You may or may not be aware, but there is a significant kerfuffle that has long been brewing on the fringes of feminist activism between two camps or philosophies about the proper way to address the social ills in and around the industrial provision of sex for sale.
On one side you have a variety of old school, traditional feminist views. These views are informed in large part by a traditional feminist idea that the sale of sex is always already the oppression of the sold body. Since the vast majority of prostitution and pornography involves the sale of female bodies, the traditional feminist view of the power structure inherent in prostitution and pornography is that the industries involved in that sale are central pillars of patriarchal oppression.
The view opposed to the traditional feminist appraisal of pornography and prostitution is variously called “3rd wave” or “sex-positive” feminism because it takes a specifically different view on the question of commercial sex. Rather than viewing it as inherently oppressive, this current tends to view the sale of sex as something that can be exploited but that is not inherently exploitative. Further it postulates that for some women, who it describes not as prostitutes but as sex-workers, the sale of sex is something that can be done through an empowered free choice without negative social consequences like the patriarchal oppression of women.
The Cytyzen Cypher views words like “patriarchy” and “oppression” as unrelentingly ideologically loaded and that therefore that they should be avoided by serious people attempting to engage in reasoned discourse. That said, we are not attempting here to lay out a philosophy of prostitution or pornography, but rather to describe two different views about those industries in our present global capitalist economy. For an outsider it is difficult to reconcile or understand the two because both claim the imprimatur of “feminism” a term itself so ideologically loaded at this late date that it itself is probably become nearly meaningless beyond signifying some sort of claim about concern for the rights of women. Beyond that, who knows. As our favorite professor occasionally quoted another scholar as saying, we believe a feminist is just one who asks the question “how does this affect women.”
Many people who claim to be feminists, in our view, fail to pass this rather simple test, but again, this is the danger inherent in all ideology. A problem for another time.
Unsurprisingly, then, when it comes to policy proposals about how to deal with the undeniable social ills of prostitution (incarceration, exploitation, the spread of STI, rape, violence, death, serial killers, abuse, and everything else that typically comes with your typical capitalist wage slavery) these two camps have very different ideas about what we should do.
The Traditionalists favor a legal approach that has come to be called the “Nordic Model” because it was pioneered by the Scandinavian socialist states, and Sweden in particular. The concept underlying the Nordic Model is that prostitution is a bad thing but the women (and men) in prostitution are not criminals but victims. To that end, the Nordic Model has as it’s goal an end to the demand for commercial sex. To achieve that goal it eliminates criminal sanctions for the sale of sex and only imposes criminal penalties on the purchase of sex or pandering.
The Sex-Workers rights groups, by contrast, think that the Nordic model is bad because it will lead to further harm against prostitutes. They argue that John’s will be worse because of the fear of punishment, and that the decriminalization of the sale of sex alone will lead to collateral consequences for issues like housing and access to services among sex-workers. They often rally behind the slogan “sex work is work” and approach the question from the position that women who wish to sell sex should be empowered to do so in a de-stigmatized environment no different from the provision of other services. They argue that the continued criminalization of the purchase of sex will lead to the continued stigma of sex workers and the concordant socio-economic disadvantage that comes with it.
I see serious problems with both of these views. On the one had, the Sex-Workers rights groups do have a point that there seem to be some percentage of women who would like to work as sex workers and whose individual autonomy should be enough to empower them to do so while at the same time taking full advantage of the services available to everyone else. To the extent that the Nordic Model, or an “end-demand” approach actually takes as it’s primary goal an end to the sale of sex, it is not putting first and foremost the actual problems of the women working in prostitution and may create collateral consequences for them that are unjust, and made manifestly more so by the fact that most sex workers are from disadvantaged socio-economic classes.
On the other hand the critics of the nordic model who favor full decriminalization often fail to attack the theory of the nordic model and instead focus on particular problems in particular jurisdictions that at least theoretically could be address by a better written law that would still be The Nordic Model. For example, Amnesty International has recently released a report on Prostitution in Norway that calls for the end of the Nordic Model and its replacement with New Zealand style full decriminalization of the sale of sex. The report–available online here–explicitly equates the Nordic Model with the Norwegian legal framework:
This report, therefore, does not consider the impact of the ban on purchasing sex in isolation. Rather it considers how the range of laws that prohibit commercial sex in Norway – and make up the so-called “Nordic Model” – impact on the lives and human rights of sex workers. It also considers how other laws – such as immigration provisions – are being used in a targeted way against people who sell sex, as a means to reduce/eradicate sex work.
