Truth often suffers more by the heat of its defenders than the arguments of its opposers. – William Penn
All too often, the allies of sex workers make arguments that, though well-meant and partially correct, contain some glaring flaw that spreads disinformation, undermines the work of other advocates or, in the worst cases, actually cedes ground to the enemy; today we’ll look at an excellent example of this in a recent essay by Ruth Messinger of the American Jewish World Service. Messinger’s heart is obviously in the right place, and many of the points she makes are right on target; in fact, only about four sentences would have to be removed to make it nearly perfect, and most of the people “tweeting” or linking the post apparently didn’t even catch them. But as the majority of you have probably noticed, these pretty brown eyes don’t miss much.
A few years ago, I traveled to Thailand where I met a sex worker for the very first time…she very succinctly told me about her life: “These were my options: I could be apart from my children for 10 hours each day while working in a sweatshop sewing buttons on shirts, or I could spend the day with my kids and, at night, talk to an interesting Western man, lie down with him for 20 minutes in a familiar, safe place and make a lot of money. Which would you choose?” Like many Americans in my generation, I was taught that prostitution is immoral, “dirty” and coercive…[but] in recent years, I’ve heard countless stories from sex workers themselves [and discovered that they] are much like me: they work hard and they care about their kids. But our lives are radically different in one fundamental way. These women are denied the basic human rights I’ve always had: protection from violence, access to healthcare, and the opportunity to earn a living however I choose.
Nearly everywhere in the world, sex workers are detained, arrested, fined and driven out of their homes or places of work…discriminatory policies enable police to rape and beat sex workers and confiscate their belongings, including condoms, which increases their risk to HIV and other sexually transmitted infections. Religious groups, police officers and non-governmental organizations routinely carry out violent raids on adult brothels. This violence is often justified as a “rescue operation” and legitimated by anti-prostitution laws…
So far so good; if the whole thing was like that you wouldn’t be reading about it in this context. The problem arises when she bypasses an enemy position without attacking it, thus leaving her flank vulnerable:
…To be clear, not all people involved in sex work are involved by choice. One of the core challenges in fighting for sex workers’ rights is making the distinction between sex work, a chosen profession, and sex trafficking, the forced migration of human beings—often minors—for sexual exploitation and coercive labor. Trafficking is a pervasive global problem, and many governments around the world have rightly passed anti-trafficking legislation…
By pretending there is a bright, clear demarcation between choice and coercion, as though all sex workers were either “happy hookers” or miserable, passive, pathetic slaves, Messinger throws the door wide open to neofeminist inanities such as “false consciousness”, to government demands for licensing and registration, to detention of foreign sex workers, to denying the agency of those who choose to migrate even when they know or at least suspect their conditions will be harsh, to myths about “Stockholm syndrome” and women “afraid to testify against their traffickers”, to imposition of politically-determined definitions of “coercion” and to endless debates about what fraction of sex workers are “coerced”, how to determine whether they are and whether police must accept their word that they aren’t. Furthermore, to accept that “trafficking” (which as we have seen is an essentially-meaningless term used to mean nearly anything governments and fanatics want it to mean) is a “pervasive global problem” is to allow a Trojan horse inside one’s walls, and its cargo is always her very next phrase: “rightly-passed anti-trafficking legislation”. The mythic menace of “trafficking” convinces true believers that it’s somehow a new problem requiring new laws, when in fact the great majority of countries already had laws against abduction, extortion, involuntary servitude, assault, fraud and every other crime which supposedly goes along with “trafficking” long before this moral panic started; those countries which don’t need to enact those laws, not draconian and tyrannically-overbroad laws against an ill-defined menace described with unsupported and ever-inflating numbers.
Messinger herself states that sex workers don’t need “rescue”, but by claiming as she does that “the distinction between trafficking and sex work is crystal clear,” she automatically implies that perhaps “trafficked slaves” do. Even if we ignore the often-deadly mistakes which occur with alarming regularity when thugs with firearms are allowed to smash their way into buildings by surprise, it is clear that defining any group of people as intrinsically helpless, and therefore allowing the state to make decisions for them, inevitably leads to abuse and corruption. If all people were allowed the freedoms she lists in the latter part of her article (including freedom of migration, association, occupational choice and equal protection under the law), there would be far less opportunity for unprincipled predators (with or without official titles) to exploit them, and those who were truly victimized wouldn’t have to be afraid to ask for help.