Over the weekend, Emily Bazelon, a staff writer at the New York Times, published an article called “Should Prostitution Be a Crime?” What she didn’t say was that she had already answered her own question, and that she chose to distort (or outright ignore) facts and interviews in order to push a narrative in support of full decriminalization, under the guise of neutral reporting.
Her bias becomes clear early on to anyone who is familiar with the politically loaded term, “sex work,” which she adopts uncritically, claiming this is “the term activists prefer.” While Bazelon admits that most of those who speak publicly as “sex workers” are white and very privileged in comparison to most women in the industry, she doesn’t challenge the language.
The piece centered itself around Amnesty International’s recent decision to adopt a policy supporting the decriminalization of pimps and johns. Due to the choice of organizations like Human Rights Watch (HRW), World Health Organization (WHO), UNAIDS, and Amnesty International to advocate for the legalization of prostitution, Bazelon is able to claim this as the “human rights” approach to prostitution legislation, without acknowledging the unethical ways these organizations came to this advocacy, the hypocrisy of this position, and without fairly representing the opposition. In fact, defining decriminalization as the “human rights argument” is a distortion tactic itself as, by comparison, those who oppose the legalization of the industry are positioned as not being onside with human rights goals. In truth, prostitution itself is defined as “incompatible with the dignity and worth of the human person” by the UN, meaning that organizations like Amnesty International and HRW defy their own mission statements, core values, and responsibilities by advocating for a system that accepts and normalizes prostitution.
Bazelon claims that “sex work” activists are “fighting the legal status quo, social mores, and also mainstream feminism,” leading me to wonder who and what, exactly, Bazelon believes “mainstream feminism” is…
Feminism is a radical movement that fights a system of oppression called “patriarchy,” so to call it “mainstream” is strange, in and of itself. But I myself have, admittedly, used the term from time to time, in reference to the large, mainstream, liberal publications that promote a version of “feminism” that is pro-capitalist, pro-objectification, pro-sex industry, and that fail to challenge male power at its root. This is to say that, when I have used the term “mainstream feminism,” (which I have, in the past, used interchangeably with other terms such as “Playboy feminism,” “liberal feminism,” and “corporate feminism”) I don’t mean “feminism” at all. My perspective is that feminism is not, as celebrities like Matt McGorry and corporate beauty magazines like Cosmo and Glamour claim, a thing that happens any time a woman makes a choice about anything at all, nor is it something that is not specifically about “women’s liberation” but rather about “gender equality,” nor is it something that must necessarily be inclusive of men. No. Feminism is a movement that is focused on ending the oppression of women under patriarchy and on ending the male violence women are subjected to within that system.
That Bazelon positions those fighting for men’s right to legally buy and sell women as “fighting mainstream feminism” confirms either ignorance with regard to what the feminist movement actually is or a strong bias.
But Bazelon not only doesn’t acknowledge a bias, but denies one, saying in a video conversation posted to Facebook shortly after the article was published, “Six months ago, I really knew almost nothing about this topic.”
This claim is hard to believe, even without considering the perspective put forth in the piece, which left out testimonies from survivors, distorted quotes from abolitionists, presenting them as out-of-touch conservatives, irrational ideologues, and misogynists, and provided false information about both the Nordic model and decriminalization.
In one case, Bazelon writes, “Melissa Farley, a psychologist who received Bush funds, wrote in 2000 in the journal Women and Criminal Justice that any woman who claimed to have chosen prostitution was acting pathologically — ‘enjoyment of domination and rape are in her nature.’” The actual argument from “Prostitution: a critical review of the medical and social sciences literature” reads:
“Pornography, for example, is a form of cultural propaganda which reifies the notion that women are prostitutes. One [john] said ‘I am a firm believer that all women… are prostitutes at one time or another’ (Hite, 1981, page 760). To the extent that any woman is assumed to have freely chosen prostitution, then it follows that enjoyment of domination and rape are in her nature, that is to say, she is a prostitute (Dworkin, 1981).”
