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July 14, 2006

Quilters, sex workers, hearts, and minds

It's easy to become cynical about the potential for dialogue and rational persuasion in today's society. This story made me smile because it's a little bit of evidence that allies can be found in unlikely places.

Sex workers held a three-day conference in Las Vegas this week.

The Sex Workers Outreach Project-USA ended up sharing a convention facility with a quilting seminar. At first the quilters were a little suspicious of Prof. Kate Hausbeck and her colleagues at SWOP-USA.

But [Hausbeck] and other advocates won the sympathy of 76-year-old Mary Ellen Hopkins, a quilting expert who held a seminar in the conference room next to the sex workers' meeting.

Hopkins said she and the quilters at first laughed at their neighbors and then listened to their arguments. She ended up outside the courthouse addressing reporters in front of a banner reading, "Support your local sex worker."

"I think it's better to legalize it," she said. "If you legalize it, maybe you'll get rid of all the ugly stuff that comes with it." [AP]

Bravo, Mary Ellen Hopkins!

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Comments

Part of the problem is that the formal institutions of political debate in the United states: The government and the media, have become dominated by an extremist mindset that thrives off of a false polatity of "uS gOOD, tHEM eVIL". Because bloggers and activists tend to deal with these groups head-on, it creates a false sense of genuine polarity in politics. That's changing from a perception to reality though.

While living in the US I found discussion and debate with individuals to be relatively lively and nonpartisan, but even that was being twisted between 2000 and 2004 by a non-stop ideological assault perpetuated by the "conservative" movement.

Still, when the nation is evenly split on voting in a two-party system, and the wide range of bloggers seem to provide a sense of political parity, it's gratifying to know that the ratio of anti-war protesters to Anti-New York Times protestors is about 500,000 to 14.

You've obviously spent much time with quilter gangs. Notorious libertines, all; girlfriends is freeeakz.

"If you legalize it, maybe you'll get rid of all the ugly stuff that comes with it."

I used to think that, but now I'm on the fence again. I wonder what it would do to statistical arguments about disparity in women's pay. Women's advantages in the prostitution industry would be used to justify men's advantages in other industries.

How long would it take before single mothers are pressured to get off welfare and prostitute themselves? We won't need expensive job training programs to justify welfare reform, just put 'em on the street.

Will we allow a woman's unemployment insurance to be cut off when she refuses to work as a prostitute?

As someone who had the pleasure of meeting Mary Ellen at the conference, as she beamed in her "Sluts Unite!" t-shirt, I can say, yes, allies are amazing, surprising, and places we'd never expect them to be.

I kept a loveblog of the Vegas conference (I just got home an hour ago!) which is at http://sexworkerrights.wordpress.com -- there's photos, audio, and more reflections to come on our work there.

Thanks for sharing this!

Prostitutes should be considered sole proprietors of one-women businesses. We don't take people's welfare benefits away just because they fail to start their own businesses.

Prostitution attracts crime because prostitutes will not incriminate themselves to incriminate their attackers, robbers, rapists. As long as sex work is a crime, sex workers will be ideal targets of all crimes up to and including murder. This is not the only reason for legalization now but may be the most compelling.

Even those who support criminalization of sex work (am not one of them) should support a law privileging sex workers against self-incrimination when they witness or survive a crime in the course of (self) employment.

The question of welfare or unemployment benefits being denied because a person is unwilling to become a prostitute isn't hypothetical: prostitution is legal in these places, and I imagine some people become unemployed and poor there.

I would assume that women and men that live in the counties where prostitution is legal are not required to become prostitutes to avoid losing unemployment or welfare benefits ... are they?

An even more interestinq question is what to do about former (legal) prostitutes that are now unemployed because they no longer wish to work as a prostitute. Do they have any trouble collecting unemployment or welfare? It seems likely that this has question has come up in practice at some point or another.

All of you are overlooking the fact that there are men working the sex trade too. Back in the day a union steward would have been very helpful, especially when being framed for the murder of a client right when you're thinking of getting out of the business because you're falling in love with a politician's beautiful yet unsatisfied wife. Motoring around LA's West Side in a Mercedes Benz 450 SL convertible and wearing Armani suits is absolutely great, but it don't mean shit when a man with a badge and your old pimp are sweating you big time. Trust me.

I wonder what it would do to statistical arguments about disparity in women's pay.

Nothing; in no developed country are there enough prostitutes to make a dent in wage gap statistics.

I would assume that women and men that live in the counties where prostitution is legal are not required to become prostitutes to avoid losing unemployment or welfare benefits ... are they?

