On Prostitution, the Left has Taken a Right-Wing Turn

Last week, Amnesty International moved from being a human rights organization to a men’s rights organization.

Delegates from around the world met in Dublin over the weekend at the biennial International Council Meeting to vote on a policy of what they called “decriminalizing sex work.” This terminology is deceitful; what Amnesty International actually voted on was legalizing the purchase and sale of women and girls.

In response to this suggested platform, over four hundred women’s organizations and activists signed their names to an open letter condemning a supposed human rights advocacy organization for their uncritical support of the global trade in women’s bodies. The men at Amnesty International were apparently unconvinced, and went ahead with their endorsement of decriminalization against all evidence and common sense.

The debate around Amnesty’s capitulation to pimps and johns has forced the Left to confront prostitution once again. The results, as expected, have been largely pathetic. It speaks to the dismal condition of radical politics today when the concepts of “freedom” and “choice” are used to defend any system of wage labor, let alone one that feeds primarily on the bodies of poor women, women of color, and disabled women.

Anyone with sense rejects the notion that “freedom” or “choice” have anything to do with a coal miner’s decision to work fifteen-hour days in a sludge of industrial waste, or a single mother’s decision to flip burgers and stock shelves. Yet somehow we’re supposed to believe that prostitution is a unique and valuable expression of a woman’s innate desires.

It’s not shocking that many men see penetration by male strangers as the pinnacle of women’s freedom. What’s shocking is the speed at which the wider Leftist movement adopted this misogyny as a party line.

Reasoned, nuanced discussions of prostitution, patriarchy, white supremacy, and capitalism have been largely replaced on the Left with a bankrupt libertarian individualism. The pinnacle of this intentionally apolitical approach is the oft-repeated mantra, “Listen to sex workers!” which Amnesty International specifically used to deflect any criticism of their pro-pimp agenda.

“Listen to sex workers!” is a bankrupt policy position for too many reasons to count. The first problem, as Helen Lewis pointed out recently in The Guardian, is exactly which “sex workers” we should be listening to. I certainly don’t see pro-legalization liberals heeding the words of women like prostitution survivor and abolitionist advocate Bridget Perrier. “I didn’t choose prostitution,” she told me. “Prostitution chose me — because of childhood sexual abuse, racism, and colonialism.” She rejects the term “sex worker” entirely, saying, “What I did was not work. It was abuse.” Are you listening?

Other exited women — Rachel Moran, Rebecca Mott, and dozens more — rarely receive much more than derision and slander from those who claim “listening to sex workers” as their first priority. Entire organizations like SPACE (Survivors of Prostitution Abuse Calling for Enlightenment) are routinely dismissed despite being comprised completely of formerly prostituted women.

These women are often shouted down because, having escaped the industry, they’re no longer considered to be “authorities” on the sex industry today. But Trisha Baptie, another survivor and abolitionist activist, says that’s ridiculous.

Trisha Baptie, of abolitionist activist group E.V.E.

“Prostitution doesn’t just affect prostituted women. It affects communities as a whole,” she said. “Women who are out of it now are the ones who have a whole picture of who it harms — they’re not just thinking about how they’re paying their rent.” Was Frederick Douglass not “an authority” on slavery simply because he escaped his chains?

When I asked her whether or not she would have supported legalizing prostitution while she was in the industry, she laughed. “Oh, without a doubt. Absolutely… Because I was relying on it for me and my kids, I would have said I have a right to do this, and that it was my choice to do it. But it wasn’t until I was able to get out and those pressures were taken off of me that I was able to look at it and see the lack of choice I had. Women who have exited have a different view of the men who are purchasing sex. A bit like battered woman internalize all that shame, and once you’re out of it, you can see more clearly what was happening.”

