This essay first appeared in Cliterati on August 3rd; I have modified it slightly to fit the format of this blog.
The Irish politician John Philpot Curran once said, “The condition upon which God hath given liberty to man is eternal vigilance.” Later orators repeated the aphorism and rephrased it into its current, less cumbersome form, but the main point is still the same: that governments and other would-be rulers are driven by the pathological need to control others, so those who value their freedom can literally never take that freedom for granted. Every politician, every prohibitionist, every social engineer and every naked ape with a title, uniform or badge is bound and determined to bring as many other people under his control as possible, and because this drive springs from his warped psyche you can be sure he will never relent as long as he remains above ground. It is therefore necessary for every free person to pay close attention to those who imagine themselves “leaders” or do-gooders, because every law or policy such people propose is intended to curtail others’ freedom in some way which they always insist is vitally necessary, yet virtually never is. Even after some oppressed group wins its rights after a long struggle, it can never again relax; as surely as night follows day there will come those who want to reverse that situation, either openly or subtly, usually under the guise of “helping” the group’s members or managing some sort of “problem” they supposedly cause the rest of society.
This is why I say that sex worker rights activism is not for the faint of heart. Imagine dedicating your energy, your industry, your time and your reputation to a war you absolutely will not win. Read that again, and understand that I mean it exactly as it’s written: the sex worker activists alive today will never see a final victory, not if they live to be a hundred. I’m not saying conditions can’t or won’t improve, nor am I saying that partial victories can’t be won in some places, nor that in the course of centuries people won’t look back upon sex work prohibition as an ugly form of collective mental illness. What I’m saying is that until and unless we completely discard the barbaric concept of consensual crime, every single hard-won right could be taken away practically overnight by some coalition of politicians and other self-interested petty dictators. Did you know that as the result of the 1980 political deal which settled the lawsuit Coyote vs. Roberts, prostitution was decriminalized in the state of Rhode Island, and remained so for almost 30 years? Yet it is not so today, because in 2009 an unholy alliance of cops and prohibitionists successfully convinced the legislature (which had resisted several recriminalization attempts) to once again turn sex workers and clients into police prey by using the excuse of “sex trafficking”. In New South Wales, which a 2012 study praised as having the “healthiest sex industry ever documented”, prohibitionists are scheming at this very minute to once again subject sex workers to the horrors of criminalization:
In 2010, Vicki Dunne prompted the [Canberra] government to hold an inquiry into sex work laws…[which] came to a predictable and reasonable conclusion that…decriminalisation…is effective…Three years later Dunne – this time with Gulia Jones on side – now pretends that the inquiry never happened. The two of them headed overseas with Peter Abetz and Christine Campbell (Victoria). These politicians took in sights of dubious usefulness in Sweden, and Korea, met with NOT A SINGLE sex worker group, and even threw in a trip to France for good measure…it’s a long way to fly to witness pieces of paper that one could download on the internet…sex work is work. Sex work is not a social ill that needs fixing. Sex work is not a political hobby horse for bored politicians. And sex workers are not Dunne or Jones’ rescue project. Sex workers don’t need interference in our lives from those who view us as victims…
Other politicians appear to understand the havoc recriminalization would wreak, but still can’t resist playing god with other people’s lives:
…Currently in NSW the sex work debate is centred around whether…licensing brothels is worth pursuing…Since it has already failed…in Victoria and Queensland you would think such a silly idea wouldn’t get very far. However the political lure of licensing as a ”solution” to supposed ”crimes” within the NSW sex industry has gained much more traction than it deserves. Licensing brothels does not replace the current regulatory work councils are required to do. Instead it adds an extra layer of bureaucracy…A licensing system sets up a series of hoops for brothel owners, staff and workers to jump through prior to being deemed ”legal”…Because licensing is difficult to comply with, the industry is divided into two: those who can meet the licensing standards become ‘’legal’’, and those who cannot are deemed ‘‘illegal’’…The idea that newer, harsher laws will somehow make regulation of sex work easier is flawed. And it has proven to be incorrect in the other states where it has been implemented…
Both of those essays were written by Elena Jeffreys, who (as a sex worker and activist in a country with different regulatory regimes in different states) is well-qualified to judge which work and which don’t. Most people are not so placed, and are thus easily led astray by imported “sex trafficking” myths and the cynical lies of anti-sex “feminists” attempting to corrupt the agendas of human rights organizations. Health officials, social scientists and all others who have studied sex work agree that the tyrannical Swedish model harms sex workers and society at large, while the New Zealand model of decriminalization helps sex workers and eliminates the coercion prohibitionists pretend to be so very concerned about. Yet even in New Zealand, held up as an example for the entire world, prohibitionists are working to destroy everything; one group wants imposition of the Swedish model, while another “merely” wants restrictions on where and how whores can work (including a suggestion that they be confined to brothels). Fortunately, activists in both New Zealand and Australia understand the need for vigilance and are fighting hard to abort these schemes before they can go very far; I hope they succeed, and that when our turn comes at last American activists can maintain the same level of watchfulness.