Is the sex industry an empowering human right to be legalised and mainstreamed? Or patriarchal sexual exploitation?
About ten years ago, I went on one of my first donor trips with a group of women to Turkey. I stumbled upon an issue I’d hoped might fade away – an enthusiastic celebration of commercial ‘sex work’ framed as empowerment and a fundamental human right that should be normalized, mainstreamed, and fully legalised. As a feminist, mother of a young girl, and someone new in my philanthropic journey engaging with a gender-lens around the world, all this was hard to wrap my head and heart around.
Flash forwards a decade: today, off-the-radar, a well-funded movement is quietly gaining traction across the United States to fully legalise all aspects of prostitution. Not just the selling… but also the buying, pimping, and brothel-owning. You see it in New York, Oregon, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, California, Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada, Ohio, Washington D.C. and more likely in the works. As World Without Exploitation co-founder Lauren Hersh describes: ‘Since 2020 these campaigns have been popping up across America so quickly, often under the guise of something else. Troubling as it is, we have seen self-admitted sex buyers bankrolling these campaigns. Many people don’t realise that these bills would dramatically increase the size and scope of the commercial sex trade, giving more power to pimps and sex buyers.’
What role does philanthropy play in this movement?
I’ve taken the time to digest various perspectives, which all seek to appeal to lofty values I hold dear: freedom, empowerment, dignity, etc. This isn’t an easy topic to navigate. There’s a lot of terminology and jargon. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between wishful thinking and the un-sanitized facts on the ground. And I find myself pondering what really is philanthropy versus funding rooted in self-interest?
Thank you, Alliance magazine, for hosting this series promoting dialogue around a complex issue which deserves robust discourse and nuanced, systemic thinking to carefully consider the larger ramifications of policy decisions on both individuals and society.
Sadly, in many settings – including women’s philanthropy – this taboo topic’s been politely scrubbed off conference agendas. In many female and progressive-leaning spaces, the sex work is work and is empowering mindset is seen as a settled matter. At that conference I attended a decade ago, all organisations working to curb human trafficking and related harms of sexual exploitation were excluded from the agenda. Yet, I’ve found if you speak with people offline, many acknowledge misgivings but find it complicated to question what feels like a new orthodoxy.
‘Sex work divides feminist opinion like few others issues’, describes Frankie Miren. ‘The ideological clash – prostitution as violence against women vs simply a job – may never be resolved but where debate coalesces, around proposed legal systems, ideas become concrete and can be logically hashed out.’ We must not ignore this issue which impacts us all and the overall landscape of non-profit work many philanthropic sectors are funding. As it currently stands – not in some imagined future state – the commercial sex trade is a highly-lucrative, exploitative, global network unlikely to vanish anytime soon.
However, the conversation diverges around the role and nature of consent within an ‘industry’ created and perpetuated by a nexus of deeply entrenched, intersectional injustices and socioeconomic vulnerabilities. From a philanthropic perspective, the pressing quandary remains: Should we support approaches seeking to normalize/expand the sex trade’s growth and reach into society? Or efforts seeking to contain it?
The task is not to make – or win – some purist, abstract ideological debate over who sounds the most ‘feminist’ or ‘progressive.’ Rather, to get past the rhetoric to truly understand the systemic nature of the problem, the actual realities and competing values at play to carefully weigh the human impact of various approaches proposed.
A quick primer: three different directions:
There are three main ‘camps’ which have very different prescriptions of both the problem and the solution. They sometimes sound similar, so attention to nuance is critical.
1) FULL CRIMINALIZATION is enshrined in legal codes in most places globally. It makes illegal all aspects of commercial sex: the selling, buying, pimping, and brothel-owning.
