I am thrilled that California has just passed two laws addressing the harms of the sex industry. Measure B mandates condom use in porn among other sensible workplace safety preventions for the legal porn industry, and Prop 35 increases consequences for illegal pimps, child pornographers, and sex traffickers while decriminalizing victims of commercial sexual abuse. These laws are a done deal, hooray, yet my abolitionist work on the issue continues as long as the public debate does, and people are not done talking about Prop 35.
For over a decade I have actively tried to lessen the human losses of prostitution, and in that time I’ve heard an unbelievable number of excuses against strengthening sexual exploitation laws. Sometimes I shrug it off as the universal impetus behind Woodrow Wilson’s famous quote, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something,” and sometimes I think less magnanimous thoughts about those who would thwart the passage of anti-rape laws.
Despite Prop 35’s predictable win – and more importantly despite my extensive history of reading specious sex industry position papers – I gave naysayers the benefit of the doubt that maybe this time they had a point. Let me share some of the excuses I’ve seen made for opposing Prop 35 (full text and summary here for reference.)
First, let’s zoom past the complaint about crowding the sex offender list because databases exist. Imagine if we set a limit on fingerprint collection because oy, ten from each person! If police truly must print out sex offender lists and scan them with biological eyes then they definitely need the extra money Prop 35 would take from pimps to upgrade past 1995 home computer technology.
Some No on Prop 35ers are very concerned about the families of convicted sex offenders. Similarly, right now in Kennebunk, Maine some prostitute-using men believe they should be exempt from having their crimes known publicly by begging mercy for what the community outcry will do to their children. Forgive me for slipping myself another easy one at the start, one where men are responsible for considering the impact of their decisions before choosing to break the law.
The flimsy boogeyman of sex workers’ families being labeled traffickers was raised in 1999 when Sweden passed its revolutionary law criminalization johns. No Swedish sex worker’s children have been charged as traffickers in Sweden after twelve years of much stronger anti-exploitation laws than Prop 35. Regardless of this reality, Feministing is sure thousands of innocent sex workers and their families will be jailed and bankrupted as they claim Prop 35 just criminalized the entire sex industry (and their families) in California.
The “locking up rapists overcrowds prisons” one has also been around since the early days of the Swedish model when naysayers predicted many nonviolent, merely ‘naughty’ men would be thrown in jail by the Swedish Gestapo. Turned out men don’t need hookers so much when there are negative consequences to their actions because soliciting reduced dramatically and few johns were jailed. Did the low jail rate vindicate Swedish model advocates? Heck no! They used the low number of jail sentences to suggest the law was unnecessary and ineffective. There’s no pleasing some people.
Melissa Gira Grant creatively made a new use for an old line that’s been shutting down discussions about porn for years when she suggested “sexual exploitation” can mean anything at all and no one can know if what goes on under that label is criminal or not. Postmodernists who say words have no distinct, shared meanings are blaspheming linguistics and manipulating language to their own ends like three-card Monte cheaters. Once upon a time there was no such thing as sexual harassment or domestic violence, now that time has passed and taken with it ignorance of how sexually exploitation harms people.
I saved the worst for last.
Behold the euphemism for child pornography that a pornsturbator at California’s Ventura County Star concocted against Prop 35, “Also, individuals could face severe penalties for very limited, indirect involvement with artistic or other creative works that later are found to have used minors illegally.”
Prostituted kids needs to be decriminalized at the very least, however sex worker groups who call decriminalization their goal have never put decriminalizing kids on their legislative agenda. It’s abolitionists who get laws passed erasing the criminal records of exploited children and giving prostituted women the right to sue pimps for damages.
Not only aren’t sex worker groups working for safe harbor laws, in addition to Prop 35 they tried to kill New York’s law from passing when it was proposed by a coalition of activists led by survivor Rachel Lloyd of GEMS. Sex industry advocates wanted the law, including the part decriminalizing kids, rejected because they didn’t like that youths could be placed in care facilities which didn’t allow them to come and go as they pleased. Variations on safe harbor laws have been passed in 13 states, leaving 37 states, leaving no time like the present for sex work advocates to get the jump on abolitionist lawmakers by pushing forth the first child decriminalizing laws they won’t protest.
Prop 35 passed with a mandate-making 81% of the vote. Eyes are watching to see how California’s authorities wind up applying the new law, and there’s always some lag time between implementation and results, but there will be results eventually. When Prop 35 follows Sweden’s lead and doesn’t result in strippers’ children having to register as sex offenders, will any of the people who tried to roadblock Prop 35 find the grace to apologize?
Samantha Berg can be read at Genderberg, Johnstompers, and in comment threads everywhere.