November 3, 2022
Content warning: Please be aware that rape and sexual abuse are discussed in this episode. If you are particularly sensitive to these issues, then please take care when listening.
How have identity politics and social media changed sex work? To what extent is sex work work? Under what conditions is a sex worker a victim of abuse? Why does rape seem so much worse than other kinds of physical abuse? Does an increase in access to sex workers necessarily cause an increase in infidelity? Are there psychological risks associated with sex work even for people that enjoy the work and are not otherwise harmed or abused? (For example, compared to the average person, is it harder for sex workers to form romantic relationships with others?) Does sex work reinforce or even amplify unwanted objectification and commodification of bodies? What are the various legal models of sex work being used around the world right now?
Melissa Sontag Broudo, JD, MPH, has been part of the sex-worker-rights and harm-reduction movements since the late 1990s, furthering policy, advocacy, and capacity-building efforts that support the rights of sex workers and survivors of human trafficking. She has been able to push rights-based policies and legislative initiatives that support sex workers and survivors of human trafficking, including: expanded criminal record relief for survivors of trafficking, immunity for victims of crimes who engage in sexual labor, and the formation of study commissions to review data related to better health outcomes for all people in the sex industry. She won the first-ever vacatur motion for a survivor of human trafficking and provided technical expertise on these critical motions throughout New York state and the country. Melissa received her Bachelor of Arts from Brown University in gender studies in 2001. She received her Master of Public Health from the Bloomberg School of Public Health at Johns Hopkins University and a Juris Doctor from Georgetown University Law Center through their dual degree program in 2006. Read more about Melissa's work at DecriminalizeSex.Work, or follow her on Instagram at @decrimsexwork or on Twitter at @decrimsex.
JOSH: Hello, and welcome to Clearer Thinking with Spencer Greenberg, the podcast about ideas that matter. I'm Josh Castle, the producer of the podcast. And I'm so glad you joined us today. In this episode, Spencer speaks with Melissa Broudo about feminism and cultural perspectives on, and regulation of, sex work.
SPENCER: Melissa, welcome.
MELISSA: Thank you for having me.
SPENCER: So today I want to talk to you about really quite a controversial topic, which is the topic of sex work. And I want to explore it with you from a bunch of different angles, really thinking through the pros and cons of different approaches to this topic that's literally thousands of years old. So I'm excited for our discussion.
MELISSA: Me, too. Feel free to to chat with me about anything related to sex work.
SPENCER: So let's start with where you began with sex work and your thinking on it. You wanna just tell your story about how you started thinking about this topic and how your thinking shifted over time?
MELISSA: Sure. So I think you know, sex work is such a complicated issue. It has now become more mainstream, in terms of it being a viable political topic of conversation. It was not in the past; it was seen as this very dirty or seedy thing. And I grew up in the suburbs of New York City, grew up quite sheltered. It was a very white suburb so there wasn't much of a conversation around the jobs that people might need to do to survive. Growing up, the feminist models that I had were the Gloria Steinem type of feminist models — white, middle- or upper-class, very educated into that sort of second wave of feminism. Obviously, each wave of feminism is so much more nuanced; I can't paint each one with such a broad brush. But generally speaking, I think the feminists that are my mother's generation, were the feminist leaders, were these more White middle- class, wealthier women that really saw themselves as needing to succeed in the world, and they had to be like men, or they had to defeminize themselves. And so therefore, sex and sexuality were seen as weapons against women. And so I think, as a younger, “baby” feminist, I wasn't really thinking about sex or sexuality. But I was thinking about how women can succeed in a man's world, and how women can and should get ahead. And I think that conceptualization that I had growing up in a bit of a bubble, a suburban bubble, was this idea that women become doctors, lawyers, etc. But you don't lead with your looks or your sexuality. That is debasing. And so that is sort of the feminist ideals that I think no specific person told me that, but the culture around me made that pretty clear. And so initially, I really had this belief when I was in high school, that prostitution, pornography were degrading to women. Again, it wasn't something that I thought about a lot. It wasn't part of my world. But I remember growing up and going into the village all the time, and there was this woman that would stand on the corner, and it was quite wild. (I don't maybe you even…if you grew up in the city, or near the city, this woman would stand on the corner.) And she had posters that said, “pornography is violence against women,” and she was incredibly loud and angry. (laughs) And I feel like that sort of encapsulated...(I'm laughing because I almost think of the woman that shot Andy Warhol as sort of this radical feminist who hated men). And so even though I wasn't quite that extreme, there was definitely this sort of idea that porn and the sex industry were inherently debasing or exploitative to women. And for women to succeed in life, you had to use your brain, not your body, and that those two things were sort of mutually exclusive. And then I think when I went to college -– I went to Brown, also a bubble of its own, obviously, in a lot of ways, but in different ways than growing up in Scarsdale, which is where I grew up. I was really exposed to third wave feminist ideology, and the clear idea that -– the obvious idea that — there are women of every race, ethnicity, class, queer women, trans women, that the experience of white middle class feminists is obviously not the universal experience, which again, I think is something that I knew, but I hadn't sort of been confronted with until I went to college. And I ended up taking a class on women's modern European history, which talked about the Venereal Disease Act at the turn of the 19th century, and how women who were seen to be prostitutes were given these cards to walk around with, that said they didn't have venereal diseases, and/or they were subjected to public medical examinations. So, it sort of all clicked for me in college, being exposed to third wave feminist ideology of seeing the ways that women who are perceived to be loose women or prostitutes or lower-class women, were really abused in many ways, physically, emotionally, politically by various systems, and also just my own personal experience, becoming a sexually active adult, and not being a little kid anymore. And realizing that sex and sexuality is not one or the other; it is not to be weaponized against women. Women can enjoy it as well, people of all genders. It is much more complicated sort of viewpoint of sex and sexuality than what I had thought growing up. So all of these things is a very long-winded (laughs) explanation to say that I had a very, very strong feminist belief system in me from a very early age, for whatever reason. My parents are quite apolitical but for me, this — specifically around sex work — that really shifted as I matured, as I read more women of color, third-wave feminist manifestos, books, and just saw that women can take control of their sexuality, it doesn't have to be weaponized against them. It's not something that men possess against women.
SPENCER: Got it. So it sounds like you went from viewing the sexualization of women as a thing that women need to resist against, to something that women can embrace and benefit from. Is that accurate?
MELISSA: That is accurate, or that they could, that it could be…it's really an individual experience. It's not inherently “all men think this and all women think that” type of reductive attitude.
SPENCER: Now, I'm curious, did you get to know sex workers? Were you friends with sex workers that kind of got you thinking about this?
MELISSA: I was not. Again, I grew up and I'm very open about this, because it's not common in this sort of a radical space. But, I mean, I grew up in Scarsdale, a very -– as you know because you're a New Yorker – a privileged sort of bubble and then going to Brown, it really was a quite privileged, somewhat isolated perspective. And so I really didn't until I was in college, and I started doing different internships and volunteer programs. And I started doing that in college, but I wasn't…my peers were not in the sex industry at that time. And it was also quite a different time for leftist activists, vis-a-vis sex work. I think these days, college students of all genders are exploring sex work and/or can be open about their exploration of sex work. This was in the late 90s, early 2000s, where even if people were engaging in sex work, it was not something that they would share; it was extremely taboo, it is still very taboo. But on the flip side, within the radical left, you almost need that personal experience to be taken seriously within the sex worker movement at this point.
SPENCER: So yeah, I'm curious about that. So you ended up working to defend sex workers and working on their behalf? How did you end up in that position?
MELISSA: So in college when I got interested in sex worker rights through this dorky (laughs) women's history class. I always laugh because it is sort of a very nerdy story. You know, I started doing internships almost immediately. I went back to New York City each summer. I worked at a place called From Our Streets With Dignity, also known as Frosted – it then got subsumed within Harlem United. It's not a stand-alone organization anymore – which service sex workers. And I started reading a ton. I also worked at the Gay Men's Health Crisis another summer in college, in their Women's Action Program. And a lot of that was really harm reduction based work. We'd go out and hand out condoms, get people to get HIV tested in mobile vans. And that's where I really started working directly with sex workers and people engaged in the sex industry throughout New York City. And I realized this is what I want to do.
SPENCER: You mentioned that you feel like, in some way, if you haven't been a part of this world, haven’t engaged in sex work, it can even undermine your perspective, because it's like, “Well, what do you know?” So I mean, if you're comfortable talking about it…have you ever engaged in sex work? And if not, have you felt like this has been a barrier to you either in understanding the perspective of sex workers or in just having credibility from sex workers?
