When Emotions Matter More Than Science: The Case of US Policies on Sexual Commerce

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When discussing US policies on sexual commerce, we live in a country where truth, science, and facts do not always matter. On May 4th, the Louisiana House Criminal Justice Committee held a hearing to debate a bill proposed by Representative Mandie Landry to repeal the state’s prostitution laws. They shelved the bill decriminalizing prostitution before a vote, as opponents declared that decriminalizing prostitution would increase sex trafficking. Not one social scientist was asked for testimony or to provide a data-driven policy brief. Had they asked, social scientists would have told them that the robust research on sexual commerce supports the full decriminalization of sex work. The data shows decriminalization will decrease sex trafficking, improve working conditions for consensual sex workers and improve public health. 

On March 25th, 2021, the US House Committee on Financial Services held a Virtual Hearing, Ending Exploitation: How the Financial System Can Work to Dismantle the Business of Human Trafficking. Once again, not one social scientist specializing in sexual commerce, sex workers, or the leadership from any major sex workers’ rights organizations testified. Legislators fail to engage with social scientists at both the federal and state levels, who provide much-needed data-driven policy recommendations. They also continually ignore the expert voices of the very workers whose lives are directly affected by these policies. Instead, our nation’s legislators and governmental leaders most often turn to (and fund) activists in the anti-sex work movement, which in the end does not help those identified as trafficked and perpetuates much harm to consensual sex workers. 

At the March 25th hearing, instead of calling on our nations’ scientists or leadership from sex worker advocacy groups, the roster of speakers included none other than Laila Micklelwait, a leading spokesperson for the US sex work abolitionist movement. Mickelwait’s performance was on brand. In her five-minute opening statement, she made misleading and unfounded comments using emotionally charged language, calling porn giant Pornhub a “mega-trafficker,” saying Pornhub actively profits off child pornography and calling pornographic sex scenes “crime scenes.”  To the House Committee on Financial Services and anyone who continues to give Mickelwait, Exodus Cry, and the National Center for Sexual Exploitation (NCOSE, formerly Morality in the Media) a platform—you are severely misinformed by their claims. 

Mickelwait and others in the sex work abolitionist movement are politically savvy. They use a combination of junk science, alongside heartbreaking, carefully curated, atypical stories of labor trafficking to exploit the public and politicians’ emotions—to advance their goal of eliminating all forms of sexual commerce. It is important to realize that these activists are not actually targeting trafficking; instead, they use anti-trafficking discourse as a way of targeting all forms of commercial sex, including sexual labor engaged in voluntarily and independently of any third party.  

These recent hearings are a microcosm of a much larger problem. US policies on sex work are driven by emotion and not science. It is how anti-sex work activists like Mickelwait end up at a Congressional hearing. It is why the NY Times published an op-ed filled with sex work abolitionist propaganda that led to the financial harm of thousands and thousands of pornographic performers on Pornhub. It is how we ended up with disastrous policies such as FOSTA/SESTA that research shows is causing deleterious transnational harms to sex workers and endangers those identified as trafficked—a fact acknowledged by our own Department of Justice.   

For those interested in actual science, here is what we know. Criminalization makes sex workers less safe, contributing to violence, poor health outcomes, banking and housing discrimination, stigma, and driving exploitative third parties underground, only makes catching them harder (and more expensive). Further, criminalization has had the most adverse effects on the most marginal – those experiencing poverty, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and other people of color, trans and non-binary people, and people with disabilities. 

In contrast, decriminalizing sex work has many benefits for workers and public safety and health. Social scientists and researchers from sex worker advocacy groups show that decriminalization will decrease trafficking. In New Zealand, for example, under the Prostitution Reform Act,  prostitution was decriminalized in 2003, and empirical studies show that among street-based sex workers, they reported a significant and positive change in their previously negative relationships with law enforcement and reported safer working conditions. Further, decriminalization improves health outcomes and safety, and most critically, earned workers’ rights and legal pathways to challenge parties that seek to coerce, control, and exploit them.   

Even anti-trafficking organizations support decriminalization and remind our lawmakers not to conflate trafficking with consensual sex work. As the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women has said,   

Since the establishment of our organisation, we have made a clear distinction between sex work (or‘prostitution’) and human trafficking. While sex work is an income-generating activity and viewed as labour by those engaged in it, human trafficking and sexual exploitation are criminal acts and severe human rights violations. The conflation of sex work and trafficking trivialises trafficking and victimises, infantilises and patronises sex workers and creates a hostile atmosphere against them. It further weakens the legal, social and labour conditions of sex workers, making them more vulnerable to abuse from clients and law enforcement. These circumstances facilitate their dependency on pimps and managers and exacerbate their vulnerability to trafficking in the context of sex work. The conflation of sex work and trafficking ultimately blurs the understanding of human trafficking and impedes the identification of victims and prosecution of the criminals.  

It makes you wonder: Is what scholar Dr. Linzi Armstrong calls strategic storytelling among sex work abolitionists so persuasive that our legislators and governmental leaders, without question, accept the false claims of anti-sex work ideologues? Or is this simply virtue signaling at its absolute worst. Politicians may not want the public to perceive them as not profoundly concerned about labor trafficking, but we are not playing a zero-sum game. We can support survivors of labor trafficking without harming the vast majority of sex workers who choose sex work voluntarily and who are not coerced in any way.  

Put another way, the decriminalization of prostitution is supported by leading national and international organizations such as the American Civil Liberties UnionAmnesty InternationalGlobal Alliance Against Traffic in WomenHuman Rights WatchLamda Legal, Open SocietyUNAIDS, the World Health Organization, countless sex worker rights organizations, and an international community of scientists who conduct research on sex work. This list includes global leaders in human rights and social justice, and one must then wonder why the US is not on the right side of history here. Unless, of course, the state’s goal is to end all sexual commerce and actively harm consensual sex workers. 

In a country that so frequently proclaims our collective investments in individual liberties and freedoms, it makes you wonder why in the case of sex work, we are so opposed to allowing people the autonomy and freedom to work as they choose. Further, if we followed the actual social science and not emotions, our country would not keep creating policies that cause immeasurable harm to so many consensual sex workers.

Angela Jones is a sociologist studying sexual commerce and the author of Camming: Money, Power, and Pleasure in the Sex Work Industry. Twitter: @drjonessoc   

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