Why Jimmy Carter is just plain wrong when it comes to sex work

Jimmy Carter is the latest persona to jump on the End Demand bandwagon. In an op-ed piece for The Washington Post, he called for the criminalization of men who buy sex. Unfortunately, the former President's argument is based on erroneous information and a naïve moralistic viewpoint. Carter seems to buy into the notion that all sex work is a form of violence against women. Yet if you talk to sex workers themselves, from street walkers to high-end escorts (as I did in researching Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law), that is not what they will tell you. Many enjoy what they do; some find it empowering and view the work as therapeutic - they say they are helping people who have needs. Others see it as just another job, like working at Walmart but considerably more lucrative. And while Carter argues that the men who pay for sex have "power over another," sex workers say the opposite is true. They are the ones who control the transaction and they decide what they will or will not allow. As Julie Moya, a former sex worker in Manhattan told me, "I see prostitution as a way of getting back control over your body."

Research shows that sex work is not inherently violent. Indoor sex workers, for instance, are much less likely than streetwalkers to encounter violence. One recent British study of 135 indoor prostitutes found that 78 percent of them never experienced any violence. Indeed, much of the violence in the sex trade is bound up in the fact that it is illegal. Many sex workers are afraid to report violent clients to the police for fear of getting arrested themselves. This allows violent men to prey on sex workers and non-sex workers alike with impunity. In countries (such as the Netherlands and New Zealand) where sex has been decriminalized and regulated to some degree, sex workers are more comfortable reporting crimes to the police. As a result, there is an unusually low incidence of violence against all women in those countries.

What Carter also neglects to mention is that in countries that have criminalized the purchase of sex (the so-called Nordic model), sex work has only become more dangerous and sex workers have a harder timer accessing basic health and housing services. Since Sweden adopted this approach in 1999, studies show, sex workers there have had a much more difficult time negotiating safe sex (i.e. sex with condoms) and assessing dangerous clients. They've also lost many low-risk clients, leaving them exposed to more violent clientele -- both on the streets and indoors. In addition, Swedish sex workers face heightened discrimination and stigmatization. In my book, I tell the tragic story of a Swedish sex worker who lost custody of her children simply because she had been an escort. She then lost her life when her ex-husband stabbed her to death during a supervised visit with her children.

Just last week, Amnesty International came out with a new report concluding that much the same thing has happened in Norway since it adopted the Nordic model. Amnesty concluded that the Nordic model's stated purpose of protecting sex workers while targeting their clients simply isn't working. Nor has this approach reduced the overall number of sex workers in Sweden, according to a report for the Swedish government. As the Amnesty report says, all that laws criminalizing buyers do is further endanger sex workers, impeding their ability to seek protection from violence and obtain needed housing and health services.

By contrast, in countries that have decriminalized sex work and regulated it to some degree (such as New Zealand), sex workers are better able to protect themselves -- from physical harm and sexually transmitted diseases. At the same time, New Zealand, which decriminalized adult sex work in 2003, has experienced no increase in the sex trafficking of minors and illegal immigrants, nor in the numbers of women and men who sell sex by choice. Indeed, New Zealand retains one of the most favorable rankings in the U.S. Trafficking in Persons Report.

If we really wanted to help young girls (and boys) who are coerced into the sex trade or selling sex for survival on the streets, we would take the money we now spend on arresting adults engaged in consensual commercial sex and put it into programs that help disadvantaged youth off the streets. As I show in my book, most of what is now called sex trafficking is a new name for an old problem: the sexual exploitation of teens running away from dysfunctional homes where many have been neglected or abused. This includes members of the LGBT community who have been evicted from their own homes or communities.

There's no question we should be devoting more resources to tackling the decades-old problem of teen exploitation, but that's not what Carter and his ilk are arguing for. They want law enforcement to continue to go after adults engaged in consensual commercial sex. What I argue in my book is that we should be putting our scarce taxpayer dollars into badly needed social programs that attack the root cause of why young people get involved in paid sex in the first place.

As Carter says, prostitution is the world's oldest profession and it's not going away. So why not make sex work safer for the women and men who do it? Decriminalizing sex work would not only be a much more effective use of our taxpayer dollars but it would go a long way toward protecting the human rights of people who engage in sex for money.