First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win. – Mahatma Gandhi
One of the points I cover in every basic presentation I give on sex worker rights is that criminalization is a very recent idea. Invariably, most of the audience is surprised; having been reared in a culture soaked in anti-whore propaganda, they take it for granted that “naturally” we’ve always been persecuted, because victimization and “pimps” and disease and THE CHILDREN! But of course, this is nonsense; though many cultures have come up with laws intended to restrict or “regulate” whoring, the idea that it was an evil which needed to be eradicated by state violence is a 19th-century one, rooted in racism and “progressive” Victorian thought about “correcting” the human race by using law to enforce a Puritanical agenda. Prohibition of sex work sprang from the same filthy, poisonous soil as did eugenics, anti-masturbation torture devices and the prohibition of alcohol and drugs. But while the former two ideas are widely recognized as dangerous nonsense and the latter is slowly dying, the use of armed thugs to commit pogroms against peaceful adults because authoritarians don’t like their reasons for having sex is still going strong. That, however, cannot endure indefinitely; the internet has made it impossible to silence the voices of sex workers any longer, and study after study has concluded that we are correct when we say that criminalization is an evil which harms not only whores and our clients, but our families, friends and associates.
Furthermore, as we should have learned from the obscenity of alcohol Prohibition, the only way to stop adults from engaging in consensual behavior is to empower the cops to spy on people, violate their civil rights and destroy their lives. Not that this actually stops the prohibited behaviors, mind you; no campaign of prohibition in history has ever worked. But prohibitionist laws allow the state to terrorize the population and “send a message” that free thought is forbidden, and that the almighty State is the arbiter of right and wrong. As should be obvious from the glacially-slow process of stopping the Drug War that every decent person in the world recognizes as an abject failure, modern fascist states like the US are heavily invested in the violent enforcement of arbitrary bans on peaceful, consensual behaviors. Cronies have become fabulously wealthy via deals with prohibitionist governments, the machinery of the police state needs bodies to be fed into it, and those whose power derives from mindless obedience to nonsensical rules are not about to let go of such power without a fight.
But if history teaches us anything, it’s that respect for individual human rights is increasing; the majority of people no longer feel morally comfortable with the subjugation of minorities and the violent suppression of private behavior. That’s why over a decade ago prohibitionists changed over to the “sex trafficking” paradigm, and why their rhetoric largely consists of the repetition of tragedy porn and the assertion of the ridiculous idea that every sex worker who speaks in public is lying, and that there is some invisible multitude of “victims” out there who will be magically helped by taking away their income and subjugating them to the control of gangs of violent rapists. The problem with this sort of strategy is that it can’t be sustained forever; moral panics die, and the scales fall from people’s eyes, and both individuals and institutions wake up to the truth. A few years ago the wind started to shift in favor of sex workers’ rights again; many more individuals began to question criminalization, and then last year we passed the watershed moment when Amnesty International officially espoused decriminalization as a policy, and the federal government’s ill-considered raid on Rentboy brought Gay, Inc grudgingly over to our side. Make no mistake, the prohibitionists are terrified; they feel their grip on the narrative slipping, and they know they will lose it just as they lost other fights against the principles of self-ownership and sexual self-determination. If you read some of the prohibitionist reaction to last week’s New York Times Magazine piece, you can practically smell that fear. They’re losing, and they know it. They’re going to double down on their efforts, and the number of pogroms will increase in order to “teach us our place”. And that just means we need to hold the course all the more.