A Baffling Response

I find myself increasingly baffled by Ms. Post’s responses, which despite cursory references to my essays appear to come from someone who hasn’t read them at all.  I can think of no other reason why she would begin her latest reply by quoting the charlatan Melissa Farley, whose biased, dishonest and repeatedly debunked “studies” I spent two lengthy paragraphs exposing in my reply to her first response essay.  Yet out of seven footnotes in her second one, five are attributed to Farley.  That isn’t to say that the other two are any more credible; one of them references the Australian ideologue Sheila Jeffreys, a person so out of touch with reality that she wrote (in her book The Idea of Prostitution), “The act which men commonly perform on prostituted women is penis-in-vagina sexual intercourse.  There is nothing ‘natural’ about that act.”  Jeffreys has also described heterosexual feminists as “enemy collaborationists” and decried heterosexuality as “the basis of oppression of women by men.”  Post’s remaining reference is to Julie Bindel, a British journalist who derides respecting the sexual agency of adult women as “fun feminism,” has repeatedly attacked transgender people and, like Farley and Jeffreys, is not exactly known for her honesty.  While it’s true that Ms. Post may have been unaware of these women’s estrangement from important qualities like truthfulness and ethicality, it seems unwise for her to continue to associate her position with them without as much as a single reference in answer to the well-known criticisms, especially those I presented about Farley.

This is even more true in light of Ms. Post’s apparent recognition of the concept of guilt by association; though it is true that in her attack on the Nevada brothel system she clearly states that she is responding to Dr. Weitzer, one would think she would have at least acknowledged that one of the points I made in my lead essay was that legalization systems such as that in Nevada  are not all that preferable to criminalization, and so onerous that most women prefer to work illegally rather than submit to them.  In fact, the attack on the Nevadan and Australian brothel systems which makes up the lion’s share of her response takes on the appearance of a straw man when one considers that my lead essay specifically states that legalization systems create nearly as many problems as they solve, and that one of the primary reasons New South Wales decriminalized prostitution rather than legalizing it was to avoid these problems.  One might even be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that Ms. Post felt compelled to attack a legalization model which I don’t support due to a pronounced lack of valid factual criticisms of the decriminalization model which I, every major sex worker rights organization and a growing number of health and human rights advocates do support.

The sections of Ms. Post’s response not devoted to citing debunked dogma or attacking a legal system neither I nor the other mentioned authorities recommend are devoted to a disturbing reiteration of common myths about sex work: among these are the 19th-century notion that sex workers spread disease (when in fact, our rates are consistently lower than those in the non-celibate sector of the general public); the strange but popular belief that sex work involves a total, passive surrender to men’s desires that virtually nobody (other than Sheila Jeffreys and company) pretends is characteristic of noncommercial sex; and the demonstrably false claim that the violence associated with criminalized sex work derives from the sex rather than the criminality, an idea which must surely seem suspect to anyone who has lived through the War on Drugs or is familiar with the history of the gay community over the past century.

I do agree with Ms. Post about one thing, though; the legal status of prostitution is indeed a measure of a society, and it does indeed set a tone.  When government is allowed to criminalize the consensual behavior of rational adults, it makes a statement.  When women’s work is devalued as being “receptacles for men,” and when sex is defined as the totality of our being (so that sale of sex is defined as sale of our whole persons), it makes a statement.  When individual choices are dismissed by powerful authorities whose decisions are inflicted on those individuals by organized violence, it makes a statement.  And when the sending of such “messages” takes precedence over the health and well-being of real humans, it makes a very real and truly horrifying statement.     

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Sex work is ubiquitous. Where a substantial demand exists, some people will inevitably try to meet that demand for a price. Retired call girl and madam Maggie McNeill reviews the various legal regimes that have been set up to regulate and/or prohibit sex work. She concludes that many approaches, particularly the most restrictive ones, increase the likelihood of harm to all participants. They tend to infantalize women and invest law enforcement with arbitrary and dangerous powers. She argues that the best approach is a regime of simple legalization, without licensing or heavy restrictions.

Response Essays

  • Prof. Ronald Weitzer argues that prostitution should be treated as a legal commercial transaction. He finds that much of the conventional wisdom on the sex trade is the result of generalizing from experience under legal regimes where it is criminalized. He argues that in a legally tolerant regime, many of the problems we observe today would vanish. He argues for a set of “best practices” that would entail some government regulation of sex work, including subjecting business owners to background checks and licensing, zoning regulations, and restrictions on advertising. These measures would make decriminalization politically palatable and protect against a possible backlash. He also finds, contrary to McNeill’s claim, that no country has fully deregulated sex work.

  • Dianne Post argues that prostitution is a form of exploitation, and that the only proper response is to abolish it. Prostitution, she argues, only exists because of material inequalities. Worse, it tends strongly to produce further inequalities – material, social, and political in nature. Prostitution traps women in economic dependency on men, and it encourages men to view women merely as commodities. Following this strong normative case against prostitution, Post looks at the empirical evidence, where she concludes that experiments with legalization have all been failures. She praises the “Nordic Model” approach to sex work, in which in which sex workers’ clients are prosecuted, rather than the women involved in prostitution.

  • Steven Wagner argues that the large majority of prostitutes are not workers at all, because they are not acting voluntarily: they are enslaved. The personal experiences of Ms. McNeill notwithstanding, many others have suffered horribly in prostitution, and even left-leaning governments like that of France under the socialists have justifiably outlawed the sex trade. Wagner likewise prefers the Swedish approach, in which prostitutes are not treated as criminals, but those who attempt to buy sex are.