How the Left Gets Prostitution Wrong

Earlier this fall, delegates from various Amnesty International branches gathered in Dublin to establish their official policy on prostitution. In the resolution that emerged, the human rights NGO stated its plans to “develop a policy that supports the full decriminalization of all aspects of consensual sex work.”[1] Furthermore, the policy also “[calls] on states to ensure that sex workers enjoy full and equal legal protection from exploitation, trafficking and violence.”[2]


This decision to endorse decriminalization was largely supported by the broader American Leftist, liberal, and progressive movements, although many feminists were vocal in opposition. In the weeks before the AI delegates met, more than four hundred different women’s groups and individual activists signed their names to an open letter condemning the organization for its stance and encouraging the adoption of what feminists refer to as the Nordic Model.[3]

The Nordic Model is a general approach to prostitution law first adopted by Sweden in 1999. Under this system, sometimes known as the “End Demand” approach, the sale of sex remains legal while the purchase of sex is criminalized.[4] It is difficult to track illegal industries with perfect accuracy; however, evidence indicates that the Swedish approach has successfully diminished the size of the Swedish sex industry, increased social stigma against the purchase of sex, and countered the growth of organized crime and human trafficking.[5] Other nations have since instituted prostitution law based on the Nordic Model, including Norway, France, Canada, and most recently Northern Ireland.[6]

Despite its measurable success, the Nordic Model has been rejected by large portions of the North American Leftist movement in favor of the decriminalization model.[pullquote]Despite its measurable success, the Nordic Model has been rejected by large portions of the North American Leftist movement in favor of the decriminalization model.[/pullquote] The journal Jacobin, for example, has consistently published attacks on supporters of the Nordic Model,[7] apparently unaware of their striking departure from previous generations of Marxists who held prostitution as a contemptible expression of capitalist exploitation.[8] Many established left-liberal institutions have also thrown their weight behind decriminalization. Of particular note is The Economist, whose staggering output of pro-prostitution articles provides a beginner’s course in the common arguments made on the Left today.[9]

Of these many defenses, three have become most common: That decriminalization is the desire of women in prostitution; that decriminalization provides employment; and that decriminalization allows for women in the industry to claim labor protections. Unfortunately, all three fail to justify prostitution on Leftist grounds. Perhaps more importantly, these arguments hold worrisome implications for other established Leftist positions. It is my hope that this article will illuminate these contradictions, and that they will be resolved in favor of abolitionism rather than the abandonment of Leftist politics.

Leftists who come to support prostitution often frame their position in terms of “listening to sex workers,” the implication being that women in prostitution universally desire decriminalization.[10] However, it is obvious that women in prostitution are not a monolithic whole possessing a singular opinion. Many women, both currently in the industry and formerly prostituted, oppose the legalization or decriminalization of prostitution.[11] Recently, I interviewed Chelsea, a woman working in one of New Zealand’s many legal brothels. “The brothels still work the same way they did when it was illegal,” she told me. “We get the worst of both worlds.”[12]

According to her, decriminalization has been an abject failure. Laws mandating condom use are rarely enforced and women who refuse to let men ejaculate on or inside them struggle to find clients. Should a man harass, abuse, or assault a woman, management can refuse to give out the offender’s name, making prosecution impossible. Chelsea is herself a supporter of the Nordic model, saying, “If we had the Nordic Model, I’d call the cops on all of them the second I get my money, before they get to rape me. If I called cops under [decriminalization] they would say, Did you accept the money? If say yes, they say, boom, consensual.” This perspective is not unique among prostituted women; however, it is a voice that Leftists often refuse to hear.

Moreover, Leftists have traditionally understood that discussions of public opinion, far from functioning as a free and equal “marketplace of ideas,” tend to reflect and reinforce the ideology of the powerful. Those who are most likely to align with the dominant narrative are given greater access to culturally sanctioned methods of expression. Traumatized indigenous women being sold for sex on South Dakota oil fields and middle-class white escorts may both be equally capable of communicating their experiences with prostitution on an individual level, but to argue that those experiences will be equally represented to the public through the media infrastructure is both naive and in conflict with traditional Leftist analysis. Inside a system that privileges the voices most likely to validate power, “listening to sex workers” often means uncritically accepting the public statements of a small minority of women in prostitution – most of whom are likely to be white, middle-class, young, and able-bodied.

