am coming from– my sister was kidnapped for sex traffic when she was 16 years old. Luckily she has escaped, or how you might word it “exited”. I can’t emphasize enough how badly it traumatized our life. Now, I don’t know anything about you, but if you lived in a third world country you would probably know that choice doesn’t really happen there. Sometimes it does come across as choice, but lack of composites that make a choice a “real choice” are simply not there.

    Reply
    • I found her methodology to target a diverse group of people, from low end to elite escorts, across genders, underground and legalized sectors in Canada, Colombia, Germany, Mexico, South Africa, Thailand, Turkey, United States, and Zambia, while MOST researches are much narrower in coverage than that.

      Actually, the sectors she chose are not particularly diverse in terms in the working conditions the workers face. None of them were “elite” workers. Just because someone works in a country that doesn’t prohibit prostitution outright (eg Mexico, Turkey) doesn’t make them an elite worker.

      Australia and New Zeeland might show a higher number of by-choicers (over 5%) but these countries are NOT representative for what prostitution is worldwide.

      Well, in terms of the level of protections offered to sex workers, obviously not, but it’s really impossible to know whether they are representative in terms of the percentage of sex workers working “by choice” (I assume you mean not on a survival basis). In most other countries it is very difficult to even find research on workers in that category. Most research is done on the visible sectors, not on the ones considered “elite”. So we simply don’t know how many there are.

      Re the choice issue, see Thierry’s comment. The fact is that most people all over the world are doing shitty jobs that they wouldn’t do if they had better options. That doesn’t take away their ability to choose shitty job A over shitty job B. And it certainly, as Thierry notes, doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have labour rights in that job.

      Reply
  3. The thing I don’t understand about the “choice” argument is why it applies only to sex workers. OK many people in the global south or working class people work because they need to support themselves and their family and not because they love their job. But it is only the sex workers that the State wants to stop working. Nobody tried to rescue me when I was working as a bartender or a postman despite I was much more exploited doing that. So even if for example there were studies that prove that only 5% of binmen wanted to keep working to collect the bins, why giving them labour rights and decriminalise them would be bad? Would we say that we maintain them in a job which is inherently by lack of choice? Or even if we take the example of trafficking, how does criminalisation stop trafficking? I think it worsens the problem actually. I also think that if we give more options to people so they can have (more) choice, then you do something helpful. Criminalising the clients is just taking away our livelihood, even if we don’t necessarily like the job we do. It criminalises people who could help identifying the traffickers. I don’t think we should have to justify ourselves about whether we choose working or not. We just need rights and protection.

    Reply
  4. One last thing, the anti abolitionism arguments sound to me like solutions designed for the first world country that deem to be implemented in the third world country ( where prostitution practices are the worst). Someone on this thread suggested me to talk to a “real sex worker”, assuming you meant someone by choice(?), instead I suggest YOU to talk to someone who has been trafficked. Your “suggestion” has just as much strength!

    If you are to fight human rights, then fight the rights of the ones at disadvantage, not of the ones who are in it consciously, who are stil a vaste minority.

    While all of you blame abolitionists for moral judgement ( is this the only argument you have?), I could argue that you dismiss the most devastating collateral effects of prostitution in your pursuit of freedom of choice. It’s like you are protesting the tax cuts for the rich.

    “There is no rational logic from the prohibitionists, they want to destroy, destroy, destroy human rights without considering the consequences of their delusional dogmatist negativity.” — What? Talk to the victims! Then address your own ignorance.

    Reply
    • the anti abolitionism arguments sound to me like solutions designed for the first world country that deem to be implemented in the third world country (where prostitution practices are the worst)

      I think you’ve just undermined your whole argument there. Prostitution practices are often the worst in the Global South precisely because sex workers don’t have the rights that their advocates are calling for.

      I wonder if you actually even read the post that you have commented on. How exactly would abolitionism help the sex workers in those countries who have even fewer alternatives than Global North sex workers have? What exactly would they do with this option taken away from them?

      Reply
  5. And just for the record, nowhere in the thread did I make a judgmental comment addressed to the sex workers, while ALL of you have have stated that I am judgmental. This says a lot about you guys!

    Reply
  6. “PAYMENT WAS USED TO GET SEXUAL SERVICE FROM THE WIFE, THIS CAN ALSO APPLY TO GIRLFRIEND OR EVEN BOYFRIEND, where payment persuades and influences the core sexual relationship.” — not in my world!

    Reply
    • Several problems with that link:

      1. It cites the same Melissa Farley study I’ve already dealt with here, which deliberately selected women in the most vulnerable environments and attempted to generalise their views across all sex workers.

      2. It asserts, with no evidence, a link between the law and men’s demand for prostitution. This is not actually proven.

      3. Its arguments against making it legal for women to work indoors are unbelievably fallacious. First it states that women won’t move indoors just because of the law. This is true for a lot of them, but it isn’t an argument against giving them that option if they want to take it. It also ignores the fact that the law poses dangers for those women who already work indoors by making their work illegal, a fact that their clients will be well aware of and the dangerous ones may take advantage of.