The argument being referenced here is Dworkin’s, which says that normalizing prostitution or saying that women freely choose to work in the sex industry because they “enjoy it” leads to the conclusion that women, in fact, enjoy being dominated and raped, as this is what we see both in porn and in prostitution.
Likewise, Farley does not argue that she believes women enjoy rape and domination, but that buyers (johns) believe this and that men who buy sex have antiquated, sexist notions about gender and accept male sexual aggression and entitlement as “natural.”
For Bazelon to read all that and then to rewrite Farley’s words, framing her argument as one that says “any woman who claimed to have chosen prostitution was acting pathologically” and that “enjoyment of domination and rape are in her nature” is deeply disturbing in its overt dishonesty.
While Bazelon centered her piece around the perspectives of those who support a legalized sex industry, she intentionally left out stories of survivors who would have disrupted the chosen narrative for her story. A woman named Sabrinna Valisce who was involved in the sex trade in New Zealand on and off for many years, both before and after decriminalization, told me she spoke with Balezon for the piece, but that her interview was cut. Valisce was a volunteer with the New Zealand Prostitutes Collective (NZPC) until about two years ago and had advocated for full decriminalization until she experienced its results firsthand.
While the Prostitution Reform Act was meant to make the industry safer for women in it and enforce safe sex practices, it’s done the opposite, Valisce says. Women were suddenly expected to engage in “passionate” kissing and oral sex without protection (called “NBJ” or “Natural Blow Job”) — things that had previously been viewed as “a betrayal of the sisterhood” and internally policed by the prostituted women themselves. “All that has gone by the wayside [due to] high competition and lowered rates,” Valisce says. “Girls are also now expected to let men cum as many times as they can within the booked time. It was never that way before. They paid once and received one service.” Under decriminalization, Valisce’s efforts to institute exiting programs were rejected full out.
Not only that, but a kind of routine violence was normalized by johns. “I’m not talking about punching and beating… [though this still does happen] I’m talking more about the everyday violence of gagging, throttling, spanking, hair pulling, rough handling, and hard pounding.” Valisce says there has been a notable rise in men’s sense of entitlement and a normalization of abuse since the new law came into effect.
Just weeks after decriminalization was implemented, Valisce says just about every brothel in the country rolled out what they called “all-inclusives.” This meant, she told me, “that women couldn’t negotiate their own fees or services, nor could they decide what their boundaries were.” The reason she had supported decriminalization, Valisce said, was because she wanted “the power in the hands of the people who work in prostitution” and to ensure that women weren’t getting arrested or ending up with criminal records. She was told that decriminalization was the only way to go.
Her goals remained the same, but she realized the only way to address the problems she was seeing under decriminalization was through the Nordic model.
Regardless of the real effects of decriminalization and contradictory testimony from survivors, Bazelon parrots Amnesty’s claim that legislation in New Zealand and Australia places “greater control into the hands of sex workers to operate independently, self-organize in informal cooperatives and control their own working environments.”
When I spoke to her over Skype, Valisce said she had told Bazelon that she had worked alongside trafficked women post-decriminalization. Trafficking was hard to track, as it had been rebranded as “sex worker recruitment,” but it still went on. Nonetheless, Bazelon reported that “the New Zealand government has found no evidence that sex workers are being trafficked,” and left it at that. Bazelon’s desire to paint a rosy picture of decriminalization in New Zealand seems to have led her to expunge Valisce’s testimony from the record, despite (or perhaps because of) the fact that she was the only person Bazelon interviewed who had worked under decriminalization in New Zealand.
“The things she’s said about decriminalization in New Zealand are absolute falsehood,” Valisce said.
Everything Valisce told me, she also told Bazelon. Which makes her statements about New Zealand and the benefits of decriminalization all the more shocking, and Bazelon’s choice to leave Valisce’s testimony out of the story all the more telling.