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The Weekly Abolitionist: Sex Work and the Police State

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending Students For Liberty’s New Orleans Regional Conference. It was a delightful event, featuring a talk by C4SS’s own Roderick Long along with many other radical, principled, and insightful speakers.

One of the most interesting presentations was by Maggie McNeill, a retired sex worker who blogs at The Honest Courtesan. Her talk debunked a variety of common myths surrounding sex work, and made a compelling case for decriminalizing prostitution. Moreover, she argued that the criminalization of sex work undermines everyone’s liberties, even for people who never intend to buy or sell sex, and that the “War on Whores” is beginning to take the place of the War on Drugs.

Increasing enforcement of anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking laws enables the state to target the same people they’ve targeted under drug prohibition, McNeill argued. She explains that when young people join gangs, one of their roles is bringing in revenue. Men largely do this by selling drugs, while women often do this by selling sex. Thus, the War on Drugs enables the police to arrest and incarcerate young men of color for selling drugs. In the case of prostitution, however, the men in the gang can be arrested and indicted as “traffickers” or “pimps.” In both cases, McNeill argues, young men of color are criminalized.

Another similarity between prostitution prohibition and drug prohibition is the way they empower police to detain, search, and arrest people for utterly absurd reasons. In some cities, police arrest women for prostitution simply for possessing condoms. Yes, the desire to have safe sex is considered evidence of prostitution, especially if you’re a transgender woman of color. In my home state of Utah, police can arrest someone basically for “acting sexy.” When Andrew McCullough and I argued before the Utah State Legislature that this law was overly broad and would criminalize perfectly legal speech, especially that of strippers, the bill’s proponents adamantly denied this. However, our view was grounded in direct quotes from the bill’s text, while the bill’s proponents never referenced the bill’s text and instead indulged in paternalistic fear mongering about prostitution. The bill was sponsored by Democrat Jennifer Seelig and argued for by Chris Burbank, a police chief who is praised for his liberal approach by ordinarily skeptical commentators like Radley Balko.

Anti-prostitution laws often get support from liberals, progressives, and even some leftists, largely because they are promoted in the name of protecting women and stopping sex trafficking. Just as prison abolitionists invoke the name and the moral appeal of the struggle to abolish chattel slavery, anti-prostitution activists cast their work as a struggle against slavery and name their movement for increased police state power after abolitionism. One anti-prostitution group calls themselves “Demand Abolition,” for example. Conflating prostitution with slavery has a long history. The early 20th Century movement against so-called “white slavery” was used to criminalize people of color and lay the groundwork for the surveillance state, Thaddeus Russell argues.

Today, pro-criminalization radical feminists smear opponents of criminalization as misogynists. Amnesty International has been repeatedly attacked for supporting the decriminalization of prostitution, for example. Feminist support for criminalizing consensual sex acts and enabling racist, misogynistic, and transphobic police repression represents a disturbing theme that Angela Keaton explored in her talk at the NOLA Conference: the co-option of liberation movements by the state. Keaton pointed to Gay Inc’s silence on the plight of Chelsea Manning, the push to allow gays and lesbians to serve in the imperialist armed forces, and the Feminist Majority Foundation’s support for war in Afghanistan (against the wishes of feminists in Afghanistan). Other examples include the push for hate crimes laws and the carceral feminist positions on both domestic violence and prostitution.

Presentations at the NOLA Conference by Maggie McNeill, Thaddeus Russell, and Angela Keaton all touched on this crucial issue in various ways. I’m glad young libertarians were introduced to serious and radical thinking on issues of social oppression, as well as critiques of the co-option of liberation movements to serve the interests of the state. There are still more SFL regional conferences happening this fall. Check here to see if there’s one coming up in your area.

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