Sex work: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver | Transcript

As long as sex work has existed, so have efforts to end it. John Oliver explains why criminalizing the trade hasn’t helped the most vulnerable people involved, and why we should start listening to those at the center of the conversation: sex workers.
Sex work: Last Week Tonight with John Oliver

Last Week Tonight with John Oliver
Season 9 Episode 2
Aired on February 27, 2022

Main segment: Sex work
Other segments: 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine

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[cheers and applause]

John: Welcome, welcome, welcome to “Last Week Tonight!” I’m John Oliver. Thank you so much for joining us. And look: it’s clearly been a very busy week, because we don’t even have time to get into the fact that Ketanji Brown Jackson became the first black woman nominated to the supreme court or that the governor of Texas decided to target trans children and their parents for no fucking reason whatsoever. And that’s because we have to begin tonight with Ukraine. It’s the story you’ve either been persistently avoiding because it’s stressing you out or that you’ve been following obsessively for the exact same reason. As we’re all now painfully aware, Vladimir Putin, Russian president and World War III edgelord, began an assault on the second-largest country in Europe, shelling several cities and sending troops across the border. It has been horrifying to watch, and CNN, during its coverage of air raid sirens in Kyiv, somehow found a way to make it even worse, with this terrible transition to break.

[Air raid sirens blaring]

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♪ A little bit of ♪
♪ chicken fried ♪
♪ cold beer on a Friday night ♪
♪ a pair of jeans ♪
♪ that fit just right ♪
♪ and the radio up ♪

Get five boneless wings with any handcrafted burger.

John: It’s not great, is it? It’s not just that it cut to a commercial for a restaurant chain whose food can only be described as “sometimes warm.” It’s just so aggressively American. From the country song that thinks listing food counts as lyrics all the way to this human boot barn shaking his non-existent ass. Applebee’s actually put out a statement afterward apologizing, saying, “we are deeply concerned about the situation in Ukraine. The ad never should have aired, and we are disappointed in the actions of the network.” And that’s some deft international diplomacy from the home of both the grilled “oriental” chicken salad and the “tipsy” leprechaun. And you know, when Applebee’s is apologizing for interrupting the coverage of Russia invading Ukraine, this week got seriously out of hand. Condemnation of Putin’s invasion has been widespread from the U.N. Secretary General, the Pope, and even George W. Bush, who stated “I join the international community in condemning Putin’s unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Ukraine.” And hold on — not from you. You are not the guy for this one. Because that statement only would have made sense if it ended with “oh, shit, now I hear it. Sorry. I’ll shut the fuck up now.” Now, for the time being, instead of putting troops on the ground, countries around the world have announced a flurry of sanctions on Russia. But Putin seems to have taken that into account, because in the eight years since invading Crimea, he’s taken steps to blunt their impact, by restructuring Russia’s economy for the specific purpose of withstanding western financial pressure. It’s just one of many ways in which — as shocking as the speed of this week’s events may have been — they were actually depressingly predictable. Putin’s been laying the groundwork for this for years. State media has long pushed fake stories of Ukrainian brutality, including at one point, alleging that the Ukrainian military had tortured and then crucified a three-year-old, a claim for which no one could turn up any evidence. And that’s just one incident of many. Just this year, Russian state media has been airing “false flag” videos to try and build a pretext for an invasion — some of which were pretty sloppily put together.

On February 18, pro-Russian separatists released a video showing a gun battle in the forest. “ABC News” confirms it appears to be created on February 8, that’s ten days earlier than the alleged attack. Further analysis indicates some of the explosions in the video were actually taken from a 2010 defense forces training video.