MELISSA: Yeah, I think that when I got into the movement or the issue, or however you want to frame it, identity politics was not the be-all and end-all. And we could probably have a 15-hour conversation (laughs) about identity politics, and the pros and cons, etc. But at the time, it was not necessarily the conversation and the movement, the sex worker movement in the United States, was not that large. It's really grown, kind of shockingly tremendously, which is mostly phenomenal. So all that is to say is that when I got interested in the issue — and again, this is the late 90s — people were just pumped to have other people that cared. I know that sounds very Pollyanna (laughs) and — I'm laughing at how maybe naive, or maybe not naive — but again, maybe sort of Pollyanna in comparison to how one would enter this movement today, which I can get to in a moment. But I think people were just so excited to have people that cared. And so I really was embraced at Frosted, at Gay Men's Health Crisis, at all the volunteer programs I did in Providence, and then at Different Avenues, which was an organization in DC I worked at when I was in law school. And I know that wouldn't be the case today; I'm well aware of that, that I would not be welcome.
SPENCER: What would they say? What would the reaction be?
MELISSA: I always joke that I personally am grandfathered into the movement (LAUGHS), because I've been around for over 20 years at this point. And people know me – I'm not saying everyone knows me by any stretch – but you know, in the sector, it's a pretty insular world, like I'm a known quantity. So I'm just around, I'm here, I'm around. But if I was 20 years old, some cis White woman at Brown, who was like, “Hey, guys, I want to volunteer to help sex workers,” they'd be like, “Go fuck yourself,” I'm sure. So it's an incredibly different dynamic, again, for a variety of reasons, both, I think, because of social media – which I have very strong feelings about; in that, I think it has really harmed activist politics and the radical left in a lot of ways – and identity politics, which are overall important and good, but it can't be, must be this identity in order to participate in something, which unfortunately, is the direction it often goes in. And third, the movement has really grown. So they're not as desperate or hungry for people that care in the way that they might have been 20 years ago,
SPENCER: On the one hand, you could definitely see the argument like, well, if someone doesn't really understand your issues, you don't want them kind of meddling or obviously, there's concerns about White Knight Syndrome, these kinds of things. On the other hand, you can make the argument that someone who's competent, who's skilled, who has connections wants to help, that's a fantastic thing, right? Even if they don't know much about it, that — like, I hire an accountant, he knows a lot about accounting, he doesn’t need to know about other things, right? There's a lot of ways someone could help without knowing the full context. So I'm wondering — I don't know -– my gut reaction is, it seems like that would prevent help from being done in some cases. What do you think about the trend?
MELISSA: I'm guessing you and I would agree. I'm just saying I'm guessing because we could probably both talk about this for hours because I think philosophically, this is a really complicated, fascinating question. I agree with you completely, I think it goes almost against and I was actually just talking to somebody about this last week, and I assume you are as well. I'm Jewish. And I grew up in my generation – I'm in my early 40s now -– with a very strong Jewish community, and being Reform -– the Reform Synagogue in West Chester — and our entire value system was doing good deeds for other people, especially people that have less than we had. That was my entire worldview, especially around Judaism. For me, it wasn't about God or anything like that. It was about making the world a better place, especially for other people. We don't all have to be the same religion, the same race, the same gender., It's “how can I help?” I have this privilege. I have education. How can I help support other people? Not save anybody, of course, but how can I work towards a better, more equitable world? And I think that there is something very unique (I mean, many religions teach us) but I think in terms of Judaism for me personally, this sort of notion of like that famous quote around the Holocaust: first they came for this group, but no one spoke up, and then they came for that group, and no one spoke up, and then they're gonna come for you eventually. So it's like, we're all in this shared world together. And it's not about whether I've had that particular experience. It's, I care about you because you're human. And I think that that is where I came from and I still come from, that has not changed. I think the movement around me has changed and the world has changed. But I think that my perspective has always been, “Well, I don't want to work for, let's say, a Jewish organization, there's plenty of people that do that. Okay, well, I don't want to do this. I don't want to go and help kids. Because everyone loves kids.” How do I help support a group that has historically and politically, socially been really ostracized and marginalized and not supported? And it's not about helping myself or my own family. That's really the sort of background — ideological background — that I came from. That being said, I understand that there are things that I will never know or understand, of course; the irony being that the younger sort of activists, especially college-educated, maybe came from relatively similar backgrounds to me. What I've seen over the last five, six years, they weaponize their engagement in sex work. They might strip for a week and be like, “Well, I'm a sex worker now.” Well, that's even actually more insulting to sex workers — to sort of dip your toe and say, “Well, now I understand what it's like to be a sex worker, because I stripped for a week for funsies.” To me, that's actually really offensive. I mean, God bless if you want to strip for fun, please do. But don't then leverage that to claim that you have a particular oppression or world experience that you don't have. And I think unfortunately, I see more and more of that, which is why I feel that, if I were now in college, and were 20 years younger, I either would have not joined the movement, or I would have done sex work to be like, “Well, now I have legitimacy,” even though I didn't need it for financial survival which, again, feels very disingenuous.
SPENCER: It's really interesting. In any social world, there's going to be incentives — social incentives — to do certain things, to avoid certain things. And if we end up in a world where there's incentives — in certain ways to have at least the cloak of oppression but obviously, you don't want real oppression because real oppression sucks, it's horrible. Not most people, but some people are going to be like, “Oh, cool, I'll try to wear the cloak of oppression without actually being oppressed and then I'll get the kudos,” and take it away from the person who's actually oppressed, which is pretty horrid.
MELISSA: It's awful. It really is, and again, this is a relatively new phenomenon. I would say the last maybe maybe seven or eight years. I've seen it. And again, I've had many, many many interns and colleagues that have engaged in sex work and, of course, it's their choice, whether they are doing it to make some extra money or for empowerment or…great, excellent. But again, what I find deeply problematic is when it's been weaponized, as you said, as a cloak of oppression. And so I think that is where the identity piece becomes almost phony to me. And so I think for someone like me, or me, I got into the movement before identity politics, before social media. And I do feel like I'm lucky in that I have been, quote unquote, “grandfathered in,” in this way, because I don't…it's a whole new world. Again, for better or worse — and you and I could probably talk about that for 10 hours straight (laughs) -– but it is a new world where identity and one's experience of being a sex worker is paramount.
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SPENCER: I have a kind of funny view about the way the human brain processes things around sex. And to give an example of this — I had someone on the show previously who's a sex worker. Before being a sex worker, early in her career, she actually worked in a factory. It was a very, very grueling kind of factory at work. And then she switched to sex work and found it much more pleasant than her grueling factory job. And from a very objective, emotionless standpoint, she did one type of work and then she switched to another type of work. And she found the second type of work more pleasant. But clearly, most people, for most of history, have not viewed it this way. They think of sex work as something different. And so this gets to my little pet theory about this, which is that a lot of people believe in magic. They think there's some kind of magic -– whether it's psychic powers, or coincidences actually have meaning or whatever it is. And my suspicion is that what's going on with these things is that the human brain…it’s not that these things are really true externally in the external world but it's that the human brain processes certain things as being magical, in a sense, and that sex is one of these things. We don't treat sex as just…oh, well, on the factory floor, you put the thing on the assembly line whereas, in sex, you put the penis in the vagina. No, there's something magical about the process of having sex to the human brain that puts it in a different elevated category. Curious to hear if you have any thoughts about that.
MELISSA: Yeah, it's a really good point because I think, within the sex worker movement, there is a debate around: is sex work work or sex work is work like any other job. That is a catchphrase, “Sex workers work” and and I have probably dozens of pins and buttons that say that. And I think there is something to be said that it is labor, of course, and workers, sex workers, anyone in the erotic industry should have labor rights. That being said, it is different, right? It is different from other jobs. There is, like you said, maybe for the customer, this element of magic because they're the one that is sort of enjoying it — not to say sex workers never enjoy it but again, the purpose is the enjoyment of the customer or the client. And I think for sex workers, it probably is a very personal person to person question about their feelings and emotions, physically and psychologically, while they're engaging in sex work, because it is different. It's inherently intimate. Whether that is because we are conditioned to view sex in this particular way or because of biological imperative or biological urges or feelings. Maybe all of the above. But I guess to me, is sex work work like any other? I think that is a question that really, individual sex workers really need to answer for themselves, if that makes sense. I don't know if there's one universal answer.
SPENCER: Absolutely, that makes sense. I think that rape is another interesting example here. Because compare rape to just kind of being beaten up really badly. They're both awful. They're both terrible crimes. But I think that a lot of people have an intuition that rape is like a crime at another level. And even if we say, “Okay, well, imagine that there's no chance of getting an STD and no chance of getting pregnant from the rape,” it still feels like a violation in a way that is at another level than being beaten up. And so I think a lot of people when they think about, “Would I ever be a sex worker,” this is on their mind, this sort of sense that there's something holy or sacrosanct about only having sex with people you care about, or only having sex when you want to do it or something like this, that to them maybe feels like much more of a violation than working in a factory?
