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Guest Host: Susan Page
When Amnesty International last year called for the decriminalization of the global sex trade, reaction from all sides was swift and passionate. Those in agreement argued this kind of policy serves to protect sex workers the world over. On the other side: the voices of those who called it a monumental mistake, allowing criminal and exploitative practices against women who may have no way out of the sex trade. As the debate has grown, new reporting is underscoring the deep ideological divide that has emerged between feminists on either side of this issue. We look at the debate over decriminalizing prostitution.
- Emily Bazelon Staff writer, The New York Times Magazine; Truman Capote fellow at the Yale Law School
- Taina Bien-Aimé Executive director, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women
- Liesl Gerntholtz Executive director: women’s rights division, Human Rights Watch
- Mistress Matisse Seattle-based dominatrix; sex worker and sex workers rights activist for over twenty years
- Rachel Moran Activist, sex trade survivor, author of "Paid For: My Journey through Prostitution"
MS. SUSAN PAGEThanks for joining us. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Laws around sex work vary widely across the globe. The United States has some of the strictest. So how should the law address prostitution in all its forms? The debate over this question isn't new, but it has heated up in the months since Amnesty International called for decriminalizing the global sex trade.
MS. SUSAN PAGEEmily Bazelon, staff writer for the New York Times' Sunday magazine has written a story published just yesterday called "Should Prostitution Be A Crime?" She joins us from a studio at Yale University. Welcome to "The Diane Rehm Show."
MS. EMILY BAZELONThanks so much.
PAGEAlso with me here in the studio, Taina Bien-Aime of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women. Thanks for being with us.
MS. TAINA BIEN-AIMEThanks for having me.
PAGEAnd with us from NPR studios in New York, Liesl Gerntholtz of the Human Rights Watch. Thanks for joining us.
MS. LIESL GERNTHOLTZThanks for having me, Susan.
PAGEWe will have, later in this hour, a current sex worker and a sex trade survivor joining our conversation. Before we begin, I want to welcome listeners of Maine Public Radio, who are now hearing us live at 10:00 AM. We're glad you're with us. We look forward to your calls. In Maine or elsewhere, our toll-free number, 1-800-433-8850. You can send us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org or find us on Facebook or Twitter.
PAGEWell, Emily, I want to go first to you, but let me note that for those listening with children that some of this discussion may include difficult and adult content. So Emily, give us some background on the decision by Amnesty International. It seems like such a pivotal moment for this longstanding debate. What did they recommend?
BAZELONAmnesty International recommended in favor of the full decriminalization of sex work internationally. And when I heard that announcement last August, I was very surprised by it. This isn't an issue I knew a whole lot about and I was used to thinking of the debate over prostitution in terms of questions of morality and questions of whether prostitution or sex work is inherently demeaning to women.
BAZELONI wasn't accustomed to thinking of it as a human rights issue. But groups like Amnesty and Human Rights Watch have been looking closely at these questions of what the best laws are in terms of the health and safety of sex workers really since the AIDS epidemic. And that was driven by sex workers, thousands of them, organizing mostly in countries like India and Thailand and fighting for their rights, for greater legal rights, and also trying to protect themselves by trying to prevent the spread of AIDS.
BAZELONAnd they proved to be quite effective of that work and that made public health groups like the World Health Organization, as well as Amnesty and Human Rights Watch, kind of pay attention to this growing movement. And since then, it has moved beyond preventing the spread of AIDS to also try to deal with things like police abuses, violence from clients and other people in the community and discrimination and stigma.
BAZELONAnd I think that was really the motivation from Amnesty's point of view.
PAGEWell, Liesl, tell us about Human Rights Watch, your group, feels in this issue. You were out with a position on it a couple years ago.
GERNTHOLTZYes, we have a policy that is similar, in many respects to the Amnesty one and we adopted that as an institutional position four years ago. And I think Emily has really laid out some of the things that motivated us. And we do documentation, which means we talk to victims of human rights violations, and our policy come out of that, that approach of talking to sex workers all over the world, in Africa, in Asia, in the U.S. and Europe and really trying to understand what the human rights dimensions are of sex work and the various policy options available, whether it's criminalization, regulation, decriminalization.
GERNTHOLTZSo as is sort of informed by understanding that from a public health perspective, it's, of course, a no-brainer. If you criminalize the actual -- if you criminalize sex work or aspects of it, you push people away from much needed health services. But we also saw, from a woman's rights perspective, how women in sex work were unable to protect themselves from violence and were not able to enforce their rights because of criminalization.
PAGEAnd when your group took this position four years ago, what kind of reaction did you get?
