Profit over People

By Sabrina AlliFebruary 7, 2016

Profit over People

Getting Screwed by Alison Bass

WOMEN ARE economically and physically vulnerable in ways that men are not. The contemporary anti-trafficking movement, in all its efforts to protect women from this vulnerability and sexual exploitation, has provided a widely accepted narrative that shapes how the United States has come to understand and regard prostitution in the 21st century: migrant women conned into sexual enslavement epitomize the disempowered victim. The US has made recent laws and encouraged more aggressive law enforcement to liberate those forced into this brutal slavery. But critics of the anti-trafficking movement like sex workers’ rights activists are calling for a more nuanced public understanding of prostitution, as a labor and human rights issue, claiming that the anti-trafficking agenda has conflated all prostitution with sex trafficking, neglecting women’s choices to do consensual sex work. As a result of this conflation, they claim, all women engaging in prostitution, including trafficked women, are at the mercy of laws and a legal system unforgiving toward prostitutes.

During the 1970s and 1980s the sex workers’ rights movement emerged globally as a rejection of anti-prostitution movements that argue sex work is a form of violence against women. Sex worker unions, like COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics) in California — one of the first — and the Red Thread in Amsterdam, worked to subvert the conventional narrative confining prostitutes to victims, and instead advocated for the decriminalization of prostitution, claiming this was safer for women because it would increase their access to HIV prevention and protect them from dangerous pimps and clients. The debate between sex workers’ rights and anti-prostitution activists divided feminists then, and still does today.

In Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, Alison Bass, a narrative journalist who also wrote a book about antidepressants and false advertising, reignites this once vibrant sex workers’ rights dialogue with a 21st-century understanding. She does not dwell on the old familiar binaries categorizing sex workers — disempowered victim versus empowered sex-positive feminist — but instead explores the issues and solutions for the women, trans-women, and girls impacted by prostitution. Getting Screwed also comes at a moment when more human rights organizations and nations are re-examining the model of criminalization and developing alternatives.

Bass places women at the forefront of Getting Screwed. Unveiling the lesser-known side of sex work, she talks with women who run brothels, women who work in brothels, women who work out of their homes, women who work as high-end escorts, and women who escort through online web sites. Men are part of this narrative, but this book focuses on the disparity in gender that leads women, and trans-women, to be much more likely to bear the brunt of regulation and criminalization. She positions women working as sex workers, specifically prostitutes, as part of a labor movement, allowing us to reimagine a traditional trope of the victimized woman, while evaluating the specific policies of legalization and criminalization that, in her view, bring more harm than protection to women working in the sex industry.

Bass’s extensive interviews and compiled research overwhelmingly reveal that the laws against prostitution, which invoke a public safety narrative, obfuscate the real problem with criminalizing sex work: the harm the laws cause women working in the industry, and the devaluing of women’s choices to secure income by participating in sex work. Bass includes the stories of legendary sex workers Molly B’Dam, known for her charity throughout the Western frontier, and Margo St. James, founder of COYOTE, to argue that historically women “selling sex were doing so to earn better wages than they could in domestic service or factory work.” Women, she says, have always and still need to contend with limited employment options.

Bass demonstrates that the laws criminalizing prostitution in the United States that emerged in the late 19th century alongside prohibition and women’s suffrage movements, while ostensibly protecting women, actually advocated for policing morality and preventing extra-marital sex. The seemingly odd pairing of feminist suffragettes and Christian social purity reformers demonstrates the relationship between morality and the need for women’s protection at the center of the sex work debate still to this day. In 1910, the federal White Slave Traffic Act prohibited the transport of women from state to state for “immoral purposes.” In contemporary anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking movements, there still remains the residue of paternalistic, moralistic legal protections that confuse the issue of criminalization. Upending this monolithic narrative that all sex workers are victims, Bass argues that women’s involvement in the industry is more complex and varied than the anti-prostitution narratives allow.

The threat of violence has always loomed over women working in the sex industry, and not being able to report acts of violence to the police because their work is criminalized only exacerbated the problem. The rise of internet advertising escort services in the early 1990s marked a transition from “outdoor” prostitution to less visible “indoor” prostitution — which also coincided with a decrease in violence against sex workers. Bass writes, “the Internet has transformed the sex industry, making it much easier for sex workers to control where and when they meet clients and who those clients are.” Working “outdoors” on the streets makes it harder for sex workers to screen clients beforehand, leaving them in a more vulnerable position to their clients and more visible to the police. Women advertising on the internet and working “indoors” are less likely to be picked up by the police. Anti-prostitution crusades against web sites, such as Craigslist and Backpage, means shutting down these sites and forcing women back onto the streets.