But even if we were able to objectively gather the opinions of every prostituted woman, a larger issue still remains: Many, if not all, of the systems of exploitation Leftists unequivocally oppose would be vindicated in a popular vote of the exploited themselves. The increasingly conservative Republican Party, for example, finds firm support from the white American working class,[13] while the majority of Americans in general report a positive view of capitalism.[14] Yet few, if any, Leftists would argue that these general trends in opinion are enough reason to abandon support for socialism so as to best align with the self-reported policy demands of the proletariat. Nor are Leftists routinely criticized for speaking over, disregarding, or otherwise betraying the working class when advocating for socialism, despite many members of that very working class holding to the belief that socialism is a dangerous and destructive ideology.

Leftists have long understood, following Marx, that one’s worldview is shaped by the dominate ideology, which develops in relation to specific structures of power in society.[15] It is not surprising that those who upon whom an exploitative economic and political system rests may develop a social consciousness that obscures, ignores, or even validates those systems.

While the issue of “false consciousness” and the root of social understanding is a complex topic that exists beyond the scope of this essay, it is worth contrasting the general Leftist position on capitalism with the specific defense provided for prostitution. “Listen to workers” is not a common slogan for anti-capitalists, likely because most anti-capitalists are aware that the political ideology crafted solely from workers’ self-reports would often carry strong conservative or neoliberal influence that contradicts the Leftist position. The primacy of individual self-reporting as a basis for political theory is widely rejected in cases other than prostitution, where the dominate ideology reflected in that self-reporting happens to coincide with the predetermined position of many Leftists who desire a robust sex industry.

Leftism as an ideology is incompatible with the idea that self-reported policy demands are the only acceptable base for one’s politics. Many of the laws universally seen by Leftists as victories – among them, legislation against child labor and the creation of the minimum wage – are not even settled issues among the working class in America. Unskilled laborers often accept employment at less-than-legal wage out of desperation, while families often exist in such poverty as to make the employment of their children a necessary decision. There is little doubt that Leftists would not “listen” to child laborers and those working for five dollars an hour, should those workers ask for their employment to be legalized. Yet it becomes difficult to see how common Leftist justifications for prostitution decriminalization would not decriminalize these practices as well.

Leftist defenses of prostitution are awash in these unintended implications for other exploitative industries. For example, many on the Left argue that without decriminalization, women in prostitution are unable to claim health benefits and other labor protections. But this is also the case with those who work illegally for less than minimum wage. While the Fair Labor Standards Act[16] is technically designed to allow all employees to request worker’s compensation and overtime pay, under-the-table workers (especially immigrants, young adults, and unskilled laborers) are often unable to claim these benefits as a result of their gray legal position.

In response to this, it could be said that lowering or abolishing the minimum wage would allow these workers to come out from the shadows and claim FLSA protections, much as decriminalizing prostitution is said to do the same. Yet very few Leftists would argue that the abolition of wage laws is an acceptable way to ensure workers’ safety, even if the removal of those wage laws would allow them to claim protections afforded to others.

Leftists similarly claim that legislation against men who purchase sex deprives women in prostitution of their livelihoods and may, in some extreme versions of this argument, lead to homelessness, starvation, and death. It should be noted beforehand that this claim seems to contradict the equally popular Leftist notion that prostitution is most often a voluntary choice made by a woman, free from coercion or desperation. By linking the abolition of prostitution with starvation and death, defenders of decriminalization implicitly acknowledge that working in the sex industry is often a last barrier between a woman and crushing poverty. This objection also fails to align with the common Leftist claim that laws aimed to curb prostitution are ineffective, as their ability to prevent women’s employment would be evidence of the sex industry’s successful reduction.

Contradictions aside, the Left has rarely supported the existence of other industries solely because their abolition would result in impoverishment or loss of employment. For example, a 2013 investigation into Tennessee Timber and Lumber found a fourteen year-old child regularly operating a table saw.[17] The legal response – a fine against the employer and a demand for the immediate cessation of the dangerous task – mirrors the approach of the Nordic Model, and it falls generally in line with the Leftist position on child labor.

In cases like these, it would be extremely unlikely for anti-capitalists to demand child labor be allowed to continue so as to avoid impoverishing the minor or his family. Nor have Leftists had issue with demanding the abolition of so-called sweatshop labor in Third World countries, despite the closure of such factories often resulting in unemployment and poverty for Third World workers. In fact, it is difficult to identify a single industry beyond the sex industry that Leftists have defended solely on the grounds of securing consistent employment inside capitalism. This tactic is far more common among conservative capitalists, who often use “job creation” as an argument against government intervention and regulation.