GERNTHOLTZWell, we didn't get nearly as sort of as much pushback as Amnesty did, possibly because we didn't really share that. We consider it to be an internal policy. We had already done a lot of work, particularly in Asia and Africa, around sex worker rights so in many respects, the internal policy just brought the research that we'd already done, together with sort of an explicit institutional position.
GERNTHOLTZSo, you know, we were somewhat surprised, given that we had adopted a policy that was, as I said, really similar to the one that Amnesty adopted to see the kind of pushback that Amnesty got when they announced that they were undertaking a similar process.
PAGEWell, Taina, tell us about your feeling, your view of the position that Human Rights Watch, now Amnesty International has taken supporting decriminalization of sex work. What's your view?
BIEN-AIMEWell, before I get to my view, I think it may be helpful for the listeners to get a broad sense of what legal frameworks -- the three major legal frameworks that govern prostitution are as follows. You have full criminalization, which is the United States, except a few counties in Nevada, where you can't buy and you can't sell sex. We know that there is a discriminatory impact of the law where the women, prostituted women, and by women, I include trans women as well, are disproportionately arrested and unfortunately many girls as wells as -- are arrested, especially in states where you don't have the safe harbor laws.
BIEN-AIMESo we definitely recognize that this is not a good system for the women. The second framework is full legalization or decriminalization, which means that in order to so-call protect women and girls in prostitution as Humans Rights Watch and Amnesty states, people need to decriminalize as well the buyers, the pimps and brothel owners. We know, as a fact, that is a disastrous framework. We know from testimony and reports in Germany, in the Netherlands, in New Zealand, in certain states in Australia where it's legalized where there has been an exponential increase in sex trafficking 'cause we're looking at a market, right?
BIEN-AIMESo it's a simple equation of supply and demand. And then, there's the third way, as Gloria Steinem would put it, and that is known as the Nordic model, which was initiated in Sweden in 1999 and then adopted by Iceland and Norway, thus the Nordic model and now it's becoming a global model, in that France, Northern Ireland, Canada, to a certain extent, and other jurisdictions have passed...
PAGEAnd so, Emily, you write about the Nordic model in your piece. Tell us briefly how the Nordic model, how does that work?
BAZELONThe Nordic model in Sweden started from a base where Sweden actually didn't criminalize prostitution at all. So Sweden started by making it a crime for men to buy sex, but not for women to sell it. And what Sweden reported was a major drop in street work. Sweden also, at the same time, though, experienced a big increase in the buying of -- in online advertising of sex. So some independent researchers think that the market moved online, as opposed decreasing.
BAZELONThat's claimed drop has been a big selling point for Sweden's model, but it doesn't seem like it really has lead to a reduction overall in sex work. That was what my reporting showed. And the other thing is, it turns out that this model is quite punitive for women in that a lot of women who do sex work in Sweden and now in Norway are immigrants. Because their work is illegal, their documents get inspected, they get deported.
BAZELONThey can also be evicted if their landlords have reason to think that they are doing sex work in their apartments and they can also lose custody of their children.
PAGELiesl, this has been -- Nordic model, though, has been promoted as kind of a midway, you know. It's like you take some steps, but you don't go all the way in terms of legalizing prostitution. What's your view on how it's worked in the places that have adopted it?
GERNTHOLTZI think Emily has laid out some of the challenges. I think one of the huge challenges for anyone who is trying to sort of pick their way through, as I said, a very difficult, divisive and contentious debate is that there's not a lot of evidence one way or the other that shows that the Nordic model is successful in suppressing demand, which is its primary purpose. So what we have seen, as Emily says, is there's evidence to suggest that it drives sex work into different spaces.
GERNTHOLTZSo instead of women being out on the street, being able to organize collectively, work in places where they think are safer, they are now having to advertise online. There is some anecdotal evidence that suggests -- and, you know, this, I think, is something that definitely resonates with me in terms of the work I've done around other aspects of women's rights like domestic violence is that when you criminalize something like sex work, the good men, the men who care about the law, the men who don't want to be arrested, who don't want to have to pay a fine, they will obey the law.
GERNTHOLTZBut the dangerous men, you know, the men who don't care about protection orders in domestic violence situations, the men who don't care about breaking the law, they will continue to buy sex because the law is not going to be a deterrent. So there's a quite a lot of anecdotal evidence that suggests that the people who -- the men who continue to buy sex tend to be the more dangerous ones, tend to be the ones that put women at a heightened risk.
GERNTHOLTZAnd, of course, because it is criminalized now in a different way, you continue to push women away from protective and health services.