John: Oh, come on, Russia. You’re stealing explosions from Finnish defense forces? If you’re going to go to the trouble of faking footage, at least put some effort in. Steal the whole thing and throw in some t-rexes in from Jurassic Park too. Have fun with your lies as you’re dragging the continent into pointless war. The point here is, this has been in the works for a long time. You might have heard Putin frame the invasion as the “denazification” of Ukraine, and thought, “hold on, that’s a weird thing to say.” But he’s been making that bullshit case for years now, despite the fact Ukraine’s current president is both Jewish and had family members die in the holocaust. And I don’t want to play “who’s the biggest Nazi” here — that, after all, is what Twitter is for — but between Zelensky and Putin, if you are looking for who is more like Hitler, I’m going to go with the ethno-nationalist despot invading sovereign European territory and who’s also a terrible fucking painter. Putin has doggedly pursued this and hasn’t seemed to want to hear any arguments against it. This week began when Putin officially recognized these two regions in Ukraine [Luhansk and Donetsk] as independent, which set the invasion in motion. And in a security council meeting at the Kremlin on Monday, just watch how he dressed down his own spy chief after the man suggested maybe trying diplomacy one last time.

[Sergei Naryshkin, Director, Foreign Intelligence Serice] I would agree with Nikolai Platonovich’s proposal that we can give our so-called Western partners one last chance. Otherwise, we have to make the decision we are discussing today.

[Vladimir Putin] What does that mean, ‘otherwise’? Are you suggesting we start negotiations?

[Naryshkin] Uh, no, I, uh…

[Putin] Or recognize sovereignty of the republics?

[Naryshkin] I… I will…

[Putin] Speak, speak, speak directly.

[Naryshkin] I will support the proposal of recognition…

[Putin] You will support, or do you support? Speak directly, Sergei Yevgenievich!

[Naryshkin] I am supporting the proposal…

[Putin] Then say it like that, yes or no.

[Naryshkin] I am supporting the proposal about the entry of the Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics into the Russian Federation.

[Putin] We’re not talking about that. We are not discussing that. We’re talking about recognizing their independence or not.

[Naryshkin] Yes. I support the proposal to recognize their independence.

[Putin] Alright. Thanks. You can take your seat.

John: Wow. Putin is a lot of things. He’s an autocrat, a tyrant, a warmonger — but he’s also… Kind of a huge bitch. Unfortunately for that guy he clearly forgot the best strategy for public speaking in Russia, which is just imagine the entire audience in their underwear and Vladimir Putin pointing a pistol at your head. It really focuses the mind.
Look, what Russia is doing in Ukraine is completely indefensible. Even Putin allies like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban are coming out against it. You cannot make a case for what’s happening. And when you even try — as Russia’s ambassador to Ireland did — it just sounds ridiculous.

[Yuriy Filatov, Russian Ambassador to Ireland] It’s not our choice. The military option is not our choice.

[Interviewer] But Sir, your forces have invaded a sovereign nation. It absolutely was your choice.

[Filatov] It was not a preferable choice.

[Interviewer] Why should our government and entertain your presence here when you are acting as an apologist for slaughter?

[Filatov] Well, it’s a good question. Your government… it’s up to them.

John: Wow. He just asked you why Ireland should allow you to stay there as an apologist for slaughter, and you said, “good question.” That really didn’t seem to me like a gotcha question and yet somehow, you just got got. It’s a good reminder that Ireland, in addition to being known for eye-shatteringly beautiful meadows and free-flowing sheep, is also known for taking absolutely zero shit from occupying armies. Believe me.
And it’s notable that despite all the anti-Ukraine propaganda that Putin’s pushed on his people over the years and the fact he so fiercely cracks down on dissent — there have still been massive demonstrations against the war in major Russian cities this week. And the fact is that for many Russians, this is a heartbreaking situation.

It hurts because it’s our friends, our relatives.

I’m sorry. I just can’t help crying.

I think that most of Russians don’t support this. It’s horrible.

Interpreter: I feel sorry for people there. I feel sorry for us.

I don’t like it and I don’t wanted to be like that at all.

Do you know people in Ukraine?

Yeah, I am actually in love with one. I don’t know what to say. It’s a tragedy.

John: Yeah, it is. This whole thing is a tragedy. No long-distance relationship should have to end because of a land war in Europe. We all know they should only end the way all long-distance relationships do: eventually. As for Ukrainians, they are resisting hard. Videos have made the rounds like this one of a woman offering Russian soldiers sunflower seeds — the seeds of Ukraine’s national flower.

