NOW argues against full decriminalization of sex work

I have written before about how I felt that sex work should be decriminalized. Although there had been concern in feminists circles in days gone by that legalizing sex work would lead to greater exploitation of women’s bodies, I thought that the issue had been settled and that decriminalizing sex work was now a fairly uncontroversial position on the part of people who would consider themselves on the liberal and progressive end of the political spectrum. In fact, just a couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a new survey that gave welcome news that public opinion about sex work had moved in a positive direction.

Hence I was startled to read that the leadership of the National Organization of Women, a group that I would have thought would be supportive of this trend, had come out against a proposal for the decriminalization of sex work in Washington, DC and also against Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s federal decriminalization bill. This was despite the fact that in 1973, the NOW passed a resolution calling for the removal of “all laws relating to the act of prostitution per se, and as an interim measure, the decriminalization of prostitution.” This new tack has apparently caused a conflict between the top national leadership and its local chapters and rank and file members.

At a recent hearing in Washington, D.C., the president of the National Organization for Women made it abundantly clear that her organization would not support a bill to decriminalize sex work in the capital.

Testifying in front of the D.C. City Council, Toni Van Pelt, the 72-year-old leader of the storied women’s rights organization, claimed the bill would make Washington a “prime international sex tourism destination” and pose an “extreme threat to women and girls.” Sex work, she said, was “the most extreme version of the violent oppression of women.”

Asked whether the local NOW chapter supported her position, Van Pelt replied firmly: “I am representing all the chapters in the National Organization for Women.”

But Van Pelt’s emphatic statement that she was speaking for the entire organization and demanding that local chapter leaders not challenge her position has not gone down well. She was immediately challenged by the head of the local Washington DC chapter who said that she was shocked by it. The divide on this issue may be along generational lines.

The episode illustrated a growing divide within the feminist movement on whether the sale and purchase of consensual adult sex should be decriminalized. Numerous human rights groups have endorsed the idea, claiming it would make the sex trade safer and curtail discriminatory policing. But women’s organizations like NOW, founded at a time when many feminists considered prostitution inherently demeaning, continue to oppose it.

Zoe Bardon, one of NOW’s youngest members at age 17, said she sympathized with the older generation of feminists, who were working on this issue long before she was born. But ultimately, she felt they would be unable to resist the shifting tides.

NOW’s position is based on making a distinction between those who arrange for and purchase sex and those who supply it. It also suggests that sex work can lead to sex trafficking and child sex trafficking.

This year, the group mounted a nationwide campaign against what it called ”sex trafficking and exploitation.” The campaign aimed to “end the demand” for sex work by criminalizing pimps and johns (or in NOW speak, “purchasers of sex acts” and those who benefit financially from the sale of other people for sex.”) A key component of the campaign was opposing the D.C. decriminalization bill.

Several chapter leaders had been quietly seething since the national convention that July, where Van Pelt submitted several resolutions in favor of the so-called Nordic model.

The resolutions called for the removal of criminal penalties for those who sell sex, but not those who buy it—something many activists say does not go far enough to protect sex workers’ rights. A group of younger feminists decided to submit their own competing resolution in support of full decriminalization.

It’s unclear what happened between then [i.e. 1973] and now to change the organization’s views. (Asked when the organization’s official stance had changed, Van Pelt cited only the 2016 trafficking resolution.) But by the late 1990s, NOW had signed on to a letter calling for all sex work to be considered a form of exploitation. Today, the organization’s website proclaims its full support for the Nordic model, claiming that decriminalization would lead to “even higher rates of human trafficking and perpetuat[e] an already vicious cycle of oppression for women.”

But other argue that making this distinction undercuts the core idea of women’s autonomy over their bodies.

Even as the task force stalled, the national group continued to send out alerts about the national anti-trafficking campaign—alerts that referred to sex workers as “prostituted persons” and claimed that “no one chooses it as a career path over other professions.” The releases caught the eye of chapter leaders like Michelle Fadeley, who said she was alarmed by the word choice and by Van Pelt’s resistance to criticism.

When local leaders protested, Fadeley said, Van Pelt defended her position by saying that no mother would want their daughter to be a sex worker.

