Skip to main content

How the Fight for Sex Workers' Rights Can Put Sex Workers First

In their book, Juno Mac and Molly Smith examine sex workers' struggles in the modern world.

"Nothing about us without us" became the slogan of the disability rights movement in the 1990s, but the message continues to reverberate today—particularly with sex workers. There have increasingly been calls, especially within progressive and socialist circles in the United States, to reform the criminal justice system's approach to penalizing prostitution. Politicians like Julia Salazar, a Democratic Socialists of America-backed candidate for the New York State Senate, are pushing for sex workers to be fined rather than arrested, while others like former President Jimmy Carter have advanced what's known as the "Swedish" or "Nordic" model of targeting managers and customers. But according to sex workers themselves, none of those reforms adequately address the challenges they face.

In their new book, Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers' Rights, United Kingdom-based sex workers and activists Juno Mac and Molly Smith examine the global fight for sex workers' rights. Relying primarily on testimony from sex workers—and taking seriously that it is work—Mac and Smith critically examine various regimes governing prostitution around the world, including those in Sweden, Norway, and the Netherlands. They find that, while such models are better than the extreme criminalization common in most of the U.S., those regimes still push sex workers further into the margins. Revolting Prostitutes compellingly argues that true supporters of sex workers' rights must put the voices, experiences, and welfare of sex workers first. In other words: Nothing about them without them.

Pacific Standard interviewed Smith and Mac about Revolting Prostitutes, the fight for sex workers' rights, and how so many people have gotten it so wrong. As with their book, they wrote their responses collectively.


Why is the so-called Swedish model not the ideal that advocates of sex workers' rights should be aiming for?

The Swedish model's focus on the men who pay for sex, and its promise to decriminalize people who sell sex, seems a typically progressive Nordic approach to a fraught policy area, especially compared to the brutally obvious misogyny of prostitution policing in other countries. Even if the Swedish model were actually implemented in the way in which its adherents describe—which it isn't—this kind of prostitution law is dangerous. It seeks to impoverish the already vulnerable out of the sex trade by curtailing their income, supposedly for their own good. Targeting clients forces sex workers to compromise the way they work, which leads to lower prices, rushed transactions, longer working hours, and increased isolation for workers trying to help their clients evade police scrutiny.

The Swedish model fails to even deliver on the basic promise of decriminalizing the seller. In the countries that have adopted it, most of the pre-existing criminalization of sex workers has been retained. In Ireland, small groups of sex workers are routinely arrested and prosecuted for working together for safety. One Romanian woman, for example, was fined for "using the same address for prostitution" as a friend, and a husband and wife who worked together were each fined €600 [about $680]. In France, although the national law against soliciting was repealed, city governments were allowed to retain localized penalties for street-based sex work. Raids which ostensibly target clients are in fact used to evict, arrest, or deport sex workers themselves—disproportionately black and migrant women. 

Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers' Rights.

Revolting Prostitutes: The Fight for Sex Workers' Rights.

How do you define "decriminalization?" How does it differ from "legalization"?

Under legalization, like the systems in Nevada, Germany, or the Netherlands, some sex work in some contexts is legal. This legal sex work is heavily regulated by the state—generally not in a way that prioritizes the welfare of workers, who are viewed as unruly and in need of control. Often, to legalize means to implement new laws related specifically to sex work, including new criminal penalties targeting these unruly workers, rather than repealing the existing ones. So under legalization, workers might be restricted to working only in managed brothels, as is the case in Nevada, which makes them vulnerable to exploitation as [they] cannot work outside of a manager's control without risking arrest. Workers might be subject to mandatory health checks, which are a human rights violation—everybody deserves medical privacy and medical autonomy.

By comparison, fully decriminalized sex work describes a situation where sex work is legal as the default position. Instead of only some sex work in only some contexts being legal, fully decriminalized prostitution is, as a starting point, not a crime. What flows from the perspective of decriminalization is a system where the knowledge, safety, and rights of people who sell sex are prioritized.

In order to do this, the regulations are shaped by sex workers themselves. So, in New Zealand, sex workers are able to work on the street in well-lit areas with groups of friends without having to hide from the police or help their clients hide. Workers can share a flat with a small group of friends in order to share costs and to be safer without risking arrest. When workers are employed by a manager, their manager is subject to labor law that was written in consultation with sex workers. This means sex workers in New Zealand brothels have labor protections unimaginable elsewhere in the world. For example, in 2014, a sex worker in New Zealand took her manager to an employment tribunal for workplace sexual harassment and won her case against him. This would be inconceivable in a criminalized workplace.

Why is it important to bring an intersectional perspective to questions of sex workers' rights?

Selling sex provides income that has low barriers. No training, equipment, venue, vehicle, license, or work experience is essential if you find yourself in a state of need. For this reason, sex work is a safety net for many of the most vulnerable people in society, who often have few other options. This is why any attempt to disrupt or block people's ability to make this income through criminal law is destined to harm people who sell sex and harm the most marginalized of that already marginalized group the worst.

The reasons that people end up in sex work, and their relative power or precariousness within it, are inextricably tied up with the structural injustices of the world. As such, decriminalization is an urgent issue for marginalized people—it is part of how those with the least resources and least power in the world are attempting to survive. We need to make the world safer for such people. At the same time, we must fight to equitably distribute resources and power to ensure that, ultimately, nobody is pushed by any kind of need into selling sex.

Likewise, racial justice, the abolition of borders, LGBTQ equality, access to health care are all issues crucial for sex workers, as these various experiences are inextricably bound up together. There can be no sex workers' rights without women's rights, migrants' rights, and workers' rights, and vice versa.

What form should the struggle for sex workers' rights take?

Sex worker activism lays out a harm-reductionist approach: Existing harms should be mitigated while working on broader issues, not exacerbated in pursuit of a bigger goal. Reforming sex work law needs to happen in tandem with measures to tackle poverty and other factors that drive entry into sex work, such as welfare reform. Support services that give people assistance with things like child care and health care, both inside and outside of sex work, must also play a role. Many sex worker advocates (for example, the Decrim Now campaign [in the U.K.]) frame sex worker rights as a Marxist-feminist issue and emphasize that measures like these must build on a foundation of self-determination and solidarity among workers. They draw links between people selling sex and other precarious workers in the gig economy, like cleaners, Uber drivers, and fast-food workers.

One of the first steps toward change is forming unions and making collective demands from our workplaces and the government. This is more difficult with criminalized workers, but not impossible—in fact, it's been done all over the world.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

*Update—November 5th, 2018: This post has been updated to include the correct link for the Decrim Now campaign.