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.
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?
MCNEILL: There is no way to know. As long as governments insist on criminalizing these things, how do you get a number? Nobody is going to come out and talk to—in some places where the criminalization is particularly bad like in the United States or in Sweden—it's difficult to even get sex workers to come out and talk to public health people. Because anybody in a white coat, anybody with an official name tag, is viewed as working with the police, is working with the government. You're simply not going to be able to get those kind of numbers. My opinion, and this is my opinion only, is that the only numbers that can be considered even remotely reliable would be from New Zealand and to a lesser extent New South Wales because they have a decriminalized system. There's no reason in those places for the sex workers to hide. They can't be arrested simply for saying I'm a sex worker. And so I think we can trust their numbers a little better.
REASON: But how high do you think the 27 million figure is?
MCNEILL: I think that's high by probably at least a couple orders of magnitude and the reason I say that is because the UN Office of Drugs and Crime—their numbers that they use for what they say that there's evidence or however they phrase it—or that there's evidence of or that they consider proven or whatever is one percent of that.
REASON: We're talking about people who are allegedly forced into prostitution or other forms of labor, right?
MCNEILL: Correct. Correct.
REASON: We're not talking about voluntary prostitution?
MCNEILL: Well, that's the problem. The problem is that nobody defines trafficking. Trafficking is this very, very broad term. Technically, supposedly, it's supposed to be force or coercion. But that's not what happens in practice. What happens in practice is that you have things like governments saying, "Well we're going to count everyone below"—and this is the United States—"We're going to count everyone below 18 as automatically being coerced, even if they're not." And you have things like police—I was just reading an article from Denver. It was not from this year, but it was last year's article, but still—where basically they said the police—the policeman being interviewed for this article said, "Well, even the ones who think they're not coerced, they really are coerced and we just have to convince them that they're coerced. That's our job." And so you have these sorts of things where people will insist vociferously that they're not being coerced and the courts simply ignore them. New York State now refers all prostitution cases to what they're calling trafficking court. And that's what they're calling it. You've got police departments that are doing straight out street stings—like they've done for a century and they're calling them human trafficking stings. So how do you get a number when you have that sort of thing when everybody has a different definition?
REASON: Here's another number that's used quite often, which is that there are 300,000 trafficked children inside the United States.
MCNEILL: That is a distortion of Estes—Neil Estes—no it was Richard Estes and Neil Weiner I think are the names. Estes and Weiner anyway. In 2001, they did a study that they purported to estimate the number of children, adolescents, and youth—because their number went up to at least 21 because some of these were working strip clubs and such. So their numbers went up to college-age people. And supposedly—this is the number that were at risk of sexual exploitation—was somewhere between 100,000 to 300,000. I think that they gave a number of 270,000.
REASON: So children at risk were defined as being actually trafficked?
MCNEILL: At risk. But not just children. But not just children. Because adolescents and youth also. But that was stripped away. When people quote that, they change at risk to in prostitution. They change children, adolescents, and youth to children. And also, the categories, even the categories. Weiner himself when he was interviewed for a Village Voice story a couple of years ago even said that actual trafficking—what people think of as trafficking—abduction and force—would be a very, very tiny percentage of that whole number. They included things like watching porn. They included things like legally working in a strip club. They included consensual homosexual relations as sexual exploitation. So when you have that kind of a vague—and then they narrow it down in the propaganda to represent something that even the original people who did the study weren't intending.
REASON: Also many anti-trafficking organizations claim that the average age of entry into prostitution is 13.
MCNEILL: There's a researcher named Melissa Farley who does an awful lot of these kind of studies to provide numbers for the anti-prostitution people. And on her site she traced this supposed number of average of 13 to several old studies which all drew back to a study done here in LA actually in the early 80's—in '82. And that study found the average age of entry for underage sex workers—not for all sex workers, but only for underage ones—was about 16. In a different part of the study, they listed 13 as being the average age of first sexual contact. First kiss, first groping in a car, first whatever. Farley seems to have conflated the two numbers to represent that 13 as being the age not of first sexual contact, but of first accepting money for it. Even so, she still was only claiming that that was the age of origin for underage sex workers. Normal distortion, the gossip game syndrome, has changed that from underage to average of all.
