“When prohibitionists do cite other researchers’ findings, they sometimes distort the results and assert the exact opposite of what the cited researchers found.”
– Ronald Weitzer, The Mythology of Prostitution: Advocacy Research and Public Policy (2010)
In early March 2013, the Huffington Post published an article with the title Debunking The Myths: Why Legalising Prostitution Is A Terrible Idea. I was not desperately keen to read it, but I proceeded to anyway because I am generally interested in what people are saying about sex work. And then I was angry. And then I went away and did something else, but I’ve had to come back to it again, a month later, because this one has specific features that make me particularly angry, and I need to share with you what they are.
It was written by Jacqui Hunt, London director of Equality Now. And despite its title, its scope is not limited to legalisation: she believes decriminalisation is an equally bad idea. At first glance, her article looks fairly reasonable and well researched, citing studies from various countries in which sex work has been legalised or decriminalised. It should be noted, however, that any legal model can be tweaked: whichever approach to sex work is selected by authorities, sex workers’ rights and well-being may or may not be prioritised in the accompanying legislation. Germany’s legalisation model is not identical to Austria’s (given the choice, I’d pick Germany). This means that negative outcomes might very well indicate the need for better legislation, rather than conclusive proof that legalisation or decriminalisation should never be entertained again. On the other hand, criminalising sex workers’ clients, as per the Nordic model, has specific, negative repercussions for sex workers’ safety, and there is no conceivable way to criminalise clients that won’t result in those negative repercussions.
I’m not going to address each and every claim Hunt makes about legalisation or decriminalisation: my intention in writing this post is, instead, to examine the ways in which some of her claims have been made, ways which I believe undermine her credibility. My main interest here is in references she makes to New Zealand, where I recently visited the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) to specifically discuss the effects of decriminalisation. And because the primary source for her observations on New Zealand reveals a markedly different picture from the one she has chosen to paint, I’m given to feel that all of her claims ought to be thoroughly investigated before anyone takes them as gospel.
For most of her remarks on New Zealand’s experience, Hunt links to a government publication, the Report of the Prostitution Law Review Committee on the Operation of the Prostitution Reform Act 2003. She first makes mention of it under the heading “Myth 1: The Legalisation/Decriminalisation of Prostitution Makes Things Safer for the Women Involved”:
“According to a 2008 New Zealand government report, “the majority of sex workers interviewed felt that the [act of decriminalising prostitution] could do little about violence that occurred” in the sex industry.”
Actually, the square brackets above have replaced “PRA”, which stands for “Prostitution Reform Act”. That’s a specific piece of legislation, not decriminalisation per se. As such, it’s misleading to imply that the sex workers taking part in the evaluation believed that decriminalisation in and of itself is ineffective against violence.
The paragraph in the report, however, does go on to say that:
“a significant minority thought that there had been an improvement since the enactment of the PRA. Of those feeling in a position to comment, the majority felt sex workers were now more likely to report incidents of violence to the Police, though willingness to carry the process through to court is less common.”
The report’s discussion of violence, in fact, primarily focuses on the gradual improvement of relations between sex workers and the police. As regards levels of violent crime, however, it states that:
“There is conflicting evidence on whether violence is reported more often since decriminalisation.”
In other words, we do not have the information here to determine whether violence has increased, decreased, or stayed the same. However, the PRA’s change in dynamics between sex workers and the police, while not, of course, as good as a reduction in violence (which may or may not have happened anyway, we don’t know), is a positive and relevant outcome, with the knock-on effect of sending the message that crimes against sex workers are to be taken seriously, and better enabling police and sex workers to exchange and circulate information about violent individuals. So, how should “safer”, as per “Myth 1”’s designation, be quantified in this respect? Does decriminalisation have to fix everything all in one go in order for prohibitionists to approve of it? Is it not better to improve things to some extent than to not improve things at all? Is Hunt’s implication that things are no “safer”, given that the data we need to fully assess the situation is absent from the report, just a conveniently vague term here?
Well, that’s all debatable. What’s not so debatable is Hunt’s next reference to New Zealand, in which she deliberately misleads the reader:
“A 2008 report, commissioned by the New Zealand government, confirmed that most people in prostitution “felt there had been no great change” in their access to health services and information since decriminalisation, and key informants “were not aware of any substantial change in the use of safer sex practices by sex workers as a result of the enactment of [the law that decriminalised prostitution]”.”
Seen in its original context, though, the “no great change” quote actually reads:
“Those in the industry valued greatly NZPC services in particular, which they felt had always been good. Most felt there had been no great change in access for sex workers, although some felt there had been improvements since the PRA.”
As such, the PRA has had no negative results in this area. Yet the fact that sex workers already saw effective service provision prior to its implementation has been twisted by Hunt to suggest to unwitting readers that it has fallen short.