MELISSA: Yeah, I agree. And I think it is really a personal question and it really is about the type of sex work as well. Because people automatically think of prostitution, which generally includes sexual intercourse or oral sex or certainly a hand job, something quite intimate. But there is also of course, all other forms of sex work. There’s stripping, there's adult films, there are peep shows — in the past; that might be a little dated — but BDSM, fetish work. And so I think it really…the question would vary, of people's personal perspectives, or how they felt in that moment, or what it might mean to them, really based on what exactly they're doing. I mean, if you look at dancing, people often can find it extremely empowering. You're not engaging in direct sexual contact with the customers. You're giving them a show. And so maybe that is more like another job. And then if you look at sort of fetish or BDSM work, I have a lot of friends that are dominatrixes or have been, and I think there is a very big psychological component to it, that actually, I've heard over and over for many people, can be quite healing for the provider, for the sex worker, can either be bringing out different sides of them. Perhaps they have a client that wants them to be more masculine presenting for a session. And so it allows them to be in touch with that masculine side of themselves, or they have some more feminine side or angry side. So again, I think it's really dependent on what exactly is occurring in that sexual exchange.
SPENCER: I also feel like it's important to bring religion into this because, if you look at religions throughout history — just of the major ones that much of the world believes today -– they almost all have something to say about sex. Sex is sort of fundamentally part of what religion is trying to regulate. I don't fully understand why this is the case (laughs) but this just seems empirically true. And it seems like, still today, we're living in a world where a lot of people's views about sex work seem to be influenced by religion.
MELISSA: Definitely. If you look, (obviously we're in this crazy situation, I mean, horrific crazy with Roe v Wade being overturned) and this idea that women are just supposed to procreate and their bodies are really public, can be controlled by these men and that is so tied to Christianity, for sure. And then obviously, Judaism has particular beliefs, depending on what part of Judaism so it's… yeah, it is fascinating, and I think that the crux is…sex work is so…can’t have a conversation about it without people feeling emotional in some way about it. And I think that is why it is such a difficult thorny issue and why it divides feminists so much, is because of that emotional piece around sex.
SPENCER: What do you attribute those emotions to, for your typical person who has strong feelings?
MELISSA: I have found (and I have not done a study), my own experience of being in this movement and talking to a lot of people in the world around this issue for almost 20 years, that men are much more comfortable talking about decriminalization and prostitution than women are. And again, I'm making a pretty broad generalization but I guess maybe I'll narrow that a little bit. I'll say men who are sort of educated, and on the progressive spectrum — I mean, that's sort of my world. I live in Brooklyn. You know I'm a lawyer. I'm not chatting with deeply religious people in the Bible Belt, they’re just not the people that I come into contact with. But in my experience, sort of progressive men -– and again, I'm making generalizations here – are much more comfortable with the idea of decriminalization and prostitution and don't really feel an incredible emotional attachment to it. I think for women, that is not the case. I almost joke whenever I'm at a conference, that that isn't about sex work or harm reduction where, of course, everyone is going to be on board, obviously. But let's say I'm at the American Public Health Association Conference (although there people are on board because it is a public health issue to decriminalize). But the National Conference of State legislators — I can almost guarantee that when a white woman over the age of 50 comes to our table, they will disagree with me. And I was almost always correct. Not always, but almost always correct. And so I think that there is something about sex and sexuality, for women — especially white women, especially white women who are a little bit older – where it just goes against the idea that sex work can be anything but exploitative, goes against every fiber of their being. And it could have to do with what I talked about at the beginning, which is that that generation – the generation before me of feminist thinking -– really did see sex work as inherently exploitative. So I think that could be a piece of it. I think another piece — fear, right? It's really terrifying, I think, for people to imagine their partner might go to a strip club or might see a sex worker or might go to a massage parlor. I think there is a fear of what if my partner went and did that. There's just so much there to unpack. And there's a myriad of other reasons, I don't think it's simply fear and jealousy. I think there's a jealousy, as well these people, women, trans folks, men, whomever — these people who do sex work, and do it on their own volition – are actually really empowered, and utilizing their body in a way that is empowering. And we as a society…that is not innate. We're actually innately going back to religion, taught to have shame, not flaunt our bodies or not flaunt our sexuality. So I think it's a sort of a panoply of reasons why it evokes such strong reactions in people, but often women.
SPENCER: You brought up a bunch of infinities, I'd like to go through them one by one. So one issue you brought up is the difference between men and women. There's a lot of overlap between men and women – any trait that they differ on, there's gonna be tons of overlap and we're really just talking about averages here – two distributions that overlap but maybe the means are a little bit different. We did a bunch of research on personality differences between men and women. And the number one biggest personality difference – in self-reported personality, so the way people describe their own personality that we found after we listed like 600 different questions – was actually on how sex-focused people are. So men would agree much more often with questions like, “when I meet an attractive person, I think about sex,” or “I think about sex often,” things like that. And you can also see this borne out in some behavioral stuff. If you look at how often gay men have sex and how sexual they are versus gay women, there's a big difference there. Or how often do men masturbate versus women? Every single one of these measures is imperfect. You could always say, “Well, maybe it's not women are masturbating, or they do something else.” But it seems to paint a consistent story that men on average, are more sexual. There are lots of sexual women out there but, on average, men seem to be more and I wonder if this is in terms of men's views on prostitution. There's also another element here, which is that it seems like men are more able or willing to detach during sexual activity, like it's viewed as just sort of a fun activity that has no fundamental meaning behind it. Curious to hear your thoughts on that.
MELISSA: Definitely. I mean it's funny because, as you were talking, I thought about…my husband and I started listening to this podcast the other day, about the OM cult. I don't know if you've heard about it. Not to delve too much into it but essentially, it's an orgasm cult for women.
SPENCER: The OneTaste? Is that the other name?
MELISSA: Yes, yes, the OneTaste. So we just started listening to the BBC podcast about it and they had someone on — I don't remember if it's Dr. Aviva Romm or some other expert was saying and I love their framing of this — like women's genitalia are innies and men's genitalia are outies and so it's more obvious when they are aroused, or their interest is piqued because their genitals are on the outside. Not to say that men can't control their penises or what have you but it is more like, “Hello, I'm here.” And so I think that is biologically up one piece, and I am not a man, so I don't know what it is like. I do live with three people with penises (laughs) and they're always out there. I mean, I've two little boys so I feel like boys are just taught to be fascinated by their penis. And funnily enough, my children almost can't fathom that I lack a penis, which again, there's something there about how visible and public a penis is, as compared to vagina.
SPENCER: Well, probably, especially when people wore loincloths. With modern attire, it's pretty easy to hide, but maybe that wasn't true 50,000 years ago,
MELISSA: Right. So it's just interesting having children and I sometimes feel like my six-year-old can't fathom that it’s very fascinating. I'm sure there's a Freudian analysis to it or whatever (laughs). So I think biology is a piece, but I think that obviously, men and women are conditioned incredibly differently. And historically, women would be ruined if they engaged in premarital sex. And that wasn't that long ago that that shifted, and there's still endless slut shaming of women and female identified or female presenting people that there is not of men, and male presenting people, or trans men. So all of this, I think for women, sex and sexuality is also wrapped up in fear and judgment because of all that social stigma and shame. And so I think I personally don't know how much of that is biology and how much is social construction and I don't have an answer to that. But I think I would say that this shame, this stigma, and this repression and suppression of female sex and sexuality, plays a very large role in that. So I think that that accounts for pretty big differential between men and women's feelings on sex and sexuality, and specifically as it relates to sex workers. I think that, just if we're going to use a gender trope -– women are more afraid of their partner cheating, if they're in a heterosexual cisgender hetero relationship, monogamous relationship — the trope is that a man goes and cheats or you know, what have you. So even though I don't know if that's actually true or the reality, that is sort of the lie that is told to heterosexual women — you better watch your man or keep an eye out on your man, because he might, you know. So I think that that plays a big role as well in people's discomfort with the sex industry.
SPENCER: Right. So you bring up fidelity here -– and I think it's an important one. Just to set a frame around this, the way that I like to look at any kind of complex issue is to really think about both the good and bad aspects. It tends to bother me when someone is only willing to say good things about something, because it suggests to me that they're just not understanding the issue fully. Now, maybe if you add up the good and the bad, maybe the good is way, way better than the bad. So like, “Oh, clearly, there's one way to go with this,” but to really understand an issue, you use the good and the bad. So I kind of want to try to steal man, if you will, take the side of the people who say maybe sex work is not such a good thing, just so we can explore that side and understand the arguments there. And then we can talk about any flaws in those arguments. But so one argument against promoting sex work is that it may produce more unfaithfulness, right? Generally speaking, if something is easy to access, people will do it more. This is usually true. And with regard to sex work, some of those people will be married and that means that you may have more unfaithfulness going on. So yeah, I'm curious to hear your reaction to that.
MELISSA: Well, are we presuming that faithfulness is the goal? I guess I would question sort of…there's two pieces. I would first question whether we as a society in 2022 want to hold up monogamy and faithfulness in a culture that is incredibly rapidly changing in terms of gender, gender expression, sexual expression, and I think relationship formation and function. And I'm not saying that to say like, fuck monogamy. I'm just saying that I actually think that holding up the old ways of doing things generally didn't work for women or queer people. And so I would almost challenge the idea that we want fidelity or these sort of normative heterosexual sanction by religion, marriages. The other piece, the other sort of thing I would say is whether my two cents, and I don't have a data on this, is if somebody is going to cheat, they're going to cheat, regardless of whether it's with a sex worker or not. And actually, the preference, I would think, should be actually with a sex worker. They are trained. They are boundaried. Sex workers use condoms. Sex workers are masters of negotiation. And it's also a very boundaried relationship. So my argument would almost be, if somebody was like, “Well, I don't want my partner to cheat.” To me, it would certainly be the lesser of two evils, I suppose. I hate the word evil, but like lesser of two bad things would have someone see a sex worker versus start an affair with someone where the boundaries are incredibly blurry.
