Sex-Trafficking, Porn, and the Perils of Legislation

Conflating pornography with sex-trafficking detracts from efforts to help women in need

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Ever since equal rights opponent Phyllis Schafly described pornography as the "degradation of women," decades ago, anti-feminists on the right and anti-libertarian feminists on the left have found common cause in crusades against sexually explicit speech, which they insist is a direct cause or even a form of actual sexual violence. Their de facto coalition has not exactly purged popular culture of sexual explicitness, exhibitionism, or sheer stupidity (as Anthony Weiner confirmed), but it has contributed to the enactment and enforcement of draconian laws against possessing or pretending to possess child pornography. In some cases, laws prescribe longer prison sentences for viewing pictures of abused children than engaging in their actual abuse.  

So the predictable involvement of anti-porn activists, right and left, in a popular campaign against sexual trafficking is not entirely lamentable: at least they're focusing, in part, on cruel and abusive conduct that inflicts real harm on real people. The trouble is that they're also exploiting the horrors of trafficking to advance a specious campaign against pornography. "The johns watch porn, seeing violent and aberrant behaviors on film, then they crave the realization of what they have seen," according to the right wing Concerned Women for America. "Those obsessions drive them to the prostituted women and girls to get what they have seen depicted so graphically." Or, as left wing anti-porn activist Gail Dines declares, pornography "legitimizes the buying and selling of women's bodies." It is, in fact, the equivalent of trafficking, Dines and co-author Robert Jensen suggest: pornography is "a market transaction in which women's bodies and sexuality are offered to male consumers in the interests of maximizing profits."  

This confusion of metaphor with reality drives the feminist anti-porn movement, as well as related efforts to censor presumptively hateful speech by labeling it assault. That pornography is action, not speech, has long been an article of faith, articulated most dramatically by the late Andrea Dworkin and most cleverly by Catherine Mackinnon, who, in typically convoluted style in Only Words, endorsed the view that "pornography is no less an act than the rape and torture it represents." Pornography is "without question, a form of violence against women," Dines repeats, carrying the torch.

No good will come from infecting the anti-trafficking movement with this rigid, ideological rejection of reality. Either trafficking will be trivialized--if it is the same as a pornographic image, then it's no worse than a pornographic image. Or, the campaign to end trafficking will be discredited by its association with unsubstantiated assertions about the nature and effect of pornography, as it's defined by factions of feminists and social conservatives. Or, more likely, civil liberties will be gratuitously sacrificed to the blind faith that ending trafficking requires censoring pornography. "[T]here is no way to prohibit rape if pornography is protected," MacKinnon has suggested.

An anti-trafficking movement operating under the influence of anti-pornography activists is also apt to demonize men who solicit sex, however innocent they may be of knowing or intentional complicity in trafficking. The anti-porn movement, after all, demonizes male sexuality. Exposing a man to pornography is like saying "kill" to a trained guard dog, MacKinnon has argued; in other words, pornography is action because men are dogs on short leashes. This legitimizes singling out for prosecution men who solicit sex, and the anti-trafficking movement in the U.S. is eying the Swedish model: arrest the johns and aid the prostitutes. This may seem like rough justice, considering the lamentable tradition of arresting the prostitutes and ignoring the johns. But I'd arrest neither, while targeting people who knowingly collaborate directly or indirectly in trafficking.

Whether commercial sex ought to be decriminalized is both an ideological and empirical question. I favor decriminalization in the interests of civil liberty, but I recognize the likelihood of unintended and unwanted consequences. Whether some women freely engage in prostitution or all are forced into it is an empirical question, too often presented as an ideological one. Anti-trafficking activists tend to regard prostitution as at least effectively or virtually coercive for most if not all women--a reflection of sexual inequality and gender roles if not actual extortion or abuse. If you adopt this expansive view of coercion, you can justify the unequal punitive treatment of johns pragmatically, as a necessary means of reducing demand for a presumptively abusive sex trade. Anti-trafficking activists claim that prostitution in Sweden has dropped as a result of criminalizing buying and decriminalizing selling sex.

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Wendy Kaminer is an author, lawyer, and civil libertarian. She is the author of I'm Dysfunctional, You're Dysfunctional.

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