You may have heard that several porn actresses have accused porn actor James Deen of sexual assault. In response, various production companies have terminated their contracts with him.
Yeah, there’s bad people everywhere, even in the porn industry. If he raped anyone I hope he’s locked up for a thousand years.
The case reminded me of a symposium I attended at Stanford University Law School a few weeks ago on the possible connection between sex work and trafficking, and America’s legal response to each. Panelists included a prosecutor, a sociologist, an anti-trafficking activist, and Maxine Doogan of ESPLERP (Erotic Service Provider Legal, Educational, & Research Project).
The topic is especially hot in California right now as ESPLERP is working its lawsuit through U.S. District Court challenging California’s criminalization of prostitution. The attorneys for the case include Louis Sirkin, who successfully handled the world-famous Robert Mapplethorpe obscenity trial in Cincinnati some years ago.
Well-informed and articulate as always, panelist Doogan challenged the tired old myths that prostitutes and other sex workers are primarily damaged people coerced into their work. The other panelists kept using pejorative expressions like “women selling themselves” and “men buying women” when referring to adults purchasing sexual services from willing sellers.
The whole idea that sex work dehumanizes adult, consenting sex workers in some special way is particularly egregious. It overlooks the common idea that we pay to consume LeBron James’ body, pay to consume Meryl Streep’s body, and really don’t care about either human being beyond their performances. We may like to gossip about each, but that’s a far cry from caring about them.
While many of us have paid to consume Kobe Bryant’s physical performances for years, we will all forget about him minutes after this season ends. And we’ll have no concern whatsoever about any back or leg pain he’ll suffer for the rest of his life. Anyone care much about Mariano Rivera, Roger Clemens, David Beckham, or Shaquille O’Neill? Or Dionne Warwick, Judy Collins, or Linda Ronstadt now that they’ve lost their voices? Dehumanization is the foundation of capitalism, particularly in the various service industries. Every adult is free to sell their services in the marketplace, and to decide what the price for their dehumanization is.
Back at the Stanford panel, both the prosecutor and the activist insisted it was necessary to keep sex work illegal in order to discourage new entrants into the business, to pursue bad guys coercing people into it, and to protect the sex workers themselves.
But think about the James Deen case. The women pursuing their rape cases against him are able to do so because they are legally employed. They each have the option of going to their employer, the police, or both. What if they were raped while acting as prostitutes? They’d have no employer. They couldn’t go to the police, because they’d be arrested themselves. Or, as many prostitutes can attest, they’d be extorted for sex by the police in exchange for not being arrested.
Suggesting it was a progressive idea, the activist talked about the current Scandinavian model, wherein sex workers aren’t arrested—their customers are. This is exchanging one bad arrangement for another. Whenever economic activity is criminalized, it goes underground, denying legal protections that other industries enjoy. And denying adults the right to buy and sell the services they choose isn’t progressive. It’s arbitrary, unfair, and coercive.
As for the idea that sex workers provide a product so irresistible that consumers need to be protected from themselves, America already has a system for dealing with products like that. We regulate alcohol, tobacco, gambling, and prescription drugs. If we want to restrict the products of sex workers to consumers over, say, 18 (or 21), we can do that (it works in Nevada). If we want to restrict sex work jobs to those over, say, 18 (or 21), we can do that (it works in the porn industry). If we want to require that sex workers get regular medical certifications, we can do that (it works in Germany).
The best way to protect sex workers is to see them as WORKERS, and provide them with all the legal protections (and responsibilities, like paying taxes) of other workers. If people are really serious about eliminating sex trafficking, they’ll get way more serious about demanding and using legitimate statistics: saying there are 300,000 youth “at risk” of being trafficked is meaningless; conflating world statistics with U.S. statistics is pathetic. Decriminalizing sex work also helps reduce illicit trafficking by enabling sex workers to report suspicious-looking arrangements without putting themselves in jeopardy.
While anti-sex workers rights activists are self-righteously talking about protecting sex workers, it’s ironic that many American jurisdictions allow police to treat possession of condoms as evidence of sex work. This put sex workers in a double bind—use condoms to reduce the risk of HIV but increase the risk of prosecution, or don’t use condoms and increase the risk of HIV for themselves and their clients in order to reduce the risk of prosecution.
In the months to come, you’ll probably hear more about the ESPLERP lawsuit. Do consider supporting it financially, or following them via their website or at #DecriminalizeSexWork.