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Liberal Feminism Has a Sex Work Problem

The National Organization for Women opposes decriminalization. Doing so has led it to gaslight sex workers and echo rhetoric from anti-choice groups and the religious right.

Two activists demonstrate for sex workers during a rally in New York in May. (AP Photo/Kathy Willens)

Washington, D.C.’s city council hearing last week on decriminalizing sex work ran over fourteen hours and included nearly 200 testimonies from district residents, from community groups, and from sex workers. To those new to the issue, the marathon session was likely overwhelming, as it was to sex workers who were watching others debate their lives.

As coverage at DCist and The Washington Post noted, those for and against the bill all claimed to want to protect sex workers. This might appear to be simply a disagreement over how to protect those who were oft-referred to as “vulnerable people.” But many opponents refused to even recognize the existence of sex work, instead describing it as “commercial sexual exploitation” and calling sex workers “persons in prostitution.” More so, sex work decriminalization supporters and opponents fundamentally disagree on what makes sex workers vulnerable, and from what and whom they need protection.

D.C.’s decriminalization proposal would remove criminal penalties for adults engaged in prostitution—selling sex and buying sex, as well decriminalizing non-violent third parties like managers or security, and sex workers’ places of business. The campaign to support this full decriminalization bill, DecrimNow DC, was created by sex workers, with black and trans sex workers the most visible public speakers and leaders. They have been joined by national LGBTQ rights and racial justice groups like the Human Rights Campaign, National Center for Transgender Equality, Lambda Legal, Black Lives Matter DC, and Black Youth Project 100. The communities they represent have all faced police indifference, harassment, and abuse—even death.

At least 22 trans women have been killed nationwide so far this year, the majority of them black women. The demand to stop this violence has made its way to the Democratic presidential primary, with candidates Cory Booker, Julián Castro, Kamala Harris, and Elizabeth Warren each raising the issue. Advocates say that many of the trans women killed each year were sex workers. According to a 2015 survey, 40 percent of all black trans people have traded sex for money, and trans women overall were twice as likely to have done sex work than trans men. When lawmakers criminalize trans women of color’s means of survival, sex workers have told them, lawmakers expose them to further discrimination, harassment and violence. This summer, two black trans women, Zoe Spears and Ashanti Carmon, were killed in D.C. just blocks from one another, in a neighborhood known for sex work. It’s not that people who prey on trans women choose them because they are somehow intrinsically vulnerable; they have been made vulnerable because they have been criminalized.

The decriminalization bill’s opponents include local non-profits serving people who have been trafficked into the sex trade, along with a number of national organizations who have long been fighting any advances made by the sex workers’ rights movement—including mounting public support for decriminalization. Some helped set a “game plan” for a national campaign to “combat demand for commercial sex” in 2010, including fighting decriminalization efforts. Many backed the recent Federal legislation Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA), which resulted in sex workers’ losing online platforms that helped them stay safe at work, as well as an increase in reports of homelessness and violence. (Booker, Harris, and Warren—along with every Democratic presidential candidate serving in Congress—voted in 2018 for SESTA/FOSTA.)

Over the last twenty years, some of these anti-prostitution groups, both secular-feminist and religious-conservative, have responded to decriminalization efforts by conflating sex work with human trafficking, and insisting decriminalization will increase trafficking. They have been traveling around the world over the last two decades, warning any city, state, or country who has considered abolishing criminal penalties for prostitution that to do so will transform them into a magnet for “sexual slavery.” These public professions of concern for victims of sexual abuse, however, succeed in distracting from the actual effect: maintaining police control over sex workers. In this, anti-sex workers’ rights groups are not so different from anti-reproductive rights groups, and in fact, when it came to opposing the D.C. bill, groups like the anti-choice Concerned Women for America and the National Organization for Women sit on the same side. In both cases, the law becomes a tool for bending women into more acceptable positions.

In Washington last week, sex workers testified to the more mundane reality of harm and violence they personally face: homelessness, anti-trans bias, fear of calling for help with an overdose, fear of reporting sexual assault because of police harassment. “I have put my life on the line for this campaign,” said Tamika Spellman, policy and advocacy associate at HIPS, a 25 year old support organization by and for sex workers in DC, “by telling my life story and how this decision I made—unintentionally—put me at risk of state violence.”

Few opposing the bill appeared to have any experience as sex workers. Instead, they invoked traffickers who were rumored to be sighted roaming middle schools. They condemned “being penetrated anally with… bottles, brushes, dildos, guns, and/or animals” and allegedly “forced abortions.” One woman raised a pair of platform stripper heels, pronouncing them “silver shackles.” Lance Lemmonds, recently the communication director of Ralph Reed’s Faith and Family Coalition, who joined a faith-based anti-trafficking group a few weeks before the hearing, told the room of sex workers that he was there to “state facts… out of love.” He then informed them that sex work is not a job, just “paid rape.”

