Entrepreneur and 2020 Democratic presidential hopeful Andrew Yang said Sunday that "we should consider decriminalizing sex work on the part of the seller," as this would be "helpful in combating human trafficking." Presumably, Yang is talking about prostitution—the form of sex work that is illegal in the U.S. even when all parties involved are consenting adults.
Sex workers, human rights organizations, and criminal justice reformers around the world have been fighting to decriminalize prostitution in places where it remains illegal or where restrictions on legal prostitution are so intense that most sex workers end up criminalized anyway. These activists argue—with both a lot of data and a lot of personal experiences on their side—that relegating prostitution to the black market only puts the people involved in more danger and allows more abuses to be perpetrated against them. The only way to truly protect sex workers and cut down on coercive, forced, or underage prostitution (a.k.a. "sex trafficking") is "rights, not rescue," as one popular rallying cry goes.
Lately, a coalition of old-school moral crusaders (includings both the Christian right and certain retrograde feminists) has taken to co-opting the language of the sex worker rights movement to push their anti-sex work agenda. This means many of them say they are for prostitution "decriminalization" while still pushing to keep prostitution between consenting adults as a crime.
They get away with this linguistic malpractice by saying that they would decriminalize the act of offering paid sex as long as it is still illegal to purchase such services.
Obviously, this is not decriminalization within any normal meaning of the word.
Yang's preferred model would still mean devoting law enforcement resources to catching people attempting to pay for sex—and that would mean monitoring and conducting stings on sex workers. Sex workers would still be unable to advertise openly, to band together for safer working conditions, or to screen clients in an efficient manner, among other things that could actually "be helpful in combating human trafficking" and sexual violence.
Yes, sex workers would, under select circumstances, be able to avoid arrest and jail. But their business would remain in the black market, nullifying almost any practical benefits of decriminalization.
This bad idea has taken root in centrist political circles as calls for decriminalizing prostitution grow louder and sex worker rights becomes more of a mainstream issue. Endorsing this asymmetric criminalization model—which has gone through a slew of rebrandings and is known variously as the Swedish Model, the Nordic Model, the Equality Model, and End Demand—lets politicians, particularly Democrats, pay lip service to sex worker concerns while still appeasing those convinced that the U.S. is in the midst of a "human trafficking epidemic."
When she was running for president, Sen. Kamala Harris (D–Calif.) repeatedly said she was for decriminalization while still talking about the need to arrest "johns" (that is, prostitutes' customers). Now Yang is taking up this banner.
Proponents of partial criminalization tend to frame it as a feminist and sex-worker-friendly solution. But consider that a large majority of sex workers are women and their customers men, a breakdown that grows even more pronounced in police and political discourse on prostitution, where "sellers" and "buyers" are basically always gendered as female and male, respectively. That gives you a frame in which men and women can participate in the same consensual sexual exchange, with the men criminalized for their participation and the women not. This so-called "Equality Model" considers adult women's sexual consent as it does that of children: invalid.
Adults are rightfully barred from sexual activity with minors because we recognize that a child's consent to sex is not meaningful. (The child, of course, is not criminalized in this scenario.) Do we really want to apply the same standard to grown women? To consider them less than fully adult, lacking the full mental capacity to meaningfully consent?
Sex workers on Twitter have been telling Yang this.
"You are wrong in every way that it's possible to be wrong," tweeted the Seattle dominatrix Mistress Matisse. "Sexworkers want rights, not rescue."
"NO Andrew, you should not consider this," said another dom, Mistress Scarlet. "Sex workers do NOT want the Nordic/Swedish model. We do NOT want our clients arrested. Listen to US!!! We want full decriminalization of all adult consensual sex work!!"
"You should consult with sex workers because the language here is all wrong. We want FULL decrim, not just for the seller, but the buyer too," wrote the writer, activist, and porn performer Sydney Leathers. "There's no situation where criminalizing clients is good for sex workers (& we're not all victims!)"
The comments like this go on and on.
Let's hope that Yang—who has built a reputation for outside-the-swamp thinking—will actually listen to what sex workers and their allies are telling him right now. Yang is right that "we should consider decriminalizing sex work," but not only "on the part of the seller." We should decriminalize sex work on the part of all parties involved so long as everyone is a consenting adult. Only by doing that do we have any chance of helping sex sellers who fall outside that category.