I have been seeing sex workers for 30 years, and I shudder to think how shitty my life would have been without them. Some have become friends, but I've appreciated all of them. Negative stereotypes about guys like me are not fair, but sex work does have its problems. Some clients (including females) are difficult — difficult clients aren't typically violent; more often they're inconsiderate and demanding. Clients need to understand that all people have limits and feelings, and money doesn't change that. But what can we clients do to fight stupid, regressive, repressive laws that harm sex workers?
— Not A John
You can speak up, NAJ.
The current line from prohibitionists — people who want sex work to remain illegal — is that all women who sell sex are victims and all men who buy sex are monsters. But talk to actual sex workers and you hear about considerate, regular clients who are kind, respectful, and sometimes personally helpful in unexpected ways. You also hear about clients who are threatening or violent — and how laws against sex work make it impossible for them to go to the police, making them more vulnerable to violence, exploitation, and abuse, not less.
There is a large and growing sex workers' rights movement, NAJ, which Emily Bazelon wrote about in a terrific cover story for the New York Times Magazine ("Should Prostitution Be a Crime?" May 5, 2016). Amnesty International recently called for the full decriminalization of sex work, joining Human Rights Watch, the World Health Organization, and other large, mainstream health and human rights groups.
Maggie McNeill, a sex worker, activist, and writer, wrote a blistering piece on her blog ("The Honest Courtesan") about a recent undercover police operation in Seattle. Scores of men seeking to hire sex workers — the men ranged from surgeons to bus drivers to journalists — were arrested and subjected to ritualized public humiliation designed to discourage other men from paying for sex.
"These crusades do nothing but hurt the most vulnerable individuals on both sides of the transaction," McNeill wrote. "The only way to stop this [is for] all of you clients out there to get off of your duffs and fight. "
The legal risks and social stigma attached to buying sex doubtless leave some clients feeling like they can't speak up and join the fight, and the much-touted "Nordic Model" is upping the legal stakes for buyers of sex. (The Nordic Model makes buying sex illegal, not selling it. In theory, only clients are supposed to suffer, but in practice, the women are punished, too. Bazelon unpacks the harms of the Nordic Model in her story — please go read it.) But sex workers today, like gays and lesbians not too long ago, are coming out in ever-greater numbers to fight for their rights in the face of potentially dire legal and social consequences.
Clients need to join the fight — or perhaps I should say clients need to rejoin the fight.
In The Origins of Sex: A History of the First Sexual Revolution, author Faramerz Dabhoiwala writes about "Societies of Virtue" that formed all over England in the late 17th century. Adulterers, fornicators, and Sabbath-breakers were persecuted by these groups, NAJ, but their campaigns against prostitutes were particularly vicious and indiscriminate.
Then a beautiful thing happened.
"In the spring of 1711, a drive against 'loose women and their male followers' in Covent Garden was foiled when 'the constables were dreadfully maimed, and one mortally wounded, by ruffians aided by 40 soldiers of the guards, who entered into a combination to protect the women,'" writes Dabhoiwala. "On another occasion in the East End, a crowd of over a thousand seamen mobbed the local magistrates and forcibly released a group of convicted prostitutes being sent to a house of correction."
I'm not suggesting that today's clients form mobs and attack prohibitionists, cops, prosecutors, and their enablers in the media. But clients can and should be out there speaking up in defense of sex workers and themselves. Sex workers are speaking up and fighting back — on Twitter and other social-media platforms — and they're staring down the stigma, the shame, and the law on their own. It's time for their clients to join them in the fight.