Decriminalization, ending demand, and choice: Feministe interviews the Sex Workers Project

From Feministe

Posted by: Holly

As the Spitzer scandal burns down into its coal-like embers, there’s been a lot of discussion about the nature of sex work as well as what society’s response to it should be. Legalization? The Swedish model? Or something else? Should we be looking at sex work as another kind of labor in which people–especially oppressed people–are victimized, coerced, trafficked and usually unable to exercise control over their work and their pay? Or is it somehow inherently different and deserving of different treatment? I don’t pretend to have all or even any of the answers to all of this. I’m not a sex worker myself, and since it seems clear to me that sex workers themselves are especially marginalized and victimized from multiple sides (traffickers, coercive environments, the dangers of a black market, bad clients, the hostile anti-prostitute stigmas of our culture, and not least law enforcement) I tend to think we should work to give sex workers–especially the most marginalized and silenced–more political voice and agency in how this industry is affected by theory, laws, policy, and practice. The most I can do on that front is try to be an ally to the current and former sex workers in my life, and to organizations that are run by and for sex workers and former sex workers.One such organization is the Sex Workers Project here in New York City. Interestingly, they not only provide legal services to criminalized sex workers and victims of trafficking, but also worked with Elliot Spitzer and his office on the new laws aimed at stopping trafficking. The most ironic tidbit? Spitzer actually pushed to increase penalties for those who buy sex, such as himself. The Sex Workers Project actually opposed those penalties, and I wanted to know their thoughts on the Swedish model for reducing demand and other current hot topics. Last Wednesday, I got in touch a friend of mine: Sienna Baskin, who’s one of the attorneys there. It’s not the usual kind of thing for Feministe, but I thought I’d post our interview. It may raise more questions for many readers than it answers, of course–but in my book, that is never a bad thing, and of course it’s why we have the comments.

Holly: First off, tell me a little about the Sex Workers Project and what you guys do?

Sienna: Sure. We are a non-profit that provides free legal services to sex workers and victims of trafficking. We’re part of a larger organization—the Urban Justice Center, which has 8 different projects all supporting poor people’s rights. Clients come to us with questions about their immigration status, housing, criminal arrests, custody of their kids, employment problems, all of the legal problems that flow from being part of a stigmatized and criminalized community, We also connect them up with social services if necessary, do know your rights trainings for sex workers and work in close alliance with sex workers groups.We also do policy work on state, national, and international levels.

Holly: And you guys have been around for many years, but this week the media is suddenly ringing your phone off the hook. I’m keeping you late at work to get a word in edgewise! What kind of angle are they flocking to Sex Workers Project in order to get, do you think?

Sienna: We’ve been around for seven years, and we’ve always been trying to bring sex workers’ voices and concerns to the table. But usually nobody wants to hear about it.It’s like this scandal has broken down some kind of barrier, and the calls are pouring in. Some reporters want us to connect them with sex workers who will talk about their experiences, some want us to contradict or confirm their opinions about prostitution, “high-end” prostitution, decriminalization, etc. I think they’re calling us because we have a reputation for working closely with sex workers as clients and allies and because we’ve worked extensively with Elliot Spitzer’s office, on various laws that are re-entering the spotlight.

Holly: Speaking of which, tell me a little bit more about your policy work… that’s where you actually ended up working with Spitzer and his administration, right?

Sienna: Yes—whenever there are federal or state laws on trafficking or affecting sex workers being discussed, we try to get involved. We are allied with many more mainstream organizations that help us, like the ACLU and Legal Momentum. We worked heavily on the New York State Anti-Trafficking Bill, but the results were mixed.

Holly: I heard earlier today on Democracy Now that ironically (or maybe just hypocritically), Elliot Spitzer actually pushed through language that increased penalties for clients of sex workers, from a Class B misdemeanor to a Class A misdemeanor.

Sienna: Yep. I can’t quote the law, but it basically elevates penalties for johns, regardless of whether the sex worker is trafficked or not. The underlying assumption in the law is that all sex workers are trafficked… but we don’t agree with that assumption, and we were opposed to increasing those penalties because we think they actually harm sex workers and victims of trafficking.

Holly: Can you explain more about that? I think a lot of our readers understand why there ought to be less punishment, prosecution and criminalization of women who do sex work—especially since sex workers are so often characterized by the media as victims. But especially in feminist circles, there is a LOT less sympathy for johns.

Sienna: Of course. There are various names for this approach to sex work: the “Swedish Model,” the demand approach, where selling sex for money is not a crime, but purchasing sex for money is.

Holly: In Sweden, it’s a felony to buy sex, but perfectly legal to sell it.

Sienna: Yes. So the theory is that you can decriminalize sex workers, because they are victims, but still criminalize the clients of sex workers. But the whole point of decriminalization is bring the industry into the light, and allow sex workers to be part of the general economy, facilitating moving out of sex work—or into it—without stigma or coercion, so that no one is stuck in a criminalized sector. If sex workers or their clients are criminalized, then there can be no legal brothels, no legal sex work locations.