This cynical manipulation of the facts is also employed in her reference to safer sex practices. The government document actually reads:
“The CJRC’s key informants were not aware of any substantial change in the use of safer sex practices by sex workers as a result of the enactment of the PRA. It was generally felt that most sex workers had already adopted such practices – as a result of the effective HIV/AIDS prevention campaign that ran in the late 1980s.”
In fact, it goes on to emphasise that sex workers are interested in maintaining good sexual health – something Hunt seems to have banked on her readers not grasping. It seems nigh on impossible that she would have missed this information in her reading of the report, but she has recognised that few readers are going to bother clicking on the links to double-check for themselves. Nothing bad has actually happened to sex workers’ safer sex practices in New Zealand: quite the opposite! What is bad – appalling, in fact – is the implication that sex workers don’t know about, or care about, or look after their own sexual health. Hunt is apparently happy to let readers assume that a lack of “substantial change” in safer sex practices post-decriminalisation is synonymous with a risky situation, which rather points to a reliance on the old sex-workers-as-vectors-of-disease angle. This isn’t merely lazy journalism: it’s brazen, deliberate obfuscation, and it’s indefensible.
There are also some telling gaps elsewhere in the article. “Myth 3: The Legalisation/Decriminalisation of Prostitution Improves the Social Protection of the Women Involved” gives us a paragraph solely about Germany. Hunt may well have thought it best not to mention New Zealand’s considerable social protections for sex workers here, but it’s poor form to suggest that the perceived shortcomings of one country’s model of legalisation can sum up both legalisation and decriminalisation in general.
By the time we reach “Myth 6: If We Criminalise the Buyer, We Are Not Acknowledging What Women in Prostitution Really Want”, we’re in wearyingly familiar territory: a link to a Melissa Farley study (which crashes my browser every time), famous for her flawed research, is cited as evidence that “89% of women in prostitution would choose to exit if they felt empowered to do so”. (The same PDF is linked again later on, this time labelled “a recent study”, even though it’s a decade old.) The thing is, sex workers want many things, and I think we are in fact all agreed that a way out of the sex industry is something that should be accessible to anyone who wants it. But Hunt neglects to discuss any of the other things that sex workers want, regardless of whether or for how long they want to continue doing sex work. Just off the top of my head, some examples might include: police who are more interested in protecting them than persecuting them, support services which respect their choices and autonomy, laws that allow them to work collectively, an end to mandatory medical testing (a glaring omission from Hunt’s critique of legalisation), the ability to select and turn down clients as they see fit, and solidarity from feminists in their pursuit of these goals rather than campaigns to put them out of business. Furthermore, it’s a bit of a jump to assume that women wanting to exit the sex industry is the same as women wanting their clients to be criminalised, as per the Nordic model Hunt favours: nowhere does she actually debunk “Myth 6”.
In her summary, Hunt claims that legalisation and decriminalisation:
“do not reduce violence against women in prostitution; they do little to improve their health, well-being or social protection; they fail to reduce stigmatisation of the women involved; they fail to acknowledge the context in which women enter and stay in prostitution; they do not truly support those wishing to exit – instead they help to support a permissive environment for exploitation and organised crime.”
Not only has Hunt failed to sufficiently back up these claims, she neglects to explain how the Nordic model will address any of these concerns. Yet again, the implication seems to be that with its implementation, the sex industry will magically vanish overnight without any problems, and nobody will have to worry about violence or health or stigmatisation or exploitation any more. The only thing that will help sex workers, according to Hunt and other advocates of the Nordic model, is for them to not do sex work any more. This viewpoint enables them to bypass concerns about harm reduction and the negative impact of ‘end demand’ legislation on sex workers’ safety and well-being, and as such, it does not present a helpful or realistic solution. The Nordic model has been shown, time and again, to increase sex workers’ vulnerability to violence, to have an adverse effect on their safer sex practices, and, of course, to promote stigma: it regards all sex workers as victims, and any who claim otherwise are seen as victims both of the sex industry and of false consciousness. Just as Hunt rightly observes that those who enter the sex industry as minors “will not suddenly develop a wealth of alternatives when they reach 18”, neither will sex workers suddenly develop a wealth of alternatives when the Nordic model is implemented.
Although Hunt has applied (selectively) high standards to multiple issues in her consideration of decriminalisation and legalisation, those same standards are absent from her call for the criminalisation of clients, betraying the lack of importance afforded to them under the Nordic model. Following her duplicitous claims about highly successful health campaigns in New Zealand, Hunt has suddenly glossed over what anyone needs to know if they are to in good conscience lend their support to her preferred course of action. Her platform has been used not to debunk myths, but to spread them: ultimately, it’s just another promo piece for laws which prioritise ideology over people’s health, well-being, and lives.