2) FULL DECRIMINALIZATION would render legal all aspects of the sex trade noted above. Overall, it’s guided by a societal vision where ‘sex work’ is fully mainstreamed and normalized as any other line of work. Found in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, certain regions of Mexico, and Thailand, the Decriminalize Sex Work approach is framed as an empowering choice between consenting adults calling for destigmatization and legalization to be made more safe. There are two streams within the full decriminalization camp: pro-sex work feminists/progressives and pro-‘adult entertainment’ business owners and sex buyers. These odd bedfellows converge on similar language that ‘sex work is work’ and use similar arguments as used in the decriminalization of recreational drugs. This perspective focuses on legalizing consensual commercial sex work believing this can be done in a recreational way without increasing trafficking (involving minors, force, fraud, and/or coercion).
3) PARTIAL DECRIMINALIZATION arose in response to the learnings of places that tried full decriminalization. It embodies a pragmatic, progressive solution which keeps illegal the buying, pimping, and brothel-owning but decriminalizes people selling sex. It also expands social services and support to create pathways to exit from what is understood as an intrinsically exploitative and violent global ‘industry’ which preys on human vulnerability and displaced people with few economic alternatives. This approach originated in Sweden in 1999 and is also in place in Norway, Iceland, France, Ireland, Northern Ireland, and Canada. Known as the Nordic Model or Equality Model it views full legalization as a wrongheaded move increasing the male demand for sex as a commodity. It contends full decriminalization expands sex trafficking and sets back the work of gender equality and healthy relationships based on mutuality rather than domination.
Since full and partial decriminalization are the viewpoints most in play – and both emphasize variations of the theme of freedom/agency and human rights – key questions to wrestle with as you dive into various viewpoints shared in this upcoming series are: What does consent really mean across the stark economic, gender, and racial divide that we see between those buying and selling sex? Which approach mitigates the most human suffering and truly maximizes freedom, wellbeing, and equality?
Both approaches hold some aspect of harm reduction as a goal. Partial decriminalization aims for containment and prevention while full decriminalization wants to legalize the whole commercial sex industry so that the extremely small slice of those who work in it free of coercion, exploitative grooming, economic vulnerabilities, etc. can do so without stigma and in theory more safely.
After much deliberation, I personally land with partial decriminalization because it does not attempt to put a feminist or progressive veneer over something that is inherently exploitative. I appreciate that this approach takes the angle that male demand for treating sex like a commodity is not set it stone but can be both inflamed and curbed. I am also aware that studies in places where prostitution is legal show that it creates a magnet effect for pimps and traffickers to lure more vulnerable people from other countries into sex tourist hubs which in turn increases the male demand to buy sex and the whole industry just continues to expand, creating more harm and violence not less. Partial decriminalization is grounded in research and what survivors say they wish was in place when they were in ‘the Life’: dignified exit ramps and more real options to pursue a truly empowering livelihood.
But wade in and decide for yourself!
Philanthropic landscape: follow the money
At its core, philanthropy seeks to make the world a better place. Given the massive size of the commercial sex trade globally, funders seeking to limit its size, scope, and human harm have seemingly limitless entry points. One approach pioneered by Hunt Alternatives in 2014 was to seed a nationwide effort to stem the demand side of the problem by funding a network of cities called Cities Empowered Against Sexual Exploitation (CEASE) dedicated to innovating around how to deter men from buying sex.
In addition to demand reduction, another funding priority that tends to bring funders like the NoVo Foundation into the ‘commercial sexual exploitation’ (CSE) space is violence reduction. In 2010, NoVo committed $50 million and launched the Move to End Violence fund to ‘strategically deepen its investment in the U.S.-based movement to end violence against girls and women’ and more generally ‘foster a transformation in global society from a culture of domination and exploitation to one of equality and partnership.’ Sadly, Novo closed its doors, leaving a huge funding gap in the support for survivors and people making an exit from ‘the Life.’