SPENCER: Yes, those are interesting points. So on the first one, about faithfulness, and like should we even be striving for monogamy? I guess what I would say about that is that I think people really are just fundamentally different. Some people, they want to have a relationship where they can have sex with other people, or maybe there's certain rules around it, or whatever. And other people want to have a relationship where it's like, really, strictly devoted to each other. And I don't think there's anything wrong with that. I think people can have whatever kind of relationship they prefer.
SPENCER: So I think, at least there's a substantial proportion of people, I think the vast majority of people, that would be extremely upset if they found out their partner was seeing a sex worker without having any kind of communication about it. Like, it's one thing if you talk about and come to agreement, but if it's another thing, if you assume that they would never do it, and then they go do it. On the second point, I definitely see what you're saying that like, in some ways, maybe it'd be preferable that someone see a sex worker in person rather than, let's say, fall in love with someone else. But again, I think there's still a trade off there because it's one thing where, in general, if something is illegal and there's potential for getting legal trouble about it and has to be done surreptitiously. It's different than when it's sort of in your face and being advertised. And I think there are a lot more people that would consume something that's in their face being advertised where they're walking by it every day on the way to work, then they have to go seek it out and find some black market way to do it. So I do think that we should expect, most likely, that in a world where sex work is fully decriminalized, that more people will engage in it. And then that will mean that some people will be sleeping with sex workers behind their partner's back that wouldn't otherwise be doing so.
MELISSA: I would still go back to if somebody wants to stray, they're going to stray regardless. And so, to me, the preference would be with someone who is an expert, and someone who has boundaries. I don't think that, suddenly, this is going to lead to cheating. It certainly could lead to more clients. But again, I would argue that those clients are people that are already likely going to be cheating on their partner. Do you know what I mean?
SPENCER: Right. Well, I guess, I imagine you don't think that literally every single person who was not going to cheat is still not going to cheat and vice versa. Presumably, access is a real factor. So then the question is, only 1% more people cheat or 10% more people cheat? And like, maybe you're on the 1% side, and I'm on the maybe five or 10% side or something like that. And I'm not saying that I'm definitely not saying this should be a deal breaker for fully decriminalized views. I'm just trying to just make a list of pros and cons and I would put this on the cons list.
MELISSA: For sure. I mean, for example, in Rhode Island, when they decriminalized indoor prostitution, there was a bit of a loophole from 1980 to 2009. And researchers studied it from 2003 to 2009. So there's a six-year window where they studied the impact of indoor prostitution being decriminalized. And it was interesting because they did find, (I was just looking at the data before we got on our call) that the sex market grew but exploitation and poor safety outcomes for sex workers declined. And the incidence of gonorrhea diminished by 39%. And rapes reported diminished by 31% during the six year window. And so anyway, I guess to me, the fact and I don't know the percentage in which (I would have to look at the full study) but the size of the market grew. But to me, that is a happy way better outcome. Yes, there's more clientele. But all sex workers or most sex workers were treated way better. To me that is a very welcomed trade off.
SPENCER: Yeah. And that's how I look at it. There's a series of trade offs. There's some positive, some negative and like, maybe the positive way outweighs the negative. But I still want to make sure we discuss the negatives, go through them, and I definitely want to get to the positives as well. It's super important. So the second one that I want to bring up with you is this idea that of sort of negative externalities to the sex worker themselves. Because I think that some people believe that even if a sex worker is convinced that this is in their own interest, and they're benefiting from this, and they're empowered, that there is like a pretty high chance of some kind of psychological damage to the sex worker. And I imagine you must have encountered people who take this perspective that it's like harming the sex worker in some sort of hidden or implicit way. What are your thoughts on that?
MELISSA: I think it is such a tricky, complicated question. And I, as an attorney, and not as a therapist, I may not be the best person to answer it. I do think, and from being in this movement for 20 years, I do think there is an incredibly high percentage of mental health issues and trauma amongst sex workers. However, I can't exactly say, whether that is because of the sex work or that is because of the way whether they've been criminalized or raped or abused or arrested or shunned by their family, or if anyone's ever obviously seen like Howard Stern Show, when he used to have different sex workers on it always say, “Okay, well, when did your dad abuse you?” Or, there was this presumption that they obviously had an early childhood sexual assault. But we know that one in four women experienced sexual assault. So it's an incredibly high percentage of women, and that's going to be higher, actually, for queer women. So all that is to say that I think that, yes, there is a higher percentage of psychological trauma in the sex work world than there is in the non sex worker world. But I don't know if I can pinpoint the cause, if that makes sense.
SPENCER: Yeah, it seems like there's a lot of complex confounding variables here. Because one thing, poverty is going to make someone more likely to engage in sex work, because they need money, but also more likely to have all kinds of other bad things happen, traumatic things, being kicked out of their home, being abandoned, like all these kinds of things are linked to poverty. So it's kind of a huge set of muddled factors there. Then there's an additional issue, which is that when practicing sex work in an area where you can't do it very safely, you're going to engage in things that are going to cause trauma, like getting beaten up by a client or getting arrested by the police, or you're getting raped by a client. So yeah, I have no idea how we separate those things. But I think attempting to sort of adopt the viewpoint of someone who thinks it beyond those things, that somehow the act of having sex for money sort of degrades a person or affects them psychologically, in a negative way. If I had to try to take that viewpoint, I'm guessing that one aspect of that is that they may feel like it affects people's ability to have loving relationships outside of sex work, like somehow it's taking this thing that's supposed to be just between you and the person you love and like turning into a commodity or something like that. So I'm curious if you've heard that perspective and what you think about that?
MELISSA: Oh, definitely. I've definitely heard that perspective. And I definitely think that there is something there and I know that I keep sort of playing this card of like, “but could it be this or could it be that?” But, to me, that sort of then begs the question of, again, is it because society has said sex should be this way, sex should be with like a loving partner or it's sacred, or is there something inherent in that act? And I don't know the answer to that. I do agree that sex and sexuality is incredibly intimate and incredibly personal. There's no question about that. And so yeah, I do wonder what that does on a psychological level. I think, interestingly, there are quite a few…you know, it's funny, we have the prohibitionist, the feminist prohibitionists that are anti sex work, that sometimes sort of will give arguments that are eerily similar to the arguments of like the radical feminists of the 70s–penis is a weapon of war; men, like penis, is inherently violent. And interestingly, I think there is some percentage, (I really don't know what percentage) of sex workers who would say the same thing. And to me, that comes from sexual trauma. That comes from whether that person had early sexual trauma, or if they had sort of this repeated trauma from the clients that they have dealt with, or the police or passers by that have harmed them because they are a sex worker. So I guess all that is to say is I've seen this very interesting intersection around men as being terrible, the sort of idea of like men are only worthwhile if they shut up and give me money, or men or bad. Being a thread on both the radical prohibitionist feminist side as well as a sex worker’s rights side, if that makes sense.
SPENCER: Yeah, another related aspect of this is the idea of objectification, that by engaging in sex work, essentially, someone may be causing other people to objectify them. And that this might have psychological consequences long term, like the way you view yourself. I don't really have an opinion on whether this is really an issue, or this is just sort of a made up problem. But I'm curious what you think about this. Do you think that engaging in sex work could cause issues around self image?
MELISSA: I think it can cut both ways, to be honest. And again, I know I keep giving you “Well, you could think of it this way or that way.” But to me, and I think about myself, I was a very late bloomer, like I did a lot of gymnastics growing up. I looked like I was eight until I was like 16. Maybe not that young, but I really developed very late physically. And I actually look back on that, and I'm so thankful and grateful for that. Because when I did develop and look more like a woman, and I have my own sort of sexual desires and all that, and also be objectified or looked upon by men, I was old enough to sort of process that, and understand it, and have a more adult perspective on it. Then there are girls, 10 years old that are developed and men sexualize them, and worse, there can be, obviously, childhood sexual assaults and what have you. But all that is sort of to say that, to me, I think objectification can be very empowering, if that has not historically been linked to violence and abuse and exploitation. Like there can be a way in which being sexualized or objectified can be extremely empowering. But that will be shot, that empowerment, if that has been tied to negative things in the past.
SPENCER: Yeah, I guess I've just observed so much difference between individual people, like this is just one of the things I keep coming back to with human psychology. Most people try to fit in, so they act vaguely similar just to seem normal. But like, internally, people's experiences are so wildly different, that it wouldn't surprise me at all, if some people actually can engage in sex work and just find it really rewarding and not at all psychologically damaging, whereas other people, it actually would harm them if they did it. And some of them might try it, and then get harmed psychologically from it, and kind of bounce out of it. Or maybe they continue out of desperation because they don't have other ways to make money. So it might be just hard to generalize. It might be just the sort of thing that it depends too much on the individual.
