Former Sex Worker & Activist Maggie McNeill on Why We Should Decriminalize Prostitution: 'This Is Not What Feminism Was Supposed to Be'

"There is a very common form of rhetoric that's used against us … that sex work isn't work. That it's a dodge. That it's a scam. That it's a form of exploitation," says Maggie McNeill, a former sex worker turned activist who blogs at The Honest Courtesan. "We still pretend that there's a magical mumbo jumbo taboo energy about sex that makes it different from all other human activities."

McNeill sat down with Reason TV's Thaddeus Russell for a wide-ranging interview where she responds to the feminist critique of sex work, explains why research on trafficking may not be reliable, and says why prostitution should be decriminalized.

"The problem is that there are already laws for these things," states McNeill. "We have a name for sex being inflicted on a woman against her will. We call it rape. We have a name for taking someone and holding them prisoner somewhere. We call that abduction. … Why do we need [prostitution] to be laid on top of all these other things that already are crimes?" 

Produced by Alexis Garcia. Shot by Garcia and Zach Weissmueller. Music by Lee Maddeford

About 28 minutes. 

Transcript below. 

REASON: Hi, I'm Thad Russell with Reason TV. Today we're joined by Maggie McNeill, a former sex worker who runs the very popular and important blog The Honest Courtesan. She also wrote the lead article in the December 2013 CATO Unbound in which she argued for the decriminalization of prostitution. Thanks, Maggie for joining us. 

MCNEILL: Pleased to be here, Thad. 

REASON: So, I want to start with a criticism made by Katha Pollitt in The Nation magazine. She said that pro-decriminalization sex work activists—activists like you and Melissa Gira Grant—aren't really representative of sex workers. That you don't really—because you're educated, you're public intellectuals, you're bloggers, you're writers, you're authors—you don't actually speak for the typical sex worker, but you pretend to. How do you respond to that?

MCNEILL: Well, this is based on the concept that there is a a sex worker type—that there's a specific kind of person who is a sex worker. And there isn't. We run the gamut. There are every kind of person that you can imagine meeting in day-to-day life can be a sex worker. And so to say that I'm not representative, or Melissa Gira is not representative—or anybody is not—is rather foolish. It's pretending that there is only one type. I'm not any more or less representative than anybody else. 

REASON: So what types are there? I mean, when we think of a sex worker we think of—in America—I think American culture we typically think of a woman working under an overpass or on Santa Monica Boulevard in Hollywood at three in the morning. Or a Cambodian peasant. Is that who they are?

MCNEILL: No. I mean those exist, certainly. But that's a minority. I would say, if I had to judge, the average sex worker now in the United States—okay we're talking just the United States—is probably middle class to working class, is an escort. She advertises on the internet. She's independent. She doesn't work for anybody else. That's probably the average now. That's probably the norm. 

REASON: So numbers—you've spent a lot of time on your blog trying to debunk the numbers that are commonly thrown around sex work. So let's talk about some numbers. This is where I think you're very useful. On the United States State Department website right now it says that there are up to 27 million slaves in the world. Where does that number come from?

MCNEILL: That number comes from a man named Kevin Bales. He runs an organization called Free the Slaves. And at a conference—I can't recall offhand what kind of a conference it was—some kind of UN thing a few years ago—somebody asked him to sort of make a spit balling just guesstimate of how many there were. And he said "Well, if I had to guess it would probably be like the third largest criminal enterprise in the world." And of course ever since then that's been quoted as iron clad. As some kind of thing derived by math. The 27 million number he did by creating a sort of an algorithm—well that's what he calls it anyway—that takes State Department estimates, other things, plugs them into a formula, inflates them by what he considers to be some sort of a number to represent things that aren't being reported and multiplies in media reports. And of course the danger of this is that when you're using media reports in the middle of a panic, your numbers are going to keep increasing. The more people talk about it, the higher of number of media reports is. 

REASON: I've seen numbers like 30 million, 35 million thrown around. Slaves. And also, I've seen sort of an implicit assumption that most of those are sex slaves. First of all, what is the real number here?

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  • Tim||

    In a statement Donovan said "Prostitution can involve violence against women, addiction and in some circumstances can be human trafficking. It's important that we educate community members that prostitution is far more complex and dangerous than just a business transaction. "

    Seven men were arrested June 18 in an undercover prostitution investigation in South Burlington, police said.

    The South Burlington Police Department placed an online ad on a website used by prostitutes, and within minutes requests came in from text messages and phone calls, police said. The ad was online for six hours and during that time, 40 people made contact with an undercover officer in Vermont, police said.

    The ad generated 285 separate contacts with the undercover officer.