No, they're not. In Germany prostitution is legal and recent welfare reforms require unemployed people to take any available work or lose their benefits, but there have been no incidents of women required to work as prostitutes. It's a theoretical possibility, but it hasn't happened yet, so we can assume it won't.

"Prostitutes should be considered sole proprietors of one-women businesses. "

What "should be" and what "is" are quite often different when it makes balancing a budget more convenient.

Think about how lotteries were justified and abused. Originally, it was considered an expedient way to deny funds to the mob. Now states ram lotteries down the throats of working class more agressively than the mob ever did. They advertise constantly and offer them at the counter of every convenience store you find. Little by little (or not so little) the money is diverted away from the original justifications into state general funds.

I can easily imagine an independent-contractor model of legal prostitution being eliminated because of some real or imagined abuses, and having it replaced by a state-regulated and managed system. Contracts to manage a prostitution franchise would be sold to high bidders who would then manage a locality's liscensed prostitutes. Prostitution would then be an employee position into which women could be forced.

Fighting against hypocritical prudery is difficult. Fighting against moneyed interests allied with the government is much harder. I just don't see legal prostitutes surviving as indepentent contractors when other people stand to make so much money by relegating them to employees.

I realize that seems obnoxiously paternalistic, but it isn't entirely so. While it sure isn't up to me to be the saviour of sex workers, it is my place to take steps to prevent my state from abusing a class of people. I don't think they are weak or stupid. I just think they would be too convenient a prey for the state, and would have no political alies to help them.

"In Germany prostitution is legal and recent welfare reforms require unemployed people to take any available work or lose their benefits, but there have been no incidents of women required to work as prostitutes. It's a theoretical possibility, but it hasn't happened yet, so we can assume it won't."

I don't think that is a safe assumption at all. I don't think there is nearly the same class seperation in Germany, even after reunification, that you have here in the US. In the US, we have a lot more poor people, and they are very much despised. Being without a job here is considered immoral anyway, so it is no big step to justify forcing people into what has been traditionally considered immoral work. You also have race issues. These are decisions that will be made at the local level politically, not at the national level. There are plenty of legislatures that will allow groupthink to exonerate them from any guilt. People who don't consider themselves racist will allow things to happen to "them" that they wouldn't let happen to "us". I just don't think you have conditions like this in west Europe.

What talks place between consenting adults is no ones business but their own, regardless of their orientation, gender or FINANCIAL AGREEMENTS.

Fears about unemployment benefits seem like a bit of a red herring. The status quo is that prostitutes can't get UI benefits at all, or any of the other benefits that other workers pay into.

I've heard people argue that legalized prostitution would trap sex workers because they couldn't quit, for fear of not receiving UI benefits. I don't think the net effect would be any more entrapping than the status quo. Currently, sex workers are trapped in underground economy with "bosses" who may physically force them to keep working, no retirement plans, no work-related medical coverage, and a hard time investing their money for fear of attracting attention from the IRS.

One argument against legalizing prostitution is that it would be an excuse to deny every unemployed woman UI--because if prostitution were legal, any woman who didn't have a job could theoretically just sell her body. In practice, this wouldn't happen because the same logic would apply to any unemployed man. I don't think it's realistic to worry that legalized prostitution would effectively break the UI system by treating everyone as potentially employable and therefore ineligible for benefits.

I don't think there is nearly the same class seperation in Germany, even after reunification, that you have here in the US. In the US, we have a lot more poor people, and they are very much despised.

You're right. However, large chunks of Europe, including France and Germany, are moving toward an Anglo-American economic system. The economic reform I mentioned, the Hartz IV reform, proceeds along similar lines to the welfare-slashing moves of Clinton and Blair. While the puritanical element of the US is still absent, Germans don't like poor people much more than Americans do, and have one of the worst racial problems of the developed world (the Turkish level of unemployment is 44%, four times the national average).

Besides, it still makes sense to talk about legalization in general. Maybe it can't proceed in the US without an overhaul of the social benefits system, but it doesn't mean we can't talk about Canada, or France, or Britain, or Japan.

Has anyone in Nevada been denied UI because of lawful brothels or an unwillingness to apply for employment there?

Someone dodged a legal bullet with that SWOP-USA acronym.

Using the 'slippery slope' argument with regards to any issue is generally a bad way to go. Legalizing anything requires years of court cases in order to nail down who has a right to what... and even then its going to depend on how good a lawyer you have.

