How “abolitionists” are using deception to sway the narrative
Image Description: A cable closet filled with a tangled mass of wires. Source: Wikimedia commons.
I’ve noticed a troubling trend recently of Australian and British politicians, as well as sex worker exclusionary radical feminists, proclaiming that they support the decriminalization of sex work. Normally this is welcome news, but when pressed for answers they start to describe asymmetric criminalization models, like the Nordic Model, and not the decriminalization model that is being promoted by the World Health Organization, UNAIDS, Amnesty International, harm reduction organisations, sex workers and allies.
So why would people who wish to end sex work want to use a term like decriminalization to describe the Nordic Model that they seek? To understand that, it's important to look at the anti sex work movement, see where they've been and spot trends.
The anti sex work crowd likes to call itself abolitionist. This is a term that was originally rooted in the abolition of slavery, and then was incorporated into the prison abolition movement. Prison abolitionists state that the racial prejudice within the justice system combined with the fact that prison labour exists and is often beneficial to private interests creates a prison system that is rooted in historical oppression of black people dating back to slavery.
Authors note: I am a white woman and this section is intended to provide a historical context. For a black feminist perspective on the coopting of abolitionism, I reccomend the work of Robyn Maynard, who’s writing and activism has shaped my understanding of this topic.
The term Abolitionism, as used to define the anti sex work movement, dates back to a time when international human trafficking of women for the purpose of sexual exploitation was called “white slavery.” White slavery was a term that non-intersectional white feminists created to compare the sexual abuse of women to slavery in North America, therefore the term “abolition” was co-opted and appropriated from a black rights struggle and is now more known as an anti sex work movement. This is particularly troubling when you consider that sex work “abolitionism” relies heavily on the carceral justice system that prison abolitionists fight to dismantle.
On initial glance from outsiders, the term abolitionism sounds like maybe it only refers to international sex trafficking, but while white feminists were stealing the term from black activists, second wave feminist authors were also calling all forms of sex work “trafficking.” They did this by misapplying Marxist ideology; if all labour is coercive, so is sex work, therefore sex work is always exploitation and trafficking. According to this train of thought, sex workers can traffick ourselves by talking about our work, or traffick each other by working together for safety.
Of course, sex work is mostly like any other work, but morals around sex and the feminist sex wars of the 70s and 80s placed a bizarre special importance on women's sexuality, particularly white cisgender women's sexual purity, so sex work at the time was considered particularly more exploitative than other forms of labour under capitalism.
Unfortunately sex workers and people who work with trafficking victims are still trying to untangle the mess created by the conflation of sex work and trafficking. When we conflate the two, we not only take away sex workers right to advocate for their rights and safety, but we also trivialize the horrors of actual human trafficking for the purposes of sexual exploitation. Ultimately the narrative serves people in neither community, but it allows people who hate sex workers to tie them to sexual exploitation in an attempt to legislate their safety out of existence.
As the feminist sex wars wound down in the 90s (spoiler alert: sex won), and people saw that you can’t really legislate sex work out of existence, governments began experimenting with frameworks to allow sex workers to ply their trade. Given that sex work had been illegal in most western countries since the late 1800s, there was a lot of uncertainty on how to reintroduce it to society, and governments and businesses wanted meticulous control over it. The result was a set of rules and guidelines that spelled the conditions under which sex work could happen. Sex workers needed to be tested regularly, licensed and meet strict standards. Sex workers could operate out of corporate owned brothels who selected workers based on their marketability.
To an outsider, legalization seems like a good compromise. Sex workers get to work in safety and clients get a special standard of service. However, people unable to meet the strict requirements, for example people with HIV, drug users, and providers who aren’t marketable like plus size or trans sex workers, were left out. Those sex workers would still continue to work, but their work would face much harsher oppression from police and courts. It created a two tier system where entry was determined by businesses and government, and those unable to qualify for licensing and employment faced even harsher marginalization.
As a submarket of the most marginalised communities formed in the two tiered system of legalization, people who work with sex workers and trafficking victims began to sound the alarm on legalization as well as push for total discrimination. Statistics were published to highlight the dangers of creating a two tiered legislation model, and activists began demanding the loosening of regation. Anti sex work activists, seeing these statistics, went to work conflating legalization with the decriminalization that sex workers and non-profits were promoting.
The conflation of legalization and decriminalization is a repeat of the history that anti sex work activists have of attempting to control the disclosure by confusing the public about the terms we use to talk about what we need. Now when we talk about decriminalization, we're shown the statistics on legalization, the statistics we helped compile in order to push for decriminalization. We need to explain, “no, those papers you're citing are about legalization, not full decriminalization.” Sex workers and our allies, organisations like UNAIDS and Amnesty International, have been rather effective at dismantling this confusion, and the idea of decriminalization has enjoyed a renewed interest from the public in the last 5 years.
As sex worker rights activists and our allies push for decriminalization, anti sex work activists push for a model called asymmetric criminalization. One form of this model, perhaps the most popular, is the Nordic Model. Under asymmetric criminalization, the purchaser of sex work is treated as a criminal, and the sex worker is treated as a victim.
Setting aside the paternal nature of treating an entire industry of mostly entrepreneurs as victims, this model increases the risk to sex workers by making our clients afraid of us. We’re unable to negotiate or establish boundaries when a client is afraid of arrest, so those negotiations end up happening out of sight and away from the public eye where we have no safety. That style of negotiation, where we need to meet a client in person before establishing boundaries, places a lot of pressure on indoor sex workers to consent to things we otherwise wouldn’t for fear of wasting our time getting ready for a session and wasting our money renting an incall space. The Nordic Model also treats drivers, screening services, spouses and sex workers working together, as pimps, thus making occupational health and safety, as well as simply being in a relationship or having a roommate, a criminal act for sex workers.
As anti sex work activists push for the Nordic Model, they claim that it decriminalizes sex workers, when in fact it criminalizes so many aspects of our work and our personal life, it makes our work defacto criminal.
This brings us to the latest word game that anti sex work activists are playing, calling the Nordic Model decriminalization. This is the same way that anti sex work activists were able to conflate decriminalization and with legalisation, weaponizing the work we did to end two tiered models.
If anti sex work activists are able to conflate decriminalization with the Nordic Model, sex worker rights activists and our allies will spend years untangling the two, as well as untangling the conflation between decriminalization and legalization. The result is that sex workers and our allies are unable to move the narrative forward because our activists are stuck untangling anti sex work lies.
This style of discourse is extremely disingenuous. It likely also is only a stalling tactic to keep sex workers from gaining progress on the labour rights front. You can’t hold back the tide, but you can delay it, that’s why it’s so important for allies to ask for clarification when confronted with someone who seems to be using the language is allyship to push an ulterior motive. Call out the lies of people who wish to silence sex workers. Demand that politicians and activists debate in good faith. Refuse to allow them to manipulate language and don’t let them control the narrative through manipulation.
Anti sex work is not abolition, sex work is not trafficking, the Nordic Model is not decriminalization and decriminalization is not legalization. Knock off the word games and deception, and let’s talk about what sex workers need, openly and honestly.