So there is a bit of a back-and-forth happening between Greta Christina and newly-minted FTBorg Taslima Nasreen. Ms. Nasreen wrote a piece essentially equating all sex work with exploitative slavery. Greta, a long-time sex work advocate, disagrees with a great deal of Taslima’s piece. So do I, for the record. However, I found it more than a little interesting and opportune that this issue has come up. Some of you will remember my buddy T who guest-wrote a great piece following the news of the Ontario Supreme Court’s decision to decriminalize brothels. T and I were going back and forth on a longer piece about the strengths and weaknesses of Sweden’s model governing sex work. Since Ms. Nasreen specifically name-checks Sweden numerous times in her piece, I thought it would be the perfect time for T to publish this work.
Hir thoughts below the fold:
One of the first things to understand about sex work stats as they relate to the Swedish model is that its implementation happened to coincide with easy, cost-effective access to cell phones and the internet. These two things have forever changed the way people conduct all sorts of businesses, including sex work. Even if a sex worker meets a client on the street, giving them a phone number to call to arrange future dates diminishes the amount of time they then need to spend on the street soliciting future business. This skews the stats on how many sex workers work indoors vs. on the streets and the volume of clients that they see.
People go where the work is, and if we criminalized clients, housing and food expenses will still compel sex workers to interact with potential clients in dark, secluded and dangerous areas. As long as people have financial needs and wants that exceed that of what can be had through welfare, sex work will always exist, in every corner of the globe. There are many people who don’t want to have any kind of sex for money, but think it beats working long shifts for minimum wage when they have kids, health issues, addiction issues, or for whatever reason, find other forms of work to be a greater hardship than sex work.
Criminals, be they human traffickers, pimps or abusive clients, don’t care that they are breaking the law or violating the rights of others. The criminal element of sex work will always exist for the same reason that even though rape and murder are crimes, they continues to happen. Some people are sociopaths and/or criminals; most are not.
One of the problems with the Nordic Model is how arbitrary the lines become in defining what is and what is not sex work. If you define it as a cash transaction, what of those who accept payment in drugs (to use or sell), which then gets into the murky area of wining and dining dates, especially if there is discussion about what one will and won’t do sexually, which peopleshould be doing before having sex. And before you laugh, this has been a real problem with the Swedish laws. Then add ‘gifts’ and the availability of gift cards and prepaid credit cards. What of the client who pays the worker’s rent? This then becomes quite similar to a ‘sugar-daddy’ situation, which starts to bleed over to include women who date men who help them financially, painting them as sex workers (and some might argue they are, to an extent).
Additional problems come in the form of making owning a place of prostitution illegal. Roommates who work together for financial and safety purposes can then be prosecuted for pimping each other. Landlords may have to evict a sex worker tenant if they are made aware (usually by nosey neighbors… so sluts, keep that Aspirin between your knees!), lest they be convicted of running the sex workers business or living off of the avails. This then forces sex workers to work alone, and potentially forces them to move often, which diminishes their financial resources, forces them into increasingly dangerous areas of town, and cuts them off from established social ties (such as friendly neighbors) who might come to their aid.
Further, it is fine and well to come up with a plethora of nit-picky laws, but if the laws aren’t implementable, what purpose do they serve? One of the reasons why sex workers are consistently prosecuted at rates that far exceed those of clients is because they are identifiable. Dressing a certain way and carrying lube and condoms can be used as evidence against them; whereas unless client are caught on tape, they can claim to have been asking for directions or just thought it was their lucky night: ‘Oh no officer, I didn’t know I had to pay for it! I thought it was my Axe body spray.’ Countries where the Swedish model has been implemented have incredibly low rates of prosecution of clients; arrests may be made, but charges are infrequently brought to court because the evidence is poor. This amounts to no more than shaming people in the court of public opinion, which works for politicians, but not the hardened criminal element, because to reiterate, criminals and sociopaths don’t care.
