According to feminists and the legal system: Adult women are less competent than male children when it comes to sex. Male children (boys) can give consent to sex, but adult women can’t.
According to feminists and law enforcement – Adult women are not capable of giving consent to sex with men or boys under any circumstance.
The common belief in criminalization and legalization regimes is that sex work is unique among all forms of work; this view is solidly rooted in an archaic and sexist view of women as particularly fragile and vulnerable, and the “Swedish model” posits that paying for sex is a form of male violence against women. This is why only the act of payment is de jure prohibited: the woman is legally defined as being unable to give valid consent, just as an adolescent girl is in the crime of statutory rape. The man is thus defined as morally superior to the woman; he is criminally culpable for his decisions, but she is not. In one case, a 17-year-old boy (a legal minor in Sweden) was convicted under the law, thus establishing that in the area of sex, adult women are less competent than male children.
One would expect that feminists would be vehemently opposed to a law that so thoroughly infantilizes women, but it was first enacted in 1999 under pressure from state feminists; its radical feminist supporters in Sweden and other countries seem wholly oblivious to its insulting and demeaning assumptions about women’s agency. Nor is the damage caused by this remarkably bad legislation limited to dangerous precedent; despite unsupported claims by the Swedish government to the contrary, the law has been demonstrated to increase both violence and stigma against sex workers, to make it more difficult for public health workers to contact them, to subject them to increased police harassment and surveillance, to shut them out of the country’s much-vaunted social welfare system, and to dramatically decrease the number of clients willing to report suspected exploitation to the police (due to informants’ justified fear of prosecution). Furthermore, these laws don’t even do what they were supposed to do; neither the incidence of sex work (voluntary or coerced) nor the attitude of the public toward it has changed measurably in any country (Sweden, Norway and Iceland) where they have been enacted.
Yet despite this complete failure, Swedish-style rhetoric has been heavily marketed to other countries. In legalization regimes, the sales pitch is based in the same sort of carceral paternalism which is used to justify the drug war and supported by the same bogus “sex trafficking” claims which are being used to justify so much draconian legislation in the United States (despite the fact that Sweden found no effect on coerced prostitution, and a Norwegian study found that banning the purchase of sex had actually resulted in an increase in coercion). In criminalization regimes, “end demand” approaches (client-focused criminalization backed by Swedish-style rhetoric) are used to win the support of radical feminists, to blunt criticisms that criminalizing sex work disproportionately impacts women, and to win federal and private grants by disguising business-as-usual prostitution stings as “anti-sex trafficking operations.” But despite the hype, the truth is that even operations framed as “john stings” or “child sex slave rescues” end up with the arrest and conviction of huge numbers of women; for example, 97% of prostitution-related felony convictions in Chicago are of women, and 93% of women arrested in the FBI’s “Innocence Lost” initiatives areconsensual adult sex workers rather than the coerced underage ones the program pretends to target. And it hardly seems necessary to call attention to the grotesque violations of civil libertieswhich are the inevitable result of any “war” on consensual behavior, whether it be paying for sex or using illegal substances.
In any discussion of sex work, there will always be voices calling for it to be “legalized and heavily regulated”; unfortunately, the experiences of legalization regimes demonstrates that “heavy regulation” isn’t any more desirable or effective in the sex industry than it is in most others. For one thing, harsh legalization requirements simply discourage sex workers from compliance. It is estimated that over 80% of sex workers in Nevada, 90% of those in Queensland, 95% of those in Greece and 97% of those in Turkey prefer to work illegally rather than submit to the restrictive conditions their systems require, and those figures are typical for “heavy” legalization regimes. One example of an onerous restriction most workers prefer to avoid is licensing; the experience of New York gun owners last Christmas provides a graphic illustration of why people might not want to be on a list for an activity which is legal, but still stigmatized in some quarters. In the Netherlands, ever-tightening requirements (such as closing window brothels, raising the legal work age to 21 and demanding that the 70% of Amsterdam sex workers who are not Dutch nationals be fluent in the language anyway) have made it increasingly difficult to work legally even if one wants to. And even in looser legalization regimes, laws create perverse incentives and provide weapons the police inevitably use to harass sex workers; in the United Kingdom women who share a working flat for safety are often prosecuted for “brothel-keeping” and, in a bizarrely cruel touch, for “pimping” each other (because they each contribute a substantial portion of the other’s rent). In India, the adult children of sex workers are sometimes charged with “living on the avails,” thus making it dangerous for them to be supported by their mothers while attending university. And in Queensland, police actually run sting operations to arrest sex workers travelling together for safety or company, or even visiting a client together, under the excuse of “protecting” them from each other.
Such shenanigans were the primary reason New South Wales decriminalized sex work in 1995; police corruption had become so terrible (as it so often does when the police are allowed to “supervise” an industry) that the government could no longer ignore it. A 2012 study by the Kirby Institute declared the resulting system “the healthiest sex industry ever documented” and advised the government to scrap the few remaining laws:
…reforms that decriminalized adult sex work have improved human rights; removed police corruption [and] netted savings for the criminal justice system…International authorities regard the NSW regulatory framework as best practice. Contrary to early concerns the NSW sex industry has not increased in size or visibility…Licensing of sex work…should not be regarded as a viable legislative response. For over a century systems that require licensing of sex workers or brothels have consistently failed – most jurisdictions that once had licensing systems have abandoned them…they always generate an unlicensed underclass…[which] is wary of and avoids surveillance systems and public health services…Thus, licensing is a threat to public health…
New Zealand decriminalized in 2003, with similar results; neither jurisdiction has had a credible report of “sex trafficking” in years. The reason for this should be obvious: despite the claims of prohibitionists to the contrary, the strongest hold any exploitative employer has over coerced workers is the threat of legal consequences such as arrest or deportation. Remove those consequences by easing immigration controls and decriminalizing the work, and both the motive and means for “trafficking” vanish. Three UN agencies (UNDP, UNFPA and UNAIDS) agree, and last year released a report calling for total decriminalization of sex work as the best way to protect sex workers’ rights and health; many prominent health and human rights organizations take exactly the same position.
There is a popular belief, vigorously promulgated by anti-sex feminists and conservative Christians, that sex work is intrinsically harmful, and therefore should be banned to “protect” adult women from our own choices. But as the Norwegian bioethicist Dr. Ole Moen pointed out in his 2012 paper “Is Prostitution Harmful?”, the same thing was once believed about homosexuality; it was said to lead to violence, drug use, disease, and mental illness. These problems were not caused by homosexuality itself; they were the result of legal oppression and social stigma, and once those harmful factors were removed the “associated problems” vanished as well. Dr. Moen suggests that the same thing will happen with sex work, and evidence from New South Wales strongly indicates that he is correct.
Sex worker rights activists have a slogan: “Sex work is work.” It is not a crime, nor a scam, nor a “lazy” way to get by, nor a form of oppression. It is a personal service, akin to massage, or nursing, or counseling, and should be treated as such. They also have another saying, one which echoes the findings of Dr. Moen and the Kirby Institute: “Only rights can stop the wrongs.”