The War On Sex Workers

I wanted to recommend this excellent article in Reason Magazine, about how laws against prostitution and sex trafficking hurt sex workers. (This subject, like the war on drugs, is one that libertarians seem to do a better job of covering than liberals.)

The consequences of such arrests can be life shattering. In Louisiana some women arrested for prostitution have been charged under a 200-year-old statute prohibiting “crimes against nature.” Those charged—disproportionately black women and transgender women—end up on the state sex-offender registry. In Texas a third prostitution arrest counts as an automatic felony. Women’s prisons are so overloaded that the state is rethinking the law to cut costs. In Chicago police post mug shots of all those arrested for solicitation online, a shaming campaign intended to target men who buy sex. But researchers at DePaul University found that 10 percent of the photos are of trans women who were wrongly gendered as men by cops and arrested as “johns.” A prostitution charge will haunt these women throughout the interlocking bureaucracies of their lives: filling out job applications, signing kids up for day care, renting apartments, qualifying for loans, requesting passports or visas.

Not all people who do sex work are women, but women disproportionately suffer the stigma, discrimination, and violence against sex workers. The result is a war on women that is nearly imperceptible, unless you are involved in the sex trade yourself. This war is spearheaded and defended largely by other women: a coalition of feminists, conservatives, and even some human rights activists who subject sex workers to poverty, violence, and imprisonment—all in the name of defending women’s rights.

The author, Melissa Gira Grant, claims that the anti-porn activists of the 1980s and 1990s have transformed into anti-sex-trafficking activists, where they face far less pushback:

One architect of this shift is attorney Jessica Neuwirth, a founder of the women’s rights organization Equality Now. In a 2008 interview with Barnard College sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein, Neuwirth described the change as a move away from “an earlier wave of consciousness about exploitation that took both pornography and prostitution almost together as a kind of commercial sexual exploitation of women.” The rewrite was necessary, Bernstein explained in the journal Theory and Society, because the outright prohibition of porn and prostitution was not popular, putting feminists at odds with liberal allies such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “They got battered down by ACLU types,” Neuwirth told Bernstein. “By re-situating these issues in terms of the ‘traffic in women’ overseas and as a violation of international commitments to women’s human rights,” Bernstein explained, “they were able to wage the same sexual battles unopposed.”

I do have some nit-picks about the article; at times Grant seems to be so eager to condemn feminists that it’s hard to see how feminists could ever win with her. (Conservatives – a group far more likely to be represented among Reason‘s readers than feminists – are criticized with far less vigor and passion.)

A 2012 examination of prostitution-related felonies in Chicago conducted by the Chicago Reporter revealed that of 1,266 convictions during the past four years, 97 percent of the charges were made against sex workers, with a 68 percent increase between 2008 and 2011. This is during the same years that CAASE [the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation] lobbied for the Illinois Safe Children Act, meant to end the arrest of who the bill describes as “prostituted persons” and to instead target “traffickers” and buyers through wiretaps and stings. Since the Act’s passage in 2010, only three buyers have been charged with a felony. These feminist-supported, headline-grabbing stunts subject young women to the humiliation of jail, legal procedures, and tracking through various law enforcement databases, sometimes for the rest of their lives.

So in other words, during a time when the Chicago Police were increasing arrests of sex workers, CAASE was lobbying for legislation intended to “end the arrest” of sex workers. Wasn’t that the right thing for CAASE to do, under those circumstances? Unless there’s something more here that Grant didn’t tell us, it seems very unfair to blame CAASE for the arrests of sex workers.

I also suspect that there’s some elements of transphobia in “the war on sex workers,” which I wish Grant had discussed more directly. A disproportionate number of sex workers hurt by anti-sex-work laws seem to be trans people, and the activists of the anti-trafficking movement seem disproportionately drawn from conservative Christians and radical feminists, two groups who have been hostile to trans people. The old-fashioned concept of “false consciousness” – which becomes an excuse to not listen to trans people or sex workers when their accounts of their own lives, motives, and agency contradicts theory – may be the common factor. The phrase “false consciousness” has fallen out of favor nowadays, but the thinking behind it is visible in both radical feminist arguments and conservative Christian arguments.

Nitpicks aside, the article provides an important critique of the anti-sex trafficking movement. Grant also posted some supporting links in a post on her blog.

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8 Responses to The War On Sex Workers

  1. 1
    Mark says:

    I wouldn’t call her unfair broadside on feminists a nitpick. It pretty much characterized the whole article.

    And you know, to juxtapose the “war on drugs”, waged largely by state power, with the “war on sex workers” supposedly waged by feminists is pretty outrageous. Makes it hard to want to try and spot the legit criticisms she may make. Especially when you remember the audience, “free minds and free markets” (which is a total oxymoron).

  2. 2
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Sex workers can tell us what they think they need, in order to get what they want.

    Sex workers are quite possibly right about what they need (though not necessarily: the long term outcomes of complex policy decisions aren’t always obvious or easy to interpret.) Sex workers are certainly right about what they want, given that it’s purely subjective.

    But what the sex workers want may not be what society wants.

    The argument “should we deliberately expose sex workers to violence?” has only one appropriate answer in a just society. The question “should we encourage or discourage sex work?” does not. So the fact that a minority of people may think sex work is appropriate and/or beneficial is relevant, but not determinative. Until sex workers convince enough folks of the rightness of their view, they’ll have to deal with society’s judgment like everyone else.