    Seven of the people were given a location to meet up with a prostitute and engage in sexual activity, police said. All seven were arrested at the Anchorage Inn and released on a citation to appear in Vermont Superior Court July 3.

  • Tim||

    UPDATE: In lieu of charging seven men who were implicated in prostitution sting, the men will be required to take a class about human trafficking.

    State Attorney Thomas J. Donovan says men will be required to attend a class on understanding the complex circumstances that underlie prostitution.

    The class will be run by Give Way To Freedom, a private operating foundation that creates and supports culturally relevant projects aimed at providing care and empowerment to survivors of human trafficking, as well as those vulnerable to human trafficking. Edith Klimoski will lead the class, she is a member of the Vermont Human Trafficking Task Force.

  • Curtisls87||

    Five dollar bet that Give Way To Freedom was the main solicitor of the state in setting up this "class."

  • Tim||

    I'd bet they instigated the whole sting.

  • MegaloMonocle||

    Prostitution can involve violence against women, addiction and in some circumstances can be human trafficking.

    Mostly because its illegal. This is how black markets work. Want to stop it? Legalize the market.

  • rickl7069||

    Accounting methods are no different than any other illegal field where there is state money to be had "solving the problem".
    Drug addiction rates are based off the theory that every person that smokes a doobie is an addict - which is no more sane than saying that anyone that has a drink is an alcoholic - I guess everyone is a food addict.
    However, many people have a vested interest in inflating these numbers - mandatory drug counseling courts and classes, etc...

  • rickl7069||

    Oh, I also love how the amount of people seeking treatment is used to show how bad the drug addiction problem is. Of course, most of those people would NOT seek drug treatment, they are there because of court order or pending cases.

  • Rasilio||

    Oh sure, first you're going to legalize it. Then you're going to demand that medicaid and medicare cover prostitution services the way that enlightened European countries do. Then you're going to demand that employers pay for their workers to see prostitutes as part of their health insurance packages.

    Reason is just a tool of Big Pimp

  • John||

    McNeil's blog the honest courtesan is a pretty interesting read. It must make feminists head explode. She actually thinks wives have a duty to satisfy their husband's sexually.

    I tend to agree with Glen Renyolds in that prostitution laws are just the law trying to ensure women have total control over male sexuality. Without prostitution, men have sex when women decide they will and that is it.

  • OldMexican||

    Re: John,

    She actually thinks wives have a duty to satisfy their husband's sexually.

    My wife would beg to differ. She believes that *I* have to satisfy her sexually and that it should be more than... once a month. Such a nympho.

  • Rasilio||

    Lol yeah.

    I'm with Mexican on this one. I could bang my wife anytime I wanted to, problem is I don't want to anywhere near as often as she wants me to

  • John||

    Maybe we should work out some kind of a trade.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Hit 'n Run Wife Swap.

    Sounds legit.

  • John||

    Reason is a din of inequity.

  • BakedPenguin||

    I'm sure most progs would agree with that. They'd also think it's a den of iniquity.

  • John||

    That too BP.

  • BakedPenguin||

    "din of inequity" is brilliant, whether legitimate typos, or you were deliberately joking around. Seriously, top shelf.

  • jdgalt||

    Women have that control either way. With sex work, men simply have one more persuasion tool available to them. Every man, if he lives to be old enough, will one day need that additional tool.

  • ||

    Yeah, it kinda came across (wrong) in this light to me too.

    The churchies at Hobby Lobby don't strike me as "Victorian-era", "magical mumbo jumbo", types. I agree that laws could be reformed, but saying our culture needs to grow up because the other side is a bunch of doo doo heads seemed kinda stupid to me.

    Any woman who thinks any sex law is written the way it is because the church needs to ask herself how her father would right the sex laws. Also, any woman who describes whatever happens at her OB/GYN as intimate has either crossed a line with their OB/GYN or has a really twisted definition of intimate.

    "Now please, turn your head and cough."

  • John||

    The biggest drivers of prostitution being illegal is women. And they do it to control men.

    The question I have is if sex really is for fun and not procreation, then what is the justification for monogamy? It used to be that monogamy was justified because you had sex to have kids and to raise kids you need to be sure who the father is and have two parents around to raise them. In this day and age of available birth control, that justification doesn't work very well does it?

  • Hawk Spitui||

    Yes, but notice most of the "legalize prostitution!" articles at Reason are also written by women.

    'Smatter ladies? Does Reason really pay that bad?

  • Robert||

    Let alone the justif'n for same-sex marriage.

  • Logical 1||

    @John - I think religion is the biggest reason prostitution is illegal. Christopher Hitchens has a real eye-opening chapter in "God is Not Great" about sexist views of all religions and that women are the "bad guy" in all matters involving sex.

