Category Archives: Sex Work

Not Helping Youths In the Sex Trade

Last Friday I wrote about Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s terrific Reason magazine article on the FBI’s long involvement in policing Americans’ sex lives. In this post, I’d like to follow up on a small detail that caught my eye.

Supporters of anti-prostitution law enforcement operations often justify them as necessary to protect victims of sex trafficking, especially children. Brown’s article mentions a Department of Justice report titled Evaluation of Services for Domestic Minor Victims of Human Trafficking as an example. In particular, she references the following passage, which ends with a question that needs an answer.

Detention was also used in the belief that it protects young people and ensures their connection to services. Key informants acknowledged that this situation was not ideal but argued that young people were likely to be safer in detention than elsewhere. A public defender asked, “How else do you get them services but lock them up and force them to engage in services?”

As a libertarian, my instinctive response is “How about…nonviolently?”

Is it really necessary to send cops with guns to forcibly “help” people? And even if you think it’s necessary to coerce child victims of sex trafficking into accepting social services, can’t you do it without giving them a criminal record? State child protection agencies have the authority, if they believe there is immediate danger, to remove at-risk children who are living with their parents. I’m pretty sure they can figure out a way to take a child off the street.

That won’t work with young adults, but that doesn’t mean arresting them is the only solution. There are better alternatives. We know this because non-governmental organizations like the Sex Work Outreach Project (SWOP) don’t have arrest powers, and they’ve been doing outreach to sex workers for years.

Katherine Koster from the U.S. chapter of SWOP characterizes many of the problems facing young sex workers as basically a variation on homelessness:

The issue is that there is a very large gap in no-strings-attached resources for homeless youth. A great example of this is the lack of shelter beds for youth.


Institutions–from schools to hospitals–very commonly are not a “safe” and comfortable space for homeless, especially GLBTQ youth.


We need to be making these resources available to youth on a voluntary basis. We need to stop attaching funding for services to the criminal justice system, as is frequently the case, and start making sure funding for these core services are available to people without being arrested and locked up, without interacting with the criminal justice system.

Here in Chicago, the Young Women’s Empowerment Project spent years studying ways to help young women in the sex trade, and they had some useful observations, especially about what they call institutional violence:

First, we were surprised how many stories we heard from girls, including transgender girls, and young women, including trans women about their violent experiences at non profits and with service providers. This was upsetting because adults and social workers often tell us that seeking services will improve our lives. Yet when we do the systems set up to help us actually can make things worse. This was clear when looking at the foster care system.


Health care providers were also identified by girls as being unethical. We heard many stories from girls going to the emergency room or to a doctor and being placed in psychiatric units just because they were in the sex trade, transgender or were thought to be self injuring. 

Law enforcement authorities come in for special criticism:

There are particularly a lot of examples of police violence, coercion, and refusal to help. Police often accuse girls in the sex trade of lying or don’t believe them when they turn to the police for help. Many girls said that police sexual misconduct happens frequently while they are being arrested or questioned. […] Stories about police abuse outnumbered the stories of abuse by other systems by far.

So what are the alternatives? The YWEP has their own solution:

When leaving isn’t an option or what a girl might want, YWEP is here to encourage and facilitate safety planning, harm reduction ideas, and offer support and resources. Unlike programs that focus on exiting the sex trade—which usually exclude girls who aren’t ready, able, or wanting to exit—YWEP meets girls where they are and helps them make the next steps they choose. Empowerment means that girls are in charge of their decisions and have power over what they want to do—even if that means something different than what adults think is safe or appropriate. YWEP believes that the more often girls are in charge of the choices in their lives—whether that choice is about food, sleep, relationships, housing or the sex trade—the more power they take in their lives as a whole.

(My guess is that most members of YWEP lean liberal and progressive, but damn if that isn’t a heartwarmingly libertarian approach to helping people. They offer choices.)

The local SWOP chapter here in the Chicago area offers a variety of services, including a support group, monthly meetings, and weekly street-corner outreach events offering food, coffee, condoms, and referral to resources such as sex-worker-friendly doctors and lawyers. In winter they give out warm clothing.

Other organizations, although not focused primarily on sex workers, provide services that will nevertheless help homeless young people in the sex trade. Project Fierce Chicago, for example, has purchased a nine-bedroom house in the North Lawndale neigborhood, and they are renovating it to provide housing for 10-12 LGBTQ youths. (That may not sound like much, but with only a few hundred youth beds in Chicago, it’s going to help.)

Koster summarizes why this approach can help:

I think what is super-important is that 95% of the time, youth are not engaging in the sex trade because they are kidnapped from a secure home where all their needs are met. They are engaging in the sex trade because they ran away from an abusive home or foster home or were kicked our because they are GLBT, and they don’t have a place to sleep, they don’t have older people rooting for them and supporting them, they don’t have food. […]

So you don’t need to hold these kids in detention to protect them–you need to give them a safe place to stay and healthy meals, with great mentors and counselors. So meet their emotional and social and material needs, and they will be safe. You don’t need to hold them in a juvenille detention center to protect them.

This doesn’t sound hard. No, that’s not quite right…it sounds like it’s a lot of very hard work. But it doesn’t sound hard to understand. If you want to help people, you listen to them, you get to know them, you figure out what they want, and you give it to them.

