Prostitution should be decriminalized

Every Friday the 13th Maggie McNeill of The Honest Courtesan asks allies to speak up for sex workers rights. I think that prosecuting people for having consensual sex is idiotic, so why not rant about that?

Maggie makes a lot of very good points in her posts from both today and the last friday the 13th, which you should absolutely read.

My biggest objection to prostitution being illegal is that I own my own body. I should be able to do whatever I like with it, because it’s my fucking body! If you don’t like what I do with my body, fine. If you would never in a million years make the choices I did, great. But if you think for one second you get to tell me what I can do with my own body, you can go fuck yourself.

What truly blows me away is that there are feminists, feminists! who think sex work should stay illegal. No feminist (if you don’t believe that women own their own bodies, you are not a feminist by any meaningful definition of the word. If you want to debate that, you will do so elsewhere. I will not have that kind of stupidity on my blog) would ever tell a woman she doesn’t have the right to birth control or abortion, so where the fuck do you get off telling women that they shouldn’t be allowed to have consensual sex for reasons you don’t like? Who are you to judge anyone else’s reasons for having sex? Again, it’s my body and I’ll do what I want with it.

Aside from how deeply it offends me to be told what I can do with my own body, keeping sex work illegal is just such a waste of time. Exchanging money for services doesn’t hurt anyone. Instead of badgering harmless sex workers, couldn’t our law enforcement officers and court system maybe work on real criminals? You know, the ones who actually hurt people?

Even if you do believe that being a sex worker is bad for absolutely everyone all of the time and that all sex workers are victims in need of rescue (which is stupid, wrong, and extremely insulting to grown women who can make their own choices), isn’t it kind of a dick move to saddle an innocent victim with a criminal record? I mean, if what you want is for all sex workers to leave the industry, shouldn’t you want that to be as easy as possible? This may come as a shock to you, but it’s kind of difficult to get a job when a), you have a criminal record, and b), you can’t tell potential employers what you’ve been up to for the past few years because it’s illegal.

Not to mention, if what you really want is to keep women from being victimized, victimizing them more with bad laws isn’t super helpful. Think social services, employment and training programs, non-douchebaggy immigration policies. You know, stuff that would actually help.

But if all you want is to punish naughty naughty women for being awful dirty sluts, go right ahead and fight to keep sex work illegal. Just admit that you don’t give a shit about the women who suffer so you can feel righteous.

11 thoughts on “Prostitution should be decriminalized

  1. I totally agree with the main thrust of your argument.

    Unfortunately the 1980s saw the rise of a form of puritanical feminism that became obsessed with pornography and prostitution, as if these were the cause of patriarchal oppression rather than a symptom of it. The work of the late Andrea Dworkin and the still campaigning Catherine McKinnon is a good example of this.

    This extended to a virtual fatwa against penetrative sex with men. The net result was to make women who actually liked men, and weren’t averse to penetrative sex feel confused and guilty. The writings of Lynne Segal were an antidote to this, but she came in for a good deal of criticism from her sisters..

    That said, I think that there are real issues with both pornography and prostitution, where workers are isolated and disorganised, and fall easy prey to the mafiosi pimps and traffickers who make damn sure that they do not enjoy the full fruits of their labours. On the contrary, these gangs of cowardly bastards brutally force them to eke out miserable lives in wretched conditions.

    I’d like to see strong collectives of sex workers, unions if you like, take on the exploiters. Such unions would do what unions have always done: ensure that there are adequate health and safety regulations, and that those who are paid for sex work receive a decent living wage that isn’t stolen from them by the pimps. In short, that they are not exploited. I’d also like to see such unions campaign politically for a wholesale reform in the law, so that the police concentrate on smashing and jailing the traffickers rather than persecuting the workers.

    The bottom line is that these are political issues, but the ruling elites loathe the idea of people organising politically against them and will always strive to make activism and dissidence at best irrelevant. That’s why they are addicted to mass surveillance. But that’s a whole nother wasps’ nest so I’d better not go there.