Holly: And it remains a dangerous, vulnerable, unregulated grey-market or black-market business?

Sienna: Exactly. And then you have the United States, where sex workers themselves are not even close to being decriminalized. We don’t even have the Swedish model. So how is penalizing johns more, which is what Spitzer pushed for, somehow helping sex workers? Our position is that any criminalization of the sex work transaction impacts sex workers, first and foremost. They are the ones who have to keep themselves safe. and if their clients are criminalized that just means they have to protect themselves and their clients from getting arrested. This means even if sex workers are not doing anything illegal, they will have to meet with clients in clandestine places, and take more dangerous clients because their regulars have been scared off by threat of arrest. Sex workers are the ones who are pushed underground by these increased penalties.

Holly: I’m just guessing here as I’ve only read a little about the subject… but it seems like part of the aim of the Swedish model must be to eliminate sex workers’ jobs—so they will be forced to find other employment—but without putting them in jail. But I take it you guys don’t find that very realistic?

Sienna: You’re right, that’s why its called the “end demand” approach. We disagree for two reasons. We don’t think its realistic, and we also don’t think ending sex work should be the goal. Why is it not realistic, well, Spitzer is a great example of that. Here is a man with a lot to lose, a man who actually passed the laws that could be used to prosecute him, and he still makes a date with a sex worker. Obviously, the sex industry will continue to flourish whether or not it is legal. Then, we don’t think ending sex work should be the goal. We think safe, fairly paid jobs for all should be the goal. The labor rights take on all of this is basically… well, I am reminded of something Ly Pisey of Womyn’s Network for Change in Cambodia, an amazing woman who does HIV prevention with sex workers, once said: if there were better jobs out there, wouldn’t we be doing them? In Cambodia, there are religious organizations that “save” sex workers, since non-profits have been shut out by the United States’ funding policies. These religious organizations basically kidnap women from brothels, lock them in a shelter and teach them how to sew (which most of them already know how to do)so that they can go work for sweatshops. You can probably imagine how well that works. Maybe you should spend all that money you spend on putting us in jail on creating better jobs.

Holly: Ok, I’ll bite. What happens with those women?

Sienna: They return to sex work. It pays better and has better working conditions. We know this because they go back. if you want to “end sex work,” one of the best ways would be to provide a job that is better than sex work, and these women themselves have shown that sweatshop labor is not one.

Holly: But I guess in some people’s minds… the sweatshop is inherently a better or less harmful job than being a prostitute.

Sienna: Precisely. That is what it all comes down to.

Holly: Do tell!

Sienna: There is this rift in the feminist community that I didn’t even know about until I started doing this work. But it is so deep and wide and ideological that I don’t know if it can ever be bridged.

On one side, the basic assumption is that any exchange of sex and money is equivalent to rape. On the other, an exchange of sex and money is an economic and sexual transaction that might be harmful, and might not be. Like pro-lifers who really believe that they are saving little babies’ lives and can’t exactly be argued with… the prostitution-abolitionists who really believe they are stopping a whole industry of rape can’t be argued with either.

Holly: But… is there a fundamental difference between an exploitative job where you are selling sex, and an exploitative job where you are selling your labor sewing garments in a sweatshop?

Sienna: Of course. There are a lot of differences. I think what we are saying is that selling sex is not necessarily exploitative, or more exploitative than other things. We absolutely want to end exploitation in all labor sectors, but this obsession with prostitution is not the way.

Holly: In a lot of people’s minds, the former job is inherently worse at some level.

Sienna: Yes. It’s triggering for people. The best way I can illustrate this is a case example. So, we work both with sex workers and with victims of trafficking. Victims who were forced, sometimes at a young age, to do prostitution in incredibly oppressive circumstances. These women were forced or coerced into working and they generally work very long hours, seeing a large number of clients, getting beaten up, having all their money kept by their trafficker—who is sometimes also their domestic partner and the dad of their kids. Horrific stuff. The one thing we all agree on is that trafficking is a crime and must be stopped.

But how does criminalization of sex work help victims of trafficking? It doesn’t, because victims of trafficking are still seen as prostitutes by the law. So they are arrested multiple times, treated like shit while in custody, threatened with deportation (prostitution is a deportable offense) and sent right back out—with another conviction on their record—into the custody of their trafficker. So that doesn’t work too well for them.

Then they—our clients—escape somehow. And they find us, and we start helping them get immigration status and counseling and other services. However, the only status they are usually eligible for is a T-visa, which requires that they cooperate with the police against their trafficker, which is a huge burden. They’re terrified of the police and of their trafficker, all for very good reasons. So many of them don’t end up in the T-visa program either.