[Global News at 11] There are deep signs of defiance. People who are unwilling to yield. This woman confronted heavily armed Russian soldiers.

[Woman] You’re occupiers! You’re fascists! You’ve come to our soil. Why the fuck did you come here with your guns? Take these seeds here, these raw seeds, so that at least the sunflowers will grow once you die here.

[Soldier] All right. Our conversation now won’t lead anywhere, so let’s not escalate the situation. Please.

[Woman] What situation?

[Soldier] Please, let’s not escalate the situation. Our conversation won’t lead anywhere.

[Woman] Guys! Guys! Put the seeds in your pockets.

[Soldier] Our conversation won’t result in anything.

[Woman] I understand. Put the flower seeds in your pockets, you’ll die here with the seeds. You came to my land. Do you understand? You’re the occupiers. You’re the enemy. And from this second you’re already cursed. I’m telling you.

[Soldier] Let’s not escalate the situation.

[Woman] How can you escalate it any further? You came here fucking uninvited. Piece of shit.

John: Good for her. Good for her. Let’s just recognize for a second how ice-cold that insult is. “Take these seeds and put them in your pocket so sunflowers will grow when you die.” That is fucking brutal. That woman brought seeds to a gunfight and somehow still comfortably won. So, look, I know in know that this is all tough to watch. And right now, especially as we’re taping this on Saturday, I have a lot more questions than answers. Questions like, “what are the days ahead going to bring?” “Can Ukraine possibly survive this?” And “what form might that survival even take?” But I will say: the acts of selflessness and bravery on display this week have offered a small glimmer of hope, as has the extent of global condemnation for what Putin is doing right now. And when you put it together, it’s enough to make you wonder: after committing a barbaric criminal act such as this, how can Putin possibly expect the world or the Russian people, to respect or support him ever again? I don’t know, but if I may paraphrase his own ambassador — it’s a good fucking question. And now this.

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Announcer: And now a look back at notable moments in history.

Tonight I can report to the American people and to the world that the United States has conducted an operation that killed Osama Bin Laden.

♪ A little bit of ♪
♪ chicken fried ♪
♪ cold beer on a Friday night ♪

From Dallas, Texas, the flash apparently official. President Kennedy died at 1:00 p.m. Central standard time.

♪ A little bit of ♪
♪ chicken fried ♪
♪ cold beer on a Friday night ♪

We jury find the defendant O.J. Simpson…

Diane princess of Wales has died after a car…

The humanity!

Supreme court associate justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg…

♪ A pair of jeans ♪
♪ that fit just right ♪
♪ and the radio up ♪

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John: Moving on. Our main story tonight concerned sex. The thing that the cute little bird outside your window is constantly screaming about. It’s true! It’s yelling “sex, sex! I’m horny! Who wants sex?” Just remember that, as your grandmother’s gazing peacefully at it. Sex is a topic that, historically, we’ve not been very good at talking about.

You know something?

No, what.

I had a wet dream last night.

What’s that?

Sperm comes out of your peni penis.

John: Hold on. You are not his brother? What the fuck! Then why are you talking about sperm with some random kid? Feels like the main takeaway from that video should be to stay away from creepy teenagers who like to chat up neighborhood tweens about their wet penis. Specifically, we’re going to talk about sex work. And the concept is simple. Let’s say you have sex, any kind — missionary, doggie, cowgirl, cowboy, the eagle, the wheelbarrow, the wild chincoteague pony, the Jerry Seinfeld, the pick me up, the put me down, mouth butt, butt mouth, mouth mouth butt butt, butt butt mouth butt — whatever. But then that’s it. You go home. It’s fine, right? It’s fine. But let’s say you have sex, but afterwards, you get money or a chocolate bar or one of those participation trophies. Way better, right? Well, too bad, it’s illegal. Very basically, sex work is the exchange of sex for money or goods, and in the United States, a complicated patchwork of local, state, and federal laws makes that act illegal everywhere except for a few counties in Nevada. And if you’re thinking, “wait. Hold on. Didn’t Donald Sutherland and Julie Christie have sex for real in Don’t Look Now and also get paid at least scale? Wouldn’t that be illegal?” The answer is one, yes, I also believe that rumor, great reference, and two, that’s actually legal because of the presence of the camera, making it an art film, otherwise known as porn and, thus, legally covered as part of free speech. So basically, consensual sex for money on camera is legal porn and consensual sex for money off camera is illegal sex work. Makes sense, right? Wrong? Well, exactly. Everything about the way we regulate sex work in this country is confusing and counterproductive. And when we talk about it, it’s often either demonizing, patronizing, or just plain wrong. And in some cases, all three at once.