And yet, we keep seeing stories like this one that I found at random:

Sure, there are a few local facilities where juvenile prostitutes can live, waiting for trial dates or transfers home, but these places are hardly ideal. They’re not designed for child sex workers—if therapy is offered, it’s certainly not tailored to the specific needs of juvenile prostitutes. More importantly, perhaps, they’re not lock-down facilities. Residents can leave. This means the girls must want to stay in a court-mandated home for delinquents (and what teenager would?) They must resist the urge to run back to their pimps—which sounds easy, until you remember that most were only selling sex because there was a pimp, with a lot of power over them, pulling the strings. Or throwing fists. Or both.

Girls living in these facilities have been known to bolt into the idling cars of pimps waiting outside—running right back into the abyss of abuse.

“These girls are so broken. They identify with the girls they work with, the pimps. [Prostitution] becomes their safe area, and they want to go back to where they feel safe,” says Susan Roske, Clark County chief deputy public defender. “We want to hang onto them, to keep them from running, and sometimes the only way to do that is in a secure environment.”

Many people running these arrest-to-rescue programs may have the best of intentions, but I think need to stop dismissing these girls’ choices as “broken” and answer an important question: Given that the girls, having experienced both, are running away from your facilities to be with abusive pimps, what does that say about the quality of your attempt to help?

If you have to arrest people and lock them up to get them to accept your help, maybe you need to rethink your approach to helping.

(Thanks to Katherine Koster at SWOP USA for her comments and for helping with some of the research for this post.)

Sex, Lies, and Sex Police

I suspect my friends would be concerned if they knew just how skeptical I was about almost all prostitution-related crimes. Police say they broke up a human trafficking ring? Liars! They call everything human trafficking these days. They arrested ten pimps? Liars! They caught one prostitute in a sting and arrested the then people standing next to her. It’s a task force going after child prostitution? Liars! They arrest 50 adults for every child they “rescue,” and that’s only if you call a 16-year-old a child. It’s all lies, lies, lies.

My skepticism is even cutting into my enjoyment of fiction. I get an attitude whenever one of my shows features a human trafficking story line. It’s especially annoying on Major Crimes, because Captain Raydor’s adopted son used to be a teen street hustler, and none of the cops are saying he would have been better off in jail. (Hey Rusty, next time your mother is sweating a prostitute in the interrogation room, how about you try standing up for your fellow sex workers for once, you useless fuck!)

I probably need to adjust my perspective. Just because police (and prosecutors and politicians and rescue agencies) lie about these things all the time doesn’t mean they don’t exist. There really are human traffickers. There really are violent pimps. There really are people who sell the opportunity to rape a child. I wouldn’t want to dismiss a serious crime just because the authorities have been lying about it with such reckless abandon.

But…damn, there’s some awful things going on here.

In an unremarkable hotel room, a team of officers watches the footage streaming from a hidden camera next door. A middle-aged man is making arrangements to pay a young woman for sex. Once she agrees, the squad will rush in, shouting instructions, their bulletproof vests bulging with firearms and emblazoned with police or FBI. The woman—or is she a girl?—will have her hands tied behind her back and her phone confiscated. She will sit on the bed, partially undressed, as a team of men search her room, pawing through her underwear drawer and toiletry bags, seizing any cash they find. She will eventually be fingerprinted, interrogated, and taken into police custody.

That’s the opening paragraph from Elizabeth Nolan Brown’s long-form piece in Reason magazine about the FBI’s long involvement in policing Americans’ sex lives.

The surveillance of morally suspicious women and the war on commercial sex were what took the FBI—then known as the Bureau of Investigation—from a fledgling East Coast–centric operation to a force with outposts, agents, and authority across America. With the Mann Act of 1910, also known as the White Slave Traffic Act, the bureau became responsible for ensuring no one transported women or girls across state lines for prostitution or “any other immoral purposes.”

And this paragraph about the recent Operation Cross Country X anti-trafficking initiative perfectly reveals the reasons for my skepticism (emphasis mine):

Overall, the operation identified 82 “children” engaged in prostitution, an average of about 0.88 per city, or one for every five agencies participating. All were teenagers—mostly 16- and 17-year-olds—and a number of cities where they were found made no simultaneous pimping or sex trafficking arrests. To the feds, anyone under 18 who trades sex acts for money is defined as a victim of sex trafficking, regardless of whether they have experienced abduction, violence, restraint, or threats.

The whole article is filled with details like that. It’s a terrific piece of journalism. Elizabeth Nolan Brown is a clear writer, and after several years of reporting on this subject, she has a masterful command of the facts. I highly recommend you read the whole thing.

Ashton Kutcher’s Unusual Confession

So, yesterday Ashton Kutcher testified before Congress about modern-day slavery. This isn’t quite as crazy as it sounds — unlike those idiotic situations where an actor testifies before congress after playing a role related to the subject of his testimony, Kutcher actually founded a company, Thorn, that is involved in the fight against sex trafficking — but it’s still pretty weird.

For one thing, Kutcher is routinely ridiculed by sex work activists, who accuse him of helping police to catch and jail adult consensual sex workers. As Elizabeth Nolan Brown points out, his congressional testimony has numbers which suggest he’s still doing that:

According to Kutcher’s testimony before Sen. John McCain and other U.S. lawmakers, the app—funded by the McCain Foundation—has helped save more than 6,000 U.S. sex-trafficking victims, including 2,000 minors, in the past 12 months.