“I was a little aghast at that,” said Fadeley, the president of Illinois NOW. “We could say the same thing about abortion. I don’t think anyone wants their daughter to have an abortion, but that is not a valid argument to not have that choice, and to not support women who choose that.”

Other members said they, too, saw hypocrisy in NOW’s stance. “What I don’t understand is how an organization that says, ‘My body my choice,’ is coming out and saying [sex work] is wrong,’” said Montgomery County, Maryland, chapter president Jennie Rose D’Elia-Dufour. “It’s, ‘My body my choice,’ unless you’re trying to make money to support yourself.”

But other members argue that a resolution on child sex trafficking has nothing to do with trading in consensual adult sex. Florida chapter president Kim Porteous said her chapter passed a resolution in favor of decriminalization last year, not realizing that it could conflict with current NOW policy. “Human trafficking is horrendous and it has nothing to do with choice,” she said. “Sex work does.”

It seems likely that this issue will be hotly debated at this year’s annual NOW conference to be held in June.


  1. says

    Ms Magazine and NOW have had a patronizing, belittling approach to younger feminists and their views at least since the 1990s. I remember being part of the fight to get Gloria Steinem to endorse Ms and NOW changing policies to pay all interns a living wage. You should have heard some of the shit that got said in those rooms by older feminists.

    I’ve also been privileged to know a couple of NOW heads just enough that we would recognize each other on sight -- though that was clearly more because of the company that I kept (older feminists that were respected by NOW heads and had long standing interactive relationships with them) than the value of my own work within NOW (which was very little). They’ve gotten a lot of things right, but I think that despite aggressively acting to oppose domestic violence, sexual assault, and trafficking, they’ve often taken what I believe to have been wrong tactical choices in trying to reach those goals. Though I’ve never stopped thinking that NOW is worthy of support, I haven’t really been impressed with NOW leadership in quite some time.

    The place seriously needs a non-lawyer woman of color as president, but I don’t think that’s happening any time soon. When selecting national leadership, there’s a great deal of emphasis put on having a long, uninterrupted resume of fighting for women’s rights. And yes, that’s laudable. But it also effectively rules out younger candidates and candidates with new energy and candidates who have actually been deprived of professional careers for any length of time by issues that really do disproportionately affect women -- poverty, disability, and parental responsibilities that conflict with working outside the home.

    All that said, I didn’t get this right the first time. In the 1990s I also supported the Nordic Model. It took years for more evidence to trickle in before I was able to say that criminalizing johns didn’t work and should also end ASAP. I will say, however, that I was proud of myself for standing up in a court during void dire and articulating that I thought the state had damaged its credibility on the issue of prosecuting women for prostitution violations by their public insistence that this was for the good of the women prosecuted when empirical evidence showed that such outcomes led to worse outcomes for those women, not better. I was not seated for the trial.

  2. Dunc says

    Laurie Penny did a very good piece on this at the New Statesman back in 2016 (prompted by the controversy when Amnesty International came down in favour of decriminalisation), in which she argues that the problem with “sex work” lies in the “work” part rather than the “sex” part, and that we have trouble seeing this because we have adopted the ideology of the “work society”, in which all work is believed to be inherently good:

    The question of whether a person desperate for cash can meaningfully consent to work is vital. And that’s precisely why the term “sex work” is essential. It makes it clear that the problem is not sex, but work itself, carried out within a culture of patriarchal violence that demeans workers in general and women in particular.

    To describe sex work as “a job like any other job” is only a positive reframing if you consider a “job” to be a good thing by definition. In the real world, people do all sorts of horrible things they’d rather not do, out of desperation, for cash and survival. People do things that they find boring, or disgusting, or soul-crushing, because they cannot meaningfully make any other choice.

    The whole thing is worth reading: Let’s not abolish sex work. Let’s abolish all work.

  3. says

    @Crip Dyke:
    Ms Magazine and NOW have had a patronizing, belittling approach to younger feminists and their views at least since the 1990s.

    There’s a lot more story there. I need to do a posting about that.

  4. says

    Ask sex workers what laws they want. Do what they say. That’s it. It’s not complicated.

    It’s not up to self-proclaimed feminists to decide and police what other people can or cannot do with their bodies. I intentionally say “people” rather than “women,” because male and non-binary sex workers also exist.