It was once called the world’s oldest profession. ,, Call girl, hooker, whore. Most are really victims. People being traffic.

First of all, they’re actually not, for reasons we’ll get into later. But setting that aside, if you’re going to talk about someone, maybe don’t start the sentence by insulting them. It’s like saying, “you know him as a dickhead. A fuck weasel. A stingy, unlikeable bitch. And today, at his funeral, we remember uncle Todd.” Because as long as sex work has existed, so have efforts to stop it. And it comes in many forms, from people who object to it on moral grounds, to those who associate it with crime, to those who want the practice permanently ended, as they believe all sex work is exploitation and absolutely cannot be done consensually. But a human history’s worth of shitty laws hasn’t changed the fact that one, sex work has always been part of society, appealing to every interest and every kind of clientele. And two, sex workers are not a monolith. People from a variety of backgrounds do it for a variety of reasons. And the fact is, our current system of criminalizing the trade and driving everyone underground is actually only making life harder for the most vulnerable involved. And given that sex workers are — and this is true — people with thoughts about their own fucking situation, we thought tonight, we’d actually listen to them. And let’s start with the fact that this is not going to be a piece about morality. You might well think people should only have sex during a full moon, wearing a three-piece suit, and exclusively with their common-law horse. That’s your business. This story is going to be about the fact that sex work is, inarguably, labor. It is a job. And people do it for the same reasons people do any job, as this advocate explains.

‘S expert is inherently work. It’s how people feed their families. It’s how people put clothes on their back. It’s how people survive. I have been a sex worker. I have been a lawyer. I served sandwiches at subway. I folded close at Abercrombie.

John: Yeah, it’s all work. The main difference between sex work and working at a subway is that at least in sex work, you actually know what the customer’s eating. And yet some people feel highly uncomfortable with the idea that sex work is labor and should be treated as such. Just watch a New York state assemblymember struggle to even get his head around it.

We have got hookers roaming the capital lobbying to be legalized. I can’t even imagine what that looks like. They are lobbying. They are talking about health insurance, fair wages. All the things that come with it. This is — this has really gotten out of hand.

John: Can you imagine! An organized group of citizens! Lobbying their state government for access to basic human rights! This has gotten out of hand. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to continue styling my hair like a famously racist cartoon. Now, part of his reluctance is probably his general dick vibe, but it also points to something much bigger. And that’s the argument that, as that anchor said, “most sex workers are victims,” and what they need is someone to step in and save them. And one of the biggest groups that loves to do that is the police, who often position themselves as saviors for sex workers, even as they are arresting and jailing them.

I have talked to numerous survivors that say it saved their life, being arrested. We open the door for help and if we don’t do that, who’s going to do it? If I don’t offer them help, who is going to? No one.

John: Well, hold on. First, if it’s true no one else is going to help them, then you’re pointing at a gigantic problem that needs to be fixed. Because arresting someone isn’t usually considered the best way of providing assistance. That’s why there isn’t a “thank you” section in Hallmark called “For your arresting officer.” Because I think we can all agree if there are people doing sex work who don’t want to be doing it, we should absolutely be aiding their transition out of that situation. But the question is, are we doing that right now? Because let’s look at some of the methods police use in dealing with sex workers — which can be traumatizing, invasive, and occasionally unbelievably cruel, like this undercover sting from an episode of “Cops.”

How about a little clown action?

Surveillance unit, she is getting in the van. You?

As a matter of fact.

We are not doing nothing. We are not doing nothing.

Put your hands behind your back. Your hands behind your back.

