Playing The Prostitution Shame Game, With A Little Help From Hyperbole And Fear

by Elizabeth Nolan Brown


Comedian Jim Norton admits that he “cannot even fathom a guess as to how much money” he has spent on paid sex in the past few decades. He isn’t ashamed of his habit, and he doesn’t think other johns should be either. But he does worry that the criminal status of sex work invites violence:

By keeping prostitution illegal because we find it “morally objectionable,” we allow (or, more accurately, you allow) sex workers to constantly be put into dangerous situations. Studies have shown that rapes and STDs dropped drastically between 2003 and 2009 in Rhode Island after the state accidentally legalized it. The American Journal of Epidemiology showed that the homicide rate for prostitutes is 50 times higher than the next most dangerous job for a woman, working in a liquor store. You don’t need a Masters in sociology to understand it would be much safer for sex workers if they were permitted to work in places that provided adequate security. Legalizing prostitution would also alleviate the fear a sex worker may have about reporting the abusive behavior of a john out of fear of arrest.

…. By keeping prostitution illegal and demonizing all of its parties, we (you) are empowering pimps and human traffickers and anyone else who wants to victimize sex workers because they feel helpless under the law.

These are all arguments I make frequently (as do organizations like Amnesty International, the United Nations Development Programme, and Open Society Foundations). Criminalizing consensual sex between adults not only harms the sex workers and johns engaged in it but also the actual victims of sex trafficking, from whom resources are being diverted in order to conduct large, interstate stings on men like Norton. Dan Savage recently criticized such tactics, in response to an organization called Seattle Against Slavery and its Men’s March to End Demand:

The Men’s March organizers said in an e-mail that they hoped to get 75 men (and women and families) at the Men’s March to End Demand. But even if 75,000 men (and women and families) marched tomorrow—even if 750,000 men, women, and families marched—men (and some women) will continue to buy for sex from women (and some men). There have always been sex workers and there always will be sex workers. Sex workers have always had clients and they always will. Marching to “end the demand” for sex work is like marching to end the demand for illegal drugs. Marchers may burn a few calories, and they may leave feeling as if they’ve done something, but people will go right on paying for sex and using drugs.

393px-Have_You_A_Girl_to_Spare_-_The_Great_War_on_White_SlaverySeattle Against Slavery subscribes to the popular, delusional conception that all prostitution is “sex trafficking.” This delusion was recently promulgated by journalist Charlotte Alter in response to Norton’s anti- john-shaming essay. After telling Norton and everyone else they “should be ashamed” to pay for sex – after all, men aren’t “entitled to sex, but women are entitled to human dignity” – Alter asserts:

No amount of rationalization can get around the basic principle of market economics: if people like you didn’t buy girls, they wouldn’t be sold, and if they couldn’t be sold, they wouldn’t be trafficked and abused.

If Norton had said he pays girls for sex, I could see Alter’s point. But he didn’t. Norton wrote about paying for consensual sex with adult women working in the sex industry. Alter responded by accusing him of raping abused girls.

This is a popular tactic from the anti-sex work crowd. It can be hard to convince Americans, with their strong support of individual liberties, that the whys and hows of private adult sex is a proper matter of state concern. But if you can tie adult prostitution to the criminal trafficking of teens and children, more people’s ears start to perk up. And Alter tries her darndest, letting unsubstantiated allegations and spurious statistics fly:

Did you ever consider, Jim, whether these girls … might have slept with you only because they would get beaten if they didn’t make a certain amount of money that night. And if you thought they enjoyed it, they were probably faking, because that’s exactly what you pay them to do. Sure, some woman do choose this line of work, and sex-workers unions argue that prostitution can be a freely made choice, but that’s not the case for the vast majority: U.S. State Department estimates that 80% of the 600,000 to 800,000 people trafficked across international borders every year are trafficked for sex.

This statistic is false. To substantiate it, Alter links not to actual State Department statistics but to a page from the advocacy organization Half the Sky – and even that doesn’t say what Alter says it does:

The U.S. State Department … estimates that between 600,000 and 800,000 people are trafficked across international borders each year. Eighty percent of those trafficked are women and girls, mostly for sexual exploitation.

Half the Sky doesn’t provide any links or citations to back up these claims, either. According to a 2014 report from the State Department, however, only 44,758 victims of any sort of human trafficking were identified worldwide in 2013. Obviously not all or even most of those who are trafficked are identified by global governments, but I do wonder how we leap from less than 50,000 identified victims to an annual estimate of 600,000 and 800,000 victims, not including those who don’t cross country lines.

Of the identified victims, there were people who had been sold into prostitution, domestic labor, farm labor, military subscription, and a number of sectors. While the state department data doesn’t break it down, the International Labor Organization estimates that about 3 times as many people are trafficked into labor as are trafficked into the sex trade, and less if you include those trafficked by state or rebel groups and not just private individuals or enterprises. Women and girls make up a little more than half of total human trafficking victims.

Perhaps Half the Sky’s claim that trafficking is mostly girls and women being sexually exploited comes from the Bureau of Justice, which says that 80 percent of trafficking victims identified by U.S. federal investigations in 2008-2010 were sex trafficking victims. But it would be dangerous to assume the amount identified here reflects the trafficking population as a whole, since U.S. law enforcement puts much more effort into fighting the sex trade (especially these days) than it does cracking down on, say, forced domestic labor.

People like Alter ignore non-sexual trafficking victims in service of their anti-prostitution agenda, then have the audacity to question the motives of men like Norton who want to decriminalize sex work. Writes Alter:

Norton claims that legalizing prostitution would help solve (violence against sex workers), but what he really means is that it would be easier for him to buy sex without his pesky conscience getting in the way of his peskier penis. Because even though there are valid arguments for the legalization of prostitution, I’m finding it hard to believe that Norton really has the best interests of sex workers in mind.

While it’s neat that Alter thinks she can read minds, I guess, there’s nothing in Norton’s text to support her interpretation. He states that he feels no shame about paying for sex, doesn’t think anyone should feel ashamed about it, does not feel bothered by its illegality, and would not buy more sex if it was legal. I don’t see why we have any reason to think that Norton’s stated reason – making the whole business safer, especially for sex workers themselves – is suspect. That is unless, like Allen, you can’t conceive of a world in which anyone could purchase sexual services from someone and still respect their humanity.

(Photo: A demonstrator holds a placard reading ‘yes to the freedom to prostitute oneself’ on November 29, 2013 in Paris during a protest against a bill that would punish clients of prostitutes. By Joel Saget/AFP/Getty Images)