Legalizing prostitution is not going to create some kind of happy land of pink roses and blue skies, but it would be a step towards pulling our collective heads out of our asses with regards to the reality that surrounds us. Sex already is a business folks, whether its peelers, who take their clothes off for money or porn actors who... well... have sex with people for money...

The slipperiest slope here is the one that leads to hypocrisy.

As well as the very good point that if women were required to be prostitutes, men should also be required to be "rent boys", and this would never pass, I don't understand how people can come to this conclusion. Rape is being forced to have sex against your will. The state forcing you to prostitute yourself is rape, institutionalised rape. Why is that so difficult to understand?

One argument against legalizing prostitution is that it would be an excuse to deny every unemployed woman UI--because if prostitution were legal, any woman who didn't have a job could theoretically just sell her body.

No one is denied UI because they don't decided to post signs offering to mow lawns, paint houses, offer moving services. If the stipulation for UI was that you take a job, any job--and practicably what does that mean? that you've applied for every available job that you have a possible chance of getting? that an unemployed engineer must take a job at a fast food restaurant? (which would quite a waste of considerable social investment in skill--or go freelance, and that UI would be disbursed only if neither of these panned out, no one would get UI.

Even the active labor market policies of Sweden (which at their height from its adoption in 1951 to the mid-1980s), in which the state found you a job, and if you didn't take it benefits were cut for 90%+ of wage to 0% did take into account factors such as skill matching, location, etc. And that's were the state found a job for you.

One has to show a reasonable attempt to find a suitable job for UI, which is all that can be asked. Going into self-employment first is not a condition.

I'm not sure that I support legalization, although I definitely support decriminalization. But I don't get the argument that women on welfare are going to be forced into prostitution if it's legalized. It's an argument that works in some European countries, where one is required to prove that one is actively looking for work in order to get welfare. As long as she has not turned down a job, a woman will get a welfare check. There is, in that case, a (slim) chance that welfare workers will refuse to certify that women are actively searching for work if they turn down sex work, so it's conceivable that women could be forced into prostitution.

But that's not how welfare works in the U.S. In the U.S., once your time is up, your check stops coming. It doesn't matter whether you're looking for work or not. So right now, American women whose welfare has run out might be faced with the choice between prostitution or starvation. Prostitution doesn't have to be legal for that to happen.

Right? Am I missing something?

If the stipulation for UI was that you take a job, any job--and practicably what does that mean? that you've applied for every available job that you have a possible chance of getting? that an unemployed engineer must take a job at a fast food restaurant?

It depends on the country. In Germany, you don't have to apply for jobs, but the job agency can find you one; and you have to take any available job, even one that is far beneath your qualifications or that doesn't pay subsistence (link). Still, it appears that nobody's been forced to work in prostitution on pain of losing benefits.

A good week end ; the chicken or the egg story; analogy.
Of course :Mary Ellen Hopkins!
the quilter is the story. Guys sometimes refer them as a comforter ; but that is de coloras; The snugling part is the second story; and the combined objective. The S.W. is just part of workers rights; ie. any other union for fee for service work. I am like linus and still have my blanket and still think snugling is the objective. rtg.

Legalize does not equal 'deny benefits'. If Germany has a stupid law that doesn't mean we must all follow them over the cliff.

Two separate issues here.

This concern seems like a very weak argument against legalizing prostitution. First of all, legalizing prostitution wouldn't automatically create a situation in which people would have to choose between sexwork and UI. In order for this to become a realistic possibility, you have to assume a specific model of legalizing prostitution and a particular set of active employment requirements for UI. Neither of these is a foregone conclusion. The conjunction of the two in the USA is extremely unlikely.

Besides which, while it's disconcerting to think that someone might lose their UI rather than take a sex job, you've got to weigh that remote possibility against the status quo. Currently, many people are trapped in the sex trade because they are physically forced, or because they don't have enough money to retrain or retire. Both of these problems will be ameliorated by legalization.

Getting out of the underground economy means less violence, less intimidation, and more opportunity to agitate for higher wages. One of the main reasons prostitutes have pimps is because they physical "protection" and debt collection.

Any system that forces people to take a particular job or starve is morally problematic. The problem is much broader than sexwork. Such a policy creates an incentive for employers to create very bad jobs because they know that the state will force desperate people to take them. Any decent system would allow for conscientious objection. Quakers should not have to work at missile plants, vegans should not have to work in slaughterhouses, and people who think that prostitution is morally repugnant shouldn't have to be sex workers.

On the whole, the idea that we mustn't legalize prostitution because of hypothetical UI technicalities seems pretty unconvincing.

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