John: Only one of those people ended up in handcuffs and it somehow wasn’t the guy who said “how about some clown action” before jizzing silly string. And listen: this is not the most important point — in fact, it’s arguably the least — but that’s not a clown hat, it’s a “cat in the hat” hat. And I will admit I’m not an expert on clown attire for prostitution stings. But I know a hat mistake when I see one, and that — ladies and gentlemen — is a hat mistake. So it’s no wonder many sex workers have trouble regarding the police as their saviors — especially as cops have a reputation for acting violently or inappropriately during stings. A couple of years ago in Arizona, federal agents allegedly engaged in 17 sexual encounters with women working in massage parlors, as part of an investigation disgustingly codenamed “Operation Asian Touch.” And that’s not uncommon, because in many states, it is not specifically illegal for police officers to have sex with workers during the course of a sting operation. And in some states, police have protested efforts to ban the practice. Which is both grotesque and a bit ironic because what they are fundamentally arguing as they should be able to have sex for their jobs legally in order to stop people having sex for their jobs. And even without that provision, the laws police can use to arrest or intimidate sex workers are shockingly broad. If you work in the sex trade, the threat of arrest looms large over your entire existence. And this is yet another area that disproportionately affects people of color. One recent investigation found that, from 2016 to 2020, almost everyone arrested by the NYPD for buying or selling sex was non-white. One particularly problematic law is the prohibition against “loitering for the purpose of prostitution.” It’s basically a stop-and-frisk policy for sex workers. And in New York, it’s written so vaguely, the NYPD has used it to interpret completely legal activities like talking to pedestrians or dressing provocatively as a basis for an arrest. Cops have used the law to arrest people because they wore “black cowboy boots and black shorts,” and “a multi color short dress and sandals.” And in one case, a woman was arrested because her clothes exposed “her buttocks and cervix area,” which isn’t so much a crime as it is an urgent medical emergency. Meanwhile, in some states, cops have seized condoms and used them as evidence of prostitution, or even charged people with a misdemeanor called “possessing an instrument of crime” for carrying them. And criminalizing condoms has led some sex workers to hide them or even go without, as this worker in Queens explains.

Interpreter: You ask where we hide our condoms. We hide condoms in our private parts where they won’t touch us. We should be able to carry condoms to protect ourselves and to protect the people we are with. The authorities show a real lack of intelligence when they say it’s a crime to carry condoms. In the transgender community, not carrying condoms is a death wish.

John: That’s ridiculous. Putting aside the fact “it’s a crime to carry condoms” sounds like the name of a Christian boy band’s self-released album, which it absolutely does. What you’re doing there is genuinely making sex workers’ jobs less safe. But that’s not the only way our current policies harm those they claim to help. A criminal record can limit a sex worker’s future opportunities should they want to leave the field. Because while most sex related crimes are classified as misdemeanors, in some states including all these, repeated arrests can result in a felony conviction and prison time. And for a while in Louisiana, some of those arrested for doing sex work wound up having to register as sex offenders, which is particularly galling. Because if anyone you’ve seen so far should be labeled a sex offender, it’s all the cops who’ve ever had sex during a sting, and again, that fucking clown. And look: I don’t want to paint too rosy a picture here. Sex work can be dangerous. And we need to be talking constructively about how to make it safer in every way. But a reason it’s hard to have that conversation is that sex work so often gets conflated with something else: that is human trafficking. And let me first say that of course human trafficking is real, and when it happens, it’s horrific. You think of Jeffrey Epstein and — am I legally allowed to say Prince Andrew? I’m not? Are you sure about that? Totally sure? Okay. Forget I said it then. But the concept of human trafficking looms large in the conversation around sex work. You’ve probably seen massive numbers get thrown around online, despite the fact experts will tell you getting an accurate count on those subjected to forced sex or labor has eluded researchers for years. And look, any number north of zero is clearly terrible. But far too often, attempts to crack down on sex trafficking will conflate it with consensual adult sex work. The implicit assumption is that no sex worker has ever entered the trade by choice, even when that is, by their own testimony, not the case. And some states have even written that into law. In 2012, lawmakers in Alaska amended their laws on “promoting prostitution” to replace that phrase with “sex trafficking,” resulting in one case where a woman was charged with trafficking herself. Which is obviously absurd, unless, that is, they were making a larger point about our collective lack of free will under capitalism. And if it’s the latter, I’d say, bro? Bro, not the time. Not the time, bro. And the thing is, badly written laws can have massive consequences. Take FOSTA. It’s a federal law that was positioned as a way to crack down on sex trafficking, by banning online ads that sold people into sex slavery. Which sounds good, right? What kind of monster would be against that? But what it did was ban ads for all paid sex, whether or not trafficking was involved. It was part of a much larger push to shut down sites where sex was sold, along with the shuttering of Backpage and Craigslist’s personals section. And while undeniably, some very bad things were advertised on those sites, they also enabled sex workers to find clients and communicate with them, which was a much safer way for them to do that than operating on the street. And if you’re thinking “well, okay, it’s bad that sex workers lost a way to stay safer but at least moves like those helped law enforcement crack down on sex trafficking,” the thing is, not really. In the three years after FOSTA was passed, prosecutor said they used it once. As for shutting down Backpage, that actually made it even harder to catch sex traffickers. The site was U.S.-based and was often willing to work with law enforcement to root out the bad actors. And with it gone, law enforcement suddenly found tracking them down to be much more difficult.