  2. I usually agree with what you write but this time I can’t. I think you have rather naive/superficial view of sex industry. To give some quick facts ( I don’t have sources now but you can find them with google easily):

    * In USA, the average age when a prostitute starts selling herself/himself is 13
    * Around 100 000 children are estimated to be in sex work in USA every year. Trafficking victims are almost always women and children and most are sex slaves. About 16 000 people are trafficked into USA every year.
    * USA Department of Defence released a study that found out that 89% of prostitutes said they wished they could leave prostitution but couldn’t
    * Studies have shown that legalizing prostitution does NOT protect sex workers and seems to increase the amount of sex trafficking, rather than decreasing. Most effective tool against sex trafficking has been the “Swedish model” wish makes selling sex legal (so prostitutes don’t get into trouble) but buying it illegal.

    I’m not surprised if you had no clue about these things because third wave feminist (and liberals in general) don’t speak about them. It goes against the idea of prostitution as a nice, empowering job done by middle class white women. Sadly, reality is very different. I support the Swedish model personally because I find it far more important to fight for the overwhelming amount of sex workers who are damaged by their work and can’t leave because of poverty/fear of violence/slavery rather than to fight for the rights of the very small group of already privileged women to choose to “empower” themselves by selling their bodies.
    Sadly, feminism doesn’t care about women who are not middle class/rich and white, which most sex workers aren’t. These women and children have no voice.

    And the poster “Grumpyoldswitch” is a good example of person who doesn’t know second wave feminism at all and juts wants to spread the “evil, man-hating feminazi” stereotype. Unfortunately this too is very, very common in modern feminism where older feminist works and achievements are not valued at all. But I recommend actually reading their works (Dworkin, Geer etc) because their ideology goes much deeper than the current vapid form of feminism that is in fashion. For example, the idea that feminist are against penetrative sex and hate penises comes from 2nd wave feminist critiquing the idea that penetrative sex = only and most important form of sex, especially considering how most women can’t even orgasm from penetration alone. Does that really sound crazy and man-hating? Decide for yourself – use your own brain and always question everything!

    • With respect, parodying my argument as an “evil, man-hating feminazi” stereotype, doesn’t do your case much good.

      It’s a matter of historical fact that second wave feminism contained elements of the kind of puritanism that took no account of the complex nature of sexual relationships.

      I quote in my support this, by Susan Griffin in 1971:

      “The basic elements of rape are involved in all heterosexual relationships.”

      This reduction of all male sexuality to violence, paradoxically intimidated heterosexual women.

      The British feminist writer Lynne Segal writes:

      “I think that many of us did feel undermined and confused, if not guilty, by the accusation that we were too ‘male identified’ and ‘soft on men’.”

      And in the US Judith Newton writes:

      “I felt no shame…but I did feel intimidated. I can also remember the first break with this intimidation, which came with s/m sex radicals who first gave ‘permission’ to heterosexual feminists to feel OK about their sexuality within the context of a larger feminist community.”

    • The stupid, it burns. Maggie McNeill has already debunked your idiotic statements in her posts “The Source“, “A Tale That Grew in the Telling“, “Amazingly Stupid Statements” and “Sales Pitch“.

      The idea that the average age of entry into prostitution is 13 just makes my head hurt.

      To quote Maggie:

      If the “average age” of a given group of people is 13, that means that (roughly speaking) for every 14-year-old in the group there is a 12-year-old, for every 17-year-old a 9-year-old, etc. In other words, if the “average age at which a girl enters prostitution” were really 13, for every woman who started at 25 there would be someone who started at 1. Obviously, this isn’t exact; one 40-year-old could also be balanced by nine 10-year-olds, but I honestly don’t think even the trafficking fanatics believe that kind of age imbalance could possibly exist.

      Also, if there are hordes of child prostitutes out there, where are their customers? Are you seriously telling me that the US is so overrun with pedophiles that it’s possible to make any money by forcing children into prostitution?

      As for a large majority of prostitutes wishing they could leave the industry, I’m quite certain that 100% of fast food workers wish they had jobs that paid a decent living wage and didn’t involve marinating in grease and wearing an ugly uniform. Should we outlaw McDonalds?

