Why Not Decriminalize Trafficking While We’re At It?

(Re-published with permission from Jonah Mix)

Most objections to the Nordic Model – laws criminalizing the purchase of sex, but not its sale – rely on one of two sets of talking points. First is the proud misogyny of men who oppose abolitionism solely because it prevents their easy access to the bodies of female strangers. But among those who consider themselves feminists, progressives, and Leftists, the greatest opposition to criminalizing pimps and johns comes from claims about the adverse effects those laws will have on prostituted women themselves. Spurred by Amnesty International’s ruling on the issue, the last month or so has seen dozens of articles, blog posts, and editorials attempting to show that the Nordic Model stigmatizes, starves, endangers, and (according to one blog post sent to me recently) “literally rapes and murders” women.

The majority of these objections are either intentionally misleading or just false.  For example, defenders of decriminalization often claim the Nordic Model leads to the deportation of undocumented prostituted women who report violence or abuse. This is, unfortunately, something that does sometimes happen. But what these prostitution apologists don’t mention is that the same exact treatment would be received by an undocumented prostituted woman in New Zealand, Germany, or Holland. This applies as well to women who use drugs or commit other crimes.

The vast majority of ills attributed by decrim supporters to the Nordic Model are, in fact, universal to all nations with xenophobic immigration law and ineffective drug policy – whereas the tragedies affecting decriminalized and legalized nations – forced drug takingtrafficking, and rampant sexual abuse – can be traced back to their neoliberal prostitution law in a far straighter line. When you avoid this dishonest conflation and measure the specific results of Nordic Model policy, a different picture emerges: Violence drops and the sex industry shrinksgender equality increases, and male attitudes towards buying sex slowly shift.

Interestingly enough, while the supposed horrors of the Nordic Model are trotted out as reason enough for its rejection, the general principle is agreed upon when it comes to explicitly coerced women and girls who are obviously not consenting. Most supporters of decriminalization would, for example, agree that purchasing sex from twelve year-olds should not be legal. And from this position, it follows that some form of punishment or preventative measure should exist to stop men from doing so – one that would, of course, not criminalize the exploited child, but instead provide her with robust exit services, trauma counseling, and other resources. In short, the Nordic Model.

The two-pronged approach of the Nordic Model – criminalization of the clients and pimps, along with social programs to aid in recovery and healing – is generally approved of in the case of trafficking victims and  children; the name may be taboo, but almost every meaningful response to sexual exploitation has fallen along its general lines. This is a serious problem for the decrim side, considering their previous position that legislating against clients makes women in prostitution unsafe. After all, it’s hard to conceive of a good explanation for why Nordic-style laws would hurt one group while benefiting the other. All of the dangers consenting women face under asymmetrical criminalization (whatever those dangers actually are) would almost certainly be equally likely for children, sex slaves, and other obviously exploited women and girls.

Consider the common objection that laws against sex buyers drives prostitution into secluded areas, where women are less able to assess clients or call for help should one turn violent. There are deeply flawed assumptions behind this argument – as Trisha Baptie once said, “Women date, get engaged to, marry, and live with men who end up murdering them. And I was supposed to figure out if a man was violent in fifteen seconds versus a minute?” The idea of moving prostitution into the open so women’s distress calls can be heard more clearly is also a callous gesture; apparently, there are large groups of people who respond to an industry wherein women routinely scream for their lives by saying, “You know, we should really make sure this screaming happens in a busy place.”

But you can put all that aside and still see the fundamental inconsistency in the decrim position. If the consenting women in prostitution have their ability to predict violence compromised, I can’t see why a prostituted child wouldn’t either. And if an empowered sex worker can’t be heard when she calls for help, why would the sounds of a trafficked sex slave travel any further? Does this mean that those who oppose the Nordic Model on these groups also support the legalization of paid child rape? If not, how do they take that position without opening themselves up to the same criticisms of endangerment that they use so often against abolitionists?

The same brute fact applies to almost every other complaint made against the Nordic Model. If consenting women will be forced into starvation as clients disappear, so too would children who depend on being purchased to survive. If those who freely choose prostitution will be marked with stigma and shame, there’s no reason to assume that burden would stay off the shoulders of the trafficked and abused. And if these reasons alone are enough to reject abolitionist law in the case of the former, why are these costs suddenly acceptable for the latter? Or, to put it another way: How does a supporter of decriminalization believe trafficking and the prostitution of children can be meaningfully addressed without providing legal cover to rape orcreating the conditions that they claim render the Nordic Model unacceptable?

When faced with this dilemma, I see three options: He can agree that the Nordic Model causes harm to both categories of prostituted woman, reject it on those grounds, and endorse men’s right to buy sex from those who are explicitly coerced, in which case he has taken a position most of us find morally repugnant; he can claim that laws against sex buyers don’t harm trafficked or underage women and girls, in which case his argument against the Nordic Model is severely weakened; or he can explain why laws against clients and pimps lead to the deaths of consenting women but somehow manage to save the exploited, in which case he is engaging in denial, dishonesty, or outright fraud.

So I ask: Which is it?

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