REASON: So let's say that these numbers are in fact grossly exaggerated. But would you deny that there are women that are forced into prostitution?
REASON: Would you deny that there are children who are forced into it?
REASON: And then if that's the case, then what is the harm of exaggerating? Because the argument that's made is that it draws attention to a very important problem.
MCNEILL: Oh, I'm sure it does. I'm sure it does draw attention. But the problem is that these—these false numbers, these inflated numbers are invariably linked to purported solutions that aren't solutions. Greater criminalization. The so-called end demand which is the idea of pursuing clients. And the pretense is that sex workers are not being targeted when they still are. They're just being targeted extrajudicially. In the United States, it's really kind of absurd to even claim that we're only targeting the clients when all the laws against sex work—against sale of sex are still on the books. So how can you claim well we're only targeting the clients and what—we just won't charge sex workers when we don't feel like it? When you look at the language that's used in the media reports—especially with these FBI innocence lost, that sort of thing. They'll use the term rescue. And of course rescue means arrest. Rescue means jailing them. In some places it might mean putting them into some sort of facility, some sort of foster-type facility. In other places it just means plain jail. And they're calling this rescue because the premise they seem to be preceding from is that the idea that being in jail is better for these girls—and it's always girls—even though young male sex workers do exist and adult male sex workers do exist. But that's not part of the narrative.
REASON: So is it safe to say that the organizations and individuals that push these numbers are generally not in favor of decriminalization?
MCNEILL: That's correct.
REASON: Let's talk about Somaly Mam, who was recently revealed as essentially perpetrating a fraud—that she claimed that she had been sold into sex slavery in Cambodia. She established a very popular NGO in Cambodia that was a big cause célèbre of many American celebrities. She had women working for whom she claimed were also sold into sex slavery and that has all been I think shown to be a fraud.
MCNEILL: Pretty much, yeah.
REASON: Ok. So let's say that's true and it's all a fraud. What harm did Somaly Mam do?
MCNEILL: Well, for one thing, again, it's the same as what we just were saying. That when you tie these stories to an agenda and there was a very definite agenda in Somaly Mam's case. The agenda in her case was she would have these joint raids with the police. She would get the police to raid brothels—to go in and arrest again—and all the women working there. They would lie about the ages. They would claim that they were younger than they were, generally. They're then incarnated in either her so-called rehabilitation centers or in plain jails where they are subjected to basically the same sort of harsh, awful treatment that sex workers are often subjected to at the hands of police the world round. So the—what the harm is is you—when you have a narrative that is being used directly to justify horrible abusive treatment, I'd say that's a problem.
REASON: So I was reading an interview in VICE recently of an anti-trafficking hero in India—I forget her name—but who runs a rehabilitation center for allegedly trafficked women. And she was asked what happens inside her rehabilitation centers and she refused to answer that. What typically does happen inside those centers?
MCNEILL: It's funny you ask that because just a couple of weeks ago—I do on my blog I do a guest blog once a month. And my last one for May was by a young Indian sex worker who now lives in London. But when she was very young, actually before she even started sex work, she had friends that were sex workers and she was caught up in a raid and imprisoned in one of these centers and she explained what does happen. Well, there's a lot of physical abuse in the arrest process of course. The same as the rest of the world over. But then once they're there in the center, the main function is for them to—their reason for being there is to justify the existence of the NGO—is to justify the NGO continuing to get money. One of the ways they do that is by prosecution. They have to prosecute so-called traffickers. And so they need the girls to serve as witnesses. So they keep the girls against their will as witnesses in these rehabilitation centers while the so-called traffickers pay their bail and go home. And the girls can be kept—in India—because it's the example we're using—their court system is very slow. This can be years that they're sitting in these rehab centers. They're basically treated very poorly and whenever the rich American ladies come to see what their money is paying for they're trotted out to give a show like trained dogs. To give a show for the white ladies that are coming to see. The young woman that wrote the guest column for me told me that she was hidden away whenever these donors came because she could speak some English. And so they basically would lock her up in her room because they only wanted the girls who couldn't speak English so that they couldn't interact in any meaningful with the donors and tell them things they didn't want to hear.
REASON: So you, like many activists insist on using the term "sex work" instead of prostitution. Why is that?