      I support the Swedish model personally because I find it far more important to fight for the overwhelming amount of sex workers who are damaged by their work and can’t leave because of poverty/fear of violence/slavery rather than to fight for the rights of the very small group of already privileged women to choose to “empower” themselves by selling their bodies.

      If the overwhelming majority of sex workers are trapped by poverty, aren’t laws that attempt to stop people from either buying or selling sex a huge waste of time? Wouldn’t social services that help people find housing and jobs be a lot more effective than laws that essentially shake a finger at sex workers and tell them “Bad girl! No!” Banning sex work only works on a symptom, to actually fix things you need to work on the root cause of poverty and lack of options.

      As for second wave feminism, here are some quotes from Andrea Dworkin:

      No woman needs intercourse; few women escape it.

      Men are distinguished from women by their commitment to do violence rather than to be victimized by it.

      The common erotic project of destroying women makes it possible for men to unite into a brotherhood; this project is the only firm and trustworthy groundwork for cooperation among males and all male bonding is based on it.

      Marriage as an institution developed from rape as a practice. Rape, originally defined as abduction, became marriage by capture. Marriage meant the taking was to extend in time, to be not only use of but possession of, or ownership.

      A commitment to sexual equality with males is a commitment to becoming the rich instead of the poor, the rapist instead of the raped, the murderer instead of the murdered.

      Gee, I have no idea where the “man-hating feminazi” stereotype came from. Second wave feminism was absolutely a necessary step, but being necessary doesn’t mean we shouldn’t have grown beyond it.

  3. FWIW, I agree that prostitution and sex work in general should be decriminalized at a minimum along the lines of the Swedish model, and I could agree with the case for how it’s done, say, in Nevada or some countries in Europe: legal but strictly regulated.

    But I have to take issue with this argument, which I think is pretty specious and kind of misses the point:

    “My biggest objection to prostitution being illegal is that I own my own body. I should be able to do whatever I like with it, because it’s my fucking body! If you don’t like what I do with my body, fine. If you would never in a million years make the choices I did, great. But if you think for one second you get to tell me what I can do with my own body, you can go fuck yourself.”

    Nobody says that you can’t do whatever you want with your body. You can still do whatever you want with your body.

    You just can’t collect money for doing it. The government tells us all the time that we can or can’t collect money by using our property in all kinds of ways, whether it hurts anyone or not. I can’t build whatever I want on land that I own, even if it would make me money, without a whole raft of permits and approvals. (In my city, if you remodel your house, even if what you’re building is perfectly safe and habitable, you can’t build forward of the “prevailing setback” in a neighborhood to “preserve neighborhood character.”) I can’t drive my car on a public road, or even keep it in the state, without paying the state every year and complying with a bunch of regulations. I couldn’t use skills that I have to practice many different kinds of trades or operate all kinds of businesses without complying with a bunch of laws and regulations and obtaining permits and licenses to do so. The list of things one cannot do with one’s property is almost endless.

    If you’re going to make the case for extreme philosophical libertarianism, ok, I can respect that, but at least call it by its name, and be prepared for the sort of company you’re likely to find yourself sharing.

    • Nobody says that you can’t do whatever you want with your body. You can still do whatever you want with your body.

      You just can’t collect money for doing it.

      So the government can tell it’s okay to have sex because I’m lonely, or because this guy bought me dinner/drinks/took me out to a movie and I feel like I owe him, or because I’m scared of getting dumped, or because I don’t have the energy to fight about it, or because I just feel like it, but it’s not okay to have sex because I’m getting paid directly in cash, and somehow that doesn’t amount to telling me what I can do with my body?

      Also, your examples there are things that affect other people. Of course you can’t build some hideous eyesore that wrecks all of your neighbor’s views and brings down their property values. That harms other people. Of course you have to comply with regulations to do business, that’s what lets us shut down scammers and bad business people who do a shitty job and do it late if at all. To be fair, not being able to keep a car in your state whether you actually drive it or not without paying said state sounds like a blatant cash grab, but the rest of it clearly affects other people who ought to be protected from assholes and scammers. I’m not entirely sure what this has to do with an exchange of services that affects only the people directly involved.