PAGEThat’s Liesl Gerntholtz. She's executive director of the women's rights divisions at Human Rights Watch. And we're also joined this hour by Emily Bazelon. She's a staff writer for the New York Times magazine. She's a Truman Capote fellow at the Yale Law School. And here in the studio with me, Taina Bien-Aime. She's executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women.
PAGEWe're going to take a short break and when we come back, we're going to be joined by Mistress Matisse, a professional dominatrix. She's been a sex worker and a sex workers activist for 20 years. And later in this hour, we'll be joined by a sex trade survivor with a very different perspective. We hope you'll stay with us. We're going to take just a short break.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan page of USA Today, sitting in for Diane Rehm. And with me in the studio, Taina Bien-Aime. Joining us by remote locations is Liesl Gerntholtz and Emily Bazelon. And we're talking about the debate over legalizing prostitution. Joining us now by phone from Seattle, Washington, is Mistress Matisse. She is a professional dominatrix. She's been a sex worker and a sex worker's activist for 20 years. Thank you so much for joining us.
MISTRESS MATISSEThank you for having me.
PAGESo what do you think of Amnesty international's call for decriminalization of prostitution? What's your view of that?
MATISSEI think it's a great step in the direction. I would point out that, as someone mentioned a minute ago, as decriminalization and legalization, as they were the same thing, and they're really not. They're two completely different structures.
PAGEWell, tell us about the difference in your mind.
MATISSEWell, okay, so here in the United States, we have a few counties in Nevada that have legalized prostitution, and they have brothels that are set up with a very strict system, it's a very tight, you know, regulated process, you have to live at the brothel 24/7, you are subjected to very rigorous medical screenings. You're not allowed to leave the brothel, and if you are in the brothel, you are not allowed to be in the county that the brothel is in. So it's kind of like, you know, being in a really tightly controlled summer camp.
MATISSEWhereas brothels in Sydney, where it's decriminalized, it's just like a job. You come in for your shift, you work your shift, and then you leave, and you're free to do whatever you want whenever you want to do it.
PAGENow you have some experience in working in Australia.
MATISSEYes, I wanted to see what it was like to work in a completely decriminalized environment. So I went to Australia and worked in some of the brothels down there and had a really good experience.
PAGEAnd what do you think the -- what do you think the impact would be if the United States or parts of the United States, since we have this federalized system, followed Australia's lead and decriminalized prostitution? What would be the impact here?
MATISSEI think it's important when we say, you know, we should decriminalize this, all the laws in place against rape, kidnapping, child sex abuse, all those laws still stay in place. So it's not suddenly just a free-for-all where women can be attacked, children can be attacked, kidnapped and raped, and that's not going to happen. We're simply going to decriminalize the consensual adult exchange of sex for money. And let's be honest. That happens on a subtle level all the time.
MATISSEWe're just -- the only thing that's criminalized now is the overt saying, if I have sex with you, you have to give me $500, whereas if I go out to dinner, someone gives me a diamond bracelet, you know, I can sleep with that guy and no one's going to say a word. So let's be clear about that, too.
PAGENow you've been -- go ahead.
MATISSEOkay, what I would want to have happen in a decriminalized environment is that all criminal penalties would be removed for the exchange of money for sex. Now if you wanted to go further into the business structure, because there'd have to be some business regulations because it's a business, and I think we could learn a lot from how the business regulations in places like Australia and New Zealand have been set up to protect the workers.
MATISSEBut I don't -- I know that, like, the systems in Germany are not ones that I would want the U.S. to emulate. The kind of corporate mega-brothel thing is not a good idea in my opinion. So I would -- I would regulate it to more of a small collective system here. But those are just -- you have to have a jumping-off place. And -- but there are -- you know, there are other policies that we could model ourselves after that are very successful.
PAGEAnd what about the Nordic model? That's something that we have discussed earlier in this hour, where women are not targeted, but people who -- men who buy sex are targeted legally. Do you think that would work?
MATISSENo, I don't think that would work. I think it's a terrible model anyway, and I also think that the U.S. has a Constitution that prevents us from writing protected criminal classes. You can't say that this group of people can do a certain thing, and it's illegal, but if this certain group of people does it, it's legal. And you certainly can't do that by gender, which is mainly what you'd be doing here.
MATISSESo I think that it would be unconstitutional, and no one ever seems to bring that up, but Sweden has a very different way of -- legal system than we do, and so do the other European counties, implemented this. Our Constitution is really probably not going to permit any such thing.
PAGEAll right, Mistress Matisse, thanks so much for joining us.
PAGEMistress Matisse is a sex worker, sex worker's activist for 20 years. She joined us by phone from Seattle. Well, Taina, tell me, what is it we -- what did you -- what do you think about what we heard from Mistress Matisse, in her view on the Nordic model, skeptical that would work, as was Emily and Liesl earlier. You have a different view on that.
