Targeting the Demand Side of Sex Work: Productive or Hindering?

By Rudrani Sarma, Project SAFE Intern

John schools, programs for ‘rehabilitating’ clients of sex work, are increasing in number; the new federal approach is to reform the sex work industry by stopping Johns from seeking services in general.

According to the National Institute of Justice, men who “visit” sex workers “Do not express opinions that support violence against women.” There is an interesting federal dialogue surrounding sex work as a victim-based crime, despite the legal language surrounding “victimless sex crimes” in the online public domain of the Department of Justice. This dialogue is, inherently, based in rape-culture; there is an underlying claim that men are the customers, that arresting sex workers is more likely than arresting johns, but that once there is increasing interest in incriminating, shaming, and “educating” johns, the demand side will be under governmental control.

Sex workers are seen as helpless, un-agentive women who use their profits to save themselves from backgrounds of abuse. There is very little on drug addiction as mental illness, and their work is seen as a last-resort. This stance is interesting because it is certainly Western liberal feminist and progressive, but it does not allow these women to be validated as productive members of society. Of course, there is nothing in this “guide to prostitution” about the positives of sex work for women, even in their explanations of the economic benefits. The government rhetoric surrounding sex work is unsurprisingly traditionalist and patriarchal on its stance and its claims that johns are harmless (simply “entitled to sex with prostitutes if they are not being satisfied by a conventional partner”) and prostitutes are victims who are begging for a better life.

Comparing this stance to considerations of homelessness in liberal society is interesting. There is little rhetoric on people who remain homeless because survival is a possibility for them in their utilization of government and private benefits. The homeless are seen as mentally ill or pathetic; there is little humanizing in the public perception of homeless people. Similarly, prostitutes are not seen as women first; their professions are considered “backup plans” to socially acceptable professions— they are influenced, according to the government, by their backgrounds of “limited education and lack of skills [that] make finding [“legitimate] employment very difficult,” or driven by drug addiction.

What is problematic about this stance is the privilege and rape culture which it exudes. It is inherently patriarchal in its perception of women sex workers as sans agency and simply under the control of johns. This mentality shows society only one solution: to control the johns instead of helping or rehabilitating women. Taking away the demand for prostitution will leave some women without any “education” or “skills” (as cited earlier) completely unemployed, if johns schools are as effective as the government claims. Reducing prostitution is not the problem; increasing opportunity should be the goal. It does not seem, through the little available by the government to the public domain, that this is a productive model for the introduction of opportunity and agency to women.

2 thoughts on “Targeting the Demand Side of Sex Work: Productive or Hindering?

  1. It’s not a question. Criminalization is extremely harmful, leads to violent arrests of primarily poor people of color, LGBT people, and immigrants – who are subjected to possible mandatory minimums, felony charges, loss of parental rights, loss of housing and deportation

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