      4. It further assumes that “indoor work” = “brothel” which is not necessarily true.

      5. And further assumes that “brothel” = “managed brothel”. Again, not necessarily. Sex workers are capable of operating their own brothels without anyone making rules for them.

      5. One of the rules it assumes is that (managed) brothel workers must necessarily undergo regular STI screening. Mandatory screening does not exist in every jurisdiction that allows legal brothels. It is in no way an argument against allowing sex workers who want to to work indoors.

      6. It insists that indoor work is not safer than outdoor work. This argument is flat-out wrong. Even Melissa Farley’s evidence in Bedford indicated that it is.

      7. It cites a violent experience by an applicant in an illegal brothel as an argument against legalisation. Erm …

      8. It also cites the experience of the legalised regime in the Netherlands (some of which argument involves the use of dodgy stats, but that’s not really the issue) as an argument against decriminalisation. The Netherlands is not a good practice example. Nobody who advocates for sex workers wants to see the Netherlands framework adopted. Straw man.

      9. It insists women cannot screen out violent clients if they are given extra time to do so. This is a perfect example of a privileged person with no life experience in the area she’s discussing substituting her own assumptions for what those who have actually lived the experienced have learned.

      10. In doing so, it assumes that because some men don’t show their true colours until years into the relationship, no men show their true colours in less time than that. This is patent nonsense and makes me wonder if she actually knows any men.

      11. It also ignores the fact that one of the ways that sex workers distinguish dangerous men is through sharing information about ones that have previously attacked them or their friend. It isn’t only a matter of “instinct”. Obviously, the more time a sex worker has to talk to a potential client, the more time there is for any of these details that have been shared might come to light.

      12. “Myth 5″ denies that sex workers are prohibited from hiring bodyguards or drivers, but the only evidence it cites is a court case that says the pimping laws would not apply to family members. It ignores that the courts have already established that bodyguards or drivers could be criminalised under the law.

      13. It goes on to assume that any bodyguard or driver will inevitably be an exploitative controlling pimp. Again, nonsense. Sex workers are just as capable of hiring someone to assist them as anyone else would be. Here again we see the abolitionist tendency to treat all sex workers as incapable beings whom anybody can manipulate – a contribution to the stigma that makes them more vulnerable.

      14. It refers to evidence about “decriminalisation” from Germany and Australia (confusing legalisation and decriminalisation) while ignoring again that these are not best practice examples. It simply lies about the evidence from New Zealand, without backing up its false assertion.

      15. It says that the law wouldn’t have stopped Robert Pickton. Maybe it would and maybe it wouldn’t, but that’s no more an argument against the law than the existence of men who kill their wives is an argument against domestic violence laws. The point is to create an environment in which there are fewer Robert Picktons.

      16. And anyway, criminalisation certainly didn’t stop Robert Pickton, did it?

      17. It refers to abolitionist Aboriginal groups who oppose the Bedford decision. Here’s the view of an Aboriginal group it didn’t link to.

      18. It claims the Swedish model “works” to reduce prostitution. This blog has pointed out repeatedly why that claim is unsustainable.

      Reply
  7. It shocks me to see this on a blog named feminist Ire.

    I was prostituted for ten years in New York City. The results of Farley’s nine country study is completely consistent with my experiences in prostitution. It’s important to understand that women in prostitution are not segregated into separate realms — most have been prostituted in at least five different settings. To divide women in prostitution into street people versus escorts, who live in some idealized realm of sexual fantasy, is silly, simplistic and rather insulting. It’s also completely inaccurate.

    I was prostituted for as little as $100 for half an hour and as much as $1500 an hour. And yet, the experience was remarkably similar across the price brackets. Many Johns were violent so I was scared of all of them. Prostitution did not change when the price went up.

    I was ‘broken’ and initiated into ‘the life’ via a gang rape by several pimps and their police officer partner. They held me against my will in a padlocked room, beat me, drugged me, and terrorized me until I agreed to work in their brothel. I didn’t know what day it was or how long I’d been there. All my sisters in prostitution had had similar experiences. When we’d meet each other for the first time, we’d often say “I know your sad story.” My pimps were connected with organized crime, a powerful threat they held over me and the women I worked with.

    Farley’s study found that women in prostitution experience the same levels of trauma as the survivors of state-sponsored torture. You see why I find her results consistent with the truth of prostitution.

    I will never be the same. It took me years to recover. I can’t have children because of injuries sustained during prostitution. My vertebrae are all messed up due to the variety of Johns and pimps that beat and attempted to strangle me. My shoulder won’t stay in it’s socket. My prostituted friends were murdered. One killed herself after a John beat her up.

    And I was exceptionally lucky compared to most prostituted women. I’m white. Women of color had it ten times as hard as I did. The racism in prostitution is horrific. Men sexualize the women’s race within the abusive context.