BIEN-AIMEWell, none of it is based on fact, and the fact that Human Rights Watch and Amnesty both call on governments to decriminalize the pimping and purchasing and exploiting of what we are talking about as the most marginalized and disenfranchised human beings on the planet is a travesty of human rights. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights guarantees every human being the right to live a life of dignity, a life free of violence.
BIEN-AIMEWhat is really striking in Ms. Bazelon's article is that it is -- it is not an in-depth research, it is an opinion piece. If you -- every single paragraph can be debunked. It is not who she spoke with as much as who she did not speak with. She did not speak with a number of survivors who either were at the Western Regional that she mentions, and, you know, the list goes on as to who she could have and who she was invited to speak with and did not.
BIEN-AIMEThe number of people in her article that she quotes are people who have either direct or indirect links to the sex trade. So for instance she reports a report by Pai Jacobson who is on the board of a Swedish strip club. Her job is to recruit women for these strip clubs. The list goes on. Margot Thain James, another person that she mentions in her article, was convicted for promoting prostitution.
PAGEWell, let's give Emily a chance to respond to the point made, the point you just made. Emily, what would you say?
BAZELONI spoke to dozens of people around the world. Lots of them were survivors, some girls in Washington, D.C., in New York City, who'd run away, who were in quite desperate circumstances, women in other parts of the country who'd had similar experiences. And what I found was a real spectrum, much more than I anticipated. There are women for sure for whom sex work is a last resort and not one that they want to be in, and they wish they had other options.
BAZELONAnd I wish, as I think most everyone wishes, that they had other options. Then there are women for whom this is a true choice. I think Mistress Matisse, who we just heard from, falls into that category. And then there's a big middle area of women who see selling sex as the best economic option available to them, not necessarily their first choice in life, but they're pretty matter-of-fact about it.
BAZELONSo for example there's a group in New Orleans called Women with a Vision, it's an African-American collective, mostly works with women in Louisiana who are at risk or have HIV infections. And they found that, you know, sex work, the idea of a sex workers' rights movement was pretty foreign to that group of women, and yet they have really come on board for that movement and gotten interested in decriminalization because of the legal problems there, they people they work with, these women were encountering.
BAZELONSo I think the -- it's important to think of this as what do we do for most people who fall into this category of sex worker or whatever word they use for themselves, and how do we reduce the harm against them. And what I found in my research was that if you bring people out from underground, they often are safer. And, you know, I think that -- that was an important conclusion I reached. But it was not by refusing to speak to anyone.
BAZELONThere's no one with whom I turned down an interview that I can think of, and I really made the biggest effort I possibly could to talk to people with lots of different opinions and to hear and represent in my piece of range of perspectives.
PAGELiesl, what do you think?
GERNTHOLTZThere's a piece, a very good piece of research that was done in my home country, in Cape Town, several years ago by a researcher called Chandre Gould that really stuck with me. And she tried to quantify, you know, this economic argument. She tried to figure out, like, how much do women who are domestic workers earn, how much do women who work in factories earn, and how much do women who do sex work earn because she was really trying to understand kind of is this a legitimate economic choice.
GERNTHOLTZAnd there was a quote from a woman -- so firstly the empirical findings of that research was that even women who work on the streets were earning more than domestic workers than women who worked in factories in South Africa. But there was a quote from a woman who was working on the streets who talked about both the flexibility and the control that she had over her working life because of that.
GERNTHOLTZShe talked about being able, for example, to take her kids to school and be there in the afternoon when they got home. And again, I agree with Emily, this is not an ideal situation. And would I like to live in a world where women -- that wasn't a choice for women? Absolutely. But the vast majority of women that I and my colleagues have interviewed over many, many years of interviewing sex workers -- and we didn't do this research necessarily to understand sex work, but those of who are working on human rights violations linked to HIV, those of us who are working on police abuse, inevitable, sex workers emerged as a particularly vulnerable group of women because they're criminalized.
GERNTHOLTZAnd I just want to correct something that your guest said in the studio, that Human Rights Watch has not -- our policy does not talk about decriminalization of the so-called industry. We talk only at this point of decriminalizing sex workers because we recognize that they are the most vulnerable in this conversation. I don't exclude that at some point we will move towards having to address kind of what we think about what the best model is to either regulate or legalize the industry, but I don't know that, and our policy doesn't go that far.
