One of the most disheartening shifts I’ve seen in the political battles around sex work is the growing trend for various jurisdictions to shift towards a version of the Nordic Model, in which buying sexual services is illegal. While it’s a minor improvement over arresting sex workers, it’s an incredibly flawed and overly simplistic approach.
Sex work is an incredibly diverse area of labor, just as other kinds of work are diverse. Broadly speaking, I think it makes sense to think of it as having three general categories, though these are somewhat porous and an individual might move from one to another.
At one end of the spectrum, there are people who become sex workers because they feel a calling to engage in this work. These are the tantrikas, the dakas and dakinis, the sexual healers, the sexological bodyworkers, some escorts, some dom/mes, and others. In my experience, these folks have a lot more choice about entering into sex work. Many of them don’t actually consider themselves sex workers because their way of doing it and the ways they connect with their clients are so different from the other two groups. People in this group (and as a hands-on sex coach, I consider myself one of them) have a lot of choice about what they do, what services they offer, and which clients they work with.
In many ways, this group of people is comparable to someone who runs a fancy catering business. They do the work because they enjoy it and because it fulfills them. They have a lot of choice about which clients or projects to take on, and they charge more for their services. It’s a totally different experience than someone working at McDonalds, and one might argue that it doesn’t even make sense to consider them in the same industry.
In both sex and food service, this is the smallest group, but that doesn’t invalidate their needs. The Nordic Model and its variants don’t distinguish between these people and the next two groups. Given the level of empowerment that goes along with being in this category, I don’t see how it serves them to make their work illegal.
The next group is made of the people who are doing sex work because they need to pay the bills. Their level of enjoyment of the work varies a lot, both from person to person and from day to day. These folks have looked at the available options and decided that sex work is the best way for them to make a living. Sometimes, it’s because it lets them make enough money in one or two days a week to be able to go to college or grad school, or to have time for their kids, or to put food on the table.
We could compare these people to the folks who work in restaurants because they need the money. It’s good odds that the server at your local restaurant isn’t there because they get satisfaction from waiting tables. They do it because they need the cash. Of course, some jobs are more fun or satisfying than others. Some jobs pay better or have better hours or better coworkers or working conditions. And given how hierarchies of oppression work, there’s a strong correlation between privilege and having a better job, whether it’s sex work or food service.
Now, whether you think that sex work is demeaning or not, the people in this group have decided that sex work is the least bad of the options available to them. So when we (as a society) make it harder for them to engage in that work, what we’re really saying is that we want to force them into a worse decision. We’re saying that we’d rather that they work longer hours for less money, or do something else that they consider a less acceptable option than sex work, because we think it’s better for them. We’re saying that we know better than them. Taking away someone’s least-bad choice because you disapprove of it is patronizing, condescending, and only makes things worse for them.
Of course, the abolitionists will argue that their approach is about ending demand by reducing the number of clients (usually, but not always men). But there’s a big flaw in that argument. Demand for sex work isn’t just coming from clients. It’s also coming from people who want to get by in a capitalist society. It’s coming from people who would like to go to college, to pay for their kid’s health care, or to have a roof over their heads, or take care of themselves. And if you could wave a magic wand and make men stop wanting to pay for sex, you still wouldn’t have taken care of the demands and needs of the people who sell sexual labor. The demand isn’t as one-sided as the abolitionists think.
Granted, all of the abolitionists I’ve spoken to or whose work I’ve read say that they support creating services and systems to help people and make sex work unnecessary. I think that’s great. And I also want them to make that happen before making sex work harder to do safely. Until those services exist, I simply don’t see how it helps sex workers to make their lives more difficult. I don’t see how it helps them to make them work longer hours for less money. Making sex work harder to do in order to force people into jobs that they’ve decided are worse choices doesn’t seem particularly empowering to me.