MELISSA: Yeah, I really do think so. And it depends not only on the individual and their sort of psychological makeup and their early childhood and all that kind of stuff, but of course the experiences that they have in the industry. You could have somebody that only sees long term repeat clients who pay them very generously and treat them well and they trust and respect versus somebody that is a street-based worker and needs to live day to day on the clients that she sees. They're going to have extremely different experiences, perceptions of how sex work either empowers or disempowers them and how they're treated by the people around them.
SPENCER: Absolutely, yeah, great point. And also on this psychological question, I think there's a huge factor around sort of shame and how society views it. Because if you're in a society where people are more favorable towards sex work, and you can kind of talk openly about it and not be ashamed, that's gonna be really different than if you feel like you have to keep it a secret, and people would judge you or you'd be kicked out of your social circles and so on. I mean, regardless of what you're doing, no matter what it is, if you feel that other people are gonna judge you for it, and may ostracize you for it, like that's going to take a huge psychological toll, right?
MELISSA: Oh, completely. I mean, I remember marching with a sex worker from Sweden. And the infamous Swedish model, which criminalizes clients of sex workers, which is favored by prohibitionist feminists. I remember walking with her (her name is Petite Jasmine), she ended up being killed by her violent husband. But she said to me, and I'll never forget this, she said, “Well, I'd rather be seen as a criminal than a victim.” Because the way that she was being conceptualized and treated in Sweden, which had adopted the Nordic Model in 1999, is that sex work is inherently exploitative, and it's very gendered. And all these poor women need to be rescued. And if they don't want to be rescued, then there's something wrong with them, then they have to have a false consciousness. They don't quite realize that they're being victimized. We have to help them and tell them they're being victimized. And I remember, she obviously, herself, she was an outspoken sex worker and an activist. So she was able to identify that, “Well, I don't want to be seen as this. I'd rather be seen as that.” But you can imagine for most other people that don't have that level of self awareness, what that must be like to be told, “You're this, you're dirty, or you're a victim. Or if you don't realize you're a victim, you're mentally ill.” Society puts so much on to sex workers about what they should or shouldn't be, or how they should or shouldn't feel, or how they should or shouldn't behave, that it can be very hard to know what you really think or feel about your own body.
SPENCER: So let's talk now about different ways that sex work can be regulated or unregulated. As I understand it, and please correct me if I'm wrong, there's sort of four basic models for this in different societies. The first is what we kind of do in the US where you basically make it illegal, and then you punish the sex workers themselves. You very rarely if ever punished the purchasers of sex work. So that's model one. Model Two is you make it legal, but you regulate it. Is Amsterdam an example of that?
MELISSA: Amsterdam and then the brothel system in Nevada.
SPENCER: Right. So in Nevada, I guess it's like, not in Las Vegas, but like outside of Las Vegas, there's a special regulation zone where it's legal. And then the third model is I think you just mentioned this, the Nordic Model, where you criminalize buying it, but you decriminalize being a sex worker. Is that correct?
SPENCER: And then we've got the fourth model, which is full decriminalization, which, as I understand it, is the one that you're most in favor of. Is that right?
SPENCER: So maybe you could just talk us through. So you've got these four models. Talk us through a bit about what you see as sort of the advantages and disadvantages of different models because I mean, obviously, I've seen people let's say on the Christian right who like the current US system, but when you talk about people who are sex workers and what they want, I actually have heard sex workers argue in favor of all three of the other models. So as far as I can tell, there's not a complete consensus. Maybe it might be that some of those models are much preferred by sex workers. But at least there's some advocates of each of the three models. So maybe it's good to start with Model Two, like full regulation, like you allow sex work, but you regulate. What do you see as sort of the advantages and disadvantages of that kind of model?
MELISSA: So Nevada is the only state in the United States that does not have a statewide criminal penal code against prostitution. And so counties (and I don't remember the exact number) rural counties with less than a certain hundreds of thousands of people can vote to have legal regulated brothels. And so it's the only system that we have in the United States to look at. It does not mean that all regulatory systems would be exactly like the brothel system in Nevada. So I'm just going to put that caveat there. But in terms of what happens in Nevada, it's very interesting. And I'm by no means I am an expert. I've read quite a bit. And I have some colleagues that are based there that have done extensive work around the brothels. But there are pros and cons. The first con to me is that it's not very scalable. So in Nevada, the vast majority of sex workers, like vast, vast, vast majority. I don't know the exact percentage, but let's say like 90 plus percent are working in an illegal market. You have Reno, you have Las Vegas, there are no brothels that are legal. It's all illegal sex work. So what happens with regulation, it ends up creating a two tiered system that isn't scalable to encompass all sex workers. So what I always say, and again, I'm by no means an expert on the Nevada System, but that it is good for the people that can sort of get into that system. But it doesn't help anyone else. So if you look a certain way, to sort of meet the whatever, that particular brothel, like, let's say you're a skinny, I don't know, brunette, and they need a skinny brunette, and you don't have a felony record. And you pass all the STI tests, and the HIV tests and the background checks, and you have legal working papers, and you can even live at the brothel for a couple of weeks at a time, you can sort of jump through all of those like myriad hoops. And you go in and you have a good setup. Great. God bless. But again, that's not helping the vast majority of sex workers.
SPENCER: Does that apply in Amsterdam? Because, I don't know too much about it, but my understanding is it's much more widespread there. Whereas in Nevada, it's just these little counties that have it.
MELISSA: Yes. And I don't know, sort of all the data, but yes. I mean, it is definitely more widespread than in Nevada. I think that there's, of course, the red light district. And I don't know too, too much.
SPENCER: Because you could imagine a regulatory system that just has a low bar. Like maybe it's just some basic things about education around using condoms or something like this, and then you get a license, and you're good to go. I definitely see your point, like if the regulation is such that most people who are engaging in sex work are not going to be able to go into the system, and you essentially just have a small regulated market, and then most of it is just illegal. Now, maybe the legal penalties are not as severe in those cases, typically, because there's a difference between practicing without a license versus engaging in illegal prostitution. Maybe they're punished differently. But still, you could imagine a regulatory system that just has a low barrier to entry. So pretty much anyone can enter with some very basic stuff. So yeah, what do you think about that kind of system?
MELISSA: I think that a system that would have a low barrier to entry…I mean, I think it would really depend on what is that entry point. To me, the model I compare it to, and people always find this comparison interesting, is looking at childcare. I have two boys. We have a nanny that has been with us for eight and a half years that is really a part of our family at this point. And that is an entirely private dynamic. The government was not involved. Of course, we pay taxes and whatnot. But in terms of the hiring process, the government had nothing to do with it. It's not mandated that she had particular certifications, even though she does have like 30 different certifications. But no one would know if she did or didn't from the government side. No one is saying, “Well, she needs to do this, that and the other.” Or that we need to do this and the other. It's just a private employment between two parties. That being said, if I put my children when they were really little in a daycare facility that's very regulated, of course, the Department of Health, Department of Education, depending on the age of the kids, the certificates that the childcare representatives, or childcare workers had to have the facilities. That is all regulated by the government and quite heavily regulated. So, to me, that's always sort of that comparison I bring up when I talk about what I think things should look like. So I think for individual sex workers, if someone's gonna go online and say, “Hey, I'm on arrows, I’m on whatever. Find me, look me up.” And someone contacts them and says, “Hey, I'm interested in your services.” They have a conversation, they meet up and they do their thing. To me, no outside person needs to be involved in that exchange. That's a private, consensual exchange between two adults. If somebody wants to run a business, that's a different story.
SPENCER: So I guess the question is, in what case does licensure make any sense? Like, presumably, a lot of people are in favor of medical licensure, like that someone shouldn't build a practice in surgery without a license. In our society where you often need a hairdresser license, and a lot of people think that's silly, it's like, “Well, why do you really need that?” I guess if you're gonna make the argument, I'm actually pretty extreme anti-credentialist, so I'm not usually a fan of these kinds of licensing systems. But maybe in some cases, I think in some cases they are valuable. But if you think about why might licensing sex workers make sense. One argument someone could have there is that maybe because there's a risk society around the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. Maybe that would be a reason you could give people some basic training around that, make sure that they have access to condoms, make sure that they understand that they're allowed to refuse sex work without condoms, and so on. So yeah, what do you think about arguments around that?
MELISSA: So, I mean, the data pretty consistently shows that sex workers have a very high rate of condom usage in their professional lives. And I don't have the exact stats in front of me. But just over the course of everything I've read, I actually did my master's in public health on the issue of like STIs and sex work, just across the board, sex workers consistently have a very high rate of condom usage, and are experts, are sexual health experts in a way that us civilians are not. So my argument to that would be, we don't go to a bar when someone is picking up someone else to go home and have sex with them. We're not interfering there and say, “Well, do you have a condom? Are you gonna use a condom? Do you know how to put it on? Do you know about STIs?” And the likelihood is that those two people probably have a way lower likelihood of using protection than if it was a sex work engagement.