PAGEWe're talking about the role of law enforcement. We have a retired Miami police officer on the line, Rodney. Hi, thanks for calling us. Rodney, are you there? I'm sorry, I guess we've lost Rodney. We'll go to another caller, also calling us from Miami, Manuel. Manuel, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MANUELYeah, hi. I'd just like to add that you kind of excluded the whole LGBT community just by mentioning transgender. I'm a gay man, and I would like the option to be able to pay someone to have gay male sex with. So -- and I also don't think it's the place of government to legislate morality. That's each person's personal and/or religious decision. It's not the place of government to legislate morality. And then also I agree with the panel individuals that state that the sex workers are going to be safer if it's aboveboard, if it's regulated and controlled.
MANUELYou know, I mean, no system is going to be perfect. I think that Nordic model is ridiculous. And there's always going to be flaws with any system. But I think it's best for everyone that it's legal and aboveboard, and as a gay man, I want to have that option, as well, because especially for gay people, there's less opportunities, quite -- just to be frank about -- to have sex because of this continued discrimination against, you know, gay people not being able to be open and as free, even if the laws are there...
PAGEAll right, Manuel, thanks very much for your call. Taina, you're nodding your head.
BIEN-AIMEYeah, so by Ms. Bazelon's own account, if you look at the photo spread and the people that she -- the self-identified sex workers, by the way not a term we use because we don't believe prostitution is either sex nor work but a form of violence against women, a form of power and control over the most marginalized, but even by her own recognition, she is talking about a very, very sliver -- a thin sliver of the prostituted population who may dabble into prostitution when they want.
BIEN-AIMEThe majority of people who enter into the sex trade are sold into it as children, so you don't miraculous become a consensual, quote-unquote, sex worker at the age of 18. We are looking at racial intersectionalities. So women in prostitution all over the world come from the most marginalized populations, African-Americans in this country, Mauri in New Zealand, Aboriginal women in Australia, the -- in Europe up to 90 percent of women in brothels are from the poorest countries in the world. So that's what we need to talk about. Prostitution itself is stigmatizing and violence.
PAGEI'm Susan Page, and you're listening to the Diane Rehm Show. Well, Emily, let's go back to Manuel's point first. He was saying that we're ignoring this -- the case of gay men and how they might be affected by this. Was that an issue you dealt with in your research?
BAZELONIt is certainly true that there are men who sell sex, and that is part of the phenomenon of sex world in the world internationally. I was interested in women and transgender people because they are at higher risk of arrest. So what I was finding -- so for example in New York City, I pulled the arrest data from the last couple of years. Eighty-five percent of the people arrested for engaging in prostitution are women of color.
BAZELONAnd it turns out when you look at the statistic for men who get arrested for patronizing a prostitute, for buying sex, there's an even sharper racial disparity. Ninety-three percent of those people are men of color. So what it seemed to me, looking at the ways the U.S. laws actually operate, is that we have here one more tool of mass incarceration, one more way in which a vulnerable population is getting a criminal record, which makes it even harder to find other kinds of jobs. That's the way the law is actually playing out on the ground in the United States.
PAGETaina also mentioned trafficking and women, girls being involuntarily taken to the sex trade. Talk about that, Liesl, and how that might affect this debate.
GERNTHOLTZWell, I think we have to make a distinction between sex work and trafficking as the law both in many countries but also international human rights law does, is that trafficking is coercive. There's no question that trafficking should be criminalized, we should be putting resources towards investigating and protecting women and girls from being trafficked.
GERNTHOLTZBut trafficking is not sex work. As Emily said, and I think that that -- it's a really useful way to think about sex work is that for the majority of women that we've talked to, sex work is a choice. It's not the best choice, often, for them. It's a choice they would prefer that they didn't have to make. But it is something that they do, and they do it in a way that is not about violence and that is not about coercion from themselves. They often experience that because it's criminalized. So...
PAGEI understand that trafficking is not sex work, that you're making a distinction, but is it possible that decriminalizing sex work could encourage trafficking?
GERNTHOLTZIn fact there's no evidence, there's no good evidence or research that shows that. There's evidence on both sides, often deeply flawed and often driven ideologically, that suggests sometimes that when you decriminalize sex work, trafficking increases. There's evidence on the other side that says once you decriminalize it, you free up sex workers to report underage girls or girls and women who are being coerced.
GERNTHOLTZBut there really isn't any empirical and convincing evidence on either side of the divide. So we don't know whether decriminalizing sex work is going to lead to massive amounts of trafficking. My own experience in terms of talking to women, many of the brothels that I have been in, and I've worked in -- primarily in Africa, women have said we know that there are kids in these brothels, but we can't do anything about it because if we go to the police, we're going to be arrested.