Now, the authors of the report should be commended for being upfront about their bias in this way. However, given how intellectually dishonest this move is, it’s difficult to look uncritically at the rest of their reporting and take it at face value. Why is this intellectually dishonest, you ask? Because what this criticism of the Nordic Model in fact amounts to is the argument that Norway has failed to eliminate all of the negative consequences for sex workers in Norway. The only honest conclusion one could draw from that is that Norway has implemented a flawed version of the Nordic Model that has failed to actually legalize the sale of sex despite its claims to the contrary. So far, so good. However, this is then used by the reports authors as a criticism of the Nordic Model itself. That is, what the report says is that Norway has failed to implement the Nordic Model so the Nordic Model should be abandoned in favor of Amnesty’s preferred policy of full decriminalization. The logical flaw here is obvious and damning of Amnesty’s position and the credibility of its report.
That has not stopped it from being accepted at face value by the growing cadre of credulous hacks at the New York Times. The Sex Work Policy Beat at the Grey Lady is covered by a reporter named Emily Bazelon who has, again to her credit, been upfront about her personal believe that full decriminalization is the right policy solution. That said, she is generally quite bad at separating her personal bias from her reporting as her article on the Amnesty report reveals. Rather than noting the report authors’ sleight of hand in substituting Norwegian law for the Nordic model and then pretending as though their criticisms of the former apply to the latter, Bazelon accepts it uncritically and without comment:
Norway adopted the Nordic model in 2009 (following Sweden, which did so in 1999).
Amnesty also calls into doubt the claim that the Nordic model effectively combats trafficking, calling the Norwegian government’s evidence to this effect “fundamentally weak and undermined by alternative evidence.” Out of 280 reported cases of sex trafficking from 2006 to 2014, only 32 ended with a conviction.
In researching my article, and in the outpouring of criticism of it from abolitionists, I couldn’t find a convincing case for the Nordic model. Let’s see what the response to Amnesty’s latest reports brings.
Now perhaps one should not expect such rigor from a New York Times staffer but Bazelon is also a research scholar at Yale Law School and a distinguished graduate of that same institution so she presumably understands the difference between a model law and any given state’s implementation of that model. As such, this conceptual slippage has to be either another example of ideological blindness or a sort of sloppy reporting that is unfortunately becoming par for the course at the much diminished Newspaper of Record. Bazelon is either being willfully ignorant, or she’s phoning this in without doing her job. There really isn’t a third option.
All of which is not the same as saying that the critics of the Nordic Model don’t have a point. Many of the criticisms described in the Amnesty report are damning of the Norwegian program and, to the extent that one wants to make the claim that the Nordic Model can only be implemented in the way that Norway has and therefore the problems described in Norway are inevitable, there could be the skeleton of a legitimate criticism here.
The problem is that no one in this debate is operating in good faith and the available data is all so badly biased by the “researchers” preconceptions that it’s difficult for a third party to come to the debate and reach an informed conclusion.
This is the fault of the traditionalist supporters of the Nordic Model as much as anybody. Bazelon has been attacked unfairly for her her families connections to George Soros, for her Ivy League “elitism,” and for the fact that she failed to disclose the claim that Amnesty’s decriminalization policy was in part authored by a pimp in the UK. See, for example, this article that reiterates all these claims. Considering Bazelon’s unflinching admission that she’s on the side of the decriminalizers, all of these claims amount to little more than slander for slander’s sake. We know Bazelon’s bias, via her own admission, and there’s no ethical requirement for her to unearth her entire personal history to show why that bias might exist in order to be a good faith participant in the public discourse on this topic.
Even worse, the insistence by traditionalists of referring to all sex workers, prostitutes, and even pornography performers as “prostituted women” or “trafficking victims,” serves to confuse the issue for outsiders since these are terms of art within their own ideologically informed discourse that do not mean the same things as most outsiders would take them to mean. Professional sex workers like the many women who loudly and vocally proclaim that they have a right to earn a living through the sale of their bodies in sexual service to others should be taken at their word that they are not deluded, pathological, or in need of “saving.” By failing to recognize this, traditionalists minimize the agency and humanity of the women they purport to represent and their own claims must accordingly be examined only with deep skepticism.
So where does that leave the nonspecialist outsider wondering what policy is best? I believe it leaves us precisely nowhere. In a republic this is a serious problem because it means that lawmakers of good will and the voters who elect them are faced with an insurmountable challenge in trying to craft a policy that will achieve all the various ends of preventing exploitation and sexual slavery, allowing individual women the agency to make the choices that make the most sense for themselves, ensuring that women who choose sex work can do so safely and seek police protection for crimes committed against them, preventing the legal collateral consequences of sex work from further harming women’s lives, and giving women who don’t wish to engage in sex work an easily available exit from the industry.
These are all serious problems that face us all and that we are all complicit in failing to address. It’s unfortunate that the activists who care most about it have so muddied the waters of policy that we find ourselves more paralyzed and unable to reach a valid opinion on the policy matter the more we dig into the topic.