SPENCER: Is that consistent across countries, though? Because my understanding is that…
MELISSA: It is.
SPENCER: Oh, it is.
MELISSA: I mean, I don't know every single (country), but like Thailand or India, or South Africa, where there are these very strong harm reduction organizations, where in Thailand they had the famous 100% condom use campaign during the AIDS epidemic. So, I mean, again, I don't know each country, but I do think that there is some consistency internationally on that point.
SPENCER: It sounds like there were also efforts made to increase condom use that may have been successful in some countries. So maybe there was a time when it was less common. But okay, so I guess to summarize, it sounds like your view on regulated industry is basically, if the regulation is really strict, so very few people can get into it, then sort of like what's the point? You still have this huge black market. And then if the regulation is really lax, it's sort of like “Well, what's the point? What value are you really adding?” I think that sounds like that's where you're coming from. Okay, so let's go to the next model, the third model, which is the Nordic Model. So could you just remind the listener what that is? And then give your perspective on that?
MELISSA: Yeah, so the Nordic Model, or known as the Swedish model, or the in-demand model, or the entrapment model, keeps criminalization on John's or clients of sex workers and decriminalizes sex workers. This is, unfortunately, the preferred method that is being pushed in many countries by sort of prohibitionist feminists. This is the model we see in Sweden, in Norway, in Northern Ireland, and Canada. And there's a bill that has been put forth in New York State and mean, we're gonna see it throughout certainly the Northeast in the next year or two if it hasn't been introduced already. This is sort of the in vogue proposal of prohibitionist feminist because, ideologically, it is saying that sex work is inherently exploitative. And so we need to go and rescue these poor victims. They're not criminals, they're victims. They don't want to do it. We need to shame and criminalize these bad men and rescue these sort of innocent women and, ideologically, it is deeply problematic. I'll talk about ideology. And I'll talk about sort of practically, but ideologically, it's very problematic. One, it assumes all sex work is inherently exploitative, which we've talked sort of at length about. Two, it is an incredibly gendered perspective on sex work. We know now that people of all genders and gender expressions engage in sex work. Yes, are cisgender women and trans women more heavily represented as sex workers? Definitely. But it is not just cisgender men purchasing sex from cisgender women. And I think the Swedish model, the Nordic Model, it really props up this idea of it's men as predators and women as sexual victims.
SPENCER: I'm confused about that because why not just frame it as whoever is purchasing is doing a criminal act, and whoever's offering is not. What does it have to do with gender inherently?
MELISSA: Well, because the ideology is linked to gender.
SPENCER: So you're saying like in practice, where does it come from?
MELISSA: Exactly. Yes, it is gender neutral. And it's seeming in its application. Like, if it's two gay men, the purchaser would, in theory, be arrested. But that is not where the ideology comes from. The entire underpinning of this model is to rescue women from evil men that are trying to exploit them. That is literally what the model is about.
SPENCER: I feel like it's useful to separate this sort of theory that underpins this viewpoint, from the actual like, here's a system that we could implement, and what are the pros and cons of that. So it sounds like you basically think that this theory is misguided. But I am curious, clearly there are some people exploit it and it's sex work environments. Is it just that you think this is like pretty rare, like things like sex trafficking, or people kind of falling into the lifestyle being pressured into it by the people they know, and so on?
MELISSA: No, I mean, trafficking is not rare. I just don't think this is the answer to fighting it. And I think, unfortunately, there's a large conflation of sex work and human trafficking. — I've recently had an incredibly infuriating conversation with the Boston Globe reporter who was clearly a prohibitionist. She was like, “I had talked to 15-year-old girls.” And I'm like, “Okay, do not self righteous me. I've represented dozens and dozens and dozens of underage victims of human trafficking. Don't give me a sob story. That's not how you make policy.” — I've seen all sides of the industry and actually spent the better part of eight years representing survivors of trafficking. So it exists. And it's quite common, unfortunately. But the Nordic Model is not the answer to combating it. Decrim (decriminalize) it because we need to be able to find the traffickers. We need to be able to find the perpetrators. And to me, we're wasting time, money, energy effort on getting the wrong people. We need to be looking at exactly who are the traffickers and the violent abusers not getting to consensual sex work. So that's my answer around that piece.
SPENCER: I see. But going back to kind of their perspective, so I guess some of them may be conflating trafficking with sex work, so let's separate those things out. In addition to people who are children, they're just a clear cut case. This is not real sex work. This is really your pure exploitation. I imagine that there are cases that are much more borderline, and so one thing that comes up for me is pimps. I've watched documentaries about pimps, it seems like pimps often emerge and tend to exploit sex workers a great deal. So I'm curious. What are your thoughts on that? Is that really common today? Or is that sort of a thing of the past?
MELISSA: Thankfully, I think the internet has allowed, for sex workers, to take ownership over their work, especially in the more sort of “privileged”. I know that that word is very loaded, but sex workers that have access to online, which at this point, almost everybody has some level of access, and can control sort of their site and can control their screening of their clients. So I think the internet has actually provided a tremendous amount of safety and support at least pre Faust acesta which we can get into or not, which did shut down, unfortunately, a lot of adult websites. But there's less need for a “pimp” or a manager. I personally don't use the term pimp because it doesn't have a legal meaning. It's very emotional. It's very loaded. So I either prefer it if we're going to talk about a manager, let's talk about a manager. If we're going to talk about a trafficker, let's talk about trafficker. Pimps sort of exist somewhere in the middle and is used to emotionally sway people, in my perspective. So all that is to say that I think most sex workers do work independently. The internet has really, really provided that for them. I think before the internet, it was much harder. You needed physical protection. If you were out on the street on a stroll, you literally have your life depend on it. So when it comes to clients, this is where the feminist battle truly is. The question of whether or not clients are inherently exploitative and inherently abusive. And I think proponents of the Nordic Model would say, “Yes, they are inherently exploitative. They are exploiting women,” which, again, is a very gendered theory. But they're exploiting the sex worker. Also, they don't care. This is a line that you hear a lot from prohibitionists–clients don't care if someone is underage or exploited. And I have not seen that to be true. Again, I personally have never been a sex worker. But I have represented, at this point, dozens and dozens and dozens of sex workers as a lawyer. I've known hundreds of sex workers as an activist. And it's just not what I have seen to be true. And in fact, for my clients that were trafficked, sometimes, and I'm certainly not saying clients are heroes, I'm agnostic on the morality of clients. Personally, I don't care one way or the other. But I actually had numerous clients who were trafficked as minors, 12, 13, 14 years old, who were helped by clients. And I have said that in the room of prohibitionists and they have lost their mind. They want to paint every single client as an evil exploiter. And that's just not the case. And so I think, what criminalization does, whether it's full criminalization, like we have in the United States, or the Nordic Model, is it doesn't distinguish. It's sort of like too much of a casting a wide net. And we're not distinguishing between people that are abusive or exploitative. That's my issue with it.
SPENCER: Do you know what percentage of sex workers today work independently, meaning they're essentially choosing who to see and who not to see. And there's no other person that's kind of arranging meetings for them, that kind of thing?
MELISSA: I don't. I would say the vast majority, only because the internet has provided this sort of user friendly platform.
SPENCER: So they're very few that are just working on the streets now?
MELISSA: Yeah, there's less on the streets. Of course, people are being exploited online. Of course, it's certainly not to say that the internet has solved exploitation by any stretch. But I think for people that have their own volition were like, “Well, I need to make some extra money, or this is my career” or what have you, the internet has provided a way to do that independently and safely. That being said, there are plenty of teenagers and younger people that are being exploited online. There's no doubt about that.
SPENCER: So suppose we live in a world where most sex workers were working under pimps — and I use that word specifically here to mean managers that are sort of aggressive with them, or get them addicted to drugs, or threaten, or like get them to fall in love with them, and then coerce them. I think of a pimp as really like a coercive manager, essentially — If we lived in a world where most sex work was like that, would that make you think that the Nordic Model was a better point of view?
MELISSA: No, because we're still not arresting the pimps. Again, the focus is always on the client with the Nordic Model. So I think, even if that were true, even if, let's say 80% of people in the sex industry were being exploited by an abusive manager, the Nordic Model would not help that. And in fact, I would argue that it would actually harm it because the clients that I had, and again, it's just a few different stories, but It wasn't like one story. It was a few stories of clients that I had, who again, were trafficked as minors, who had clients that once they knew they were young or being harmed, they did not have sex with them. And in one case, I recall that a client drove my client to a precinct and dropped her off in front. Now, if sex work was not criminalized — I mean, yes, it would still be stigmatized, but maybe less so hopefully — we can actually have clients be allies in fighting human trafficking. And I think that's a concept that prohibitionist feminists, people that support the Nordic Model, that makes their head explode. The idea that clients might actually not be these evil devils. I would venture to say that most clients that I — there actually is data; Bar brands is a phenomenal researcher out in Nevada, who's actually done a tremendous amount of studies on clients, and I don't have all of our data. I don't have the numbers in front of me, but she has found that actually — they (clients) tend to be at least these are, again, these in the brothels. So men that are seeking sort of this legal system, they're more likely to represent themselves as feminists than the general population of men. And they want to treat people, women well. And so again, I can almost see all the prohibitionists rolling their eyes and calling me the pimp lobby. But I truly believe, and maybe this is my own naivete, but I truly believe that the vast majority of clients are not abusive or exploitative. And they do not want to see anyone in that position. And so I think that we need to start seeing clients as allies in the fight against human trafficking, not as the problem not as the exploiter or abuser. To me, we're looking at the wrong people.