These numbers wildly outpace the average number of new criminal investigations into sex trafficking opened in the U.S. each year or average number of victims identified by U.S. law enforcement. …

The report also notes that in government fiscal-year 2015, the FBI identified around 672 adult and child victims of sex or labor trafficking. The FBI opened 802 human-trafficking investigations (resulting in 453 convictions) that year, while Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) opened 1,034 sex- or labor-trafficking investigations (and got 51 sex-trafficking convictions). In addition, Uniform Crime Reporting data from the states indicates that 744 investigations into state-level sex-trafficking offenses were opened in 2015.

There’s almost certainly overlap between the FBI and state investigations. But even if we count all cases separately, we’re looking at a total of 2,580 investigations into sex or labor trafficking—5,725 less cases than Thorn allegedly helped identify in a one-year period.

This suggests that Kutcher is counting something other than child sex trafficking to boost his stats.

Considering the data we do have on state and federal human trafficking cases, the only way the numbers from Kutcher’s group could make sense is if a) they’re counting every red-flag ad Spotlight identifies, regardless of whether these tips are ultimately deemed worthwhile enough to prompt a criminal investigation, or b) they’re counting cases of consensual prostitution between adults and lumping all adult sex workers identified into the “adult trafficking victim” numbers.

What really caught my attention, however, was this statement of his:

“I’ve seen video content of a child that’s the same age as mine being raped by an American man that was a sex tourist in Cambodia. This child was so conditioned by her environment that she thought she was engaging in play.”

Kutcher’s children are two or three years old,  so unlike so much of the grandstanding over “sex trafficking” these days, that truly is a sad and disgusting crime, and someone should probably go to jail for it. And assuming the video was explicit, it’s also a piece of true child pornography.

It’s not often that you see a major Hollywood celebrity like Ashton Kutcher confess to viewing child pornography. In front of Congress. On television.

To be clear, no matter how much I disagree with some of the things anti-prostitution activists like Kutcher do in the name of fighting “sex trafficking,” I’m against prosecuting them for non-prurient viewing of video of the crime that they are fighting.

Still, that’s something you don’t see every day.

Losers Deserve Love Too

A while back, Maggie McNeill posted about a group called Clients of Sex Workers Allied for Change (CoSWAC) which has a website they hope to use to “dispel myths surrounding participation in paid sex.”

I don’t know if this site will contribute meaningfully to the cause of sex workers’ (and clients’) rights, but one item on the Myths vs. Facts page caught my attention, and I haven’t been able to get it out of my head.

MYTH: Clients are pathetic losers who can’t get dates or sustain meaningful relationships.

CoSWAC responds with these facts:

  • Many clients are in relationships, but turn to sex workers to address unmet needs.
  • Some sex workers specialize in addressing the needs of disabled clients.
  • Sex work clients have diverse and complex reasons for retaining the services of sex workers.

I’m sure those facts are a reasonable response, and I understand why CoSWAC used them, but someone needs to address the motives of the people promoting this myth. People who say things like this aren’t just making an academic observation; they’re arguing that sex work should be (or remain) outlawed because of these kinds of clients. And that’s an ugly argument. Because even if the myth were true, so what?

Why should it matter that some clients are “pathetic losers who can’t get dates or sustain meaningful relationships”? Does that mean they should never have sex? That they should never experience pleasurable physical intimacy, never touch a woman, because they lack the confidence or charisma to charm a woman into bed? Keeping them from hiring sex workers isn’t protecting women from predators. It’s just sentencing people with personality disorders to a life without intimacy. It’s just cruel.

Why Should Miss Lorelei Rivers Give a Shit What Other People Want?

I missed Maggie McNeill’s last Friday the 13th roundup, and it was the only one this year, but there’s something I want to get off my chest about a type of argument that really annoys me, and I figure she won’t mind.

The problem, as it so often is for us libertarians, is the lack of respect for freedom of choice. Here’s the recent Twitter exchange that triggered this post, beginning with Miss Lorelei Rivers discussing sex work:

In case that doesn’t look right, here are the important bits:

Francois Tremblay: “Sex work” is intrinsically dangerous, intrinsically exploitative, intrinsically misogynistic.

Miss Lorelei Rivers: I disagree completely with this statement – and unlike you, I actually am a sex worker.

Francois Tremblay: Great… now listen to the 90% of women in your “work” who want to leave, who have PTSD, or are not as privileged as you are.

I’ll leave the validity of the 90% statistic (and the prevalence and causes of PTSD among sex workers) to someone more qualified. Worrying too much about the details could make us miss a more important point: Why should Lorelei Rivers give a shit what other sex worker want?

There is certainly nothing wrong if Lorelei Rivers wants to know the needs and desires of other sex workers. Maybe she’s just a good person who has empathy for others. But she shouldn’t have to care what other sex workers want. That is, her right to go about her business should not depend on how other people feel about it, and that includes other sex workers. If 99.9999% of sex workers want to quit and find a different line of work, but Lorelei Rivers prefers to keep doing what she’s doing, what possible justification can there be to stop her?