      Using massage as an example of one way people make money with their bodies, I can give anyone I want a massage for money so long as I don’t lie about my qualifications. Why should sex work be any different?

  4. “So the government can tell it’s okay to have sex because… but it’s not okay to have sex because I’m getting paid directly in cash, and somehow that doesn’t amount to telling me what I can do with my body?”

    The government doesn’t tell you it’s “okay” or “not okay” to have sex or to not have sex for any reason. It says that you can’t collect money for doing it or enter into an agreement to collect money for doing it, as it does in many, many other areas. When you enter into a market transaction, first, that changes the character in that you’re no longer doing something just with your body, but with money, with other people, and in a market (suppose, for example, the government decided to tax what you have a “right” to do at some high, confiscatory level. Because it’s your body, does that exempt you from taxation?) It doesn’t follow that merely because the transaction involves something that, were the commercial character removed, might otherwise be a matter of a fundamental right, that that somehow makes the entire transaction a matter of a fundamental right. Can someone engage in prostitution for heroin as opposed to money, and so avoid laws against trafficking or using drugs, simply because the sexual act itself might be protected? Can someone avoid being charged with conspiracy or accomplice liability by using sex to encourage someone else to commit an illegal act?

    I didn’t say that any of my examples necessarily affect other people, or if they do, the extent to which they do is significantly beyond the degree to which regulation applies and is considered appropriate. I didn’t say that permission to build only proscribes some “hideous eyesore.” You could be building the most beautiful thing since St. Peters, but you’re out of luck if you don’t follow the prevailing setback. Regulations to do business involve far more restrictions and compliance than just proscribing scams or bad business people, and in any case, obviously, the rationale of business regulation is to intervene early and institute a comprehensive system of regulation long before there’s any question of a scam or bad business practices, which presumably laws against fraud or breach of contract already exist to address. You might be the most honest person in the world, but if you don’t have the appropriate permits, you’re out of luck.

    And it’s not in conformity with the experience concerning prostitution in practice to say that it “only affects the people directly involved,” which is why we have laws against it in the first place (or at least, that’s what those who passed such laws would argue). For one, drawing on an example from Constitutional law, any activity that could affect a broader market in aggregation can be subject to regulation because of that effect. See, e.g., Wickard v. Filburn (US, 1942, production of wheat above government-imposed quotas even when not sold on the market can have an effect in aggregate on the demand for wheat, even where the individual impact is trivial, and thus is properly subject to regulation).

    Second, prostitution as practiced is associated with all manner of ills that affect other people. The ills that do occur with prostitution as practiced, and that would be foreseeable absent any sort of regulation, include things like spreading STDs, human trafficking, violence involved in pimping, child prostitution, association with other criminal activity, neighborhood blight, etc. Those things clearly affect other people and the public welfare in general. I’ll concede that you didn’t specify any opinion on it’s legality or the level of regulation it should be subject to other than you think it shouldn’t be illegal, and I already gave my opinion that I think, ideally, it should be legal but regulated and can be done so in a way that mitigates many of those ills (though obviously the consensus of policy-makers in many places has been to deal with those effects by trying to eliminate the entire activity altogether). Regulation though suggests some level of infringement on something that you seem to consider a fundamental right, so I can’t tell whether or not you think that there’s some level at which the government ought to intervene before the Gambino family or the Hells Angels can make a prostitute available to have unprotected sex on every street corner.

  5. Setting aside the parade of horribles around unregulated prostitution and focusing on how commerce tends to affect things, I can’t get away from the degree to which having to do something for money tends to change the degree to which it’s done voluntarily. I enjoy my job for the most part, but there are regularly times when I’m doing things because I have to do them rather than because I want to do them, and I’d say that this is almost certainly true for most people who have ever had to work for money. If I believed that all or even most sex workers were likely to be independent and highly-compensated professionals who would be able to dictate the terms of their labor alá Inara Serra on Firefly, then I’d be more blasé about unregulated sex work. But I’m pretty sure that the economic realities that see most people having to work for someone else most of their lives would mean that the situation for most legalized sex workers would be more like “f*ck three more guys before the end of your shift or you’re fired.”

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