We are trying to figure out where everybody is going. These new websites have popped up, dead page, almost an exact replica of Backpage. We have one Backpage. Basically it’s all of these different websites that we don’t have any agreements or search tools with him it’s kind of spread out. We don’t have a certain location to look for them anymore. It is kind of a crapshoot.

John: That’s not ideal is it? Yeah, and of all the questions that raises, I’d also like to ask: what the fuck is going on with her cubicle decor? Because it involves not just this prominently displayed “Pimpin’ Ave” street sign — which would have been weird enough on its own — but also a glass goblet featuring rhinestones that spell out the phrase “ho fo’ sho.” Which is a pretty weird tone to strike for a workplace that rescues sex trafficking victims. Those look more like the decorations you’d find at a bachelorette party where the guests wind up vomit-crying out the window of a speeding party bus. And obviously, law enforcement should be pursuing sex trafficking wherever it takes place. But unfortunately, the police will often re-frame traditional prostitution stings as human trafficking ones. You might remember a large sting operation a few years back of multiple massage parlors in Florida, in which Robert Kraft, the owner of the Patriots, was charged with soliciting prostitution. And the initial comments from law enforcement strongly suggested that the workers at the Day Spa Kraft went to were part of a sex trafficking ring. The prosecutor was even happy to brag about their humanitarian mission in his press conference after the raid.

I would like to thank the men and women of the Jupiter police department for their professionalism and diligence in investigating these cases. You can tell a lot about our community by the way it treats its most vulnerable individuals, and that includes victims of human trafficking.

John: He’s right. You can tell a lot about a community by how it treats the most vulnerable. And you should know months later, a prosecutor admitted no human trafficking arose from the investigation. And Kraft’s misdemeanor charges were later dropped. And yet, the state attorney’s office continued to pursue cases against the women — you know, the ones they were supposedly trying to rescue. Eventually, four women who worked at that spa were arrested and jailed, with three fined thousands of dollars, and one ending up in ice detention. And all that is bad enough until you learn that some of the help offered to workers caught up in the larger sting consisted of this care package that included band-aids, mouthwash, razors, and a booklet written by megachurch pastor Rick Warren titled “What on earth am I here for?” Which is literally only helpful if inside, it says “to be scapegoated in a generations-long morality war that has nothing to do with you and everything to do with how we as a society view sex, money, and power.” And that’s hardly an exception. Just listen to Andrew Lewis — the former coordinator for the greater New Orleans human trafficking task force — tell the Louisiana house of representatives about one sting operation he witnessed.