Even currently prostituted women who oppose the industry are ignored in favor of the more palatable “empowered sex worker.” My friend Chelsea endures daily rapes inside the New Zealand brothels that so many Leftists hold up as a progressive example of the system Amnesty International hopes to institute. “The brothels still work the same way they did when it was illegal,” she told me. “We get the worst of both worlds.”

Laws mandating condom use are barely enforced, and women who refuse to let men ejaculate on or inside them struggle to find clients. Should a man harass, abuse, or assault a woman, management can refuse to give out their names, making prosecution impossible.

Some Leftists may think that regulation will bring prostitution out of the shadows, but Chelsea disagrees. “The laws can’t reach us here,” she said. “If we had the Nordic Model, I’d call the cops on all of them the second I get my money, before they get to rape me. If I called cops under [decriminalization] they would say, Did you accept the money? If say yes, they say, boom, consensual.” Amnesty International apparently didn’t listen to this “sex worker” when they decided to put a legal stamp of approval on her rape.

And what about the millions of women, around the globe and here in the United States, who can’t speak loud enough to even have their words dismissed in the first place? There aren’t many talk shows and newspapers interested in giving space to the traumatized indigenous women being bought and sold by South Dakota oil field workers. The immigrant women I have met who sell sex in double-wide trailers outside Seattle dairy farms are unlikely to be tweeting about “whorephobia.” Yet these women are the ones who are most likely to bear the brunt of men’s violence under the guise of “sex work.”

In practice, “listening to sex workers” most often means uncritically accepting the public statements of a small minority of women in prostitution, most of whom are likely to be white, middle-class, young, and able-bodied. This is an egregious failure of the most basic radical politics. Leftists — the ones who should be most aware of the ways our white supremacist, misogynistic, pro-capitalist media system excludes the weak and marginalized — have settled for a bankrupt method of inquiry that self-selects for privileged voices.

More importantly, even if we could somehow poll every single woman in prostitution for their thoughts on the law, a larger problem remains: There isn’t a single tyrannical system on Earth that would be abolished today through its victim’s popular vote.

Any Leftist in America should know this. After all, capitalism itself is widely supported by those who bear the brunt of its abuse — not because they are stupid, ill-informed, or evil, but because capitalism excels at artificially removing alternatives that might allow life outside of it. We understand this. Our politics are robust enough to explain why oppressed people often work to sustain the system that exploits them. So why do we retreat into rudderless libertarianism when the topic switches from wage labor in general to one specific — and specifically abusive — form?

I live now in Northern California, where there wouldn’t be a redwood left standing if the residents had their way. The rivers would be dammed to oblivion and the salmon runs would be extinguished — not because those living here hate the natural world, but because they exist inside a system that has made destroying that natural world their one stable path to rent money, food, and clothes for their children.

Listen to the loggers!

Does that mean any laws to save old-growth forests should be scrapped in favor of the short-term survival of lumberjacks and mill workers, most of whom are living on the hope that more trees come down? If your politics end at “listen to the loggers,” the answer would be yes.

Tax law would have to be eviscerated too, of course. The vast majority of Americans, if asked, would gut infrastructure and defund social programs in a heartbeat — again, not out of heartlessness or greed, but because the there are millions of poor people in this country that would rather have an extra twenty dollars weekly than a social safety net years down the line. That’s the hard pragmatism of poverty that capitalism depends on, and it’s a logic that Amnesty International and other supposed Leftists have uncritically transformed into policy.

Even minimum wage laws and age regulations are hardly a settled issue among many Americans. I spent my childhood in northern Idaho, among some of the most crushing poverty in the nation. You became used to seeing kids who couldn’t be more than fifteen spend their afternoons in mechanic shops, teenagers paid under the table to move hay and help with harvesting wheat instead of studying.

Decriminalizing child labor has allowed these youth workers to form unions and better inspect the managers hiring them!