Because we live in a democracy, it may seem reasonable to worry about what the majority wants, but the desires of the majority are a distraction from the real issue, which is personal choice. It’s true that sometimes we have to make collective decisions — usually when making different individual choices would cause irreconcilable conflicts — so we depend on majority rule to tell us that stealing is illegal, and that we should drive on the right side of the road. But we can make our own choices about where to live, and whether to drink Pepsi or Coke.

Choice of employment, including employment as a sex worker, is a Pepsi or Coke kind of thing. In a free society, if some women want to be sex workers and others don’t, there’s no reason they can’t both get what they want.

The second example is even worse:

Again, the relevant portions:

Meghan Murphy: [Amnesty International] is a human rights org. Prostitution exists in fundamental opposition to women’s humans rights.

— and yet this prominent human rights organizations disagrees with you —

Miss Lorelei Rivers: Sex workers are humans who also deserve rights – including the right to make choices about their bodies and work.

Meghan Murphy: Women deserve REAL choices. Also, men should make the CHOICE not to pay vulnerable women for sexual access.

Lorelei Rivers has it right: People deserve the right to make their own choices, including the right to sell sexual services, and anyone who takes away that choice (whether through the U.S. model of jailing sex workers, or through the Nordic model of jailing the the people who pay them) is not respectful of their rights.

I don’t know what Meghan Murphy is trying to get at by claiming sex work is not a “real” choice. Usually when people try to dismiss someone else’s choice by saying it’s not “real,” they mean one of two things, and both of them are bullshit.

First, Meghan Murphy might mean that a woman’s choice to be a sex worker isn’t “real” because the women is deluded, or suffering from “false consciousness,” or is otherwise making a mistake. This raises the obvious question of why anyone should believe that Meghan Murphy is better at understanding Lorelei Rivers’ life than Lorelei Rivers is. There’s also the problem that claiming a choice isn’t “real” isn’t an argument. It’s an attempt to hide the fact that you don’t have an argument.

Second, Meghan Murphy might mean that a woman’s choice to be a sex worker isn’t “real” because many women who choose sex work are trapped in such dire circumstances (economic or otherwise) that sex work is the only way out. This actually makes a certain amount sense. Women who engage in sex work to save themselves from dire situations are like people who jump from a fourth story window to escape a burning building: The jump is a choice, but it’s a choice that is forced upon them by circumstances.

Of course, all our choices are constrained by our circumstances, so there’s a certain amount of special pleading in assuming that the choice to do sex work is qualitatively different from the choice to do something like construction work or nursing.

Even if we assume that sex work is special, there’s a bigger problem: When we see people jumping from a fourth floor window to escape a fire, our response should not be to stop them by boarding up the window! Similarly, if women are engaging in sex work out of desperation, it is presumptuous and possibly even dangerous to force them to stop.

(I’m sure sex work prohibitionists would point out that they’re providing exit services for sex workers — the equivalent of installing additional fire escapes in the burning building — but in that case, why bother boarding up the windows? If your exit services are getting women out of sex work, then why the need to criminalize it? If it’s because women are rejecting your exit services and staying in sex work, then perhaps you need to rethink how you’re “helping,” because it’s obviously not working.)

Then, of course, there’s the problem that some sex workers insist they aren’t desperate. I don’t know Lorelei Rivers, but I do know Maggie McNeill a bit, and I’m pretty confident she could be successful at a lot of other jobs besides sex work. But that’s not what she wants to do.

Which brings me back around to the prohibitionist’s pointless claim that sex workers like Maggie McNeill are highly privileged, and that most sex workers would rather quit. But so what? Why should Maggie McNeill give a shit what other sex workers want?

Does It Matter If Prostitution Clients are More Aggressive?

A few weeks ago people were talking about a new study by Melissa Farley that purports to find correlations in men between the purchase of sexual services and aggression towards women.

Sex buyers were more likely than men who did not buy sex to report sexual aggression and likelihood to rape. Men who bought sex scored higher on measures of impersonal sex and hostile masculinity and had less empathy for prostituted women, viewing them as intrinsically different from other women. When compared with non-sex-buyers, these findings indicate that men who buy sex share certain key characteristics with men at risk for committing sexual aggression […]

(Speaking of lack of empathy and treating sex workers as intrinsically different from other women, the phrase “prostituted women” implicitly robs sex workers of their agency, making it easier for anti-prostitution activists to ignore the voices of sex workers. That sort of language is a longstanding complaint from sex work activists. You’d think “facultied women” like Farley would know that by now.)

I really didn’t feel like reading the whole study, and fortunately I didn’t have to, because Elizabeth Nolan Brown has read it and she has a few concerns which are worth reading if you’re wondering about the accuracy of the study. Having said that, I’m not so sure that accuracy matters, because even if the study holds up, I don’t see how you can get from the results of this study to a policy of prohibiting sex work. If sex work clients are disproportionately dangerous, then wouldn’t it make more sense to decriminalize prostitution so that sex workers don’t have to work in secret and can safely ask for help when they need it?

I broke down and read some of the study, and it turns out Farley and company explain their thinking this way (internal citations omitted):

Researchers of prostitution have been largely polarized into two camps based on whether they understand prostitution to be primarily sexual labor or primarily sexual abuse.


