If you want to change people’s minds it’s often helpful to understand what they think and why they think it. It’s helpful to know the reasons they’ll give you. But it’s even more valuable to understand the emotions behind the reasons. Most people, most of the time change our minds when our feelings change and use logic and reason to back-justify our new perspective.
If I were less self-aware and you asked me why I changed my mind on whether it’s a good idea to criminalize the purchase or sale of drugs I’d say I changed my mind because the data shows unequivocally that the costs of the War on Drugs vastly outweigh the benefits. And it’s true that the data does show that. But that’s not what changed my mind. My heart changed my mind. Hearing people’s stories about being beaten, killed, jailed, and/or saddled with criminal records that eliminated their chances of gainful legal employment for owning a plant that’s less dangerous than Tylenol activated my empathy and opened my mind to the data on the Drug War.
If you think you’re too smart to let your heart change your mind, I regret to inform you that it’s actually harder to change smart people’s minds, even when they’re wrong, because they’re better than dumber people at coming up with reasons to justify their false beliefs.
The good news on the whorephobia front is that this year, for the first time, a majority of Americans (52%) said they either strongly support or somewhat support decriminalizing sex work. 36% opposed it and 13% were unsure. Two-thirds of 18 to 44-year-old voters support decrim. Democrats are far more likely to support decrim than Republicans (shocker).
Other interesting tidbits include that more Republicans supported ending police vice squads focused on sex work than sex work decrim. So even Republicans who aren’t for decrim support ending “undercover stings and raids, in which plainclothes officers pose as potential customers, solicit sex workers and then arrest them.”
According to the article, critics fear decriminalizing sex work could lead to a spike in prostitution. Now, I could point to evidence from The Netherlands showing that cannabis use declined significantly after cannabis decriminalization and Portugal showing that decriminalizing drugs did not significantly impact drug use rates positively or negatively.
But, again, facts don’t change minds. Feelings do.
So what’s at the heart of resistance to decriminalizing sex work?
There’s obviously some concern for the material well-being of sex workers. Stigma and criminalization incentivizes all but the most marginalized sex workers to hide their occupation. Most people’s only picture of sex work is outdoor sex workers and sex workers getting arrested on TV. Many more people know a current or former sex worker than know they know a current or former sex worker.
The main reason I came out as having done sex work is to show people that sex work isn’t inherently dangerous or exploitative. Sex work is work. It’s less inherently dangerous than roofing. Criminalization creates black markets which are dangerous and exploitative.
Despite ample evidence that criminalization makes sex work more dangerous, nearly half of Americans still don’t support decrim.
As my friend and fellow sex worker Maggie McNeill points out, public polling suggests men are more likely to support sex work decrim than women. So I want to focus on what feelings might be behind women’s opposition to sex work decriminalization.
The dominant narrative is that most female whorephobia comes from women (mostly unconsciously) viewing sex workers as scabs in the sexual marketplace. Women are afraid that if men are allowed to easily and safely buy sex they won’t commit to financially supporting any one woman for life.
But McNeill points to the propensity of lesbians and Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminists (TERFs) to oppose sex work decriminalization as evidence that there’s more to it than mate-guarding or price inflation, since neither group is invested in men financially supporting women in exchange for sex for any term length. I do think the reasons that progressives oppose sex work decriminalization likely differ substantially from the reasons conservatives oppose sex work decriminalization.
Maggie thinks that the main reason women oppose sex work decrim is that women tend to think of women’s individual behavior as reflecting on women as a whole and think sex work is a bad look. “It isn’t at all hard to find some collectivist ‘feminist’ blathering about how the mere existence of sex workers ‘demeans all women,’” Maggie writes. “To someone trapped in this horrifying belief-system, all the women in the world are stuck in one immense elevator together and the whores are smoking, farting and pissing on the floor.”
I think there’s truth to that, but it lacks an important class angle.
In the Berkeley Law Journal, Ann M. Lucas argues that middle-class white women began campaigning for laws against prostitution and defining any type of promiscuity as prostitution in the Progressive Era at the turn of the 20th century.
Industrialization, urbanization, and innovation were bringing working-class women into the workforce. Middle-class white women feared female economic independence threatened dominant middle-class values. By making prostitution dangerous and illegal, middle-class white women sought to force working-class women, women of color, and immigrant women into marriage, chastity, monogamy, hard work, and propriety lest they live independently of men and destroy the social order.
Lucas highlights the alarm in a vice commission report from 1911:
One of the most disturbing phases of the present situation in Minneapolis, and an alarming social symptom, is the large number of young girls in the streets at night[,] ... loitering about the fruit stores, drug stores and other popular locations, haunting hotel lobbies, crowding into dance halls, the theaters and other amusement resorts; also in the saloon restaurants and the chop suey places and parading the streets and touring about in automobiles with men. [Not all, or even a majority] of these girls are prostitutes, [but it is] perfectly plain... that many... are on the direct road [to prostitution].... The situation is unmistakably sinister.
Interestingly, research indicates women today use slut-shaming to reinforce class boundaries.
Like the War on Drugs, support for the War on Sex Work seems to be fueled by fear. Women are afraid of losing their husbands, not being able to find husbands, looking bad, moral decay, social upheaval, and eroding class distinctions.
I asked my friend Allan what turned the tide on the Drug War. He pointed to the Opioid Crisis. Support for arresting and jailing people for suffering from a public health crisis started eroding when it started negatively impacting white people, he said. Empathy did what decades of research couldn’t.
I expect it will be the same for sex work. With the explosion in OnlyFans creators, more women are entering the sex trade than ever. I see more current and former sex workers coming out every day, eroding stigma and busting myths about all sex work being inherently exploitative and dangerous. As more people realize they know and love a sex worker, support for criminalizing sex work will decrease. I expect love will win out over fear, eventually. Hopefully sooner than later.