These children didn’t sell away their chances at an education lightly. Instead they realized the obvious truth that a high school diploma doesn’t help when your family is one paycheck from eviction at any moment. And if you asked these children and their families what they would prefer, quite a few would tell you that removing laws against hiring underage workers would make their lives safer and easier in the short term. How long until Amnesty International “listens” to them and puts children in steel mills?

I could offer a hundred more examples, but the uncomfortable reality is clear: Legislation that curbs the ruthless advance of violent and abusive market system may very well, in the short term, bring undeniable harm to some very real human beings. I know this for a fact. I’ve seen entire families have their financial lives ruined when environmentalists succeeded in shutting down logging operations. I’ve watched poor mothers and fathers burst into tears upon hearing that a Walmart’s zoning application was denied.

This shouldn’t shock anyone; after all, if workers could survive easily in the short term without capitalism, there would be no capitalism. Regardless, they are still hard truths, stories that we as radicals can’t simply wish away as we so often do. But to let them dictate our strategy at the expense of a cohesive analysis of resource extraction, colonialism, and environmental destruction is an even more cowardly cop-out.

There is a dangerous logic to the idea that oppressive systems must be sustained solely because the oppressed depend on them to survive. It sends a clear message to those in power: Exploit enough people, and we won’t try and stop you. Destroy enough viable alternatives, and your business is safe. By this reasoning, the only industries that can safely be dismantled are the ones that don’t coerce the people they bleed dry. What has happened to our movement that we are less likely to call for a system’s destruction the more exploitative it gets?

Rand Paul, libertarian capitalist who is fond of saying, “The government should never tell two consenting adults what contracts they can and can’t make.” Leftists disagree strongly, unless the good being sold is a woman’s body.

This contradictory, flawed approach is fundamentally an ideological failure. Around the issue of prostitution, the Left has made policy out of the most vicious libertarian lie: That long-term positive social change can come about solely through individuals seeking out their own individual needs and desires. The Left’s logic on prostitution isn’t just offensive; it’s indistinguishable from the latest Republican talking points. “Listen to sex workers” is the Invisible Hand of the Market repackaged as radicalism. It bases policy on the coerced decisions of the abused and then makes them shoulder the blame when their individual attempts to survive fail to end oppression.

But people in desperate situations shouldn’t be expected to have their eye on long-term social change while they daily struggle just to survive. Demanding they do so is the arrogance of privilege.

I learned this lesson firsthand years ago, when I discovered that a dear friend of mine was being horribly abused. When she disclosed this to me, I immediately offered her whatever help I could — a place to stay, a car ride to the women’s shelter, help with a restraining order. But the request I got in return was much simpler: Her boyfriend, she said, was more violent when he was under stress, and their bills were piling up. She reasoned that if I could put in a good word for him with my boss, he might be able to get work, and the beatings might become less frequent.

My friend’s request was heartbreaking, but it wasn’t stupid. Domestic abuse does, in fact, correlate with financial stress, and in the short term a new job for her abuser might have saved her life. She was a woman in a desperate situation, who decided to pursue the temporary solution that was most likely to keep her afloat. That was her right, and there was nothing weak or short-sighted about it. But how many of us would argue that domestic violence shelters should then “listen to abused women” and apply their resources to landing jobs for wife batterers, or mandatory vacation days for rapists?

Inside a system that artificially restricts opportunity for women, people of color, and other oppressed groups, oftentimes the struggle for survival will take place on the terms of the oppressor: A few more hours working for a multinational corporation, a bundle of socks sewn by children in the Third World for twenty cents cheaper, one last trick before the end of the night.

From its inception, capitalism has banked on these Faustian bargains, leveraging desperation into increased engagement with the system. The task of radicals is to break that cycle through an open confrontation with power. Instead, Amnesty International and the modern American Left have lazily rebranded that coercion as freedom, hoping that free condoms and clean needles will be enough to end the centuries-long legacy of colonialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, and capitalism that makes the sex industry what it is. For a movement supposedly devoted to the liberation of the oppressed, this is a tragic failure.