Sex Work and Immigration: When Criminalization Is Disguised as Protection

Sex Work and Immigration: When Criminalization Is Disguised as Protection

This post is part of our symposium on the political economy of sex work. Read the rest of the symposium here.

Gilda Merlot

I am an undocumented immigrant from Honduras. I crossed the Guatemalan, Mexican, and U.S. borders when I was 5 years old. I’m currently a sex worker and a 25-year-old DACA recipient. Like most sex workers, I want decriminalization, or the elimination of all criminal penalties for sex work. The criminal legal system – and the vice divisions of police that carry out prostitution stings – will not solve the issues of poverty, housing, medical care, educational accessibility, and drug use, which are the actual issues affecting sex workers. The reasoning behind any kind of criminalization is to eliminate, destroy, or “end demand” for something through the deterrence/threat of state violence, prison, and death.

Sex workers are criminalized under various models – even if the state criminalizes just the acts of buying sex or managing or employing sex workers, a framework which is often called “the Nordic Model.” The Nordic Model is criminalization of sex workers by another name. To see how this works, we can look to another law that criminalized hiring a certain group of people under the guise of “protection” against exploitation: the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA). The Nordic Model criminalizes sex workers in the same way that the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986 (IRCA) criminalized undocumented workers.

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The Law and Political Economy of Sex Work: Symposium

The Law and Political Economy of Sex Work: Symposium

This post is part of our symposium on the political economy of sex work. Read the rest of the symposium here.

Lorelei Lee –

I am approaching my 20th year of living in the world as a sex worker. This year, presidential candidates are being asked whether they believe sex work should be decriminalized. Decrim NY and the Sex Worker Advocates Coalition have introduced decriminalization bills in New York State and Washington, D.C. California passed SB 233, joining a handful of other states in prohibiting the use of condoms as evidence in prostitution arrests, and expanding a San Francisco policy that prevents police from arresting sex workers who choose to report client violence. The public conversation is shifting. That shift is the result of hundreds of years of resistance and movement building by people who trade and have traded sex. As Juno Mac and Molly Smith explain in their new book, Revolting Prostitutes, “sex workers have shaped and contributed to social movements across the world.” Despite state, local, and new federal laws promoting profiling, surveillance, and exclusion of people in the sex trades from fundraising and communication platforms and from otherwise-public spaces, sex workers have continued to speak, to build coalitions, to insist on being heard.

People interested in law and political economy have a particular reason to listen to people in the sex trades. The conversations that sex workers are having are about markets, work, and coercion under neoliberalism. They are critiques of a legal system that implements policing to keep the “sacred” out of markets while enabling corporations to profit on the caging of human beings. In this symposium, Gilda Merlot will explain how the U.S. failure to “end demand” for migrant labor through the Immigration Reform and Control Act illuminates the unlikelihood of “ending demand” for sexual labor through criminalization. Aziza Ahmed and Jason Jackson will bring a political economy lens to sex work, critiquing the moral claims that justify criminalization. Finally, suprihmbé will unpack the false binary between the “agency/empowerment” of sex work and the “oppression/coercion” of trafficking.

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The Tensions in Democracy: Interview with Astra Taylor

Astra Taylor is an independent writer, documentarian, activist, organizer, and musician. She recently completed a project on the concept of democracy, which produced both a movie–What is Democracy?–and a book–Democracy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss it When It’s Gone. Both treat democracy as a paradoxical and tension-filled ideal that nevertheless must be fought for. Both have many insights that can help left lawyers as we think through the thorny questions that come with the institutionalization of equality and self-governance. Taylor shares some of them in this interview.

LPE: In a recent post for this blog, Samuel Bagg argues that democracy is best understood in terms of what it’s not, or rather, what it’s against. Do you agree? How do you think about arguing for the value of democracy without having an easily articulated concept of what it is? Is history more valuable than philosophy here?

I see democracy as a kind of moving target, something that we can never define definitively and close the case on. But I do think having a minimal definition helps, and I’m happy to start here: the people (demos) rule or hold power (kratos). The problem is that who the people are and how they rule is always open to debate.

Bagg’s approach reminds me of a scene in What Is Democracy? where I’m talking to the political theorist Wendy Brown and I tell her that I really wrestled with making democracy the theme of the film. And it’s true, initially I was open to the idea of jettisoning the word since it’s been so corrupted. But the more reading and thinking I did, the more my perspective shifted. I began to see democracy’s disorienting vagueness as a source of strength, in that the concept can always be contested and reimagined. Researching the book also just drove home the fact that elites have always hated democracy, even as they have attempted to co-opt and contain it—which means there must be something to it. Elites don’t care for democracy because it implies the leveling of hierarchy, including hierarchies of wealth. (Here, I’m also partial to Aristotle’s definition of democracy as rule of the poor, since the poor always outnumber the rich. In my view, even a very minimal definition has a material or class dimension.)

In any case, during the interview Wendy empathized with my plight. We keep coming back to democracy, she says, because the alternatives—or in Bagg’s terminology, all the things democracy is not—are worse. The alternatives to ruling ourselves are pretty unappealing: we could be a ruled by a tyrant, an aristocracy, an oligarchy, a technocracy, and so on. Which is why, as Wendy says, we keep coming back to the word democracy, to the idea of ruling ourselves.

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