    Lots of women use their sexuality as "currency" so to speak. From the girls at the bar schmoozing for free drinks to the full-blown gold-digger - Women don't need to eliminate prostitutes to manipulate men by using sex.

    Men resent the fact that women are most often the "gate-keepers" of sex.

  • Logical 1||

    Oh yeah, and historically men have made most of the laws in this country.

  • John||

    Just because men make the laws doesn't mean that women don't have any input. Further, the sexual power that women have comes at the expense of other women just as much as it comes at the expense of men. What man is going to argue for legalized prostitution and then go home and explain his position to his wife?

    And Hitchens is an ignoramus on the subject of religion. He doesn't even get the criticism right. For most of the history of Christianity prostitution was legal because men were not considered to ever be guilty of adultery. Only women were guilty. The concern in all societies has always been married and bethrothed women who cheat and thus make the paternity of children in doubt. No one has ever cared about whores or about men risking their soul in sex. That came later. And that came primarily because married women got more powerful in society and didn't want their husbands out cheating.

    Show me society that is truly patriarchal and I will show you a society where prostitution, at least of the female variety is accepted. When the sexes started to get more equal is when women stepped in and demanded that it be legal.

    Hitchens was a good writer but he didn't know shit about history or religion beyond his own idiotic prejudices. I suggest you find a better class of atheist to read, if you want intelligent critiques of religion.

  • Whahappan?||

    I have numerous times said prostitution should be legal in front of my wife, even with others present. She tends to agree with me. No big deal.

  • Robert||

    Not an explanation, Logical 1. "Religion" is just a label wrapped around some of the things we think. It doesn't explain why people have this "religious" belief.

  • Logical 1||

    Robert, that is fair criticism. What I meant is that religion teaches that sex is a sin, it's evil and immoral (except when it's used to make more sheeple). Maybe there were practical reasons for this view--avoiding STDs and unwanted pregnancies--but this attitude still remains (millions of people still believe in a virgin birth!). I read a borrowed copy of Hitchen's book so I don't have it handy to quote from but IMO his insightfulness is brilliant.

  • JParker||

    You don't understand libertarianism, do you. Libertarians don't buy into the argument that government must either prohibit or support activities, rather than simply leaving them alone.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    We still pretend that there's a magical mumbo jumbo taboo energy about sex that makes it different from all other human activities."

    I guess Ms. McNeil isn't much into tantra.

    Her loss.

  • John||

    She makes a valid point but that ignores biology. The fact is that women and some men really do attach special significance to sex. And I really don't think it is based entirely on socialization. I think it is based on biology and the biological association of sex and procreation. Why do women feel betreyed or of lesser value when a guy bangs them and moves on? Because for the thousands of years before birth control that happening often meant having a child with no way to provide for it. It makes sense that we women would be hard wired to feel bad when a guy screws them and doesn't want a commitment. Women of course still free will and can ignore that preference. And some may not have it. But most do and most have a hard time ignoring it for whatever reason.

    The problem is that we as a society have no coherent position on sex. It is supposed to be for fun when you are young and single but then when you get married it is supposed to take on some special significance such that you don't do it with anyone else. Well, why not when you were doing it for fun with people before? What is so special about marriage is sex is just another fun activity? Why does it cease to be that when you get married?

    Since sex is no longer associated with procreation, we have no real rational answer to that. We just have a lot of mumbo jumbo about "emotional commitment" and such.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I don't believe you even have to go that deep. Just ask yourself, "Does anything feel as good as sex? Does anything come even close?" The closest I found was the first time I fired full-auto, and even that was a distant second.

  • John||

    Sure. But I have a hard time constructing a rational societal and ethical framework for sex that isn't either the Catholic extreme of sex is all about procreation and nothing else or the libertine extreme that sex is just another fun activity and nothing else. I am not endorsing either view. I am saying whatever their faults, both view at least are internally consistent and rational based on their assumptions. The problem is when you try to construct anything in between, you wind up either ignoring the implications of your assumptions or following them and ending up at one or the other extreme.

    That is where society is now. We want to believe that sex is special and all that when we want it to be, usually in marriage or some committed relationship. But at the same time we want to believe it is this great fun activity that anyone can engage in as long as they are not committed to someone else and everyone is an adult. You really can't rationalize those two positions.

  • Robert||

    As Alan Watts said (quoting someone IIRC), society makes sex good-bad. And both the "good" and "bad" aspects are made, together, into a much bigger deal than an objective look would justify. The decision to fuck or not with a particular person or at all is overlaid with a fear of regret that is inconceivable when it comes to other good, or even good-bad things. Like, it's harder to be friends once you've had sexual intercourse with each other. What about once you've seen a good show or something else pleasurable together? I don't understand it.