Here is the moral of my story. Many, if not most of these clients of ours, after they escape from the trafficker, go back to doing sex work. Why would they do that, if it were the most traumatic experience they had ever faced, and they are now not forced to do it, and can do other forms of labor?

Holly: Because their options are very limited?

Sienna: Their options are very limited—it may be the one industry they are familiar with in the United States, the only circle of friends they have. But I think what makes it possible, and even likely that they will go back to sex work is that it is fundamentally different for them to do the work voluntarily rather than involuntarily. In conditions they control rather than conditions they don’t. Keeping their earnings rather than not. The most fundamental difference is not between sex work and other kinds of work, it is between forced work and freely chosen work. This is the story the abolitionists can’t wrap their brains around.

Holly: Well, wouldn’t the abolitionists say: “these women have limited choices, because of racism, immigration problems, etc. They need education and job training and a path to getting documented so they can work in other fields.” And according to that theory, then most of them would not choose sex work?

Sienna: Awesome, of course—provide those things! We spend 100% of our time advocating that the government should provide those things, to trafficking victims, to sex workers, to all poor workers, so that everyone has more choice in what they do for a living. All we are saying is that criminalization—of the sex workers or of the transactions they rely upon for a living—makes them less safe and actually limits their choices. And we want to share that some people do choose sex work.maybe out of limited options, but they do make that choice.

Oh right, and the upshot: victims of trafficking who then voluntarily do sex work? They’re no longer eligible for a T-visa. Unless there’s some creative lawyering for them, they can be deported.

Holly: These days, don’t even the abolitionists tend to agree that sex workers themselves should be decriminalized, so they won’t get arrested or deported?

Sienna: Some of them, such as Melissa Farley, have come out in favor of the Swedish model. I haven’t seen any actual advocacy on the part of the abolitionists to decriminalize sex workers. I guess the Swedish model is better than what we have now, but I don’t think it makes sex workers any safer—if that is the real goal.

Holly: Because of the black market aspect.

Sienna: Yes. We also oppose the Swedish Model because we don’t think buying sex is necessarily evil, or that all johns are rapist bastards. We are not necessarily against all johns.

Holly: So what’s a good john, in your book?

Sienna: A good john respects boundaries, and values the sex worker as aperson and a professional. A good john is usually someone who is not ashamed of their own desires. A good john does not touch the sex worker without her permission in ways that he or she does not consent to—and corrects mistakes when asked to. A good john pays in the manner and amount asked to. I have clients that have developed friendships with their clients, which have felt safe to them.

OK, enough MANifesto!

Holly: Hah. Now… I’ve heard the argument made that many johns are buying sex because they want something that would be difficult to get without ponying up for cash. Sometimes it’s that their cheating in a monogamous relationship, or they want a kind of sex that their partners, or women they can find to date, or even the sex worker herslf would not consent to—at least not without added financial incentive.

For instance, Spitzer was paying extra for barebacking, according to law enforcement.

Sienna: That is true. For some men, plain old sex may be difficult to get. Some dudes just can’t get laid, and personally I’m glad they have the option to pay for it. Maybe they can’t get laid for some sad reason like a disability, or an attractiveness thing. I don’t think there are necessarily any “red flags” there.

The barebacking thing is slightly different, because its about a client asking for an experience that could be physically unsafe for the sex worker. My experience has shown me that this is very unusual. Sex workers who have access to safe sex stuff—and the power to use it—universally do. Even in very poor countries, where sex workers are really working to put food in their mouths, if they have unrestricted access to condoms, they are enforcing their use, educating their clients, and really leading the fight against HIV/AIDS. Sex workers are forced to have unsafe sex in large numbers when they can’t access the supplies, which is happening more and more in poor countries because of moralistic right-wing policies. It also can happen in places where sex workers are so desperate that a small increase in their income means more to them than keeping their own bodies safe from infection.

But the Spitzer situation is different. Because the sex worker here was probably making plenty of money without doing the barebacking. So if she did it, why did she do it? Was she terrified enough of him to risk her health in that way? Did she just really need the extra dough?

Holly: I guess it’s possible that even without being in a survival situation, money can be tempting enough to put your own health or safety at risk… if it’s a lot of money.

Sienna: I have no idea. But yes, this again brings us to the brink, where we have to make the call: do people have the right to put their own health at risk? In situations where they might decide that the money is more important to them in that moment? Or for whatever reason? I think they do. People do it outside of sex work situations all the time.

Holly: As opposed to trying to control things through criminalizing either side of the transaction, which drives it underground.

Sienna: Yes. To me that’s like criminalizing marriage because domestic violence is disturbingly common. You’re not going to solve the problem by making marriage illegal. Solving a problem is a mask for what you are really trying to do: limit people’s agency in their own sexual and economic choices.

Please click on the above link to read the comments and discussion.

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