Last week I had the opportunity to debate prostitution-decriminalization at New York University’s Wagner Graduate School of Public Service. Obviously, I was arguing for full decriminalization—putting me in the ideological company of sex workers from Seattle to London to Taipei to Kazakhstan, as well as global human-rights and health groups such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and the World Health Organization. Arguing for the Nordic model of prostitution law, in which paying for or advertising sex is prohibited but selling it is legal in limited circumstances, was Dorchen Leidholdt, director of the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families.
You can listen to audio of the debate on Soundcloud, or watch the whole thing below.
If you’ll permit me a moment of naval-gazing… I was happy with my debate performance overall, especially considering I’ve never debated one-on-one before and am much better at arguing in text than in person. Where I think I failed was in getting bogged down in a back-and-forth about statistics. Leidholdt was armed with a bevy of them, mostly from disreputable studies carried out by anti-prostitution activists, and my impulse was to push back on these.
But for those who know little about sex-work issues, there’s not much to latch on to in a she-said/she-said over facts and figures. And without any frame of reference, “facts” showing that countries with legalized prostitution are plagued by terrible spikes in sex-trafficking seem more immediately credible, given that people are prone to believe all manner of horrors about anything related to sex. People seem to want to believe prostitution is inherently harmful, and studies and statistics are rarely powerful enough to overcome people’s implicit biases. But the concrete harms that criminalizing prostitution has on vulnerable people’s lives—the individual tales of hardship and horror that women and girls face under a system of criminalization—are harder to dismiss. Obviously different arguments work better or worse with different crowds, but in the future, I’d probably do better to avoid the stat-trap and stay more big picture when talking to general audiences… yes? no? Genuinely interested to hear what people think.