Three Myths of the ‘End Demand’ Model That Hurt People in the Sex Industry
*Authors Note: I will be using “women” and “womxn” respectively to distinguish the end demand models’ unfortunate belief that only cis women are sex workers and I will use the more inclusive womxn to highlight the need to represent all femmes in sex worker discourse.
What comes to mind when you think of “sex buyers,” or the clients of sex workers? Do you imagine some creepy, greasy, sweaty Ted Bundy pedophile and general sex pervert? As a human trafficking survivor and sex worker I think there is a general misconception- especially to anti-trafficking organizations- of the power dynamic between client or customer and sex worker. Buyer Beware programs, more commonly coined “John schools,” typically act as a form of diversion after arrest or a condition of one’s sentencing. John schools exist in at least fifty-two cities across the United States and can cost an offender anywhere from $400 to $1,500 to a single class that could last only for one day or a series of up to ten classes. The offender is required to pay for the class out of their own pockets. John schools began in San Francisco in 1995 and have taken an especially strong hold in west coast cities such as Portland l, San Francisco and Seattle, whose law enforcement model of ending sex trafficking means ending demand for exchange sex. This model, known as “end demand” locally or the Nordic model focuses on criminalizing the buyers side as a means to extinguish prostitution. The end demand model does not recognize prostitution as ever being a choice and views all prostitution as gender-based violence. Obviously, these views are myopic and one sided. So let’s get into it and examine the most common end demand myths that view prostitution in these terms:
- Prostitution is an act of gender-based violence perpetrated by cis men upon cis women: The most glaring problem with this viewpoint is, firstly, that this theory assumes all “sex buyers” to be cis males and all “prostitutes” to be cis females. This just simply isn’t the case and is actually a real proliferation of the same misogyny that this model claims to be fighting against. Gender-variant folks exist both on the buyer and worker sides and not everyone who buys sex necessarily subscribes to a binary gender identity. Similar with the workers side. Additionally, I personally know many womxn who have received services or been patrons of sex workers, even cis male sex workers (yes, they exist also.) Gender-based violence of course exists, but in this context it feels rather antiquated to buttress one’s argument against prostitution with second wave, Andrea Dworkin-esque feminist theory. Third wave feminism has already proved these discourses to be one dimensional, exclusive white transphobic feminism. Additionally, this argument actually erases the sex worker or the woman in question to a passive recipient of every man’s will. Women are the perennial victim and only allowed to be a victim in this narrative, without represented agency or a will of their own or an ability to make decisions for and by themselves about their body and sexual being.
- Prostitution gives men permission to treat women like objects: This is an argument I hear frequently. “If the goal is to fight misogyny and oppression against women then doesn’t the transactional nature of the exchange erase the ability of the woman (we’re assuming for the purposes of this argument the sex workervis a woman) to consent?” The simple answer is, no. Actually, this is another sexist narrative disguised as feminism. To be clear; white heteronormative patriarchal society already treats womxn as objects and empty vessels. The problem is not prostitution, the answer is prostitution. It is no accident that the majority of sex workers are either womxn or gay cis men because these are sections of society which are highly marginalized under the patriarchy which reveres cisgender straight malehood as the ideal and valued body. Sex work is political because our bodies are political. Sex work, in particular prostitution, is a brave act of protest and proletariat revolution against the bourgeois oppression by cishet white men. The transaction inherent in prostitution is a fuck you to the automatic right to access that this system feels it has over womxn. It bravely makes and calls that assumption to the carpet. Putting a dollar amount to one’s sexual labor is not exploitation. It is the righteous exploitation of exploitation.
- Prostitution is always exploitative and can never be a real choice: This is without a doubt one if the most fundamental of arguments within the end demand narrative in the U.S. Can a marginalized person make empowered decisions about their own bodily autonomy, particularly with an oppressor? While it is critical to validate and recognize that exploitation, abuse and dehumanization can and do absolutely happen in interactions where one person might have more privilege or a different set of privileges than someone, this should not erase the ability of a womxn to engage at all with men in a way that feels empowering. Just because violence against womxn exists does not negate the ability of womxn to have agency over their decisions. To insinuate this is actually extremely infantilizing and patronizing. People with marginalized identities; people of color, women, trans folks and queer folks, low income folks all navigate oppression everyday in little and big ways but we must not deny them their agency when discussing power dynamics between oppressor and the oppressed.
End demand is a problematic model that claims to have the answers to the age-old question of sex trafficking, but in actuality is just repackaging old arguments that deny sex workers the ability to thrive, to be seen as healthy; to not be seen through the lens of victimhood and pathology. If a sex worker says they enjoy their work, feel empowered by their work, who is anyone to say any different? Certainly not all the old, wealthy, cishet white men who work so hard within the end demand movement to peddle these half-baked theories and simultaneously congratulate themselves for how much power they have over women sex workers that they don’t even have the ability to consent. Yeah, maybe — just maybe — rich old cis white dudes aren’t the best source to look to when discussing sexual agency.