MCNEILL: I'm probably less rigid with it than a lot of others. I pretty much use whatever term I think the person's comfortable with, but sex work is the preferred term in the movement. The reason for this is because there is a very common form of rhetoric that's used against us—it's been for forever—that sex work isn't work. That it is a dodge. That it's a scam. That it's a form of exploitation. That it's a lazy approach to making money. That it's—I mean fill in the blank. Anything other than giving it the dignity of work and as a matter of fact, one of their little mantras that you often hear the prohibitionists spouting these days is that prostitution is not the oldest profession, it's the oldest oppression. So again, when you strip away it's character as work then you take—then you basically are trying to derail the argument of workers' rights. You're trying to derail—we don't question that McDonald's, for example, or the garment industry, or the Apple—the iPad factory—we don't question that these things have a right to exist. Even people who are fighting against what they perceive as abuses in these industries don't question that the industry itself should exist. But in sex work, because it's cast as not work, they pretend that it has no right to exist at all. And so there's these ideas of abolishing it, getting rid of it entirely. Nobody is talking about abolishing fast food. Nobody is talking about abolishing iPads.
REASON: Well I think the argument more commonly is that it is a special form of exploitation—that it's an especially intimate form of exploitation that you find in no other form of work. How do you respond to that argument?
MCNEILL: There's a lot of work that's intimate, isn't there? I mean what about raising peoples' children? But in America we don't have a problem handing our children over to complete strangers to raise them in day cares or nannies. What about therapy? I mean you're telling this person things that you might not even tell your best friend. You might not even tell your spouse. What about nursing? I have friends who are nurses and they have to clean peoples' intimate parts and things like that. My gynecologist gets pretty intimate with my private parts when she examines me. So, the fact of something being intimate I don't think that's an argument. I think that's neither here nor there as long as both parties agree. I can't see where the relative level of intimacy—and what is intimacy anyway when we really get down to it? I mean who defines that? I think that the two parties involved are the only ones that have a right to define that.
REASON: There's a common assumption, very common assumption in our culture that that kind of work is damaging to women. That selling their bodies for money constitutes some sort of damage to them psychologically, spiritually, morally, physically that they can never really recover from. What do you think about that?
MCNEILL: Well, it's positively Victorian, isn't it? I mean it goes back to lie back and think of England. It's the idea that women are not sexual beings, that women are intrinsically asexual, that we're only sexual—that we can only be sexual under certain conditions. That it's almost like some sort of radioactive material or something. That we can only be sexual if it's wrapped in pretty bows and ribbons and it has the sanctity of the church on it and we call it marriage and we give you the special certificate or you're only doing it because you love the person. All these sorts of things and this is absurd. This is not what feminism was supposed to be. But this is what we've come back around to. We're prone to these, again, very Victorian notions that a woman is damaged by sex. A woman is hurt by sex. That when a woman is raped for example that her life will never be the same again—that she's ruined. They used to call it a fate worse than death. And I think that this is an intrinsically anti-feminist view because it gives tremendous, tremendous power to men, really. Because what you're saying is that a man has this almost magical power to destroy a woman's life merely by touching her in the wrong way.
REASON: What about Katha Pollitt's argument that prostitution is an industry in which men's desires are catered to, therefore, it is essentially patriarchal?
MCNEILL: Well peoples' desires are catered to in restaurants. Peoples'—I mean any main business if you don't cater to the client you don't get business. I think she's trying to shove a square peg in a round hole there. I don't think a business can be patriarchal per say. I mean maybe some people may disagree with me. Maybe there is some sort of Marxist interpretation that says otherwise, but to me the principle of voluntary exchange is neutral, is gender neutral. I don't really see a case—I mean I suppose an argument can be made, but I've never seen one that I've found—
REASON: It's a desire like any other in another exchange.
MCNEILL: Sure. Sure.
REASON: So if there is a problem with involuntary sex work, which would be trafficking or slavery, what should be done then? Do you want to do nothing about it? Let the market take its course?