GERNTHOLTZMany of them spoke about being very open to the idea of cooperating with law enforcement around trafficking if they didn't feel at risk themselves of being arrested and detained. So my sense is that if -- when you decriminalize, you do create a greater space to deal with the criminalized aspects that should be criminalized.
PAGEWe're going to talk another short break, and when we come back, we'll be joined by from Dublin, Ireland, by Rachel Moran. She's a sex trade survivor and an activist. And we'll continue our conversation about the debate over decriminalizing prostitution. Stay with us.
PAGEWelcome back. I'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. In this hour, we're discussing the growing debate over decriminalizing prostitution. And now, we're joined by phone from Dublin, Ireland, by Rachel Moran. She's a sex trade survivor activist. She's the author of a book called "Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution." Rachel Moran, thanks so much for joining us.
MS. RACHEL MORANThanks for having me, Susan.
PAGETell us about your experience. What lead you to be an activist on this topic?
MORANWell, first, I'd have to briefly tell you what lead me into prostitution and it was very much the uniform experience that I saw everywhere I looked in Dublin in the early '90s, which was young girls getting into prostitution through destitution and through homelessness. And that was exactly the case with me and I was seven years in prostitution, from when I was 15 until I was 22.
MORANAnd a couple years after I got out, I started writing the book that was published in recent years in Ireland and just last September in the states.
PAGENow, it was published in September. That was just about the time of the action by Amnesty International calling for the decriminalization of prostitution. What did that position by this leading organization mean to you? How did you respond to it?
MORANWell, I can tell you what that day was like for me because my phone never stopped ringing. It rang all day with women in various states of distress, one of them sobbing so badly that she couldn't even speak. I had spent a couple years, at that point, telling her that Amnesty were going to make this decision because of leaked documents that we had from a London meeting that happened and the Amnesty had called their offices in November 2013 where they made clear that their position was already made before they ever started their sham consultation process, by the way.
MORANSo I had spent a couple of days trying to assure this woman that Amnesty were going to do this and she refused to believe it because she said that that was unthinkable for her. I'll never forget her particular state of distress that day.
PAGEWhat do you think the impact of decriminalizing prostitution would be?
MORANWell, first of all, I know what it is because I know several women in New Zealand, some of whom have gotten out of prostitution, which is the New Zealand model, of course, is exactly what Amnesty are calling for all across the globe. I also know women who are prostituting in the brothels of New Zealand right now. So we know exactly what's going on in New Zealand and, in fact, I'm just back from there.
MORANI think what we need to focus on, by the way, when we talk about the decriminalization of prostitution, and ala Amnesty style, is what that really means because if Amnesty were talking about decriminalizing people in prostitution, we would have no problem with it. That's exactly what we're calling for. What they're calling for is the entire trade and all of the parties involved in it, which is your pimps, your brothel keeper, your drivers, everybody and anybody who profits from prostitution, Amnesty also maintain ought to be decriminalized.
MORANThat has cause mayhem on the streets and in the brothels in New Zealand. And if Amnesty get their way, it'll cause mayhem everywhere else.
PAGEAnd we've been talking in hour about the so-called Nordic model. Does that make sense to you?
MORANIt makes absolute sense to me because after seven years in prostitution, and after 25 years of involvement in one way or other, whether it was meeting other women, talking to women, writing and researching, what I know is that prostitution is a form of exploitation, a particularly damaging, harmful form of exploitation and it's experienced that way for the vast, vast majority. So what the Nordic model does is to criminalize the exploiters and decriminalizes the exploited.
MORANAnd it ought to be clear that that is the most natural thing in the world. When we look at other forms of exploitation, we don't argue that. That same principle holds true for every other form of exploitation. Prostitution is the only exception under the law.
PAGEAll right. Rachel Moran, thank you so much for joining us on "The Diane Rehm Show."
MORANYou're very welcome. Bye-bye.
PAGERachel Moran, she joined us by phone from Dublin. She's a sex trade survivor, activist, author of "Paid For: My Journey Through Prostitution." Well, Liesl Gerntholtz, you're with the Human Rights Watch who's taken a similar position to Amnesty International. What do you think about what Rachel said?
GERNTHOLTZWell, I think there are may -- there's consensus from Human Rights Watch and I suspect from Amnesty as well is that what we all want is to decriminalize women and men who are in sex work. So as I said earlier, our policy doesn't go as far as suggesting or recommending decriminalizing the industry. And that's because, I think, we do not feel yet we have enough of our own research to understand kind of what the model is that will protect rights because that's our interest and our access point into this discussion is what protects the rights of women and men in sex work best?
GERNTHOLTZSo, you know, I think we're in agreement there insofar as we agree that we should decriminalize the selling of sex.
