Yesterday, I included an existing Medium story, by Peter Schafer, in the Vantage publication. Diary of a Sex Tourist is a very unusual account. Firstly, a man is speaking frankly about his use of sex workers in the Dominican Republic. Secondly, the man is a photographer who chose to pay for services in order that he could get closer and, by his appraisal, make better images. Thirdly, the work ends up focusing not so much on the sex industry as a whole but on private moments between Schafer and D_____ throughout their three year association.
It’s very unusual not because these things don’t happen but because these things are rarely admitted to or spoken of in public.
The images exist between amateur modeling, devotional portraits, candid shots, reportage, phone snaps and voyeurism. They are many things at once just as Schafer’s position on his work and the issue of sex-work is generally. The piece ends with advocacy. Yes, advocacy. Of sorts. Schafer calls supports the Global Network of Sex Work Projects‘ call to Amnesty International to support a move to decriminalise all sex work. They’ve launched a petition which (at the time of writing this) has 8,000+ signatures. It reaches far further than previous moves to decriminalise sex work.
Schafer believes the change will empower women. Many leading female celebrities who have figure-headed campaigns for women’s rights oppose the petition, but Schafer fairly notes that the recommendations to Amnesty International were made based upon feedback provided by sex-workers themselves. Molly Smith writing for the Guardian asks that Amnesty International not be bullied out of acting upon its own findings by Meryl Streep and others.
Asking women who work in the sex trade about the laws that are required to protect them most seems like good policy making.
Opponents to wider decriminalisation, that this petition proposes, worry that it will merely shield pimps and abusive men from the law and not improve women’s lives significantly. Streep, Steinem, Winslett et al. want to maintain the Nordic model of decriminalisation as the policy for worldwide progressive standards. “Legalisation keeps pimps, brothel keepers, and sex-slavers in freedom and riches. Criminalisation puts the prostituted in prison […] What works is the ‘third way’, the Nordic model, which offers services and alternatives to prostituted people, and fines buyers and educates them to the realities of the global sex trade,” says Steinem.
Smith and other supporters of widening decriminalisation, say the Nordic model–also known as the Swedish model–has serious problems. The Nordic model decriminalises the selling and keeps the buying as an offense, but it is applied inconsistently in some cases used by police against vulnerable migrant sex-workers.
The Nordic model also strips the sex-worker of agency. It assumes that all clients are enacting a type of male violence. So, the model is designed to slowly counter that, reduce demand and eradicate the sex trade. Schafer on the other hand believes that paid sex can be an equal exchange, a loving exchange and even part of friendship.
Ultimately, where you stand comes down to what type of interactions you think characterise the sex-industry most and which ones should be protected by, and combatted by, law enforcement. Currently we’re on the lefthand-side of this 4-bit chart. Most pliticans are reluctant to venture toward the righthand side.
Criminalisation / Decriminalisation / Wider decriminalisation / Full legalisation
If you feel that all, or nearly all, interactions between women and male clients and pimps are coercive and abusive, decriminalisation can still break and discourage those interactions. The criminalisation of sex-work (still very common) targets male clients and pimps the same, but has proven very unsafe for female sex workers.
I don’t know what the answers are. I do know that there are many women and men who make good and safe livings from sex work. Equally, there are many, many women who are coerced into sex-work and “trafficked” quickly becomes the best term to describe their circumstance. But even then those two simple binaries are not a reliable reflection of matters. In Schafer’s case, it doesn’t seem like there is a pimp involved in his exchanges with D____. She seems in control. That said, D____’s voice, except a couple of paraphrases by Schafer, is absent. In the pictures, D____’s bottom features in a disproportionate number of the pictures.
In places that have decriminalised sex-work, they’ve done so by putting in place legal qualifiers, paperwork and parameters of operation. These things have been found to obstruct safe practice of safe sex-work. Molly Smith writing for the New Republic notes that New Zealand is an example to follow and has been extensively praised by the U.N. for its removal of bureaucracy and an approach that forefronts women’s safety and access to services. “The director of the U.N. Development Programme’s HIV, Health and Development Practice observed, in accidentally amusing phrasing, “I would like to be a sex worker in New Zealand“,” recounts Smith.
Clearly, there is a debate to be had. I’d like to see that debate led by the sex-workers themselves, but given how marginalised they are it seems unlikely. I know I’ll be following the thoughts of Molly Smith from here on out.
One final thing, I cannot talk about sex-work, without mentioning Red Light Dark Room; Sex, Lives & Stereotypes, a stellar photography and book project by Gemma Rose Turnbull.
Turnbull, during a residency with non-profit organisation St Kilda Gatehouse, taught, photographed and interviewed street sex workers. Red Light Dark Room is a collaborative, frank look at sidelined and denied lives by those who live them. Importantly, the work doesn’t victimise, or claim to save, or preach; it describes and lays out the details for audiences to find connection.