MCNEILL: No. No, I wouldn't go quite that far. The problem is that there are already laws for these things. 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. These things are already against the law. We have (a law) against a boss taking wages that don't belong to him. We call that theft. These things are all against the law already. Why do we need this new construct and vague construct that isn't even properly defined? Why do we need this to be laid on top of all these other things that already are crimes? And the answer of course is because it isn't the involuntary that they really care about. The prohibitionists don't care about the involuntary. I think that there's some of them maybe that are deluded enough to think that this is common, but I think a majority of them know better. I think the majority know quite well that what they're actually targeting is consensual sex work by redefining it as non-consensual. And to redefine it as non-consensual once again we have to go back to that idea that a woman doesn't have agency over her own body. That choices a woman makes where sex is involved are automatically suspect. That really—that essentially in the area of sex, that a woman is a permanent adolescent because when you look at things like the Swedish model—and it's become very popular in the United States and now Canada is trying to impose it—this idea that only the client should be criminalized. What does this resemble most closely? What it resembles most closely to me is statutory rape laws. The idea that the woman is not—that her consent is immaterial. That the male is essentially her moral superior. So he needs to be held accountable and whether she agreed or whether she didn't agree is completely immaterial.
REASON: So what is it about sex here? Why is sex work seen as this sort of separate—entirely separate category of work? Why is it stigmatized in the way that it is?
MCNEILL: I think it's just sex. I think sex is just it's just the same reasons sex is stigmatized.
REASON: What does that say about our culture and it's view of sex?
MCNEILL: I think this is a very ancient thing, isn't it? I mean sex in ancient times was different. It was the only thing that could produce a human being. And I think what's happened is that we simply haven't caught up, we simply haven't matured, we simply haven't recognized that birth control and abortion make this not so. There's not necessarily a chance when a woman has sex that a life could result. Maybe back in ancient times when that was true, maybe they were right in those days to think of sex as being a special case because it could produce a baby and that's important. But not now. A woman who doesn't want to be pregnant now doesn't have to. But yet, we still pretend that it's a special case. We still pretend that there's a magical mumbo jumbo taboo energy about sex that makes it different from all other human activities. And this is something that I simply don't see.
REASON: So why should it be decriminalized?
MCNEILL: The decriminalization I think has nothing to do with the sex argument. I think the decriminalization—the best argument for decriminalization is a harm reduction argument which is simply that all the other forms of managing it cause more harm than good. Criminalization certainly does. The Swedish model certainly does. Even the so-called legalization regimes like we have here in Nevada. The idea that you can only do sex work if you're doing it for somebody else, in a specific place far from where good people can see it, way out in the desert, only in small counties and then only connected cronies can get the licenses. So this is—this is a not a good—I'm not saying that if a woman chooses to work in a brothel that that's bad. If that's her choice, that's her choice. What I'm saying is that the choice shouldn't be taken away. And in a legalized system what you're seeing is that that choice is taken away. What's particularly bizarre to me is that you can cross a border and the rules of legalization change completely. So in Nevada, the only form of sex work allowed is in a brothel. In Canada, brothels are illegal. You can only do it if you're not working for someone else. Same thing with the English Channel, right? In the Netherlands, brothels are legal. In Britain, they're not legal. And what New Zealand did and what New South Wales in Australia did is they both recognized that when you want to start making regulations, laws, and rules about sex work you get in to some very deep thickets very fast because then you get into things like what is prostitution? If a man gives me an expensive present and I have sex with him for this expensive present, is that prostitution? If he pays me a flat rate per month and I have sex with him, is that prostitution? And you get into these things like that and what New Zealand and New South Wales both realized is that these rules when you start asking police to make these judgements they will always judge on the side of criminalization. They will always judge on the side of arrest. If there's an ambiguous situation, they're going to just arrest everybody. And to stop that you need to just take the police out of it entirely.
RUSSELL: It seems like at the end of the day, it's not a legal question, it's a cultural question.
RUSSELL: It sounds like from what you're saying that as a culture we need to think differently about sex before we have a solution to this.
MCNEILL: We need to grow up. I mean, it's that simple. We need to grow up. The idea that if you—if they find out that a hotel room was being used by a sex worker that that contaminates the hotel room because there's some sort of magical taboo energy that goes into it. This is silly. It's childish. This is not something for the 21st century, for the most technologically advanced nation on Earth to be still practicing and yet we do. So yeah, I think that's what it is. I think we just need to grow up.
RUSSELL: Well thank you Maggie for joining us. This has been great. For Reason TV, I'm Thad Russell.