Sex workers who testified sat through hours of graphic descriptions of what some outsiders believe sex work is like. They heard others claim that to extend them rights would initiate a dangerous “domino effect,” as one speaker put it, imperiling the whole country.

“This is not a social science experiment. We are talking about people’s lives,” Jessica Martinez, a methamphetamine services specialist at HIPS, told the council in response to these arguments. “And I am tired of people—cisgender people—coming up here and speaking on my behalf, saying that they know what my experience is. You want to know what it’s like to be a trans sex worker? I’m right here.”

Throughout their campaign, sex workers have risked being disbelieved and victim-blamed, even facing more violence for speaking out. It was a particular kind of gaslighting to have their experiences discounted by feminists at the National Organization for Women.

NOW, like many big women’s rights groups, has never meaningfully addressed sex workers’ rights. While NOW chapters once held a range of positions on prostitution and pornography, their national leadership now claim all their chapters oppose decriminalizing sex work. NOW remains one of the only mainstream feminist groups—unlike the Women’s March, for example, who support the D.C. bill—to actively rally their members against sex workers’ rights.

Toni Van Pelt, NOW president, used her time before the council to cast sex work itself as “gender-based violence,” allegedly driving other forms of sexual violence, like incest and rape. Sex workers, therefore, received the message that the work they do is itself violence. Whether sex workers agreed appeared irrelevant to the argument; for Van Pelt, sex work by its existence victimizes all women.

Other rhetoric evoked anti-prostitution legislation’s racist history. If the council bill passed, Van Pelt claimed, “traffickers will bring prostituted persons from elsewhere” as well as increase “efforts to procure women and girls from D.C.’s purest”—she corrected herself—“poorest wards.” One couldn’t have scripted a worse slip of the tongue, given that prostitution was first criminalized in this country through public campaigns meant to terrorize white families about “white slavery,” into which their daughters could be sold. In the present day, President Donald Trump likewise warns without evidence that immigrants are trafficking children, an update of a century-old moral panic the bill’s opponents leaned into.

At the hearing, Christian Nunes, NOW vice-president, relayed a litany of horrors alleged to naturally accompany sex work—sex tourism, kidnapping—which would be repeated later in the day by witnesses from anti-sex work groups like National Center on Sexual Exploitation (formerly known as Morality in Media), new religious right-aligned groups like U.S. Institute Against Human Trafficking (the group that just hired Lemmonds), and anti-LGBTQ groups like the Family Research Council (a Southern Poverty law Center-designated hate group).

But one particular claim in this parade of horribles stuck out: Nunes alleged that “sellers of sex”—sex workers—are “often” subject to “forced abortions.”

It’s a striking thing to hear from the leadership of an organization committed to reproductive rights. The specter of “forced abortions” is almost exclusively raised by anti-choice groups in order to further restrict abortion access. And they’ve frequently done so in the guise of anti-trafficking work: Senate Republicans have tried to ensure anti-trafficking funding only goes to groups who deny abortion access to trafficked minors. The anti-choice group Live Action has attempted to paint Planned Parenthood as colluding in trafficking, getting an activist to pose as a pimp and pretend to ask for advice. Last June, Live Action founder Lila Rose and Laura Lederer, former senior advisor on trafficking in persons at the State Department, teamed up with 56 Republican lawmakers to demand Planned Parenthood be investigated for allegedly helping traffickers obtain “forced abortions” for minor victims.

Nothing is new about liberal feminists allying with the right in a war against sex work; they have been working together for two decades now. But the dissonance of hearing NOW, a group which has placed keeping abortion safe and legal at the center of their mission, appropriate some of the tropes of anti-abortion rhetoric, was only underscored by the testimony of Deepika Srivastava, president of the DC Abortion Fund, which supports sex work decriminalization. “We need to say enough to outdated and nonsense laws and policies, that reflect bad public health, that legislate away bodily autonomy, and endanger communities,” Srivastava told the council, “whether those policies encroach upon abortion access or upon sex workers’ rights.”

Nor was this the only outlandish pronouncement from NOW leadership. “Prostitution is the only form of employment that intersects with forms of violence and other illegal activities, such as drug abuse, coercion, rape, physical abuse, and trafficking,” Nunes informed the council—a myopic and dismissive claim on multiple levels. Many people, across the globe, are presently trafficked into industries as varied as farm work, care work, and garment work, where they, too, face violence and abuse. The International Labor Organization estimates there are three times as many people who are victims of all other forms of forced labor than there are victims of forced labor in the sex trade. And for the past two years, the entire country has been exposed to the powerful men who engage in sexual abuse and violence with their women co-workers and subordinates, across (and systematically excused within) media and entertainment industries.

Though asked a few hours after their leadership testified at the hearing, NOW has not answered my question for Nunes, about how she came to believe “forced abortions” are an issue in sex work. Neither have they provided Van Pelt’s response to my question asking if she misspoke when she said all NOW chapters oppose sex work decriminalization. One local chapter president told me on Twitter, however, that national leadership “does not speak for all NOW chapters on this.”

