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.