    It’s important to understand that the sex industry has a powerful financial motive to present the image of the ‘happy hooker.’ It sends them lots of business. And it camouflages the massive sexual violence and harm the sex industry inflicts.

    Ms. Lyon compares being prostituted to ‘any other job.’ Clearly she has no understanding of what prostituted women experience. While I was prostituted I would sometimes stagger into the ER. The doctors would do a pelvic exam and they’d believe I was experiencing serious complications from an extremely recent abortion. But it was just the result of the ‘work’ of prostitution. That’s how hard the prostitution is on your body.

    In my ten years in prostitution, I never met a ‘happy hooker.” But the pimps demanded that we present that persona to the Johns. Because it was a big part of the Johns sexual fantasies and thus helped the pimps sell. It had nothing to do with the reality of our experience. Indeed, most simplistic Google search reveals that Xaviera Hollander, who wrote the book The Happy Hooker, was a madam. In other words, a female pimp. She was making money off the sexual exploitation of other women.

    I very much support the Swedish model of legislation for prostitution: where it’s a crime to be a pimp or a John, but it’s never a crime to be a prostitute. If only this had been law in the USA during the time I was prostituted.

    I found the Nick Mai study preposterous. Mai’s researchers approached the migrant sex workers through advertisements. In other words, they found them and spoke with them in the same situation that Johns would. If a researcher approached me this way while I was prostituted, I would not have felt free to tell them the truth — I would have felt I needed to give them the same line I was required to give Johns — that I ‘loved’ sex work. Because otherwise my pimp, who’d threatened my life and beat me on numerous occasions, would hurt me. And because the researchers had come to me through advertisements, I would have perceived them as Johns and expected them to demand sexual services at any moment. These are not appropriate circumstances for a study. Indeed, it’s a further exploitation of the women.

    Ms. Lyon, you describe yourself as a feminist. I feel compelled to tell you how horrifying it is to me to read posts like yours, written by educated self-described prominent feminists. Because, perhaps unintentionally, you are pumping for the pimps and massive organized crime and economic interests that sexually exploit women.

    You are making women like me invisible.

    Reply
    • It’s important to understand that women in prostitution are not segregated into separate realms — most have been prostituted in at least five different settings.

      Do you have a citation for this claim?

      Ms. Lyon compares being prostituted to ‘any other job.’

      Where have I said that?

      I very much support the Swedish model of legislation for prostitution: where it’s a crime to be a pimp or a John, but it’s never a crime to be a prostitute. If only this had been law in the USA during the time I was prostituted.

      Can you outline exactly what difference you think it would have made? It’s already a crime to be a pimp or a john in most of the US. The Swedish law has not prevented people becoming pimps or johns; in fact the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare’s 2007 report noted that many sex workers and agencies working with them believe that there are more pimps since the law was introduced.

      If a researcher approached me this way while I was prostituted, I would not have felt free to tell them the truth — I would have felt I needed to give them the same line I was required to give Johns — that I ‘loved’ sex work.

      Well, very few of Dr Mai’s respondents said that, so obviously they didn’t feel the same compulsion.

      Incidentally, do you feel the same way about Farley’s research? She used advertisements too.

      You are making women like me invisible.

      It is not making you “invisible” to say that there are sex workers who have had different experiences to yours. I could argue that you are trying to make them invisible, you’re denying their existence after all. Nobody is denying yours.

      Reply
  8. Pingback: Survivors? — Sensuous Amanda

  9. Of the many posts that I have read so far, all I see here is criticism and discrediting the data, I for one agree that solid irrefutable evidence is core to developing a solution to a problem.

    But, I’m yet to read that anywhere. All that I have found here Wendy, is you, non-stop criticising with no solutions being brought forward.

    Many have posted on here trying to find a solution to the problem, for you to discredit their information. Whilst again, it’s important to have evidence to substantiate your claims, I am very angered by your attitude, people are trying to find a solution to this problem whereas you haven’t presented any solutions yourself.

    Instead of simply posting post after post criticising opinions, stories etc. Why not be constructive and help the situation and pose a possible solution?

    Reply
    • Allow me to point you to the very first post on this blog, here, and the following paragraph from that post:

      “A truly rights-based approach would look more like the model in New Zealand, in which most sex work is not “legalised” but decriminalised. New Zealand sex workers made a significant contribution to the scheme’s design, and while the law that was ultimately passed is not perfect, it does give sex workers more rights than any other jurisdiction in the world – including an absolute right to refuse a client or service, protection under occupational health and safety legislation, and the important safety mechanism of being allowed to work together, in pairs or small groups.”

      You’re welcome.

      Reply
  10. It’s not even what you say, it’s how you say it. Look at you all yelling at me. And just who do you think you are? What a fucking moron.

    Reply
  11. Jim, please read our comments policy (under “What we are”). This comment is in violation of it.

    Reply
  12. Also, in the interests of not starting a flame war, can we tone down some of the comments here?

    Reply

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