SPENCER: One of the documentaries I watched on this topic was about how sex work works in Las Vegas, so not in Nevada, where it's legal, but in Las Vegas, where it's illegal. And essentially, as I understand it, there's a whole industry where for profit companies get women to sign contracts, saying they will not have sex with clients, and then basically set them up with clients for “dances”, essentially it's sex work, but the way that the companies set it up, the company doesn't take any legal liability and is able to profit off of it. So essentially, as I understand it, it's such an industry that they just advertise on billboards and things like this. And sort of like everyone knows what's going on. But they can't technically prosecute it because if the police try to go to these companies, the companies say, “Look, I have a contract signed saying that they will not have sex with their customers. In fact, they'll get fired if they do.”
MELISSA: Like escort basically, like in the true meaning of an escort?
SPENCER: Exactly. They claim that they're just giving a dance, which is legal, or escorting. But essentially, the woman has to have sex with them, but has to pretend like she won't. So I guess it makes me think that…I guess I'm uncertain about how many sex workers are exploited, but I suspect it's a quite a large number of them that still are exploited. I don't know whether that's 10% or 30%. I think it sounds like the vast majority of sex workers are sort of acting independently, which is probably a good thing.
MELISSA: Yes. Although I would say the caveat to that, I think the majority are acting independently. But that does not mean that they are not sometimes or maybe often in exploitative situations. And I'm thinking specifically about dancers. Stripping is legal. Of course, there's like state by state and city, we use municipal codes that govern where a strip club can be, and whether somebody can be fully nude and whether alcohol can be there, yada, yada, but in general, stripping is legal. And there's a broad range. People strip–to pay their way through law school, or maybe they are trafficked, or what have you. But there is so much labor exploitation in strip clubs. So much. And even though it's legal, it's because of the stigma. And it's because of the entire underground nature of the sex industry that allows that. And also the fact that owners of strip clubs can hold it over these women's heads. Well, I know that maybe sometimes they're engaging in prostitution, and that's illegal. There's a legal thing that might be happening at clubs. So that also sort of gives everybody less bargaining power. So I guess I wanted to caveat, it's not like I'm trying to paint this rosy picture of the sex industry that everybody's like a happy hooker that is like paying their way through med school and feeling super empowered about themselves. No. But it's also not the way that sort of mainstream media or prohibitionist feminists would have you think which is that it's all like 11-year-old girls that are being kidnapped and tortured. It's much more nuanced than that.
SPENCER: So what kind of exploitation would be occurring at these clubs? Could you maybe explain that a little more?
MELISSA: Sure. So a lot of strip clubs, especially in New York City, and each city is a little different, but New York is sort of an extreme example, because, obviously, everything in New York City is expensive. So what happens in these clubs is, first of all, dancers are asked to pay for a house fee when they show up to work. So let's say I go into work, I have to, at the outset, I haven't earned anything I have to pay out. Depending on the club, it can be 100 bucks, can be 300 bucks, it can be anything in between. So I'm paying to just work there for the honor of…similar to almost like how someone who might work at a salon, they pay for their chair. So I'm paying to work there. I have to pay the house mom for my outfits. I have to tip the DJ or pay the DJ to play my songs. I probably have to tip the manager and anyone else to sort of keep an extra eye out for me. And then, if it's a slow night, I can leave in the red. I could leave with like owing money to the club. It's sort of an insane system. And the other piece that occurs in clubs all over in New York City, and I'm sure elsewhere as well, but you're sort of treated…there's the question of whether dancers should be independent contractors or employees. And the problem is that clubs want sort of what serves them best on both fronts. So they're like, “Well, you're an independent contractor, so we're not going to give you a contract. We're not going to sort of provide any kind of benefits or anything, but we're gonna treat you, when it works for us, as an employee. We need you here on certain nights. You can't work at other clubs, etc, etc.” So they kind of cut it both ways, which harms the dancer. So it's a lot of these labor violations that make being a dancer really tough. And then the other piece as well, in a lot of the clubs, especially the really competitive clubs, there's just an inherent competition. And so, if you even have a conversation with some of the other dancers to say, “Well, wait, maybe we're not being treated right.” Someone will rat you out. You'll be fired. They'll be like, “Well, we'll just get someone else to replace you.” So there's sort of this culture of fear around speaking up and you feel exploited, not trafficked. Those are two different things. This is, again, because somebody that is there at their own will, but of course, they want to be treated properly and fairly, like any worker should be. So those are just some of the things that occur at clubs. There's also sexual abuse. A lot of managers notoriously demand sexual favors of their dancers. So there's just a lot of exploitation that happens at clubs.
SPENCER: How do you view this as different from sort of other jobs where there's just not that much negotiating power on the part of the worker? Maybe the pay is inconsistent or not that great. Do you view it as sort of fundamentally different, or you just view it as part of that same spectrum of like potential labor law issues?
MELISSA: I think that for dancing, it's probably along that same spectrum. I'm thinking of something like factory work or field work; something where there are laborers that have a relatively low bargaining power vis a vis that managers and that are seen as somewhat replaceable, even though in dancing you have to be skilled. I mean, you have to be skilled to work anywhere as skilled work in a factory, you have to be skilled, but where you're still seen as relatively replaceable by management. I think that it is on that same continuation of labor exploitation.
SPENCER: Got it. So let's go to the last model, the decriminalization model. So can you tell us about what that is? And why you favor it?
MELISSA: Yes. So full decriminalization of prostitution would decriminalize both the sex worker and the client. And it would also decriminalize non exploitative third parties, like a roommate or a partner, because now, in place like New York, promoting prostitution or permitting prostitution, let's say like, I have a friend come and stay at my house, who is a sex worker, and they see a client here, I could be charged with permitting prostitution. Even if I'm not exploiting them. I'm not abusive to them. I'm not even financially benefiting. But just the fact that I permitted it on my premises. So there's all these sort of adjacent laws that criminalize people around sex workers. I mean, not for nothing, I've personally been in that situation where I've shared hotel rooms with friends and colleagues that are sex workers. And I've had to say, like, I support you doing sex work, but I can't have it be done in the hotel room that's under my name because I could be legally responsible for permitting prostitution, even though on a moral and personal level, it's like you do you, but on a legal level, that's just not the way our laws exist right now. And so, anyway, decriminalization is the law of the land in New Zealand, which decriminalized prostitution in 2003. And those of us, a lot of us in the sex worker rights movement, really hold up New Zealand as like the be all and all of what we see as the ideal model. Of course, New Zealand is not the United States where (I don't even know the population of New Zealand, but it's so small. We know that of course, but) it's sort of like a perfect country to look at, to see how they've done it and how they've done it so well. There has been no evidence of human trafficking of New Zealand citizens between 2003, when it was decriminalized, and 2018. However, migrant workers who are not permitted to legally work in New Zealand, do face exploitation and criminalization. So what we're seeing in New Zealand, and they're actually working to change that so that migrants can lawfully work, but what we're seeing then is that people that can lawfully work are not being trafficked or exploited. And we're seeing more communication and engagement between sex worker alliance and police and all of that. I know that there's endless statistics around how beneficial it has been. The other thing I will point out with the Nordic Model (I know we're on to full-decrim, but the Nordic Model), one thing that I meant to say is that people say “Well, it'll decrease demand.” And actually in every country where there is the Nordic Model, demand has not. So in Northern Ireland, which implemented the Nordic Model in 2015, they had the government, the Department of Justice, review the findings. And so the main findings were that there was little or no effect on the supply or demand of sex work. There was an increase in assaults, sexual assaults and threatening behavior. And sex workers were exposed to higher amounts of anti social behavior and stigmatization during the window that they've had the Nordic Model.
SPENCER: I find it a little confusing, though, because I guess I would predict that the reporting of it would go way up. If you go from a situation where it's illegal to saying, “Oh, it's only illegal to kind of buy it.” When people start reporting it, whereas they didn't record it before?
