Culture Wars/Current Controversies

The sex worker rights movement is growing

I have noticed that in relatively recent times the sex worker rights movement has grown significantly. I expect this to escalate in the same way that the gay rights and trans rights movements did previously and, like the TERFs vs trans conflict, the SWERFs vs sex workers conflict will probably become more prominent.

By Cathy Reisenwitz

There’s been a ton of great momentum toward sex work decriminalization lately. Last year marked the first time a majority of voters said they approve of decriminalizing sex work. Voters join credible experts from across the ideological spectrum including the WHO, HRW, Amnesty International, The Lancet, the ACLU, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Transgender Equality, UN AIDS, and the UN Population Fund in their support for fully decriminalizing sex work.
In December, New York legislators asked the NYPD to stop undercover stings targeting sex workers. Last month a Michigan prosecutor published a comprehensive policy statement calling for full decriminalization of sex work and declining to prosecute it. Later in January Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez announced his intention to vacate more than 1,000 prostitution and loitering warrants.
Now Manhattan District Attorney candidate Eliza Orlins has published her own comprehensive policy platform calling for the full decriminalization of sex work.
Realizing that they’ve lost the experts and public opinion, prohibitionists are starting to call partial prohibition “decriminalization” in order to confuse voters and gain support. The Nordic Model calls for decriminalizing the sale of sex. But, it calls for arresting and charging clients and anyone who helps or does business with us, including landlords, Uber drivers, etc. In fact it criminalizes everything we need to do to work safely, including advertising and communicating with other sex workers.
Sometimes called the “Swedish Model” (having originated in Sweden) or “End Demand,” the goal is to force sex workers to quit by making it impossible for us to work safely. “It should be difficult to be a prostitute in our society,” Swedish Detective Superintendent Jonas Tolle, one of that nation’s top enforcers of the Nordic model, explained in 2010. “Even though we don’t put prostitutes in jail, we make life difficult for them.” The Swedish government wrote in 2007: “The purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution,” and is aimed more at ending sex work than helping sex workers.
Today, prohibitionists are shilling the Nordic Model for the same ends. In her 2020 Presidential bid, Vice President Kamala Harris (no stranger to making sex work more dangerous through poorly thought out legislation) said she supported no longer arresting sex workers, but wanted to continue arresting buyers and “pimps.”
More recently, New York state Senator Liz Krueger announced her intention to introduce a Nordic Model bill, only describing it as the “Equality Model.” The harms of the Nordic Model Like all prohibition, the Nordic Model makes sex work more dangerous than full decriminalization.
“Prohibitionist models, including the Nordic model, continue to criminalize and stigmatize sex workers, do not keep them safe, and force them into traps of poverty,” Orlins said. “In fact, it makes it easier for them to be trafficked, makes it more likely that they will face abuse and be unable to come forward, and makes them unable to protect their health. It makes them more vulnerable, and puts their lives in danger.”
“A wealth of academic research and community-based evidence” shows how criminalization compromises sex workers’ safety, health, and human rights and directly contributes to human rights abuses. Belinda Brooks-Gordon, Marjan Wijers, and Alison Jobe write. “This includes laws that criminalise the organisation or ‘promotion’ of prostitution, the renting of housing or workspace to sex workers, living of the earnings of sex work, the selling of sex and/or the purchase of sex through a variety of different criminal offences.”
The Nordic Model effectively outlaws organizing. Orlins pointed out that “under the Nordic model, sex workers working together in one location and protecting each other is still considered sex trafficking, and sex workers are arrested for doing so.” Anyone who volunteers at shelters for young trans women and sex workers can be arrested and charged with trafficking under the Nordic Model.
Data for Progress Fellow Nina Luo describes the “informal labor organizing” sex workers do when we rent spaces together, provide references for each other, maintain blacklists, talk to each other about areas being policed, share harm reduction education, make and drive each other to appointments, and call to check on each other. “This kind of informal organizing is criminalized under ‘promoting prostitution’ and ‘brothel-keeping’ laws, which can be felony charges, that criminalize any situation where more than one sex worker is involved, even if there is no force, fraud or coercion present,” Luo writes.
Like FOSTA, the Nordic Model makes it more difficult for sex workers to find, screen, and negotiate with clients online, forcing us to do business blindly and in-person. Sex workers can’t report violence, sexual assault, or suspected trafficking without risking putting police attention on their clients, landlords, or online activity.
“Criminalization increases opportunities for violence,” Erin Albright and Kate D’Adamo write in the AMA Journal of Ethics. “Because the work they do is regarded as criminal activity, sex workers are easy targets for abuse and exploitation, including trafficking. Fear of arrest and other consequences means that those engaged in sex work are less likely to report instances of violence or exploitation, resulting in a ‘climate of impunity [that] emboldens police, health sector, and non-state groups to abuse sex workers’ rights.’ This is true even for so-called ‘partial criminalization’ frameworks, such as those that penalize only the buyers of sex.”
Some claim full decriminalization causes increases in sex trafficking. This is absolutely false. After New Zealand implemented full decriminalization sex workers reported safer working conditions, better health, and less violence. There was no increase in trafficking.
Again, the WHO, HRW, Amnesty International, The Lancet, the ACLU, the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, Lambda Legal, the National Center for Transgender Equality, UN AIDS, and the UN Population Fund support fully decriminalizing sex work in part because prohibition exacerbates human trafficking.
Some claim full decriminalization will increase rates of sex work. This is also untrue.
Orlins pointed out that New Zealand’s government report showed that five years post full decriminalization “the sex industry has not increased in size, and many of the social evils predicted by some who opposed the decriminalization of the sex industry have not been experienced.” Similarly there’s been no evidence of an increase in sex work in SF after progressive DA Chesa Boudin announced he won’t prosecute sex workers or clients. Decriminalizing drugs and alcohol hasn’t much increased their use but greatly reduced the harms caused by prohibition. So it is with sex work.
“Declining to prosecute consensual sex work allows us to go after the real perpetrators: sex traffickers, those who sexually or physically assault sex workers, and those who try to purchase sex from minors,” Orlins said. “These will all continue to remain criminalized, and I will go after them aggressively.”
“Decriminalizing sex work [makes] people who are selling sex, right now and tomorrow, safer while they are doing what they need to do in order to survive,” write sex workers and activists Molly Smith and Juno Mac in their book Revolting Prostitutes.

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