NOW Magazine takes a stand; will continue to generate revenue through prostitution advertisements

In a touching love letter to capitalism, Alice Klein, editor of NOW, a magazine whose survival depends, in large part, on revenue from prostitution advertisements, proclaims the publication will boldly go where everyone has gone before and continue to profit from the exploitation and objectification of female bodies.

Klein writes:

NOW supports its feisty independent journalism by selling advertising. It has run ads for sexual services throughout its history, because as a publication that stands for human rights and free expression, NOW has refused to discriminate against sex work and sex workers while allowing advertising from other less stigmatized businesses.

Canada’s new prostitution legislation, which came into effect on December 6, prohibits third party advertising for sexual services. This means that prostitutes can still advertise for their own services, but that others cannot advertise the sale of bodies that are not their own. This portion of the legislation is exists as part of the larger goal to target exploiters and constitutes an attempt to discourage third parties from profiting off of the prostitution of women.

“We will hold those who are advertising — not the prostitute themselves, but those who are advertising these services either through papers or online — also to criminal account,” Justice Minister Peter MacKay said last July.

Klein makes a concerted effort to pretend she is supporting marginalized women with her brave decision to continue profiting from the ads, despite the new legislation, writing, “We are mindful of the fact that advertising benefits independent sex workers in particular, as it offers a much safer and more secure way to connect and do business with clients. For many, the alternative to access to advertising is street-based prostitution.” But women are already totally within their rights when they advertise their own services. It appears as though Klein is trying to manipulate readers into believing that she is sticking up for women’s rights when she is actually concerned about revenue-loss were she to comply with the new law.

She complains that “NOW Magazine has also paid and continues to pay for resisting the hypocritical moralism that would like to sweep the conversation about human sexual diversity under the rug, and the age-old practice of sex work into back alleys,” but the opposite is true. NOW hasn’t “paid” any price for their support and promotion of prostitution — rather they have profited. Prostitution doesn’t promote “human sexual diversity,” it promotes old-fashioned, rigid ideas about sex and sexuality, reinforcing the notion that men are the aggressors when it come to sex and that women are the passive objects sex simply happens to, that men have irrepressible desire, that it is women’s duty to satiate said desire, and that women exist for men — as entertainment and consumable objects.

Klein writes:

With costs and benefits on both sides of the ledger, NOW has made a principled choice to stand against discrimination and further marginalization of sex workers. As a publication in print and online, NOW stands for sexual freedom between consenting adults and for the normalization of the reality of sexual diversity.

NOW is making a principled choice to continue to support capitalist patriarchy, but frame their choice as one that supports marginalized women. If only every capitalist were so principled! To choose the most profitable choice, at the expense of the most marginalized! Oh wait…

The easiest way to sell anything is on the backs of women; Klein knows this, to be sure. But can you imagine, for example, Carl’s Jr. making the same claim? “We at Carl’s Jr. are making the principled choice to continue to support women’s freedom to writhe on the hoods of cars while eating our burgers, because that is the best and easiest way for us to make a profit.” Or maybe if Dov Charney had told us, “American Apparel is taking a stand on behalf of marginalized people everywhere by having women sell retro sport socks by posing naked and spread-eagle on a bed.” In what other scenario would progressives fall for such a farce?

Profiting from ads that objectify and sell women has nothing to do with human rights.

Klein has tried this on us before, presenting johns as an oppressed sexual minority. Now she is pretending that prostitution itself is some kind of sexual expression or sexual orientation.

“This is the same struggle that the LGBTQ community has waged for full human rights despite sexualities some have deemed unacceptable, immoral and exploitative,” she writes.

This is both dangerous and confusing territory. If prostitution is a sexual orientation, then are there some women who are biologically inclined to be prostitutes? If prostitution is simply a sexual expression women engage in of their own free will, why charge? Certainly they must be enjoying themselves if this is a part of their sexuality? Is there a particular class of women who are better suited to be prostitutes? A particular race, perhaps? Are “college girls” simply more sexually liberated than all other women?

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Why is it that so many ads for prostitution are so very racist, playing on stereotypes about “exotic” women, for example? Are Asian women more “sexual” than other races? If we are to look at ads for sexual services online and ask questions about why marginalized and racialized women are overrepresented in prostitution and why the majority of women enter into the industry when they are girls, we couldn’t possibly take Klein’s arguments seriously — unless we are prepared to move backwards into the days when it was acceptable to view people of colour as “savages” who are more “sexually voracious” than white people and unless we are prepared to believe that 14 year old girls just really love having sex with strange, older men.

This was the very first ad that came up in the Classifieds section at NOW, in the “Escorts” section.

Are we really expected to believe that these racist, sexist, objectifying ads have anything whatsoever to do with female sexuality or human rights? Is “Hot Asian Nurse” a “sexual orientation?”

These very same ads existed as hundreds of Aboriginal women and girls were going missing across Canada, yet Klein implies that, somehow, the existence of these ads would have saved them.

Klein’s arguments are not only untrue and dangerously sexist and racist, but they naturalize prostitution — pretending as though the industry somehow exists outside of capitalism and patriarchy, as a “sexuality” or sexual orientation. This is an odd argument because it’s clear that Klein wouldn’t include advertisements in her magazine unless she profited from the ads and unless the third parties placing the ads were profiting from the sale of the women in the ads she is now being pressured to stop running (Klein says she plans to continue running — and profiting from — ads placed by the “sex workers” themselves). Do people choose a sexual orientation because it’s profitable? Are women’s orgasms are dependent on capital? It seems clear that neither sexual orientation or female sexuality have anything to do with the sex industry or with Klein’s choice to continue to advertise for prostitution in NOW.

“There is a high price to be paid for resisting the norms of stigmatization and sexual shaming,” Klein writes. But in this case, the “high price” is her ability to make a living from and run NOW magazine.

Klein and NOW are not taking a stand against anything. If she simply admitted that the magazine needed the revenue it gained from prostitution advertisements, that would be one thing (not that I feel that would justify it), but it’s quite another to pretend as though you are choosing that source of revenue  as some kind of stand against “discrimination” or as a political show of support for human rights and sexual freedom.

Meghan Murphy
Meghan Murphy

Founder & Editor

Meghan Murphy is a freelance writer and journalist. She has been podcasting and writing about feminism since 2010 and has published work in numerous national and international publications, including New Statesman, Vice, Al Jazeera, The Globe and Mail, I-D, Truthdig, and more. Meghan completed a Masters degree in the department of Gender, Sexuality and Women’s Studies at Simon Fraser University in 2012 and lives in Vancouver, B.C. with her dog.

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