PAGETaina, tell us what you think about what we've heard from Rachel.
BIEN-AIMEWell, you know, Rachel has lived this and she represents the vast majority of survivors and people who are in prostitution who know that they are not in it because of choice, but because of absence of choice, because of disenfranchisement, because of having histories of sexual abuse. I just wanted to go back to the HIV/AIDS frameworks, since that is what Amnesty and Human Rights Watch base their very, very false argument on.
BIEN-AIMEAnd women are far more than prevention and protection of HIV/AIDS and prostitution is far more complex and damaging than whether or not women are afforded condoms. All know that the situation in prostitution is brutal. People say, oh, it's going to go underground if you adopt the Nordic model. Prostitution is always underground. Prostitution is an act of violence that happens between the person with power who has the money and control to demean, degrade, sexual harass, sodomize, use ever orifice of your body with no recourse.
BIEN-AIMEIn the 16 years since Sweden has passed the Nordic model, not one woman was murdered by her john. In Germany, we can't even get the body counts after legalization. And in the early '90s, our opponents were calling for legalization. In the Netherlands, they legalized it. In 2000, '99 and then it was followed in Germany where now Germany is deemed the bordello of Europe. What we need to do is really look at this as a form of violence against women and discrimination.
BIEN-AIMEAnd it's not a debate among women, right? It's not whether you are a carceral feminist or second wave feminist or third wave feminist. There aren't 16 flavors of feminism. There is one version of feminism and that is a fight for equality between men and women and a fight for looking at women as full human beings and prostitution destroys that notion.
PAGEBut, of course, there is a debate about where feminism stands when it comes to legalization of prostitution. In fact, that was one of the main themes of the story you wrote, Emily, about the different views that feminists can come to when they look at this issue. Tell us what you found.
BAZELONRight. There is a healthy debate about this among feminists. And maybe it would be helpful to think a little bit about India. So India is a place where there are sex worker collectives in Calcutta and other parts of the country with tens of thousands of women in them and they have organized for their rights. They started by trying to prevent HIV, but they have moved on from that to open schools for kids of sex workers, because they often face discrimination, to start banks where people can open savings accounts and even to try to screen for trafficking.
BAZELONThey have boards that meet that try to make sure that newcomers, women coming into the community are there voluntarily and they try to do things like check birth certificates to make sure that people are over the age of 18. It's not a perfect system. This is a country with enormous poverty and there is certainly still trafficking in India. But what we see here are tens of thousands of women organizing to make their lives better. And so the idea that that is not a feminist act, that seems like a very strange assertion to me.
PAGELet's go to the phones and let Chris, calling us from Orlando, join our conversation. Chris, hi, you're on "The Diane Rehm Show."
CHRISHi, thank you for taking my call.
PAGEYes, please go ahead.
CHRISI'm a addictions counselor here in Orlando and I meet with a lot of different clients and many of them have histories of sexual addiction or being sexually abused. On both sides of it, I kind of find here that many of these women are victimized by domestic partners or what they see as domestic partners and are financially dependent on them and then eventually become drug dependent. So they have a really a large need for resources, but don't tend to find it.
CHRISThe demand here is pretty high because we have a really high male transient population that, you know, comes on vacations and conferences so the sex worker population is fairly high. So for them to get out of it -- so if it was legal, they may have an option to report to the police, but they wouldn't have an option of how to provide for their financial needs.
PAGEI see. Chris, thanks so much for your call.
GERNTHOLTZLiesl, I want to get your reaction both to Chris' call and to the conversation we were having before about where feminists stand when it comes to the legalization or decriminalization of prostitution.
GERNTHOLTZI think feminists stand on both sides, meaning I consider myself to be a feminist. I've spent much of my adult and professional life working to advance women's rights in African and now globally at Human Rights Watch and I believe very firmly that the best way to protect women's rights for those women who are in sex work is to make sure that if they choose to do this, they can do it safely and they are not discriminated against. But I know that there are women who I respect and who consider themselves to be feminist who stand on the opposite side of that equation.
GERNTHOLTZAnd I think the great thing about feminism is that it's a very broad church and we're able to have these conversations and disagree on issues around strategy and tactics. I think what your caller said was very interesting to me because, you know, the fact that I support decriminalization doesn't mean that I don't recognize that there are women in sex work who may be doing it voluntarily, but who need other and better options.
GERNTHOLTZAnd I think those of us who are working around women's rights more broadly recognize that one of the ways to reduce demand is to improve women's options overall. So to make sure that women have more equality, they have better access to education, we close the pay equity gap, we give them childcare, we give them all the resources they need to be able to look for other forms of work and be successful at that.
