Laurie Shrage on Prostitution/Sex Work

Feminist philosopher Laurie Shrage writes in the NY Times:

This week, participants in an Amnesty International council meeting in Dublin are considering a proposal to endorse the decriminalization of consensual paid sex between adults. The proposal has elements of the both the British model, which rests on the idea that consensual sex between adults should be protected from state interference, and the Dutch model, which is based on the idea that criminalizing paid sex generates more harm than good. The policy draft I read emphasizes the organization’s longstanding commitment to end trafficking, and to insure that, where paid sex exists, it is voluntary and safe.

Yet some prominent feminist groups have organized to oppose Amnesty International’s proposed policy and to endorse the Swedish model of prohibition. Their opposition is based on the assumption that acts of paid sex are inevitably coercive and that the state should intervene in private sexual acts between adults to protect vulnerable people.

The first assumption has been strongly challenged by many sex worker civil and labor rights groups, and the second assumption is subject to the objection that it is overly paternalistic toward adult women. Moreover, opponents to Amnesty International’s proposed policy overlook the fact that it remains neutral on the question of whether there should be public establishments for the purpose of buying and selling sex.

Shrage’s views are controversial, both in the wider world and amongst feminists.  I invite a discussion here, but urge everyone to remember that this is– very clearly– an issue on which reasonable feminists can and do disagree.  Please do observe the “be nice” rules, in particular bearing in mind that very different views can come out of shared feminist commitments.

3 thoughts on “Laurie Shrage on Prostitution/Sex Work

  1. I clicked on the link associated with the text “many sex worker civil and labor groups.” It is the site of NSWP (“Global Network of Sex Work Projects”) It is a lobbyist organization, not a worker organization (even per ‘what we do.’). It is not the “voice of sex workers” — the connection with individual sex workers seems to be that it features speakers identified as sex workers in their lobbying activities. (I have heard criticisms from sex worker survivor groups that women who make (a lot of) money from selling other women’s “sex work” are often featured as speakers in lobbying events of this sort, though no specific organization was specifically mentioned.))

    You should recognize that NSWP is a lobbyist organization by noticing that they provide a guide for journalists to use as a reference. This is an extraordinarily effective method in getting things reported as facts, because when different journalists/op-ed writers use the same resource, it appears to the public as if a certain claim is coming independently from many different sources all around the world.

    It seems to me a trend among very slick and high-paid lobbying organizations to co-opt organizations that people trust and respect. A recent analogous situation was when the natural gas industry co-opted the Sierra Club of Western Pennsylvania. It didn’t last too long — just long enough to get the key legislation passed. But it was effective in being able to assert that the gas industry’s similar message: “it can be made safe, and regulating it will make it safe” was coming from the mouth of those most to be listened to, i.e., environmentalists. Co-opting Amnesty International, a trusted voice in human rights, is an analogous move. I would urge caution in putting too much weight on statements beginning with “Amnesty International found . . .”

    I am glad to see philosophers resisting some of these slick rhetorical moves. There are two points I would highlight:

    — I think anytime someone wants to separate out the power relations from labor relations or gender relations, we ought to be suspicious. That Amnesty International’s current position (they do not even accept criminalizing only the buying of sex, they want full de-criminalization) is argued from the claim that trafficking ought to be separated from prostitution. Urging separation of the trafficking issue from prostitution is a dead giveaway that something’s not right with this whole Amnesty International change in position.

    — The side in this lobbying struggle with the overwhelming amount of money is the multi-billion dollar sex industry. They can afford the slickest, highest paid lobbying strategies. Keep that in mind, keep that in mind.

  2. Having just seen the film _Merchants of Doubt_ I was just about to leave essentially the exact same comment sgsterrett has left, above. A few years ago there was a guest post and discussion on Feministe led by a sex worker advocate, who was apparently herself (at least in past life) also a sex worker from Sweden. I thought, okay, a lot of feminists I respect and find interesting are critical of the Swedish model, I’m ready to learn more about this from somebody on the front lines. What was astonishing about the way the discussion went was that there was this steady insistence on a perspective that seemed vastly more neoliberal than feminist in any recognizable way — individual choice, watch out for the state, and a total conflation of the position and interests of workers and employers that would have read very oddly if the workers in question were, say, miners. At some point someone intervened saying something like what sgsterrett says, above, about the global sex industry funding behind a lot of “sex worker advocacy” of the sort being hosted by Feministe, and after a couple of interventions that commenter was banned by the guest poster. It certainly left me wanting to know more.

    As an aside, I’ve wondered if any jurisdiction has tried out a model of issuing “john licenses”. We hear a lot about combatting stigma around sex work, but the stigma-fighting is mostly left to sex workers themselves. What if, instead, the burden of that fight could be shifted to clients? Like a driver’s license you’d have to take a class about the rights of sex workers and sex work generally, and your responsibilities (checking that the person from whom you are purchasing sex is not trafficked, underaged, under the influence of substances that would make genuine consent impossible, and so forth) and have relevant medical tests (for stds), and have a background check (for things like assault). The registry would be public. But this could be paired with decriminalizing the selling of sex — the buying of sex could be legal for licensees. Sex workers could choose whether to ask for a license (they would not be legally required to do so) — the option would allow them some way of assessing whether the person in question was a relatively safer buyer. The advocates of de-stigmatization would be welcome to get in line for licenses. Of course the many, many customers who didn’t want to be associated with sex work (or who get off on it being underground) would face the possibility of arrest. But as with driving, the unregulated buying of sex has social costs, and this would provide an avenue for minimizing those social harms.

  3. I have to confess that I am not seeing the basis on which sgsterrett concludes that NSWP is “not a worker organization;” when I poked around their website, that’s exactly what they seemed to be. And I’ve followed this issue for some time, and I have to say I’ve seen a lot more slick lobbying (and endless repetition of extremely inaccurate statistics) from the rescue side than from the global sex industry. As for why critics might sound neoliberal, sex workers encounter sufficient well-documented abuse from the state that I wouldn’t be at all surprised if they are in general more suspicious of the state than feminists as a whole tend to be. Certainly sex workers suffer much more abuse from the state in general than miners, even taking into account the occasional interventions of the state in support of mining interests via strike breaking and such.

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