by Anne Gray Fischer

Raids to shut down sex-trafficking operations often result in the arrest or deportation of the “rescued” victims, and this past July’s installment of Operation Cross Country, the FBI’s series of nationwide stings, was reportedly no exception. Due to a lack of adequate housing and social supports—which weren’t secured in advance and apparently weren’t a priority in this massive sting—the trafficked youth will likely end up detained, charged with prostitution, and incarcerated. The adult sex workers who were rounded up in these sweeps, ineligible for the FBI’s faint gestures toward rescue, were sent directly to prison. Operation Cross Country 2013 proved to be one more example of the triumph of state surveillance and incarceration over social welfare structures.

The FBI’s widely supported pursuit of victim-criminals is exactly the sort of schizophrenic doublespeak that sociologist and criminologist Ronald Weitzer challenges in Legalizing Prostitution, which I review in the September/October issue of Women’s Review of Books. Weitzer sifts through the best available research on legal prostitution, and uses that alongside his own finely textured ethnographic observations, to identify policy practices that, he maintains, would break down the inappropriate conflation of trafficking and prostitution, reduce harm and bolster protections for sex workers, and end the criminalization of victims, trafficked or not.

To “normalize” prostitution, Weitzer recommends the legalization of a “girlfriend experience,” which services (and is chiefly provided by) the wealthy and the white, coupled with the continued criminalization of streetwork. In this “two-track system,” prostitutes who refuse to, or cannot, fulfill this high-capitalist fantasy of peer-intimates for hire, are left further stigmatized and criminalized—or, as scholar Christina B. Hanhardt recently put it, “left queer.” This, at least, is my read of Weitzer’s recommendations, and I urge anyone interested to look into his solidly built argument.

Weitzer raises some of the toughest, most urgent questions in the field, and I kept turning Legalizing Prostitution over in my head this summer as I researched my dissertation on the politics of prostitution in the US in the last half of the twentieth century. What is the relationship between strategies to legalize the “girlfriend experience,” and policies that support the FBI’s handcuffing and detention of the innocent poor? Could they be two sides of the same coin?

I was stunned to come across the earliest stirrings of Weitzer’s market-based project for normalization in the archives. In the early 1960s, vocal supporters of the legalization of prostitution cropped up all over the geographic and political map. Though their worldviews were wildly divergent, they were mostly white and male: prostitutes’ customers, gay men, and sexual freedom fighters. Gender analysis was unheard of in those years before the second wave crested, and Margo St. James’s feminist-inflected organization COYOTE (Call Off Your Old Tired Ethics), pushing for outright decriminalization, wouldn’t hit the scene until 1973. However, the arguments these men made in support of prostitution bear an uncanny resemblance to some of those we still hear today.

In a 1964 letter, the leader of the Committee for the Legalization of Prostitution, a steadfast john and avowed “capitalist,” explicitly called for the two-track remedy: “I do not believe that streetwalking should be permitted,” he wrote. “I believe only that the individual prostitute, carrying out her affairs quietly and discreetly from her own apartment, should not be subjected to police entrapment.” That same year, flyers for the CLP’s ally, the New York League for Sexual Freedom—filled with news of actions supporting “homosexual rights” and petitions to “stop jailing prostitutes”—were stamped with an adaptation of Barry Goldwater’s already famous maxim: “Extremism in the name of vice is no vice.” And by 1965, California Conservatives for Political Action put out buttons that said, “Support Free Enterprise: Legalize Prostitution,” which, through the CLP’s efforts, wended their way onto the lapels of prostitutes working in Puerto Rico. By rejecting the dominant line—that prostitutes were pathological, feeble-minded, and criminal—these activists had taken a radical turn, but they latched onto an ascendant neoliberal argument for the normalization of indoor prostitution that has powerful currency today.

In the late 1960s, Vanguard, a San Francisco-based group led by the self-proclaimed “sluts and scum of the world,” was among the first to publicly crack open the reigning market ideology in the politics of prostitution when they declared, “The poor break the law, the rich make it.” And by the 1970s, the left would be infused with feminist, anticapitalist radicals who saw state repression of prostitution as a coordinated, market-driven attack on the freedom of the poor nonconformists who were “left queer.” But neoliberal logic continues to dog the movement for sex workers’ rights. When we consider the demands we make for new prostitution policies—and the market imperatives that drive state intervention—it’s a strain of activism that still must be reckoned with.

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 Anne Gray Fischer is a doctoral student in US History at Brown University. She can be reached at annegrayfischer@gmail.com. Her work has appeared in the Boston Globe, Bitch, Bookslut, and Women’s Review of Books.

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