This is especially important when we consider the impact of these policies on sex workers. Arresting clients removes lower-risk clients from the pool, while leaving the higher risk ones there. That makes the average client interaction more dangerous, especially when there’s more pressure to hurry through the negotiation. In the words of one of the researchers looking at this issue, “Where clients continue to be targets of police, sex workers’ ability to protect themselves from violence and abuse or access police protections is severely limited.” And according to research about the impact of the Nordic model as applied in Vancouver, Canada, which was published in the British Medical Journal:
Sex workers’ narratives and ethnographic observations indicated that while police sustained a high level of visibility, they eased charging or arresting sex workers and showed increased concern for their safety. However, participants’ accounts and police statistics indicated continued police enforcement of clients. This profoundly impacted the safety strategies sex workers employed. Sex workers continued to mistrust police, had to rush screening clients and were displaced to outlying areas with increased risks of violence, including being forced to engage in unprotected sex…
These findings suggest that criminalisation and policing strategies that target clients reproduce the harms created by the criminalisation of sex work, in particular, vulnerability to violence and HIV/STIs. The current findings support decriminalisation of sex work to ensure work conditions that support the health and safety of sex workers in Canada and globally.
So the Nordic model doesn’t address the reasons people sell sex and creates the same harms as making sex work itself illegal. That hardly seems like a strategy intended to actually help sex workers, despite abolitionists’ claims.
The last group is the people who are literally forced into sexual labor. Whether through violence, blackmail, coercion, or drugs, these folks don’t have any choice about it. This is the equivalent of sweatshop labor or slavery. It’s real, it exists, and we need to do something to change that. This is the population that the abolitionists are paying the most attention to, and I think that’s important work. I agree with them that we need to do what it takes to end sex trafficking and forced sexual labor.
At the same time, I can’t help but notice that although slavery and forced labor exist in the food industry, nobody suggests abolishing it. While slavery and forced labor exist in agriculture, nobody says that we shouldn’t have boutique farms, or even just regular farms that pay people to work there. And the fact that slavery and forced labor exist in the sweatshops of the garment industry doesn’t make anyone say that we should get rid of tailors and bespoke clothing makers. So why can’t we see that we need more than a one-size-fits-all approach to sexual labor?
Actually, there are people who consistently push for that. There are people who want to see an end to forced prostitution while making room for people to choose to engage in sexual labor, whether as a calling or to make ends meet. Almost all of them are current or former sex workers from one of the first two groups I described. They’re the people who know the complexities of these issues from the inside, which means that they’re the only people who are truly qualified to talk about how these laws will affect sex workers.
For example, Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford made it illegal to live off of the avails of prostitution. Ostensibly, this is supposed to protect sex workers from being controlled or abused by pimps. But there’s nothing in the way the law was written that would prevent it from being used to arrest someone’s boyfriend or family if money from sex work is used to pay the rent in a shared apartment. It’s as if the people who wrote it had no idea that many sex workers use their money to support their families. Fortunately, that part of the law was amended to only apply to people who live off of the avails of sex work “in circumstances of exploitation.” But the fact that the original version of it didn’t only shows how rarely non-sex workers understand the lives of sex workers.
So why don’t the abolitionists want to listen to sex workers? I can think of a few reasons. It’s far easier to advocate for a simple idea than a complex one, so phrases like “end demand” make for good soundbite. It’s much easier to ignore the many different reasons people become sex workers or hire sex workers than it is to look at that diversity when it conflicts with what you believe. And if abolitionists actually listened to all of the voices, stories, and perspectives of sex workers, they might find it difficult to continue advocating for “solutions” that cause more harm. Given how invested many of them are in their views, both personally and professionally, I’d expect many of them to resist letting go of them.
But until they do, the abolitionists will continue to do the equivalent of mansplaining or whitesplaining. If you’ve never been a sex worker and you want to help those who are/have, your first step needs to be to listen to them. That’s why many sex worker activists have taken a page from the disability community and adopted the slogan “nothing about us without us.” If you’re not actively listening to sex workers, if they aren’t leaders in your movement, you might as well admit to yourself and the world that your efforts to rescue them are less about helping them and more about your own stuff. The irony here is that many of the abolitionists who have never been sex workers and who have no problem being the “saviors” of sex workers would rightfully resent it if a man tried to be their white knight.
What would it take to end sex trafficking and forced sexual labor without harming the lives and livelihoods of sex workers? We won’t know until we start listening to sex workers and making their needs part of the strategy. That can’t happen when the loudest voices are coming from people who are pushing for laws that make things worse for sex workers, over and over again.