  • John||

    Yes we do. We see this with regards to homosexuality. Both sides act like anyone who is a homosexual is somehow compelled to act on it and it defines their entire existence, rather than seeing it as just another preference. Christians do this by pretending that the sin of homosexuality is some kind of special sin. That is bunk. It is no different a sin than hatred or envy or greed or anything else. Since Christians fixate on sex as some kind of special sin, they often can't reconcile their commitment to forgiveness with homosexuals. It absurd. You can accept a homosexual as a sinner just like you can any other sinner. We all sin. Accepting each other isn't an endorsement of our sins. It is an acknowledgement of our equality in sin.

    In contrast, the pro homosexual side thinks that objecting to homosexuality as wrong is something special and different than objecting to any other form of behavior or preference. That homosexuality is somehow entitled to universal acceptance in a way no other choice is. Both sides are completely obsessed with sex to the detriment of their rationality.

  • On The Random, Mandelbrot||

    "That homosexuality is somehow entitled to universal acceptance in a way no other choice is."

    You assume that sexuality is a choice. When did you choose to be straight? If you are.

    Homosexuals expect acceptance because it is not a choice. I think the greatest day for any human would be the day they are simply accepted for human with all the natural born rights that entails, without having to be categorized. Why should I have to be excepted to be accepted?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I forget what sutra it was in, but I remember that the Buddha stated that sexual desire was the most powerful tanha, and that if there were another as equally powerful, then even he wouldn't have achieved enlightenment. Watts, as always, showed that sex, like all dharmas, is essentially "empty".

  • John||


    Sex is like any other worldly pleasure, transient and ultimately unfulfilling.

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    Indeed. But in the meantime, I'm gonna keep trying to fulfill myself.

  • MegaloMonocle||

    "Does anything feel as good as sex? Does anything come even close?"

    To crush your enemies, see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentation of their women?

  • Heroic Mulatto||

    I'll contemplate that on the tree of woe.

  • John||

    There is that of course. But there are some deviants out there who are not into that.

  • On The Random, Mandelbrot||

    I think this is largely a tie in to religion and the religious definition of marriage. I've had some very open minded married couples as friends and without fail, they were atheist or 'spiritual' with no tie to religion. They are 'moral' and productive members of society, with no issues around the transition from single to married you've described. I'm sure there are other types, but I would bet the conflict for the majority would come from their religion.

  • Robert||

    VID: Former Sex Worker & Activist Maggie McNeill On Why We Should Decriminalize Prostitution

    I misread that as, "VD:...Why We Should Decriminalize Prostitution" and thought, "Fuck, yeah."

  • Brandon||

    Decriminalize Prostitution

    Fuck that half-assed shit. Legalize it, don't regulate it, maybe sales tax on the service.

  • Kevin263||

    In the context of sex work policy, decriminalization typically refers to a relatively free market in the sex industry. Legalization refers to policies where it's legal but very heavily regulated with things like licensing, mandatory STI testing, etc (e.g., Netherlands, Germany, Canada).

  • Brandon||

    Oh. Thank you. Then decriminalize.

  • taylor522||

    its awesome,,, Start working at home with Google. It’s a great work at home opportunity. Just work for few hours. I earn up to $100 a day. I can’t believe how easy it was once I tried it out.

  • jdgalt||


  • Thomas O.||

    I don't think Google accepts sex-work ads....

  • JParker||

    I would have really liked Ms. McNeil to have been asked about what reaction she gets to these arguments, and why they aren't as compelling to some as they seem they ought to be.

  • Ryan Page||

    Well I couldn't agree more with this. It's a matter of consent between two adults. We've got sites like Rub Maps, craigslist, backpage all catering towards this growing market. It's not a surprise that there needs to be legalization and regulation. Hopefully, there can be a difference in this market.

  • joeshuren||

    Presumably then with decriminalization the libertarian view of government would limit its activity, just, as in other markets, to enforcement of contracts (between consenting persons who can make legal contracts of course) against force or fraud. Thus, for one example, Mr Sterling would have cause to enforce a contract against his mistress if he could prove consent to a written, signed contract and that either it was agreed with fraud by the other party or was agreed to be violated, and so could collect damages. I'd like to see some model contracts on the order of existing pre-nuptial agreements.

Click here to follow Reason on Instagram


Get Reason's print or digital edition before it’s posted online

  • Video Game Nation: How gaming is making America freer – and more fun.
  • Matt Welch: How the left turned against free speech.
  • Nothing Left to Cut? Congress can’t live within their means.
  • And much more.