The most economically vulnerable are women of color working on the streets — entrapped and arrested by police, they comprise the majority of those arrested for prostitution. They are often released after hours of imprisonment with a misdemeanor and a scarring criminal record, unable to secure a different job. Meanwhile, Bass contends, police are financially rewarded for enforcing these laws and making arrests. Bass writes, “Despite dismal conviction rates (for both sex workers and clients), police acknowledge that laws against prostitution have a direct payoff for them — in public relations and increased funding from federal antitrafficking task forces.” Bass also shows that arrests for prostitution are often a waste of taxpayer money and police resources, not having any observable impact on public safety. Discussing a study by sociologist Julie Pearl, she notes that

the cities [Pearl] surveyed in 1985 spent an average of $7.5 million enforcing prostitution laws, more than some of these cities, such as Los Angeles, Dallas, Phoenix, and San Diego, spent on municipally funded health services the same year. Half the city governments studied spent more on prostitution control than on either education or public welfare.

In 2000 Congress passed the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, “which separated sex trafficking from other forms of labor trafficking and defined human trafficking as a commercial act induced by ‘force, fraud or coercion.’” Once again, among the most damaging effects of this act is its failure to distinguish between consensual sex work and forced sex work, leaving all women in the industry equal prey to the police. Researchers claim that inflated numbers of sex trafficking victims leads to more federal funding to police departments, because that funding is dependent on the number of arrests made of sex workers, trafficked or not. As a result, police have targeted the most economically vulnerable women, which in some cases has led to women’s deportation even if they chose to migrate and work in the sex industry. Bass cites a 2010 study of 1,515 municipal police departments that “discovered that immigrants who were being trafficked were more likely to be deported than to be designated as victims deserving of a special visa and support services.” Researchers and sex workers agree that neither women who have been trafficked, or forced into sex work, nor underage sex workers should be arrested, just as women choosing to do sex work should not be either — no matter how fraught with distress their choice.

Bass devotes a chapter to the murky issue of why women and men choose to do sex work. Bass avoids moralizing about the issue, and instead focuses on presenting testimonies from a diverse array of women working in the industry, reporting why they turned to prostitution. Some of the women she speaks with include: a young activist woman, a couple working from their Massachusetts home, a high-end brothel owner, and a trans-woman who worked on the streets. Some chose it because they were escaping a violent home situation, and it provided an economic alternative to a dire situation. Some chose it because they did not want to attend college and needed a job. Some chose it because it meant a significant amount of money that could pay for college. Some chose it because they were already giving sex to men, so why not get paid for it? A common thread among these varied narratives, in which women and men negotiate their agency as sex workers, is the benefit of a living wage and self-determination. “I see prostitution as a way of getting back control over your body,” Julie Moya, former sex worker, sexual abuse survivor, and brothel owner, explains: “Some women who’ve been molested become totally against sex, but other women like [sex work] because it gives them control over sex.” Moya tells Bass that in sexual transactions, “We’re the powerful ones.”

There are differences between women entering the industry under 18 and those entering later in life. The book includes research showing that underage sex workers are more likely to enter the industry because of prior abuse. The reasons for choosing sex work are myriad, though, with some women claiming they feel liberated by it, notwithstanding the fact that many may view it as morally reprehensible and antithetical to preventing women’s victimization. Bass cites many women, including those escaping abusive homes, who explain that sex work allowed them to finally call the shots in their lives. For one young woman, also surviving the trauma of rape, the remuneration from sex work has helped her to move on, and to separate her “emotional life” and “physical life.” She explains, “In my personal life, I can have tremendous emotional intimacy.” For many women this separation is a necessity for survival in a world that reduces women to their bodies and conflates their sexual behavior with their personhood.

Bass’s book leads to the insight that the resolution to the debate between the anti-prostitution victimization narrative and the sex work empowerment narrative — both staking claims in anti-oppression solutions for women — should not force one side to concede to the other’s perspective, but rather help us to see prostitution as a means rather than an ends, forcing us to more closely examine, as her book does, what those ends are and what they imply about the present (and past) conditions of women’s oppression and agency. Regardless of what we wish to believe, women and men continue to turn to sex work as an option.

Both abroad and in the United States, moves have been made to legalize prostitution in hopes of preventing HIV and enforcing public health regulations for prostitutes and their clients. Legalization, however, is not a one-size-fits-all model. Bass illustrates that in most legalization models, there is a disparity in how regulations are enforced, with those working on the street and those working indoors as escorts or in brothels experiencing different levels of legal protection. In Sweden, for example, the laws prohibiting profiting from a sex worker and prohibiting purchasing sex in public areas still result in police targeting the most vulnerable women, forcing them into isolated and potentially more dangerous spaces.