PAGEThat's Liesl Gerntholtz, she's with Human Rights Watch. And we're also joined this hour by Emily Bazelon, who's a staff writer for the New York Times magazine and Taina Bien-Aime, who's with the Coalition Against Trafficking In Women. I'm Susan Page and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're gonna go back to the phones. We'll go to Baltimore, Maryland, and talk to Dale. Dale, thank you for joining us.
DALEHi. Thank you guys so much for taking my call. I'm a sex worker who's transitioning into the study of sex work in public health. And I just wanted (unintelligible) this debate with one side saying that they have command of the facts or that something else is completely based in junk science. And I just want to make that quick point that it's very difficult to get funding for a study on sex work unless it specifically comes from a moral framework of it being violence against woman or it being absolutely demeaning to the person. And I'll take my comment off the air.
PAGEAll right. Dale, before you go off the air, do you mind me asking -- and you can decline to answer, how you got involved in sex work?
DALEI got involved in sex work as a undergraduate. I was saddled with a lot of student loans and during the recession, it was an opportunity for me to pay some of that back and make my own way. I do not come from a family that is wealthy so I chose this, among, you know, a series of options that were not super great, but, of course, not like a lot of the terrible circumstances that I know a lot of people in sex work face. That's my reality. But that's just for myself, personally.
PAGEAll right. Dale, thanks for your call. Well, Emily, what about the point that it's hard to get -- Dale's point that it's hard to get funding for research into this area unless you have a certain perspective on it. Is that true?
BAZELONRight. That has been traditionally true. And I think we're just starting to see more research and a little bit of money go into sex workers' rights, partly because of, again, the HIV epidemic, there's been a lot of public health research that started with questions about whether sex workers coming out from underground and organizing helped reduced HIV and now it's moved into questions of whether there's also a way in which organizing helps to reduce violence and prevent police abuses, for example.
BAZELONBut it is true that historically, most of the research has come from the point of view of assuming that this is a terrible choice for people to be making and then kind of affirming that position.
PAGEIf the concern about HIV/AIDS has been one of the things that has spurred this debate, Liesl, when you look at the experience in different countries that have taken different approaches to it, has it succeeded when it comes to limiting the spread of HIV and AIDS?
GERNTHOLTZWell, I mean, I need just to correct a point that was made earlier is that a lot of HIV prevention is not coming at it from the perspective that sex workers are there to protect johns and that's why we're doing HIV prevention, but that there's a recognition that sex workers themselves need to be prevented. The epicenter of the epidemic is in sub-Saharan Africa and largely countries there have adopted approaches that are similar to the U.S. where there's criminalization.
GERNTHOLTZThere's wide spread stigma and discrimination attached to doing sex work and, no, I mean, I think that where we have seen a reduction of HIV in the general population, we are still seeing enormously high rates of HIV amongst sex workers so I think they -- it's a key example. And if you think -- and if you look at countries where you have really huge numbers of HIV, like South African, they are moving towards a decriminalization position because they recognize that they're going to need to protect sex workers if they're serious about winning the struggle against HIV.
PAGEHere's just one last question. We've gotten maybe a dozen tweets and emails asking a topic that hadn't occurred to me, the role of taxes in this debate, do they figure into the legalization question. Emily, I guess this is the idea if you legalize it, you could tax it and have some revenue. Is that something you've looked at?
BAZELONWell, it's a potential implication. It's true. You know, the parallel here is to the decisions by Colorado and Washington state to legalize marijuana, where one of the side effects is that, yes, you can tax an industry that, until now, has been untaxed. I don't think it's the most important concern, though, right? I mean, what we really should be looking at front and center are the health and safety of the people doing this work.
BAZELONI think, actually, everyone on this panel agrees about that and the question is one of tactics. How do you get there and whose voices do you listen to? Do the women and transgender people and men who are doing sex work, do they count in this equation? If they're organizing and saying that decriminalization is what they want, do we pay attention to them as well as the voices of people warning us of the potential dangers of decriminalization?
PAGEThat's Emily Bazelon, she's a staff writer with the New York Times magazine. The piece that she wrote on the cover of the magazine yesterday is one of the things that prompted us to take up this topic this hour. Joining me in the studio, Taina Bien-Aime, who's executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking In Women. And we also have been joined from New York City by Liesl Gerntholtz, she's executive director of the women's rights division at Human Rights Watch.
BAZELONI want to thank all of our guests for being with us this hour.
GERNTHOLTZThank you very much for having us, Susan.
PAGEI'm Susan Page of USA Today sitting in for Diane Rehm. Thanks for listening.
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