    And in that respect, it’s difficult and arguably unrealistic to give any group (sex workers or not) a lot of say in executing a system so long as they openly and fundamentally oppose the goals of the system. You have to wear the right hat in order to get a seat at the table.

    Sex worker rights groups are held back by the fact that they aren’t willing to generally oppose the validity of sex work. That makes them bad negotiating partners for solving process issues. It’s not reasonable to blame this on feminists.

    To use an analogy: you can be a pacifist and argue against entering a war. But once the decision is final, the discussion changes, and becomes “what’s the best way to get this done?” If you want to freely participate in that second discussion, folks need to believe that you are focused on “now that we’re here, what’s the best way to get this done?” and not “how do I reverse the original decision?”

  3. 3
    Protagoras says:

    I take it that the criticism of CAASE Grant is making is that the Safe Children Act, whatever its other provisions, was yet another bill directing more police attention toward prostitutes, and when more police attention is directed toward prostitutes, it almost always ends up making things worse for them, regardless of the intent of the bill. Telling police to target “traffickers” rather than prostitutes doesn’t prevent them from targeting prostitutes anyway (perhaps partly because traffickers are much rarer and so harder to find than the rescue industry would have you believe, and the police must be perceived as Doing Something).

  4. 4
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Why do cops arrest prostitutes* instead of other people? Simple, though flawed, economics.

    Johns are hard to find, have no to some protection, and can be very difficult to convict absent appropriate evidence. They also have more money and political power. Also, there are a gazillion of them, and arresting one john won’t necessarily affect other johns. (There would be a better deterrent effect if the arrests become frequent enough. But we’re not even CLOSE to that level.)

    Prostitutes are relatively easy to find, have no protection, and because they proactively seek transactions they are relatively easy to convict. They have less money and no political power. The payoff is higher than for johns, because one prostitute can have many customers.

    Traffickers and pimps are relatively hard to find, have more protection, and can be difficult to convict absent appropriate evidence (which is also hard to get.) They have more money, albeit no political power. But the payoff is highest because one trafficker or pimp will often manage multiple prostitutes, who each have multiple customers.

    Look at the different payoffs and risks. You’ll see that if the goal is “reduce money-for-sex transactions” and the question is “what is the most efficient way to do so?” the answer from an economic standpoint usually appears to be “arrest the prostitutes; keep your eyes out for a really big pimp as an opportunity target; arrest johns mainly as collateral damage.”

    This is extremely similar to the approach taken in anti-drug work, because the calculus is the same: replace “Johns” with “end users,” “prostitutes” with “low level dealers,” and “pimps” with “high level dealers” and you’ll recognize a similar trend in arrests.

    That said, both approaches suffer from a similar flaw, which is that there doesn’t seem to be a functional limit on replacing arrestees: arresting prostitutes or low-level drug dealers doesn’t materially change the number in either category, and therefore doesn’t have much of an effect on the eventual customer base or on the higher-ups.

    *AFAIK, arrests are usually of prostitutes specifically, and not “sex workers” generally.

  5. 5
    Mark says:

    It’s not just economics why law enforcement targets prostitutes and drug users who are people of color. Institutional racism, misogyny and colonialism also guide how law is enforced and written. The big fish like the big banks are not hard to find, and from an economic perspective it would make a lot of sense to go after them. It’s just that it also happens to be the cops’ job to protect them. Drug money goes through the same banks and is protected because the banks themselves are protected.

    In many ways the war on women, the war on drugs and the war on prostitutes are similar and they’re definitely real, but I just find it dishonest to put the blame on feminists. That doesn’t mean feminist organizations or feminist thinking are beyond criticism. NOW doesn’t seem concerned to deny support from women when that support might risk its status and funding, which isn’t acceptable at all and is in fact horrible. Yet NOW is also not the patriarchal, colonialist state and its law enforcement system, and it’s not the porn and trafficking industries. There are also a lot of grassroots organizations and people who support exited and marginalized prostitutes, who identify as feminists and who also support decriminalizing prostitutes and criminalizing johns and pimps, among other things.

  6. 6
    Copyleft says:

    My usual starting point in discussions of sex work is “Why should it be illegal in the first place?” It’s hard to find an answer that doesn’t involve religion or vague claims about ‘degradation’ and ‘objectification.’

  7. 7
    gin-and-whiskey says:

    Copyleft says:
    February 15, 2013 at 6:09 am
    My usual starting point in discussions of sex work is “Why should it be illegal in the first place?”

    Are you also starting from “everything should be legal unless we can specifically justify precise reasons for making something illegal?” Because otherwise: If a lot of people in a country dislike something (and prostitution* is in that category) then they tend to make it illegal. The “why?” question is answered by “because I don’t like it, that’s why.”

    *I am not using “sex work” here because it’s an over-generalization that clouds the issue. A lot of stuff referred to as “sex work” ISN’T illegal, from stripping to porn to phone sex. OTOH, almost all prostitution IS illegal. If we’re talking about legality it’s important to be specific enough to have a valid discussion.

  8. 8
    Copyleft says:

    “gin-and-whiskey says:
    Are you also starting from “everything should be legal unless we can specifically justify precise reasons for making something illegal?”

    When it comes to personal, individual behavior? Of course I am.