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.