A more extreme example of this double standard is the Leftist opinion towards illegal organ trafficking. As the BBC reported in October of 2013, there is a rising trend of Third World laborers resorting to organ sales as a means to pay back microfinance loans.[18] More recently, Turkish news sources reported the arrest of an Israeli businessman on charges of arranging for the harvesting and sale of organs from Syrian refugees.[19] On the surface, the sale of human organs fulfills all the criteria for decriminalization given by Leftists: It is currently illegal, meaning that labor and health standards do not apply, and there are currently individuals engaged in the trade who would suffer economic hardship if their ability to sell organs was removed through legislation. Decriminalization, then, would allow workers’ protections to be more consistently applied, as well as securing economic benefit for those engaged in the trade. It is odd, then, that Jacobin has yet to denounce opponents of legalized organ harvesting as paternalists, dead-set on denying Syrian refugees their bodily autonomy.

All sarcasm aside, it is undeniable that support for decriminalization comes in some part from a legitimate belief in its short-term benefit for women in prostitution. But regardless of whether or not this is actually the case, Leftists calling for legal sanction as a method of harm reduction endorse a dangerous logic: That oppressive systems must be sustained solely because the oppressed depend on them to survive. In other cases, the inability of workers to survive without entering into a wage relationship is provided as evidence of a system’s inherently exploitative nature. Wage labor itself is often identified by Leftists as oppressive specifically because it is a system under which alternative means of survival are unavailable. It is unclear, then, why Leftists have inverted this logic to determine that the ethical value of prostitution as an industry is derived in relation to, and not inversely from, the necessity that drives workers into it.

Those whose stated purpose is the end of oppression and exploitation should consider the implications of refusing action against a system because too many individuals inside it rely on that system to survive. On this logic, the Left would be less likely to agitate for a system’s abolition the greater its exploitation becomes. Many universally condemned historical systems, from antebellum slavery to the shirtwaist factories of the Gilded Age, would likely have escaped criticism had activists of the day adopted this harm-reduction framework. It is certainly the case that many of these objections presented by Leftists – that getting rid of prostitution will drive women into even worse conditions, for example, or that the real issue is violence against individual prostituted women and not the system itself – are uncomfortably similar to those made by Southern slave owners and Northern moderates at the height of the abolitionist movement.

These arguments undoubtedly mirror the individual desires of many women in prostitution – the “sex workers” that proponents of decriminalization claim to listen to – who are focused on short-term survival at the expense of long-term social change. This position does not result from stupidity, thoughtless, or a lack of moral courage. Rather, it results from the specific conditions of an oppressive system that leverages desperation into increased engagement with the mechanisms of exploitation. Capitalism has always relied on this Faustian bargain, crafting its policies on the constrained demands of individuals and then placing the blame on their shoulders when they fail to transcend their conditions. The traditional role of Leftists has been to upend these constraints through organized confrontation with power, not simply to mollify their harshest effects. If Leftists believed that the individual decisions of either the powerful or the coerced would cohere unaided into positive social change, they would not be Leftists but instead libertarians.

To be clear, these conflicting standards are not highlighted to claim that prostitution is generally comparable with under-the-table restaurant work, child labor, organ trafficking, or capitalism in general. Rather, it is simply to demonstrate that adherence to self-reported policy positions, the extension of labor standards, the guarantee of employment, and even the short-term reduction of harm are not, by themselves, convincing reasons for Leftists to support prostitution – and, further, that the logic underlying such arguments quickly reduces to a defense of libertarian capitalism. To put it another way, these arguments are either unsuccessful or too successful, in that they justify not only prostitution but other positions that Leftists cannot hold without compromising the coherence of their ideology. It is my hope, then, that those who realize this contradiction resolve it in the direction of abolitionism, and not a further abandonment of robust and effective Leftist politics.




[2] Ibid.






[8] Consider, for example, Engels’ The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State, which can be read here: Lenin, Mao, Castro and other figures in Marxist-Leninism were also adamant in their opposition to prostitution, for varying reasons.

[9] Many of these articles can be found here:

[10] For an example of this approach, see: For a rebuttal, see Helen Lewis’ response in the same paper:

[11] Organizations of formerly prostituted women organizing in favor of the Nordic Model include SPACE (Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment), EVE (formerly Exploited Voices Now Educating), and many others.

[12] These quotes were provided by Chelsea in a series of interviews done over email in August of 2015. I first spoke with Chelsea last year through various abolitionist groups, where I was able to confirm her story with information she provided me about her time at the New Zealand brothels.



[15] Marx’s position on the role of material conditions in creating ideology is best summed up in the preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy.






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