The Anti-Trafficking movement in the US is propped up by End Demand ideology. This model, known as “end demand” locally or the Nordic model focuses on criminalizing the buyers side as a means to extinguish prostitution. The “End Demand” model, a large part of the anti-trafficking movement, does not recognize prostitution as ever being a choice and views all prostitution as gender-based violence. Obviously, these views are myopic and one sided. So let’s examine the most common “End Demand” myths that view prostitution in these terms:
3.“Prostitution is an act of gender-based violence perpetrated by cis men upon cis women”: The most glaring problem with this viewpoint is, firstly, that this theory assumes all “sex buyers” to be cis males and all “prostitutes” to be cis females. This just simply isn’t the case and is actually a real proliferation of the same misogyny that this model claims to be fighting against. Gender-variant folks exist both on the buyer and worker sides and not everyone who buys sex necessarily subscribes to a binary gender identity. Same with the workers’ side. I personally know many womxn who have received services or been patrons of sex workers, even cis male sex workers (yes, they exist!). Gender-based violence of course exists, but in this context it feels rather antiquated to buttress one’s argument against prostitution with second wave, Andrea Dworkin-esque feminist theory. Third wave feminism has already proved these discourses to be one dimensional, exclusive, white, and transphobic feminism. Additionally, this argument actually reduces the sex worker or the woman in question to a passive recipient of every man’s will. Women are the perennial victim and are only allowed to be the victim in this narrative, without represented agency, a will of their own, or an ability to make decisions for and by themselves about their body and sexual being.
4. “Prostitution gives men permission to treat women like objects”: This is an argument I hear frequently. “If the goal is to fight misogyny and oppression against women, then doesn’t the transactional nature of the exchange erase the ability of the woman (we’re assuming for the purposes of this argument the sex worker is a cis woman) to consent?” The simple answer is, no. Actually, this is another sexist narrative disguised as feminism. To be clear; white heteronormative patriarchal society already treats womxn as objects and empty vessels. The problem is not prostitution, the answer is prostitution. It is no accident that the majority of sex workers are either womxn or gay cis men because these are sections of society which are highly marginalized under the patriarchy which reveres cisgender straight malehood as the ideal and valued body. Sex work is political because our bodies are political. Sex work - in particular, prostitution - is a brave act of protest and proletariat revolution against the bourgeois oppression by cishet white men. The transaction inherent in prostitution is a fuck you to the automatic right to access that this system feels it has over womxn. It bravely makes and calls that assumption to the carpet. Putting a dollar amount to one’s sexual labor is not exploitation. It is the righteous exploitation of exploitation.
5. “Prostitution is always exploitative and can never be a real choice”: This is without a doubt one if the most fundamental of arguments within the “End Demand” narrative in the U.S. Can a marginalized person make empowered decisions about their own bodily autonomy, particularly with an oppressor? It is critical to validate and recognize that exploitation, abuse and dehumanization can and do absolutely happen in interactions where one person might have more privilege or a different set of privileges than someone, however this should not erase the ability of a womxn to engage at all with men in a way that feels empowering. The existence of violence against womxn not negate the ability of womxn to have agency over their decisions. To insinuate this is actually extremely infantilizing and patronizing. People with marginalized identities; people of color, women, trans folks and queer folks, low income folks all navigate oppression everyday in little and big ways but we must not deny them their agency when discussing power dynamics between oppressor and the oppressed.
“End Demand” is a problematic model because it claims to have the answers to the age-old question of sex trafficking, but in actuality is just repackaging old arguments that deny sex workers the ability to thrive, to be seen as healthy; to not be seen through the lens of victimhood and pathology. If a sex worker says they enjoy their work, feel empowered by their work, who is anyone to say any different? Certainly not all the old, wealthy, cishet white men who work so hard within the “End Demand” movement to peddle these half-baked theories and simultaneously congratulate themselves for how much power they have over women sex workers that they don’t even have the ability to consent. Yeah, maybe — just maybe — rich old cis white dudes aren’t the best source to look to when discussing sexual agency.