Is a sex buyer’s use of a woman in prostitution motivated by the same dynamics that lead a person with resources to seek a service provider to clean their house or shine their shoes, or is the use of a woman in prostitution more akin to the dynamics seen in perpetrators of sexual violence? […] If buyers of sex, compared to those who do not buy sex, score higher on attitudes and behaviors of sexual aggression, given that prostitution is also a sexual practice, that result would empirically suggest that, for the consumer population, prostitution is a practice that is consistent with those attitudes and behaviors, making it more similar to a practice of sexual aggression than to the purchase of other services.


The question of whether prostitution is more like a job or whether it is more like abuse/sexual aggression is an important question on a societal level as well because it leads to very different policies. If prostitution is understood primarily as labor, then it needs to be legalized and regulated (as in the Netherlands, Germany, and Australia). If prostitution is understood primarily as abuse/sexual aggression, it needs to be abolished (as in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland).

That approach struck me as so wrong-headed that I had to stop writing this post because I couldn’t figure out how to explain why it bothers me. (And it’s not just because I’m shocked to read that prostitution has been successfully abolished in Sweden, Norway, and Iceland — which must be really shocking to Swedish, Norwegian, and Icelandic prostitutes.) It’s just absurd to try to determine if a relationship is exploitative by looking at aggregate statistics about psychology and attitude.

I mean, prostitution is often conflated with sex trafficking, a form of slavery, but would it make sense to judge whether slavery in America was bad for the slaves by profiling slave owners to see if they had sadistic tendencies?

Let me expand on that example. Not every black person living in the South was a slave. For a variety of reasons, about half of all free blacks — a couple of hundred thousand people — chose to live and work in the American South right up until the Civil War. In particular, some types of plantations had slaves working as skilled craftsmen. If they were freed, they often stayed in the area for economic reasons: They had developed skills that were valuable to plantation owners, so it made economic sense to stay with the plantations. These free craftsmen often worked side-by-side with slaves.

Now suppose an abolitionist version of Melissa Farley had discovered free black carpenters working on plantations in the South. It’s not hard to imagine her concluding that since plantation owners are known to use slave carpenters, which is clearly exploitation, the free carpenters must also be victims of exploitation by the plantation owners. Therefore, she would conclude, the best way to protect free blacks from exploitation is to outlaw carpentry on plantations.

The free black carpenters might try to explain that they were working on the plantations by their own choice, but it’s easy to imagine someone like Farley dismissing these claims for the same reasons people like her dismiss the claims of sex workers: She’d say they’d spent so much time as slaves that they’re suffering from “false consciousness.” Or since some of them used to supervise other slaves on the plantation, she’d accuse them of being part of the “slave driver lobby.”

It’s a bit of a stretch, but we could even imagine some sort of abolitionist NGOs that “rescue” free blacks and transport them to the North, even though the North wasn’t necessarily better than the South for free black people, especially since leaving the South meant abandoning their community and quitting lucrative jobs for less desirable work in the North.

In this historic setting, it’s pretty clear that “rescuing” free blacks would be a mistake. Our imaginary abolitionists claiming to rescue free blacks from plantation owners are in fact the ones ignoring the choices of free black workers. They would be the ones denying blacks their freedom.

The moral and ethical aspects of specific actions should not be confused with the general moral and ethical tendencies of the individuals who perform them. Enslaving black people is about as racist and white supremacist as you can get, but the plantation owner’s enslavement of some black people doesn’t mean that every black person found working on a plantation is the moral equivalent of a slave. A bad person doing good things doesn’t make the good things bad.

Similarly, asking whether clients of prostitutes have good attitudes toward women is missing the point. Prostitution is labor if the women get paid and choose to do it of their own free will, it’s abuse if the women get abused, and if the women are forced into it, it’s rape and human trafficking. We don’t need to do social surveys to get this right. What we need to do is make sure that sex workers are free to choose, and then we need to trust that they will make the best choices about who they accept as clients.

Everything Wrong With Feminist Anti-Sexwork Thinking In One Tweet

Here’s everything wrong with feminist anti-sexwork thinking in one tweet:

In case that wasn’t formatted right, that’s Lena Dunham, who opposes Amnesty International’s proposal to decriminalize prostitution, tweeting “While there are clearly sex workers by choice, the majority globally are there because of poverty, homelessness etc. Aka lack of choice.”

When she talks about “sex workers by choice,” I assume she’s talking about vocal activists who have made it clear that they think sex work is a great job. Around here that’s folks like Maggie McNeill, Mistress Matisse, Brooke Magnanti, Serpent Libertine, Furry Girl, and the whole Tits & Sass crowd. These are the sex workers (or former sex workers) who are speaking out in favor of Amnesty’s proposal, and who are arguing against Dunham’s condemnation of it.

The implication is that these women are special cases — sex work’s 1 percent — who have chosen sex work freely, and who are not representative of the vast majority of sex workers, especially worldwide, who are not doing sex work by choice.

If by “lack of choice” she meant coercive sex trafficking, she’d have a point, because by definition the victims of sex trafficking have no choice: They are slaves, and they are rape victims. There’s little evidence, however, that these victims are more than a small minority of sex workers, and in any case, Amnesty International is not proposing to legalize slavery and rape.

