Sour Grapes

It seems that after the recent New York Times piece on sex work, those who seek to completely prohibit commercial sexual exchange are concerned they no longer have a stranglehold on the dialogue about sex workers’ lives. Over the past few days, there have been three pieces attempting to undermine the Times’ article: one from a radical feminist, one from the bastion of journalistic integrity that is the NY Post (written by a correspondent whose primary focus is religion, no less) and then today’s from a representative of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW.)

Today’s piece is a simple continuation of the others; it’s a disjointed combination of appeals to emotion, anecdotal evidence meant to discredit actual studies, flawed statistics, frequently told lies, obfuscation, a blithe dismissal of reality, and an absolute refusal to engage in the core of the argument for the decriminalization of sex work: harm reduction.

The piece starts by attempting to smear not only Emily Bazelon (the author of the original piece, and a writer with both an impressive CV and significant academic credentials) but the very Times itself. Ms. Bien-Aime, the CATW rep writing for Huffington Post, asserts - with no trace of irony - that Ms. Bazelon’s piece is journalism on par with a series of (later discredited) stories written regarding the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. No hyperbole to see here, folks: the paper of record is apparently no more believable or well-reported than a common tabloid, and a story on prostitution is as consequential as a series on WMD in the lead up to a war.

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The author swiftly (and unclearly) moves on to one individual’s account of her very negative reaction to the Amnesty decision to support decriminalization of sex work as an official organizational position; using (arguably exploiting) the experiences of one or two individuals to both appeal to emotion and lead readers to believe the most egregious examples of abuse are the norm is a common tactic in these pieces, and Bien-Aime’s is no exception.

The paragraph that follows is basically every tactic in the prohibitionist playbook in one go:

  1. Indicate those speaking for themselves (in this case, the story participants) are not representative (the “1%” of sex workers!) This is categorically false, particularly in Bazelon’s piece which included a diverse slate of workers. In fact, Bien-Aime herself later highlights that some of the participants have indeed had less than positive life experiences; rather than demonstrate the compassion she indicates should be shown, she weaponizes those very stories against the people sharing them to discount the thoughts and opinions they offer throughout the piece.
  2. Ignore reality while producing false stats and nightmarish fantasies of what it’s like to “be in the life.” Bien-Aime disregards study after study indicating that the bulk of sex workers are not trafficked, not forced, and not underage, claiming instead that the “vast majority” are “sold by brutal exploiters.” Again, this obscures all the data we have proving most sex workers have never even met a so called “pimp,” let alone ever worked for one.
  3. Refer to every person involved in commercial sex as a passive object (“bought” or “prostituted” woman) so as to strip them of their subjectivity. By erasing their agency, the prohibitionists subtly signal to readers that these women are objects being controlled by others, reinforcing their lies about who really calls the shots in most sex workers’ lives. This same strategy is the reason prohibitionists so strenuously object to referring to erotic labor as “sex work” – a public disabused of the fantasy that sex workers are primarily powerless pawns in some massive pimp game is one less willing to support criminalization and one more open to discussing labor rights for sex workers.
  4. Describe consensual sex involving compensation as an absolute horror (using phrases such as “sexual invasion” which very intentionally invoke images of rape and, parenthetically, are highly disrespectful toward victims of sexual assault) even as active sex workers themselves object to such characterizations. This elides the fact that many prefer the work to other alternatives for a number of different reasons including flexibility, ability to work for themselves, the level of income available to them, or the nature of the work itself.

The piece moves on to state that we must call on governments to offer services to assist with “exit.” What it does not do, as is so often the case, is offer a single tangible example of what that strategy would be. Would it be a $60 bag of nope? Would it be art therapy? Would it be a bullshit “diversion program?” Would it be [often forced] low wage work in the garment industry? These are the typical “solutions” on offer, none of which even remotely begin to address the actual needs of sex workers who would like to enter a different profession. This while prohibitionist raise money to entertain themselves with victim and abolitionist cosplay from which no proceeds will benefit actual victims. Further, there is no exploration of why a rescue industry with so very much cash on hand – the top 50 anti-trafficking orgs in the US alone have around $686 million in their coffers – seems so ineffectual in helping actual sex workers who desire to move on.

The next paragraph attempts to discredit other sex worker voices included in the article, essentially by faulting them for activities they’ve been involved in that are often part of being a sex worker. [Full disclosure: I volunteer with SWOP, one of the targets of this smear tactic.] This, too, is typical of these types of pieces; they offer fanciful conjecture of a vast sex worker conspiracy (although, again, we’re not the one with the cash equivalent of a small nation’s GDP on hand) working to destroy the poor prohibitionists. This flight of fancy is also typically referred to as the non-existent “Pimp Lobby.”

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Next is the typical praise of asymmetric criminalization, AKA the Nordic Model, of course not mentioning that – if I may be allowed to plagiarize myself for expedience –its failings are well-documented, and a decade and a half after its first implementation in Sweden, the results are “limited and unconvincing” at best. Ms. Bien-Aime does not note that the approach does little to combat trafficking (and may actually increase it), restricts the agency of sex workers, and poses as many – if not more – risks to workers than to clients. And while perhaps no landlords have ever been arrested for providing premises for prostitution (though I wouldn’t be so quick to take an official’s word for that – given Sweden’s desire to push their own model, they frequently misrepresent the outcomes) that’s not the point; the threat of arrest is enough for property owners to frequently evict sex workers from their apartments. In short, the Swedish Model is an absolute failure that actively harms sex workers.

The rest of the article offers more anecdotal “evidence” and more attempts to discredit sex workers who speak for themselves. To use Bien-Aime’s own words, “there is insufficient room on this page to rebut every contention” of her piece. One note, however, on the New Zealand trafficking claim she makes: I think the New Zealand government knows a bit more than the US DOS about what is going on in their country, and they dispute the assertion that there has been any rise in trafficking as a result of decriminalization.

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One last note before we conclude: The author indicates we should “follow the money.” Given she is the Executive Director for one of those anti-trafficking orgs mentioned above – the ones with massive amounts of cash on-hand – the absurdity of that statement should already be apparent.

So, what are we left with? Another prohibitionist puff piece short on fact, long on distortion, and with absolutely no reality-based recommendations about what they would do for all the women whose incomes they would so cavalierly destroy in their quest for a “more pure society,” or whatever it is they’re seeking. The clear lack of regard they show for the real world outcomes of people engaged in sex work, people who – if the Nordic Model for which they advocate actually worked (lol) – would be left unemployed and with no additional options beyond what they had before prohibition, should be all you need to know about their concern; suffice it to say it’s not for women in prostitution, it’s for themselves. And anytime sex workers who don’t consider themselves victims speak out, the prohibitionists will do their best to drown out their voices, if not silence them entirely.

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My thoughts on the previous two stories referred to at the beginning of this piece were tweeted @bringmetheax.

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