Columns: Back and Forth

"The Battle of Salamis" by Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1858)

“The Battle of Salamis” by Wilhelm von Kaulbach (1858)

While the struggle for civil rights for some minorities has been largely unidirectional, moving steadily forward toward the goal, the war for sex worker rights has been a chaotic melee waged on many fronts.  This is not to say that there were not setbacks in the struggle for women’s rights, racial minority rights, gay rights, etc; of course there were, and often serious ones.  But an alien entity gazing upon humanity from afar would have been able to clearly discern that despite those setbacks, the big picture was steadily improving.  That is simply not true for sex worker rights; without close and thorough study, our theoretical alien might throw up its tentacles in despair upon being asked to predict how it would all turn out.  Even the fact that there is a struggle in the first place is a bit bizarre; while women and racial or religious minorities have always been second-class citizens for the majority of human history (and homosexuals were always reviled in the Judeo-Christian tradition), whores were never as bad off as we were in the 20th century.  While most types of sex workers were generally outcast from polite society to one degree or another in most historical cultures, there were a few where we actually had more rights and respect than other women, and it wasn’t until the end of the 19th century that widespread, systematic and violent efforts to suppress our profession entirely became the rule.  In other words, during the years when the lot of other women was steadily improving, ours was worsening; and even today, most of the worst enemies of sex workers are other women.

As I explained in “Awakening”, the course of the campaign to win human rights for sex workers has been a rough and winding one since its beginning in the early ‘70s, and has only really picked up steam worldwide in the past 15 years.  This of course frightened those who want sex to be a fearful, constrained activity controlled and licensed by those in power, and so the “sex trafficking” myth was developed in order to convince the public that the supporters of oppression were actually its enemies, and that the restriction of women’s choices is somehow “feminist”.  This campaign of disinformation has been wildly successful in confusing a very large number of people, with the result that even those who actively campaign for sex workers to be hunted, hounded, shamed, ostracized, robbed, starved of income, evicted from their homes, caged, brainwashed and made targets for sick, violent men either in or out of uniform, represent themselves as wanting to “help” or “rescue” us.  If the truth were told all but the most hopeless “law and order” or “sin and degradation” types would instantly turn on the prohibitionists and send them packing, but unfortunately they are accomplished liars and masters of misdirection, and many well-meaning people end up supporting evil disguised as justice.

And so the battles and skirmishes rage across the world; sometimes the goodies carry the day, and sometimes the baddies do.  For example, Friday saw the collapse of MSP Rhoda Grant’s proposal to impose upon Scotland the horrible Swedish model, which criminalizes men and infantilizes women; that’s very good news, but the new single Scottish police force recently launched a campaign to harass, humiliate and rob sex workers, clients and associated third parties, and that will no doubt continue despite the bill’s failure.  Meanwhile, on a neighboring island with a related population, the Swedish model’s fortunes are exactly the opposite; the Oireachtas “Justice” Committee has recommended it not only be implemented, but accompanied by a host of other monstrous injustices such as giving the police power to steal phone numbers which appear in escort adverts and treating the mere accessing of escort advertising sites as a “crime” equal in severity to downloading child porn.  Though one prominent senator attacked the proposals, rightfully calling them “horribly sanctimonious”, they seem likely to be adopted in whole or in part by a government which is so deferential to the scheme’s chief proponents – the same nuns who ran the infamous Magdalene Laundries – that it refuses to hold them fully accountable for their past misdeeds, let alone bar them from having any control over sex workers.

In the United States, where private, consensual sexual activity is so heavily criminalized a person can in some cases be imprisoned for years just for talking about it, there is a great deal of talk these days about “reforming” the policies and laws; however, “reform” generally means making the penalties even more draconian and the definitions broader, or condemning sex workers to involuntary “rehabilitation”, or violently persecuting clients in addition to hookers.  The latter is usually publicized as “clients instead of”, but the only way for a sex worker to actually “escape” is to pretend to be “trafficked” and finger some supposed “pimp” to be sacrificed in her place (and possibly to submit to “rehabilitation” as well).  But even here, the back-and-forth can be seen; the very same district attorney who recently spewed out such ugly, vile rhetoric against clients also supports the campaign to decriminalize the possession of condoms, and just to the north the country’s most culturally-similar neighbor appears set to largely or entirely decriminalize sex work.

But while Canada may be ready to decriminalize, sex workers in places where our trade is already decriminalized must constantly struggle against those who want to recriminalize it, at least to some degree.  And in Europe, prohibitionists have made great advances even in the famously-tolerant Netherlands and Germany.  In the long run, human rights must win:  the trajectory of history has been for decreasing state control over individuals’ sex lives, and the number of health officials, human rights campaigners and other respected voices calling for decriminalization increases every month.  But sometimes, when one is forced to look at developing history from the inside as we mere humans are, it can be awfully hard to tell.

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