Leading philanthropic intermediaries funding anti-trafficking endeavours – which overlaps with CSE – include Humanity United, The Freedom Fund, The Global Fund to End Modern Slavery. Since 2017, the Jensen Project is a leader in the fight against sexual violence – focusing on anti-trafficking, domestic violence, and assault. My foundation, Imago Dei Fund, began with a focus on anti-trafficking but gradually broadened out to the broader CSE frame, and like other grant-makers in the space including the Girls Rights Project, InMaat Foundation, and the Hickey Foundation, fund a range of advocacy and frontline organizations like Polaris, GEMS, Rights4Girls, My Life, My Choice, Shared Hope International, Everfree, and networks like Chab Dai and World Without Exploitation doing critical work of preventing, intervening, and supporting survivors of a massive global web of sexual exploitation that persists in many forms.
The hole NoVo left behind has been filled by a markedly different direction led by billionaire philanthropist George Soros’s Open Society Foundation. With seemingly unlimited funds and an orchestrated global campaign, a quiet shift’s transpired within the sphere of women’s philanthropy and development that now uses language of ‘freedom’ and ‘empowerment.’ It fully embraces ‘sex work’ as an inherent human right endorsed by some United Nations agencies like UNAIDS, the World Health Organization and large global NGO’s like Amnesty International.
From a philanthropic point of view, how should we think of deep-pocketed actors with a financial or vested personal interest in legalizing the sex trade? And when they do so under the guise of charity and compassion?
The Boston Globe’s recent article ‘Making prostitution legal in Rhode Island: The out-of-state money behind the push‘ is a good place to start. My hometown paper opens a window into the funding backstory. Led by Decriminalize Sex Work, $1.28 million was spent in 2021 alone pushing that agenda. As you follow the money to fully legalize the sex trade, you uncover a cast of characters pouring millions into this state-by-state campaign. Some, like the son of a multi-millionaire bankrolling a statewide ballot initiative in Oregon, are self-admitted sex buyers, It begs the question: Is this philanthropy or self-dealing/self-interest?
Containment or normalization and expansion?
A worldwide countermovement is galvanizing to advocate for Partial Decriminalization. This compassionate, progressive approach takes away criminal penalties for those selling sex – so they can find economic alternatives and exit ramps. However, it still holds accountable pimps, brothel-owners, and sex buyers for the devastation and harm they cause. Two leading feminist organizations in this movement, Equality Now and World Without Exploitation, are swimming against the now-seemingly dominant pro-’sex work’ current in most feminist spaces.
Now more than ever, the women’s movement must not stifle different viewpoints in this critical conversation. Dissenters to full legalization comprehend that trafficking, crime, and male demand for commercial sex flourishes wherever and whenever prostitution is fully legalized. Understandably, they’ve spoken up in places like the Netherlands and Germany where the sex trade grew in size and scope, while still being just as exploitative as anywhere else. Interestingly, In 2019, UNWomen officially took a neutral stance in response to voices from the Global South who objected to the growing trend to normalize prostitution. They complained this push comes from wealthy countries where most sex buyers live and that this issue should not be framed in human rights language as is in vogue in many settings.
Like a chronic health issue which you know will never totally go away, but with appropriate interventions that can be mitigated, many, like Culture Reframed, increasingly are approaching the whole continuum of commercial sexual exploitation as a public health crisis.
It can and should be contained to protect children online, troubled adolescents, and vulnerable people at risk of getting drawn in by exploiters skilled at spotting and pouncing on vulnerability.
From a philanthropic standpoint, asking questions to get beyond the rhetoric and a probing public health frame is a good place to start. The title of Boston University’s School of Public Health’s Commercial Sex: It’s Time for Public Health to Admit ‘It’s Complicated’ and the questions it asks at the end are appropriate for philanthropy as well.
For more on the public health frame and a historical backdrop on this issue: Should US Physicians Support the Decriminalization of Commercial Sex.
Over the next several weeks, you’re going to be hearing from several, diverse voices on various sub-topics associated with this complicated, nuanced issue.
Thank you for rolling up your sleeves and delving into this much-needed dialogue!
Emily Nielsen Jones is the Co-Founder and Trustee at the Imago Dei Fund.