The Godwin’s Law of the sex work debate is that inevitably, someone on one side will call someone on the other side a pimp. Most of the time, the person making the accusation will be a supporter of criminalising the purchase of sex – and at least some of the time, the only ground for the accusation is that the other person disagrees. Sometimes, of course, there’s a bit more to it than that – the accused may have picked up a brothel-keeping charge, for example – but seeing as that’s happened to people on both sides of the debate, it’s a fairly unedifying accusation. Even when it’s true.
Of course, the point of the accusation isn’t to improve the debate from an intellectual standpoint; it’s to discredit the person it’s made against. And when it’s made against a person who wants sex work decriminalised, the point is to discredit their entire argument – by suggesting anyone who puts it forward is a “vested interest”, a person who (quoting RTÉ’s Prime Time) “profits from prostitution”, a person who pretends to have the interest of sex workers at heart but really just seeks to exploit them. In this way, supporters of the Swedish model can not only take the high moral ground themselves, but can also add impetus to their argument by portraying the law as an anti-pimp measure (as they did, for example, in this press release last month).
The irony is that there are plenty of reasons to think the law would actually have the opposite effect, and promote pimps and pimping. In 2003 the Norwegian Ministry of Justice and the Police went to Sweden to investigate the outworking of the law, and this is what they reported:
It has been claimed that prostitutes’ dependence on pimps has increased because street prostitutes cannot work as openly. The police informed us that it is more difficult to investigate cases of pimping and trafficking in human beings because prostitution does not take place so openly on the streets anymore….
Prostitutes’ dependence on pimps has probably increased. Someone is needed in the background to arrange transport and new flats so that the women’s activity is more difficult to discover and so that it will attract the attention of the police.
A few years later, this was echoed in a report by the Swedish National Board of Health and Welfare:
According to one informant in Göteborg, there are probably more pimps involved in prostitution nowadays. The informant says the law against purchasing sexual services has resulted in a larger role and market for pimps, since prostitution cannot take place as openly.
A woman engaged in indoor prostitution in Göteborg relates that when the law took effect in 1999, about ten women engaged in prostitution from various Eastern European countries approached her business because they wanted to hide indoors. Informants from the Stockholm Prostitution Centre also mention that the law has opened the door to middlemen (pimps), because it has become more difficult for sellers and buyers of sexual services to make direct contact with one another.
Norway, meanwhile, has seen the emergence of what you might call “pimp-like” relationships – relationships of extreme dependency, in which the most vulnerable (drug using street workers) become totally reliant on a particular man or men for survival. According to last year’s City of Oslo report,
Among the women with a drug addiction who still sell sex many have changed methods for finding customers. Most of the support services have experienced that the women enter into more long term relations with men who they refer to as “friends”, “boyfriends”, “uncles”, or acquaintances. These are men they stay in contact with through telephones and that they stay with for longer periods, this could be hours, days, or weeks. They have sex with the men in exchange for the men supplying them with drugs, money, and other necessities. Many of the support services say that they perceive the women as being very vulnerable in the relationships. The women become very dependent on the few customers they have.
So where does the idea come from that pimps would oppose criminalising clients? I think in part, it’s the failure of prohibitionists to understand the difference between legalisation and decriminalisation. Admittedly, there isn’t always a clear line between the two, but an essential element of legalisation is that sex work is only lawful under specified conditions. For indoor workers, this usually means that a premise has to meet strict criteria to be deemed a legal brothel – and that certainly can promote “pimping” as prohibitionists would define it. Few self-employed sex workers have the resources or even the desire to wade through that much red tape, so if they don’t want to work illegally and/or alone (depending on the laws of the jurisdiction), they often have little choice but to work for someone else.
But, and here’s the important thing that always seems to get missed, this is not the model advocated by most supporters of sex workers’ rights. Including many of those who are regularly accused of being pimps. A more favoured model would be something along the lines of New Zealand’s, where up to four sex workers can share a premise as a “small owner operated brothel” (SOOB) without the reams of bureaucracy that a managed brothel is subject to – and where sole operators can take the safety precautions they need without putting themselves at risk of arrest, as happens in many “legalisation” jurisdictions. Does this promote pimping? No, it doesn’t. In fact, according to the 2008 report of NZ’s Prostitution Law Review Committee,
Some brothels have closed down with operators citing the lack of staff and increasing competition for workers because of sole operators/SOOBs as reasons for the failure of their business.
You see? Make it easier for people to work without someone managing them, and they’ll have less need for managers. It isn’t really rocket science. In fact, none of this is counter-intuitive, at least for anyone who doesn’t consider the sex industry to be totally sui generis (which it isn’t). I mean, think about it: most people who call for drugs to be legalised are not actually drug dealers themselves. I don’t think I’ve ever even heard a drug dealer call for drugs to be legalised, for bleeding obvious reasons. Nor does anyone ever argue that criminalising drug dealers’ customers makes a dent in drug dealers’ profits – and fewer and fewer seem to think it really deters the customers, either. Why would criminalising the sex industry have an entirely different effect?
I am fully aware that this post is an exercise in futility. Criminalisation advocates are going to keep throwing the accusation around, keep raising the spectre of the Pimp-Monster lurking behind a multitude of Twitter accounts. It’s an emotive tactic, and thus perfect for what has been a heavily emotive campaign. It’s just ironic that its success will be measured by whether it achieves a policy that real pimps may be the first to benefit from.