MELISSA: No. And I'll tell you why. Well, there's a few things. So the first piece is that if we're going to shift the onus of criminalization onto clients, let's say, we adopt the Nordic Model. As it exists now, in New York and in most of the United States, clients of sex workers know that they are at risk of being criminalized, but they also know that that risk is very small, because just the data, like men and clients are rarely arrested. So now imagine I'm a client and the laws have changed. And I'm like, “Oh, my God, the whole burden of criminalization is on me, I am going to be shady as all hell in making a date. I'm not going to give a sex worker my full name. I'm not going to give them where I work. I'm not going to give them names of references of prior sex workers. I'm gonna assume that they might be a cop when I talk to them, so I'm going to be super shady. I'm going to be super sketched out. I'm going to take weird risks that I wouldn't do if I didn't think the burden of criminalization was on me.” And that ultimately harms the sex worker. And so it's just sort of psychologically really an interesting thing, that in looking to criminally protect these vulnerable women, in implementing the Nordic Model, we're actually creating considerable more harm and creating a much more dangerous environment with by which to work in for sex workers, in seeking to rescue them. That's sort of the irony of the Nordic Model, in my opinion.
SPENCER: Yeah, I've heard sex workers say the same thing that basically because it's so important to them to vet their clients that you actually don't want the client to feel at risk because it basically makes it much, much harder to do the vetting.
MELISSA: Exactly. In terms of decriminalization, similar to the Nordic Model, there's two pieces. There's an ideological piece and then there's a pragmatic piece. The ideological piece is acknowledging that consenting adults are going to be engaging in erotic labor, that that will always exist that has always existed over time, and will continue to exist. And so we might as well permit it, not because we're throwing up our hands and saying, “Well, all right.” But because, again, at least my perspective is I'm morally agnostic around it, I don't have a moral perspective. I'm a pragmatist and a harm reductionist. So if something is gonna exist, let's allow it to exist. And then the pragmatic piece is that it will make it much more safer for people involved. There was a meta analysis done — actually by my alma mater, which is the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. In my former mentor there, Susan Sherman, who's done a ton of studies on sex work in conjunction with like the London School of Health and Hygiene and a bunch of other schools. — And they looked at over 130 studies over a 30 year period. And they found an increased risk of sexual physical violence at the hands of clients, third parties or domestic partners when there was some level of criminalization (so that either is Nordic or Full Criminalization), an increased risk of HIV and other STI infections when it was criminalized in some way. And a disruption of sex workers support networks or the ability to sort of properly advocate for themselves and their work when there was some criminalization. And so I always bring this study up, because it's a meta analysis looking at 130 studies. Because you can cherry pick any study you want, on any side. Like, I've seen this guy from the National Coalition of Sexual Exploitation speak, and I think he cites some study that, (I don't remember the data) but where he can make his side look good, he’ll say, “Well, the data is this.” Again, anyone can cherry pick a study or two and say, “This study says this.” But what I love about this one is that it is a meta analysis of 130 studies on an international level done by some of the most prestigious public health schools in the world. And so that, to me, is always sort of what I come back to is sort of, yes, there's maybe some study says this, some study says that. What is the synthesis of hundreds of studies that have been done on this issue? And that, overwhelmingly, leads to a decrease in being the best for public health and safety.
SPENCER: I know that you don't think we live in this world. But if we did live in a world where routinely all the evidence pointed to a different model of being better for sex workers, let's say the Nordic Model, would that make you be in favor of the Nordic Model? Or do you feel that, for ideological reasons, you still don't think it would be the best model even if all the evidence pointed to it helping sex workers more?
MELISSA: It's a really interesting question. Hmm. I guess, I would have to say, I would go with the model that promoted health and safety the best. Because, for me, like I said earlier, my lenses are, yes, I'm a lawyer, but that doesn't really help on a big scale. That is sort of more shaped my perspective as a defense lawyer, and that I don't like punishment. That's just like a core belief of who I am as a person. I don't like condemnation and judgment. But I also do have a public health background, somewhat, and harm reduction background. And so really how I look at the world is we have to be pragmatic and practical to have the best outcomes for real people, not just ideas or ideology. So I would go always with what has the best pragmatic outcomes for people.
SPENCER: Yeah, that makes a lot of sense to me. I haven't looked closely at the evidence on the Nordic Model versus decriminalization. But one thing that I will say is, I think I could imagine someone who basically thinks, “You know, I believe that sex work is causing damage to the sex workers, even if they don't realize it, like there's people who think there's just sort of a strong negative psychological externality, that they're damaging themselves whether it's through objectification, or they think it's sort of inherently exploitative, or whatever.” I could see that Nordic Model perspective, because this is saying, if you think that it's causing a great deal of damage to the sex workers, you want to reduce the amount of it right. And so in that case, you could say, “Well, they might think it's a good thing to keep it illegal at least on one side of the equation.” Whereas I think from your point of view, it’s not usually causing damage to the sex workers; a lot of people are doing it in a way that they feel like it's beneficial to them. So like, why would you make any part of it illegal? Just try to produce the best outcomes while it's legalized.
MELISSA: Exactly, exactly. I really think, and I always go back to this, like, I really don't hold a moral position on sex work. I think people have had very strong moral feelings and personal feelings and whatever else. But I come from it from an extremely pragmatic perspective. And so I think the problem with the Nordic Model, and that kind of line of thinking is just you're assuming what is best for other people. And putting yourself in this sort of savior mode, which is deeply problematic. And also externalizing and universalizing (I don't think that's a word [laughs]) but your own personal experiences to what others might be going through. And that's, ironically, where my never having been a sex worker, I can actually say, “Well, I'm not speaking from what happened to me, or what I did. I'm not saying I loved it, so therefore, everyone loves it. Or I hated it, so therefore everyone hated it.” I'm speaking actually, sort of as a lawyer, obviously, and an advocate, to say, actually, from this sort of sample size of people that I have encountered and/or represented and/or worked with, blah, blah, blah, like, it's not about my own personal one person's experience. But what I so often see from folks on the prohibitionist side when I've testified at hearings, and when I've been in meetings with them, and what have you, is that it becomes sort of like trauma porn. And I'm not saying that to be mean or to minimize what somebody has lived through. Of course not. But we can't make policy that way, is, I guess, what I'm trying to say. So we end up seeing, I'll go on these hearings, whether in person or virtual, and there'll be survivor after survivor testifying about their own experiences of being raped and abused and exploited. It's horrific, and it is terrible. And it is true, and it is their lived experience. But the problem is, we can't make policy universalizing particular people's experiences. We have to look at the sum total of things. And I know that could sound cold or harsh or unemotional. But we can't make policy because we heard a bad story.
SPENCER: Well, the part of the problem is you can always find a bad story to illustrate any point, right? Regardless of what your perspective is. So, you have to look at averages.
MELISSA: Exactly! But because this is such an emotional topic, people don't like hearing that. Yes, they understand that you can’t make policy based on one or two people's stories, but once you say that it comes off, like…because it is so intimate and personal. So yeah, anyway, it's sort of funny because I was talking earlier about how my never having been a sex worker is seen as a negative in the movement and maybe by prohibitionists as well. They can dismiss me and say, “Well, what do you know? You've never been a sex worker.”And they've said that to me, and people said that to me on both sides. I have a more meta perspective. I don't mean meta, like, it's more important, but I just have a more numbers based perspective on the diversity of experiences in the sex industry. That is if I were to say, well, this is what happened to me.
SPENCER: Oh, that makes a lot of sense. Melissa, thank you so much for coming on. This was a super interesting conversation. Really appreciate it.
MELISSA: Thank you for having me.
JOSH: A listener asks, if your area of expertise is math, then why should we believe that you know what you're talking about when it comes to sleep, depression, anxiety, self improvement and so on?
SPENCER: This is a great question. And my answer is that you shouldn't believe what I claim about things. You should listen to the arguments I make and see if the argument is sound. That is what I would like you to do. And then if over time, you think that my arguments tend to be sound, then eventually you should come to trust what I say more based on the fact that I have a reliable track record of saying true things. But when you first encounter what I say, I think you should be evaluating my arguments not taking my claims at face value. I am an extreme anti-credentialist. I actually developed a thing called the “Credentials Test”, which you can take on Clearer Thinking if you're interested, which is a test that tells you how credentialist you are. I am about 99th percentile anti-credentialist. And what that means is not that I don't think credentials mean anything. I do. Like if I met a physicist, and I met a random layperson, and I had to guess who knows more physics, I would certainly think the person with a physics PhD is going to know way more physics, obviously. But if I got to talk to each of them for an hour about physics, and like pepper them with lots and lots of physics questions, and I found that the physics PhD was making no sense and seemed to be saying things that contradict things I'm almost positive are true. If the other person was making way more sense and saying things that actually match what I am really confident already are true, then I would very quickly downgrade my view of the physicist and upgrade my view of the other person. So I think it's not about like, what do you learn from a credential in the absence of other information? I think being an anti-credentialist is more about how quickly you update based on the actual arguments and evidence that someone provides you. And so I'm the sort of person that I quickly will screen off the credentials when I get to see the direct source, and I'll update a lot on the direct source. Now, of course, that could create problems. You could update, let's say you're a bunch of false beliefs and someone just plays into the false beliefs you already have. You could be convinced they're a genius because they disagree with you on things you're wrong about. So you'd have to be careful. And you have to be skeptical. But anyway, that's my personality. So no, you shouldn't believe in me because I'm an expert in anything. You shouldn't believe me because I'm an expert in math. You should just listen to what I say and see if you think I make good arguments.
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