When Dunham writes “the majority globally are there because of poverty, homelessness etc,” she’s talking about poor women, often in developing countries, whose choices are severely limited by economics. The do sex work out of necessity, and Dunham doesn’t think that’s really much of a choice.

Unfortunately, statements like Dunham’s confuse the issue because they conflate two different meanings of the concept of choice, which can be defined as:

: the opportunity or power to choose between two or more possibilities : the opportunity or power to make a decision

: a range of things that can be chosen

By the last definition, choice is about the set of options available to you, but by the first definition, choice is about your power to control which option you pick.

The set of options available to you is outside your control. It depends on factors like your genetics, how you were raised, what society you were born into, what kind of people you met, and what kind of options they offered you. This kind of choice is about where life takes you, and a lot of it is just a matter of luck.

On the other hand, when activists talk about people choosing sex work, they are talking about the first definition: Women who, given the options available to them, have chosen to do sex work. A big part of the anti-sex-work message is the claim that no women would choose to be a prostitute, that all prostitutes are “prostituted” by someone, that they are all victims of human traffickers and pimps. One of the ways sex work activists counter those claims is to tell their own stories about the choices they made.

This is not to say that they chose that line of work from a field of infinite possibilities, but that they freely choose from the options available to them. And of course women living in “poverty, homelessness etc” have to choose from a smaller array of options.

Economist Amartya Sen has argued that the range of choices available to people is a better measure of comparative quality of life than the usual measures of income or consumption because it captures the value of having choices: All other things being equal, having access to a Walmart that sells 140,000 items makes your life better, and earning $50,000 in a free country is better than earning $50,000 in a totalitarian state. So when Dunham and others talk about “poverty, homelessness etc” limiting women’s choices, that’s another way of saying these women are poor.

We now arrive at the point where I really have trouble following the logic: If these poor women are choosing sex work because they have so few choices, you’d think the solution would be to offer them more choices, wouldn’t you? But if we criminalize the way they earn money, we’re reducing their choices. People who think like Dunham are advocating the very thing they are complaining about.

Or to approach it from a different direction, I’d like to ask Dunham why she thinks these poor women have decided to do sex work. Is she saying they’re too stupid to know better? I’m sure she’d deny it, but how else to explain why she’s disregarding the choices these women made about their own lives?

By definition, these women are trapped in a situation that offers them very few options, none of which are very good. And out of that array of bad options, they chose to do sex work. Doesn’t that mean that every other options was worse? So when you prevent them from doing sex work, aren’t you forcing them to do something that will make their lives worse? These poor women have decided that that sex work — sometimes referred to as “survival sex” — is their best option. It seems arrogant and unwise to think you know better than they do.

Unfortunately, when you try to make this argument, someone inevitably tries to put it in the worst way they can think of:

My response is that I could just as easily have started this post with that image and called it “Everything Wrong With Feminist Anti-Sexwork Thinking In One Tweet.”

(I’ll admit that message sounds pretty harsh, but that’s because we use references to blowjobs as insults: “You cocksucker! Suck my dick!” I’m not sure if that’s because telling another man to suck your dick implied that he was gay or effeminate or what, but given how much men enjoy getting blowjobs, it’s a little weird to imply that giving blowjobs is demeaning. I mean, what’s the message here? Giving a blowjob is demeaning to women, but you totally don’t think it’s demeaning when your girlfriend is giving you one?)

In any case, fair enough, I’ll own that. But I would phrase it a little differently: Poor women should be able to earn money by giving blowjobs to rich men if they want to. The if they want to part is real important, because I think we all agree it’s wrong to force women to sexually service men. But opponents of decriminalization apparently think it’s perfectly okay to use force to prevent prevent women from earning money by sexually servicing men.

I’ve got to wonder if the people who made this sign gave any thought to what would happen if rich men took their message to heart and stopped paying poor women for sex. Wouldn’t that make them even poorer?  Do these people imagine that, freed of the option of sex work, the women would all just go out and get better jobs? Or do they think that once those “rich men” can’t pay women for sex, they’ll instead contribute the money to charities for the poor?

Prostitution by poor women is called “survival sex” for a reason. And nothing good happens when you take away someone’s means of survival.

ProstCost – Part 3 of 3: The Meaning Of It All

This is my third and final post discussing the recently publicized ProstCost study by Le Mouvement du Nid that claims prostitution costs France 1.6 billion euros per year. In Part 1 I pointed out that the study needed to balance the costs of prostitution against the benefits. In Part2 I reviewed the costs described in the study and argued that many of them weren’t relevant to the question of legalization. Now in this part I’m going to go over a few details and discuss what it all means.

If you actually read both previous posts, you may have noticed that I place a lot of weight on the subjective judgements of the participants in the sex trade. If people are voluntarily paying for sex, I accept their decision and assume they are getting something that is, at least in their eyes, worth the money. And more to the point, if people are voluntarily performing sex acts for money, I accept their choice and assume they are receiving enough money to make it worth whatever costs — financial, physical, or psychological — they may incur.

Not everybody sees things this way. Many people feel that transactional sex inherently exploits sex workers, regardless of how the sex workers say they feel about it, and some people feel that prostitution is also harmful to men, because transactional sex is not as emotionally healthy as sex in the context of a loving relationship. They’re welcome to judge the situation that way, but in an economic benefit-cost analysis we have to accept everyone’s decisions equally.

