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The general public is perhaps only tangentially aware of sex workers’ rights and the struggles facing our community. If you asked someone outside the community to name the biggest threats to sex workers, they might know enough to list police, vice units, coercive management or violent clients. But sex workers, in New York and across the country, are facing another powerful threat to our rights and our safety.
Carceral feminists believe in the rehabilitative power of police and prison systems, and that incarceration helps lower rates of gendered violence. They tend to believe that the sex industry shouldn’t exist. People like Alexi Meyers and the leaders of powerful anti-trafficking organizations like Exodus Cry will go to great lengths to portray consensual sex work as violent sex trafficking. Though not everyone who supports this view would identify as a carceral feminist — or any kind of feminist — the prohibitionist ideology that seeks to dismantle the sex industry altogether is bolstered by this school of thought. And it is extremely harmful to sex-worker communities.
Whether it’s porn, fetish work or consensual full-service sex work, many carceral feminists operate under the misguided ideas that all sex work is inherently exploitative; that any sex in exchange for money or goods is rape; and that sex workers are safer in prison than on the streets. They believe that sex trafficking will only cease to exist if we abolish the sex industry as a whole. It is this idea that leads to legislation like the proposed Sex Trade Survivors Justice and Equality Act in New York City.
Now formally backed by State Senator Liz Krueger, the act is a US adaptation of what’s variously known as the Equality Model, the Nordic Model, the Swedish Model or the End Demand Model. It involves the partial decriminalization of sex work, and it is emblematic of carceral feminist practices. The essence of the legislation is this: Punish clients and managers of sex workers and allow sex workers themselves to go free, while connecting them to services that might help them exit the industry.
To an outsider, this may sound like progress. But the reality of the Equality Model is far different from the feminist victory many claim. Decades of research have shown that, by targeting and driving underground certain participants in the industry, such models increase stigma and discrimination against sex workers, as well as violence and coercion from both clients and management. They lead to harsher working conditions, higher rates of financial instability and less agency and freedom in our daily lives. When such a model was enacted in Northern Ireland, 56 percent of sex workers said their work had become more dangerous, while of the remainder, 29 percent said it made no difference to their safety at all.
When the Equality Model incorrectly conflates consensual sex work with sex trafficking, it not only harms sex workers but does a disservice to actual trafficking survivors — making it harder for them to access supportive services without risking of incarceration. And it leads to increased police presence and arrests in Black and Brown neighborhoods, while white clients and management remain relatively untouched.
Anything less than the full decriminalization of consensual sex work leaves the most marginalized people in this community vulnerable to violence and stigmatization; sex workers have been speaking out against the pitfalls of partial decriminalization for decades.
The Harms of Partial Decriminalization
The Equality Model fails in the same way abstinence-only sex education fails: It centers “morality” over material needs, and is driven by Puritanical fantasy rather than reality. As a sex worker and sex-worker organizer, I am not interested in debate about whether or not the sex industry is a “good” thing or whether it “should” exist or not. People have always sold and traded sex to survive — and to thrive — and they will continue to do it long after we are all gone. The question is not, “How can we end sex work?” but rather, “How can we keep sex workers as safe as possible?”
The moralizing in legislation like the Equality Model also infantilizes sex workers in a deeply patriarchal way. It marginalizes us from political power and cuts down our agency as human beings. Carceral feminists who back the Equality Model and fund anti-trafficking organizations like Exodus Cry do nothing to advance women’s rights, including and especially the rights of LGBTQ women and women of color. They do nothing to increase our bodily autonomy or help consensual sex workers and trafficking survivors alike to survive abuse and exploitation. Instead, they divide us even further — pitting women and queer communities against one another, prioritizing class status and “respectability” over political solidarity.
It’s vital to our cause that the public understand the differences between full decriminalization and the partial decriminalization of the Equality Model. If passed into law in New York, the Equality Model would devastate our community here. The only acceptable solution is to fully decriminalize consensual sex work — giving us freedom and agency, the power to organize for labor rights and access to vital services, without the threat of discrimination or persecution.
The decriminalization of consensual sex work would also make it easier for sex trafficking to be rooted out, and allow us to better serve its survivors. The Equality Model is not a step in the right direction, but rather a giant roadblock obstructing the way forward.
While carceral feminists rely on the paradoxical idea that police and prison violence somehow reduce harm in our communities, sex workers know that lasting change can only come from freedom. Freedom to work as we need, freedom to live without criminalization, freedom to ask for help when we need it. Freedom that can never come to fruition so long as our communities and our work are still policed.
This article was originally published by Filter, an online magazine covering drug use, drug policy and human rights through a harm reduction lens. Follow Filter on Facebook or Twitter, or sign up for its newsletter.
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Molly (pseudonym) is a full-service sex worker and sex-worker activist. She is also a chapter representative for Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) in Brooklyn.