Sweden’s “Nordic model” has gained traction as an exemplary humane legalization approach for sex workers, adopted by Norway, Iceland, and Canada. Bass, though, cites Ida Kock, a PhD candidate in ethnology, who contends Sweden’s approach is “intrinsically bound up with the Swedish government’s moralistic approach,” viewing “sex workers as victims of male violence and patriarchal oppression.” The 1999 Swedish Purchasing Act, which criminalizes those who “promote,” “purchase,” or “improperly financially exploit” sex, leads to the arrests of johns and sex workers working indoors, “unless the sex worker owns the space in which she works.” This makes it more difficult for women to negotiate their safety by screening clients because johns wish to remain clandestine and avoid arrest. A recent study from Swedish researchers Susanne Dodillet and Petra Östergren found that “since the passage of the law, Swedish police have also become more aggressive toward sex workers.” There is no “evidence that the Nordic model has reduced trafficking,” and there has been an increase in “the total number of foreign prostitutes in all three Scandinavian countries since the Swedish law was first passed.”

Profit over people is how the current model of legalization works in the United States. In Nevada, where brothels are legalized in a zoned rural district outside of Las Vegas, women are vulnerable to exploitative labor practices and heavy regulations. Bass writes that most brothels “are owned by businessmen with close ties to the state’s political infrastructure,” and in most cases “owners receive 50% of the sex worker’s earnings.” Sex work is illegal outside brothel walls, diminishing the sex worker’s autonomy and freedom, and some brothels only allow the women to leave the brothel at scheduled intervals, granting leave for as little as a few hours a week. Bass writes that “women working at Nevada brothels have few legal rights. They are hired as contractors, not employees, which means the brothels don’t have to pay for their health care or any other benefits.” In spite of these exploitative practices, some women Bass speaks with prefer the protection they receive from this system, claiming they are less likely to be harassed by a client and the police in these spaces.

Bass believes the problem of stigma attached to sex work can become even more heightened with legalization, especially if sex workers have to register and subject themselves to mandated STD testing. This has occurred in Germany, where many sex workers admit that they stay clandestine and do not register because of the potential negative repercussions. Also, no research has yet proven that mandated testing is directly linked to HIV prevention, given that in New Zealand sex workers do not have to register and still have the lowest rate of HIV.

Although not all, many sex workers and researchers agree that the decriminalization model is the least harmful for everyone involved, especially sex workers. Bass provides reasons why New Zealand’s decriminalization model is effective, ultimately benefiting society in general. Unlike Sweden, where johns are arrested, and throughout Asia and the South Pacific where prostitution is “heavily regulated” with mandatory STI testing, women in New Zealand can negotiate their safety on the street, carry condoms, get tested without having to register, are not harassed by police, and “feel more comfortable reporting crimes.”

Bass also examines the long-established legalization model of the Netherlands — “the red light districts” of Amsterdam and other tourist destinations, which have provided important lessons in reducing harm for sex workers, managing public health, and de-stigmatizing prostitution. Venues offering sexual services are taxed as regular businesses and owners have to acquire licenses. Sex workers have to register and pay taxes if “they want to be considered legal and have access to health care and social security benefits.” While this system is not perfect either, sex workers at least can access benefits. The Netherlands serves as a global destination for economic migrants — from Nigeria, Eastern Europe, and Latin America — where many migrant women admit to choosing to work in the sex industry and do not consider themselves trafficked. With the support of research, the Dutch government concluded that trafficking has become “more difficult under legalization.”

The lessons to be learned from Bass’s book are manifold, and she includes research that both experts and novices on the issues will find incisive. She ends with some hope, suggesting that the radical politics of San Francisco, where the St. James Infirmary, a health clinic opened in the early 2000s and named after Margo St. James, has potential to lead the US in decriminalizing prostitution. Although anti-prostitution lobbying and advocates in the city have garnered hefty financial support for their side, Bass suggests that San Francisco’s radical history and ongoing sex workers’ rights advocates might still prevail and lead the way for decriminalization in the United States.

Getting Screwed will hopefully add to the momentum and encourage a re-examination of anti-prostitution laws, who they actually benefit, and who they actually hurt. In August 2015, Amnesty International joined other human rights organizations to advocate for the decriminalization of all sex work, proposing to “develop a policy that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work. The policy will also call on states to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence.” When viewed through the lens of labor and human rights, we see how women are the onesgetting screwed” in a system that makes them criminals, increases their chances of harm, and diminishes their chances of economic sustainability. Regardless of how demeaning some may believe prostitution to be, Getting Screwed’s comprehensive reporting and storytelling will convince readers of at least this much.


Sabrina Alli is a writer, activist, and teacher living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been published in The New Inquiry.

LARB Contributor

Sabrina Alli is a writer, activist, and educator living in Brooklyn, New York. Her work has been published in The New Inquiry and Guernica.


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