    SWERFs and TERFs are so frustrating. How dare they tell other people how to live!

  5. Jean says

    Has there been a study comparing the nordic model to the New Zealand model on the safety and health of the sex workers as well as the impact of both on the sex trafficking and other exploitation? It seems to me that this would be an essential part in declaring which model needs to be used (or any other solution).

    And listening to the sex workers as mentioned above is also essential and as far as I know this would not result in promoting the nordic model.

  6. says

    I appreciate Dunc’s comment @2 because it summarizes nicely problems I could potentially see the top NOW leadership considering. As The Daily Beast article notes, “Sex work, [Van Pelt] said, was ‘the most extreme version of the violent oppression of women.'” So a concern with decriminalization may be that there are going to be even more women working in the field not because they want to, but because they need the money. Women that previously were not so desperate as to risk doing something illegal may now enter the field. Given that we live in a society that tends to turn a blind eye toward abuse of women, I could see why one could be concerned about legalization leading to more women in a field of work where abuse could be common.
    Let me be clear I’m just trying to apply the principle of charity here. I’ve seen it suggested here at Freethought Blogs and elsewhere that data from where it is legal and other studies do not support the concern and so I don’t necessarily agree that it is a serious concern. (And this is, of course, data top leadership at NOW should be aware of.) But I can understand how someone else could come to a different conclusion.

  7. Marja Erwin says

    I’ve encountered the arguments that sex workers’ organizations are controlled by pimps, and the argument that sex work screws with your head, Stockholm syndrome, so that sex workers’ opinions are untrustworthy, and feminist organizations should only listen to long-exited workers.

    Also the argument that trafficking increases-- but that’s much harder to judge.

    Of course decrim makes sex work itself more visible.

    If decrim makes it easier for sex workers to speak out about trafficking that makes trafficking more visible.

    If decrim encourages people to move from more dangerous jurisdictios, that makes sex work more common, locally, but not necessarily on a larger scale.

    If decrim encourages people to go into sex work, that highlights that a lot of other work can be a lot worse than sex work.

    Of course, the combination of legalization with work requirements for healthcare, welfare, etc. is a problem, but work requirements are a problem regardless.

    Off the original topic, I’m particularly annoyed by the argument that unemployed people are more likely to be disabled and chronically-ill, (which is true), and therefore, mandating employment will make us abled and healthy.

  8. John Morales says

    Marja, this is veering off-topic, but your comment hit home for me.

    I’m particularly annoyed by the argument that unemployed people are more likely to be disabled and chronically-ill, (which is true), and therefore, mandating employment will make us abled and healthy.

    Perfectly describes Australia:

    Happened just as I quit my regular job and moved to the country, so I ended up jumping through hoops and endlessly rewriting resumes (“work training”) doing crap unskilled work and bullshit “volunteer work” to merely get the dole until I could get an actual job that actually paid money — and it was no thanks to the system, but rather despite it that I achieved that.

    Even now, I am personally convinced that the entire initiative was designed to punish those who are seen as dependent on the system. I’m also convinced that it cost more and achieved less than merely doling out a living amount would have.

  9. says

    Leo Buzalsky @#6

    So a concern with decriminalization may be that there are going to be even more women working in the field not because they want to, but because they need the money. Women that previously were not so desperate as to risk doing something illegal may now enter the field.

    If some person believes that doing sex work is better than washing toilets for a minimum wage, then they have a right to make this decision. It is not up to some self-proclaimed feminist to confine other people to jobs they hate even more than sex work.

    Marja Erwin @#7

    the argument that sex work screws with your head, Stockholm syndrome, so that sex workers’ opinions are untrustworthy

    They don’t have a right to patronize other people.

  10. gregmusings says

    As a sometimes john, I’ve always been bothered that sex work is criminalized, either for the practitioners or for the customers. Sensual massages have been a wonderful resource for me when I’ve been between partners. I absolutely hate the idea of women being trafficked or abused in the sex business. But I hope the masseuses I’ve seen are not involved with that. They are usually older and the way they present themselves certainly indicates they are not compelled to do the work they do. I totally agree with the idea of asking the sex workers how they want to be treated under the law and abiding by their answers.

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