NOW and their allies across the political spectrum did express concern for victims of trafficking, but at the end of the day, they had one message for the D.C. City Council: to decriminalize sex work is to “increase demand” for sex workers. “Demand,” they emphasized over and over, is at the root of why women sell sex: the power and problem of unfettered male lust. Ending demand—not debt, not employment discrimination, not housing instability—is the solution. And that, NOW says, is a solution which law enforcement must help them deliver.

In Washington, D.C., the Metropolitan Police Department runs a dedicated Human Trafficking Unit. Mostly, they arrest people alleged to be engaged in sex work, not trafficking. The unit “received and investigated 186 complaints of human trafficking in CY2016 and made a total of 198 arrests,” according to a report from the independent District agency responsible for statistical analysis of criminal justice practices. “The vast majority (98 percent) of the Human Trafficking Unit’s arrests were for prostitution-related offenses, whereas four of those arrests were for human trafficking offenses.”

In the course of making those arrests, officers with the Human Trafficking Unit, while posing as customers, engage in sexual conduct with women they allege are sex workers. Officers have admitted to this in affidavits filed to explain their arrests, which were recently obtained by the Washington City Paper.

“Why don’t you get on all fours and show me that pussy and ass,” an unnamed MPD officer asked a 23 year old woman he booked an appointment with at the Washington Hilton. “I will pay an extra $100 if your friend joins us and licks your pussy,” he added when she complied. Another officer, Detective Scott Pinto, asked the woman he went on to arrest, after watching her take off her shorts, “Damn, that’s a nice fat ass. You do anal?” A third officer, Officer Duckett, asked a woman he hired to meet him at the Kimpton Rouge Hotel to take off her clothes and “get comfortable” before requesting anal sex from her. She asked him if he had lube. He replied, “I got spit.” When the Washington City Paper asked if MPD had rules of conduct for prostitution stings, or if it was within policy for officers to engage in such conduct, the department responded, “MPD does not discuss tactics for undercover operations.”

When I followed up via email to request MPD’s policies on such arrests, I first received a reply stating that “MPD does not have a specific policy regarding the arrest of sex workers or people engaged in prostitution.”

A subsequent email quoting the MPD officers’ affidavits, and asking if the three incidents described would be considered outside MPD policy, bounced back with an automated message stating the email “contain[ed] unacceptable words or phrases.” In response to a third email, which replaced the words pussy, ass, licks, and anal—as they appeared in the MPD officers’ affidavits—with asterisks, MPD said, “The particular incident you referenced is under investigation by Internal Affairs, thus we are unable to comment further at this time.” They did not respond to specify which of the three incidents was referred to internal affairs, and when.

At the D.C. hearing, decriminalization supporters repeatedly described the police harassment and abuse of sex workers, pointing out that officers had solicited them for sex. Spellman, too, had previously written about an undercover police officer who engaged her in a sex act and only after revealed he was law enforcement.

District law enforcement have themselves been traffickers, like corrections officer Luis Javier Privado, who plead guilty to charges of conspiracy to aid and abet in human trafficking of a minor in 2018 (he was fired shortly after his arrest). Now-former MPD officer Chukwuemeka Ekwonna used the power of his badge to solicit two minor girls for sex, for which he plead guilty to sex trafficking charges. “Ekwonna engaged in illegal sex with the underage girl in different locations in the Annapolis area, including in motel rooms and Ekwonna’s vehicle,” according to the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Maryland. “Ekwonna typically paid Girl 1 between $30 and $40 to have sex with him. Messages between Ekwonna and the 14-year-old girl suggest that she was aware that Ekwonna was a police officer.” He was sentenced this year.

In 2014, Linwood Barnhill Jr. was convicted of serving as a pimp for two teenagers while a police officer with the MPD. “The victim that I represent understood him to be a cop,” her attorney said at sentencing. “She actually rode in a car with him, and he pulled a gun from underneath the seat and bragged about being a D.C. police officer.” The same month Barnhill was arrested in that case, another MPD officer, Marc Washington, was accused of producing child pornography, taking nude photos of a minor. He died before the investigation progressed.

Sex workers know the difference between the work they do and the violence they can face while doing it, particularly when it comes from their supposed protectors. “I agreed to do sex work, not be raped by officers of the law,” Spellman told the council last week. “All I was trying to do is survive.”

At the hearing, NOW president Van Pelt offered just one response to sex workers’ testimonies of police abuse. “When we talk about the police, and we talk about the violence of police against these people,” she said, “we need to be working with the police to change them, to educate them, to have them treat all citizens with respect.”

Van Pelt did not specify who she meant by “we” in this policy recommendation. Presumably, it was a separate group from “these people”—the sex workers who have been abused by police, whose own bill she opposed.

If the hearing can be a guide, the “we” Van Pelt envisions leading the police to better behavior are professional women, white women, women like Van Pelt: women who are far less likely to be abused by police themselves. The threat they see is the men who pay women for sex, not the men who are paid to arrest those women.