Michelle Goldberg published a piece in this last issue of The Guardian called “Should Buying Sex Be Illegal?” Her review of the legal, political and socio-economic structures that govern the sex industry in several European countries (with a particular look at Sweden and the Netherlands) is thorough, and provides a moderately comprehensive melange of perspectives — from sex workers to advocates, politicians, clients, and business owners.
At first read, Goldberg has a surprisingly open mind as she takes on the sex industry with true journalistic rigor, which is refreshing when reading about this topic. Very often, reviews of sex work have an agenda, as this is truly polarizing issue. Most often, there is the inextricably intertwining of sex work with trafficking into forced prostitution, or “sex trafficking.” Or, in an effort to highlight the agency sex workers can enjoy when they have their rights, it often glazes over the dangerous environment in which some sex workers operate (usually where sex work is criminalized) by painting a ubiquitous picture of what sex workers’ lives are like.
Plain and simple, my answer to her major question is no. No, buying sex should not be illegal, and I think the Swedish model, where sex work is not criminalized but purchasing sex is, misses the point of having policies around sex work in the first place. If the goal is to promote a safe environment for sex workers, the Swedish policies achieve the opposite by keeping stigma and discrimination alive and well.
However, the key question guiding this conversation is wrong. Should protecting sex workers be at the center of any effort to curb trafficking into forced prostitution? Yes. Why? Because, just as is true in other industries, an industry that allows workers to earn a living wage without risking their health, well being, or safety is one where workers’ basic human rights are protected.
If efforts to prevent “sex trafficking” weren’t very often a thinly veiled agenda to abolish the sex industry altogether in the name of “rescuing” women from themselves, I might be less skeptical of their overall mission. The most unfortunate thing about the “rescue industry,” as Goldberg so lithely puts it and Nick Kristof gets so much flack for supporting (and has for years…), is that it takes away the safe spaces where sex workers can operate.
In a system where sex workers and victims of trafficking into forced prostitution alike can rely on the intervention and integrity of the police when they experience violence, sex workers will no longer be afraid to report violence and forced labour. This is a huge IF, however, as the police are often the main source of violence for sex workers around the world.
Here’s why the Swedish model doesn’t work:
- When men who buy sex are criminalized for doing so, they do so in dark allies and in an underground market where it’s least likely that they will get caught. It doesn’t stop them from doing it. While a reduction in “demand” is a purported outcome of the Swedish model, that doesn’t exactly help sex workers do what they’re in the sex industry to do in the first place: earn money, and in some cases, enough money on which to live. It also doesn’t help sex workers to paint all clients as drunk, violent misogynists, because it means that the actual drunk violent misogynists get lumped in with those who aren’t, and there is no recourse against those who are because “everybody’s a bad guy.”
- INVISIBILITY: Trans sex workers and men in the sex industry are extremely marginalized already. They don’t benefit from the rescue industry, because the thing that would protect them isn’t about protecting feminine chastity. It makes the violence they experience seem isolated, or it is framed as a hate crime against LGBTQ folks (which is certainly a part of it…).
- CAPITALISM, YA’LL: Our global economy is a system predicated upon the fact that consenting adults buy the things they want. This goes for commodities and services, and there are entire economies built upon “indecent” activity. As we’ve seen from the global war on drugs, criminalizing the people who use drugs is harmful and doesn’t actually do anything to mitigate drug-related crime and, in fact, worsens it by driving it even more underground. People will buy the things they want, and we live in a world that needs them to keep doing so. And when we have sex workers offering a service that people seek out to purchase, the solution is not to criminalize the actual purchasing of the service. The solution is to make sure that the market requires safe and legal exchanges of commodities and services that allow workers to earn a decent wage in conditions that are standardized.
Trafficking into forced prostitution is a labour rights issue, and not simply a demand issue as the Swedish model depicts. The more we focus on making the sex industry a safe place to work, where sex workers can report violence and earn a living wage, the less likely women are to be forced into it. We don’t criminalize people for buying strawberries because people are trafficked onto strawberry farms and exploited. We ensure that strawberry farms grant their workers access to safe working conditions where they can earn a living wage.