"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.
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?