Autumn greetings from all of us at the Imago Dei Fund. In the spirit of this month’s International Day of the Girl, we stand with partners who are doubling down to address the many gender regressions that have fallen so heavily on girls and women globally and have been exacerbated by the pandemic and the rise of patriarchal authoritarianism. Our main blog post is the first in a series on the stubborn problem of commercial sexual exploitation that persists around the globe and undermines all of the Sustainable Development Goals as well as our shared human quest for a just, free, and gender balanced world. Here at IDF, we are committed to continuing to do our part to support the deeper transformation of patriarchal norms that have for many centuries normalized sexual exploitation as tradition and “work” that too many girls and vulnerable people are born into and must accept. In the year 2022, let’s all bravely and carefully connect the dots and be on guard for any new narrative (whether in religious or progressive form) that sugarcoats and sanctions the oldest oppression in the history books as normal.
Emily Nielsen Jones, Founding Partner & Trustee
Is the sex industry an empowering human right to be legalised and mainstreamed? Or patriarchal sexual exploitation?
About ten years ago, I went on one of my first donor trips with a group of women to Turkey. I stumbled upon an issue I’d hoped might fade away – an enthusiastic celebration of commercial ‘sex work’ framed as empowerment and a fundamental human right that should be normalized, mainstreamed, and fully legalised. As a feminist, mother of a young girl, and someone new in my philanthropic journey engaging with a gender-lens around the world, all this was hard to wrap my head and heart around.
Flash forwards a decade: today, off-the-radar, a well-funded movement is quietly gaining traction across the United States to fully legalise all aspects of prostitution. Not just the selling… but also the buying, pimping, and brothel-owning. You see it in New York, Oregon, Vermont, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, California, Hawaii, Maryland, Nevada, Ohio, Washington D.C. and more likely in the works. As World Without Exploitation co-founder Lauren Hersh describes: ‘Since 2020 these campaigns have been popping up across America so quickly, often under the guise of something else. Troubling as it is, we have seen self-admitted sex buyers bankrolling these campaigns. Many people don’t realise that these bills would dramatically increase the size and scope of the commercial sex trade, giving more power to pimps and sex buyers.’
What role does philanthropy play in this movement?
I’ve taken the time to digest various perspectives, which all seek to appeal to lofty values I hold dear: freedom, empowerment, dignity, etc. This isn’t an easy topic to navigate. There’s a lot of terminology and jargon. Sometimes it can be difficult to distinguish between wishful thinking and the un-sanitized facts on the ground. And I find myself pondering what really is philanthropy versus funding rooted in self-interest?
Thank you, Alliance magazine, for hosting this series promoting dialogue around a complex issue which deserves robust discourse and nuanced, systemic thinking to carefully consider the larger ramifications of policy decisions on both individuals and society.
Sadly, in many settings – including women’s philanthropy – this taboo topic’s been politely scrubbed off conference agendas. In many female and progressive-leaning spaces, the sex work is work and is empowering mindset is seen as a settled matter. At that conference I attended a decade ago, all organisations working to curb human trafficking and related harms of sexual exploitation were excluded from the agenda. Yet, I’ve found if you speak with people offline, many acknowledge misgivings but find it complicated to question what feels like a new orthodoxy.
‘Sex work divides feminist opinion like few others issues’, describes Frankie Miren. ‘The ideological clash – prostitution as violence against women vs simply a job – may never be resolved but where debate coalesces, around proposed legal systems, ideas become concrete and can be logically hashed out.’ We must not ignore this issue which impacts us all and the overall landscape of non-profit work many philanthropic sectors are funding. As it currently stands – not in some imagined future state – the commercial sex trade is a highly-lucrative, exploitative, global network unlikely to vanish anytime soon.
However, the conversation diverges around the role and nature of consent within an ‘industry’ created and perpetuated by a nexus of deeply entrenched, intersectional injustices and socioeconomic vulnerabilities. From a philanthropic perspective, the pressing quandary remains: Should we support approaches seeking to normalize/expand the sex trade’s growth and reach into society? Or efforts seeking to contain it?
The task is not to make – or win – some purist, abstract ideological debate over who sounds the most ‘feminist’ or ‘progressive.’ Rather, to get past the rhetoric to truly understand the systemic nature of the problem, the actual realities and competing values at play to carefully weigh the human impact of various approaches proposed.
A quick primer: three different directions:
There are three main ‘camps’ which have very different prescriptions of both the problem and the solution. They sometimes sound similar, so attention to nuance is critical.
1) FULL CRIMINALIZATION is enshrined in legal codes in most places globally. It makes illegal all aspects of commercial sex: the selling, buying, pimping, and brothel-owning.
2) FULL DECRIMINALIZATION would render legal all aspects of the sex trade noted above. Overall, it’s guided by a societal vision where ‘sex work’ is fully mainstreamed and normalized as any other line of work. Found in Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, certain regions of Mexico, and Thailand, the Decriminalize Sex Work approach is framed as an empowering choice between consenting adults calling for destigmatization and legalization to be made more safe. There are two streams within the full decriminalization camp: pro-sex work feminists/progressives and pro-‘adult entertainment’ business owners and sex buyers. These odd bedfellows converge on similar language that ‘sex work is work’ and use similar Read More