What the New York Times (and France) Got Wrong About Prostitution 

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Dec. 11 2013 5:42 AM

What the New York Times (and France) Got Wrong About Prostitution

The idea that we should treat sex workers as “victims” and not “criminals” sounds right, but it falls short.

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Prostitutes protest in Lyon, France
Prostitutes wearing masks demonstrate, on May 29, 2013 in Lyon, France, to denounce their working conditions and police repression.

Jeff Pachoud/AFP/Getty Images

Instead of offering the voices of sex workers or even their health advocates, the Times has taken as fact the claims of anti-prostitution policymakers: that by abolishing or reducing the incidence of sex-for-sale, what follows is a better life for the people who sell sex. But the Times does not go so far as to cite any evidence for this. It would be hard for them; there isn't much.

The Times does mention Sweden, whose 1999 ban on the purchase of sex was in part a model for the French law. "This so-called 'Swedish approach' is seen as more just to sex workers, who are perceived as victims by its proponents," writes the Global Commission. But in Sweden, they report, the law has resulted in an increase in violence, with sex workers pushed further underground, and further from support systems. When the Global Commission issued its report in July 2012, there had been over 2,000 arrests for buying sex in Sweden, and two convictions. "Workers do not consider themselves to be victims," the commission wrote, "and are almost always unwilling to testify against their clients." Sweden’s approach, they warn, “has been applied in other countries and has actually resulted in grave consequences for the workers."

What about in the United States? The Times board wrote approvingly earlier this year on “specialized criminal courts” in New York and a handful of other cities that have been developed with the “sex workers are victims” ethos in mind. But these programs rely on arrests to get sex workers into social services, and the threat of prosecution to keep them there.

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We could also look to Norway, which followed Sweden in criminalizing the purchase of sex. There, sex workers report still facing evictions from police and ongoing police surveillance; they "do not perceive the police as an ally they can turn to when they are the victim of a crime," according to a 2012 city of Oslo report.

It’s not hard to understand why sex workers do not greet the police as liberators. I'm thinking here of the photographs from a police raid on sex workers published (though later taken down) by the London Evening Standard just last week. In the photos, the women are seated in a flat in Soho, hands thrown up to shield their faces from the camera’s lens. The photographer was a guest of the Metropolitan Police, whom the women did not call. According to Sex Workers' Open University, a sex workers’ rights organization based in the U.K.:

On the 4th December police raided 25 premises in Soho and evicted, detained and harassed sex workers. They kicked down doors, closed working flats, took money and personal items, and manhandled women in the street in front of the photographers and news crews they invited to witness this violence and intimidation. The media presence included Sky news, BBC and the Evening Standard. It would seem that "victims" of sex work need to be publicly humiliated and shamed in the media in order to be properly saved from their work.

The "hundreds of police" that the Standard reports swarmed Soho that evening put these women out in the cold or sent them to detention. The police claimed that by shuttering their flats, they were delivering the women to safety. Westminster City Council leader Phillipa Roe told reporters, "Westminster City Council is ready to help any vulnerable woman—themselves victims of crime, trapped in a way of life where they have little or no control." But the women never asked for such assistance or protection. We need to ask why before we race to pass yet more laws to "help."

When the Times writes of a “growing consensus” in Europe and the United States over how to best legislate prostitution, they don’t mean a consensus involving the sex workers themselves. Each time laws based on the Swedish model, like the one in France, are proposed, sex workers are among the loudest opponents. In the past few months alone, we've seen protests from sex workers demanding to have their voices heard on sex work laws, demanding voluntary care and services without the threat of arrest or prosecution, and demanding justice from those who target them for violence, including the police, When sex workers protest their victimhood and demand full inclusion in society, we need to start listening.

Melissa Gira Grant (@melissagira) is a writer and freelance journalist whose work has appeared in Glamour, the Guardian, The Nation, Wired, and the Atlantic. She is the author of Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work.

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