We especially shouldn’t substitute our own judgement. That would be an error for at least three reasons:

First, that’s just not how economics is done. One of the basic assumptions in economic thinking is that people are rational utility maximizers, which is economist-speak for saying people are always trying to improve the quality of their lives, based on their own personal ideas of happiness. Economists assume that when people choose to do something — buy sex, sell sex, whatever — it’s because doing that thing will provide the greatest benefit in their lives at the lowest cost possible, according to their own evaluation of the benefits and costs.

Strictly speaking, that’s not always true. People make mistakes all the time, and economists are developing more complex models to refine their predictions accordingly. Nevertheless, there’s a difference between observing that people deviate from the rational utility maximizer model and proving that those deviations are large enough, imbalanced enough, and consistent enough to justify discarding people’s revealed preferences. In practice, the assumption that people will rationally pursue their own best interests is very useful, and if we discard it, we’re straying far from well-understood economics.

The second reason for not overriding people’s judgement with our own is that it’s not our life. The people making the decisions probably know a lot more about their lives than you or I do, and they have a much stronger incentive to make the right decision, since they will receive the benefits and suffer the costs.

Unlike most of us, sex workers don’t just read about prostitution, they don’t just study it. They live it. They work strange hours and see oddball clients, they have sex with strange men and do the emotional labor of pretending to enjoy it. They take all the risks everyone worries about, from getting ripped off to getting killed. They take the money, and they risk getting arrested and being labeled a criminal. They know a great deal about being a sex worker, and for us to think we can make better decisions about their lives is the height of arrogance.

That’s not to say that people don’t make mistakes about their own lives, since they certainly do. I think we can all speak from experience about that. And sometimes we can see other people are making a mistake even when they can’t. But to dismiss a whole group’s decisions about their own lives is to assume we are consistently smarter than all of them. That’s an amazing claim that should only be accepted under exceptional circumstances.

Sometimes, granted, circumstances are exceptional. Doctors, for example, often have a really good understanding of medical issues, and in the course of a medical career they must encounter thousands of examples of patients making health decisions that are just flat-out wrong. And yet…one of the core principles of medical ethics is to never do anything without a patient’s consent. If a patient is refusing treatment, doctors can have the results of thousands of dollars in lab tests, decades of medical history, and billions of dollars worth of peer-reviewed reproducible research saying that the patient is wrong, but medical ethics do not permit the doctor to force the treatment on the patient. But somehow the folks at Le Mouvement du Nid think their far less rigorous knowledge entitles them to make decisions for tens of thousands of sex workers they’ve never even met.

The third reason for not substituting our own judgement for the judgements of the people we’re studying is that it would be cheating.

Let’s say you hate the taste of brussels sprouts so much that you’d like the USDA to ban them for human consumption, and to support your effort you commission a survey to prove that the taste of brussels sprouts is so awful that no one would eat them, and therefore that farming them is a waste of agricultural resources.

When you get the survey results back, however, most of the participants say that brussels sprouts taste like week-old armpit, but a significant fraction of the population — a fraction large enough to account for all brussels sprout consumption in America — says they find brussels sprouts to be a tasty alternative to more traditional vegetables.

Obviously, no matter how wrong you think those people are about the taste of brussels sprouts (and they are very, very wrong), it would be unethical for you to simply discard their responses and present the remaining data in your study as if it were unbiased. If you discard the opinions of people who disagree with you, then of course the study will support your opinion.

That’s what you do if you try to perform an economic study but you substitute your own preferences for the preferences of the subjects of your study. That’s what the ProstCost study does when it counts the costs of prostitution but it ignores the benefits — benefits that must be present to explain why tens of thousands of people engage in sex work and hundreds of thousands more hire them.

Getting back to the study itself, I explained earlier that we know prostitutes produce their services for a cost of at most € 3.2 billion and consumers receive at least € 3.2 billion in benefits — together these are the producer and consumer surpluses from trade. The benefits almost have to be greater than the costs, but is the resulting gain greater than the € 202 million external cost that I calculated in the previous post?

I have no way to know without more economic data. However, € 202 million is only about 6.3% of the prostitution trade, so the surpluses wouldn’t have to be very big to overcome it.

We can, perhaps, make some headway by looking at the taxes. Even if the people making money from prostitution are able to evade € 853 million in income taxes by hiding their earnings as the study indicates, there are lots of other taxes which they can’t avoid.

They have to live somewhere, so they can’t avoid paying residence and land taxes, and everything they buy is subject to value-added taxes (similar to sales taxes), and there are also some industrial taxes that are passed along to consumers. The sex workers may not report their income, but they still have to spend money, and some of that money eventually gets paid as taxes.

We can make a rough estimate of how much sex workers still still pay in taxes because we know that the tax burden in France is about 45%, which means that the expected tax burden on € 3.2 billion in prostitution earnings is about € 1440 million. Even if they manage to evade € 853 million of it, that still leaves an expected € 587 million in paid taxes, or about 2.9 times the € 202 million external social cost.

So based on the data in the study, plus a few other statistics and some economic thinking, prostitution provides a net benefit to France.

At the beginning of this post, I speculated that one of the reasons Le Mouvement du Nid conducted this study was that they objected to the recent decision to include prostitution in European Union GDP calculations. However, as far as I can tell, most of the costs discussed in the ProstCost study have nothing to do with GDP.

