With the news that New York state intends to bring in a bill to decriminalize sex work, prostitution in the United States is back in the headlines. The response from anti-prostitution activists was fast and furious, and they immediately began lobbying and picketing to stop this from happening.

To criminalize or decriminalize: that is the polarizing question feminists have been asking themselves since the feminist sex wars of the 1980s.

The arguments on the anti-side are bleak. Prostitution is violence against women. Prostitution oppresses women. Women won’t be free until prostitution is eliminated. Therefore, the only responsible policy is to recognize that women are abused in prostitution, and to target the male buyers and pimps to end demand. Anti-prostitution activists favor the so-called Nordic model where the buyers are criminalized, and the sellers are given the resources they need to get out of the trade.

Until a few years ago, I too was an anti-prostitution scholar and filmmaker. But interviewing and getting to know sex working women who choose sex work challenged my thinking on the Nordic model, amongst many other things. The women I met made me see that the Nordic model is not a stop-gap to women’s eventual sexual equality; it simply prolongs our inequality by continuing and reinforcing the stigma against women’s sexuality and sexual freedom.

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Sex Workers need Decriminalization, not Stigma by Meredith Ralston

April 23rd, 2019