There is also a fundamental problem with the way we view immigration and migration. The Naked Anthropologist has spent years studying migrant populations and makes a good case that those who are willing to leave their home countries for economically advantaged ones, are by nature risk takers, and are therefore more likely to voluntarily perform riskier jobs, such as sex work, driving taxis, construction, etc. By making sex work illegal and therefore automatic ground for deportation, we paint people into a corner where they may claim to be victims when they aren’t, thereby inflating the numbers and spreading thin already scant enforcement resources. Additionally, the age at which one is considered an adult varies by country and culture, a sixteen year old woman from Africa or Asia may have been married with children and her own house in her homeland, but would now be considered a child in Europe or North America.
I admire those who seek to inform others about the real dangers of the sexual exploitation (or any other form of exploitation) of others, as they do a valuable service to all of humanity. However, what they often miss is this: most people want to do the right thing, and many (possibly most), if given the opportunity to do so without risk, will. Instead of making clients and those in peripheral occupations (security, agencies, etc) the ‘enemy,’ they should be educated and enlisted to help solve the problem. Much the same way that prohibition failed, while drunk driving campaigns have succeeded, we need to educate people, create social pressure to do the right thing, provide a workable (and realistic) legal framework, and then prosecute the actual offenders.
One of the best things we could do to really curtail the exploitation of others is to start a public awareness campaign and create anonymous phone lines for clients, security staff, landlords and neighbors to call, so that they can report suspicious situations without being obligated to be legally involved. You could even call it Traffic-Stoppers. Police, social workers and support staff could then assess the situation, undercover as clients if necessary, and intervene as needed. Much is made of the male sex drive and how it diminishes capacity, but post-orgasm, if the client happens to notice that the sex worker looks to be abused or unwilling, the client might want to help, but have no means to do so. By painting all clients as rapists and participants in trafficking and exploiting others, you shame them into silence when their help is desperately needed.
I would love to see customs staff at airports and borders trained to spot those at risk, and to discreetly take them aside for a private interview. I would love to see multi-lingual signs in high volume areas warning people of the reality of exploitation and letting them know that the law is on their side and who they can contact if they need help. I would love to see those signs in clubs and bars where clients are picked up. And I would love to see real resources put towards mental health, addiction, education, employment and immigration/migration services.
There are three additional points I would like to comment on:
First, there seems to be a conflation between First World Problems and Second/Third World problems in the discussion between GC and TN. As long as those at risk (particularly women, children, queer and trans people) have fewer rights and employment options, rates of very real, very tragic victimization will be far greater in those areas; and that is an outrage, and we should fight it. But in fighting it, we should first understand the underlying causes, which may include the reality that certain cultures are deeply patriarchal and more abusive towards women, while at the same time providing few means of support financially or socially for the marginalized.
Second, I’m glad someone posted the NZ laws pertaining to the right to refuse clients for any reason (including race), and that the clients only have the right to services that have been paid for. If the offer if rescinded, the fee should be repaid partially or in full depending on the amount of service already provided. That is exactly how it should be. Do not forget that being naked and alone with a stranger is an entirely different thing than serving someone coffee in a crowded Starbucks.
Third, there are important differences to understand about what it means to decriminalize something, versus to legalize something. If you decriminalize something, anyone can do it; if you legalize something, restrictions may be put on who/how/when/what is involved. The trouble with legalization, is that you can get into the situation that Canada is in where sex work is legal, but there are rules that curtail it that can impinge on the rights of the worker. Or you could end up with a system like Nevada where it’s legal for certain people (generally women of age employed in legal brothels), and under certain conditions (health standards, etc). If someone fails to meet these standards, they are then legally in the wrong (though it’s usually a misdemeanor). If you make it a requirement that only those who have licenses can engage in sex work, and make the acquisition of a license dependent upon such things as testing negative for STIs or drug, the absence of mental health issues, or citizenship, then you force those at risk underground again and cut them off from valuable services.
So in short: Decriminalize sex work across the board; keep rape, human trafficking and exploitation illegal. Fund and advertise public awareness campaigns and anonymous, exploitation report lines. Provide social and health services where needed. Realize that bad people will do bad things, and good people will do the best they can; try not to confuse the two.
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