Taking money from taxpayers and giving it to poor people may be the compassionate thing to do, but it’s not a productive activity. Therefore these transfer payments do not go into the GDP calculation. So if I’m right that “Cost implications direct social” refers to anti-poverty welfare transfers, then these items have no effect on GDP and neither do taxes or, more importantly for our purposes, evasion of taxes.

“Direct costs Medical (Cost of health)” is healthcare workers producing healthcare, so it actually adds € 85 million to French GDP. And “Direct costs non-medical” is the cost of government employees doing something presumably productive, so that’s another € 35 million, for a total of about € 120 million contributed to GDP.

(If it strikes you as odd that poor health can lead to expenditures that show up as increased GDP, you’re not alone. It’s one of the reasons why economists warn that GDP is only a very rough proxy for national well-being. Neither pro- nor anti-sex work advocates should really be arguing GDP. It’s the wrong economic measure for this kind of thing.)

“Human costs for people Prostitutes” — rape and murder — are not traded in the marketplace, so they are left out of GDP calculations, as are “Homicides/Suicides.”

“Losses production due to incarcerations” is a direct hit on GDP that reduces it by € 19 million, but that loss is due to criminalization of prostitution, not to prostitution itself, so the effect on GDP is still around € 120 million.

I don’t know what goes into “Placing children.” If we treat that € 59 million as the cost of caring for children, that’s a productive activity that goes into GDP. If it’s a transfer payment, then it doesn’t. Let’s assume the latter, and keep our total at around € 120 million.

The remaining costs amount to € 1547 million, but they don’t affect GDP.

The net effect so far is that the “costs” of prostitution seems to be producing a total of € 120 million in additional GDP because of spending on healthcare and government services.

To be honest, that could be completely illusory. We don’t know what would happen to all those healthcare and government workers if they weren’t getting paid to provide services to sex workers. Maybe they would would be unemployed, in which case the € 120 million is a real gain to GDP, or maybe they would just be doing some other work, in which case they’d still get about € 120 million, implying that prostitution contributed nothing. The real answer is probably somewhere in the middle.

(As I said, counting medical expenditures for health problems probably isn’t the best idea for measuring social welfare — if doctors didn’t have to take care of sick sex workers, French society could presumably spend the money some other way. This is why I counted them as costs in my analysis in part 2.)

Of course, even if that GDP gain from healthcare and government spending is illusory, there’s another huge GDP gain that is not: The € 3.2 billion that prostitution adds directly to the GDP. Unless you’re able to make a convincing argument that prostitution — unlike all other work — doesn’t belong in the GDP, that’s a hard number to beat.

(And remember, you can’t argue that the € 3.2 billion should be excluded from GDP because prostitution is a crime and then argue against decriminalization of prostitution because it doesn’t help GDP. That’s cheating again.)

The study concludes with an odd note:

“It is important to note that while prostitution customers spent their money in any other activity, the French company would save each year several hundred million euros expenses related to the consequences of prostitution and parallel increase its tax revenues of at least EUR 853 million.”

I’m having trouble getting my head around what that even means. Counterfactual propositions are always tricky to think about, but that one is really broad and open ended. I’m not even going to attempt a full analysis. But I’ve got to ask a few questions.

What if prostitution consumers quit hiring sex workers and decided instead to spend their € 3.2 billion on high-end iPads and Ford F-150 pickup trucks? Those are imported, so France would still lose € 853 million in taxes. And without that € 3.2 billion flowing to sex workers, they would be unemployed, which would certainly cause social welfare spending to skyrocket. Even if they did find jobs, they would probably pay less or have other less desirable features. After all, if there were easily available jobs that were better than sex work, why would there be sex workers?

That last point is actually pretty important. Sex workers do sex work for the same reason all of us do our jobs: Because it is the best job they can find that meets their requirements. If their customers went away, it would reduce the quality of their lives. We know this because if having no customers raised the quality of their lives, they could simply quit the business.

However, the real problem with the quoted observation is that even if we assume that everything I’ve written in these three posts is dead wrong, and even if we accept the premise that if prostitution customers spent their money on any other activity, the French economy really would save € 1.6 billion, it’s still just a fantasy.

Sure, if hundreds of thousands of French men all voluntarily decided to give up a bit of their personal happiness out of an altruistic desire to improve the welfare of others, that would make other French people’s lives a little better. But that’s never going to happen.

Or to put it another way, why is Le Mouvement du Nid thinking so small? Why limit their fantasies to having Frenchmen give up only prostitution? As long as they’re looking for imaginary solutions, why not imagine how much better France would be if everyone also gave up burglaries, car thefts, robberies, rapes, murders, scams, riots, and public corruption? I’m sure that would save a lot of money too.

In the real world, if Le Mouvement du Nid wants to get French men to give up hiring sex workers, they’re going to have to do it with some kind of law enforcement “end demand” policy that will force them to stop. That might be possible, but the effort would be an enormously expensive War On Prostitution, for which we haven’t even begun to estimate the cost.

In the end, what I’ve seen so far of this study doesn’t prove much of anything. I may change my mind if I ever see a better translation or more data from the actual study, but until then I think this whole thing is better viewed as a publicity stunt.