What I saw was a standard operation and it was deeply troubling. Agents pretending to be clients set up dates with sex workers. When a sex worker arrived at the hotel room they would be arrested and forced into another cold room, often with very little clothing, and interviewed. The same agent that handcuffed them with then ask them if they had been traffic. And no matter their response, they were arrested and booked. At the end of the night, those arrests were reported back to me as prospective victims of human trafficking either when there was no evidence of force, fraud or coercion. Human trafficking does occur locally more than we know about because we are spending the majority of our time and money on criminalizing consensual adult sex work we are not able to help those actually being forced to work in the construction, agriculture, and yes sex work industries in Louisiana.

John: Yeah, he’s right. We clearly shouldn’t be wasting valuable resources on arresting consensual sex workers. And we certainly shouldn’t be interviewing them in cold rooms while they’re wearing very little clothing. Turns out, police aren’t so much “rescuing” people as “lightly refrigerating them and then sending them to jail.” And when you take all of this together, it’s no surprise that many workers who’ve been robbed or abused by clients report that they feel they can’t turn to the police for help. And in some cases, those who have turned to the police say they deeply regret it.

Years ago I reported a rape from a client I was supposed to be working with. I just wound up being arrested. I spent a long time in jail. For trying to report a rape and you just learn better. No way I’ll deal with the cops. I will get raped 100 times before I deal with them.

John: Yeah. She went to report a rape and ended up in jail. I’d call it dystopian if it weren’t so fucking American. So at every turn, we are making life harder both for people who want to remain in the sex trade, and for those who want to leave it. So how do we fix this? Well, there are actually a few different options open to us. And let’s start with the most restrictive. Some advocate for something called “The Nordic model.” Which, I know, sounds like the answer Leonardo DiCaprio would give to the question, “who would you like to fuck?” But the Nordic model is the one that intuitively might make sense to you. It criminalizes the buying of sex but not the selling it. So we’d arrest the clients, but not the workers — the ones you’re presumably concerned for. It’s been adopted in many countries, including Sweden, Finland, Norway, and France. And while it might sound good on the surface, one problem with it is that sex buyers don’t want to be arrested any more than sex workers do. Meaning workers still have to meet clients in the shadows. So, for instance, it’s still difficult to vet them online. And if you’re on the street, it can be even worse, as this Swedish sex worker explains.

For women in the street this has been very, very bad. Before they have this thing hanging in the car window, having the discussion. This is what I’m willing to sell. This is what I’m willing to do. They don’t have time because clients are jumping so they have to get in the car, drive off then negotiate and then they are already in the car.

John: Right. You can’t tell in a split second of looking at a car if it’s safe to get in. It’s not like there’s a bumper sticker that says “my child is an honor roll student and I’m a fucking sociopath” to tip you off. So the truth is, many sex workers don’t love the Nordic model. Another option we could go with is legalization. That’s where workers and clients can legally operate, within certain regulations. It’s the model employed by Amsterdam and some counties in Nevada. There, sex workers are limited to working as independent contractors and must do so in regulated brothels, typically earning forty to fifty percent of what they bring in by servicing customers, with the remainder going to the brothel. And if you’re wondering why those brothels get to take so much, it’s simply because they can — Nevada essentially gives them a monopoly. That’s just one reason why sex workers tend not to be keen on the heavily-regulated legalization option either. Instead, what many of them advocate for is something called decriminalization, which very simply removes all criminal penalties for the buying and selling of consensual sex. It’s a model currently employed by New Zealand, a country that does seem to make a lot of smart choices — with the glaring exception, of course, of “choosing a national bird.” Because what the fuck is up with the kiwi? It’s an incorrect duck. It’s what you’d get if a first grader was assigned to draw a bird and then just forgot. My point here is: in New Zealand’s system, any sex worker can legally work for themselves or in a brothel. And brothel owners have to have special certificates and verify their workers are over 18 and use safe sex practices. But crucially, this system means that sex workers have fundamental rights, from being able to access unemployment benefits, to healthcare, to being covered by workplace protections. Sex workers have successfully sued over sexual harassment they experienced in a brothel. And have been able to go to the police — in fact, last year, a man was convicted for rape in a “stealthing” case after he removed a condom without a sex worker’s consent. It’s a human-rights-centered approach that seems to be working. And a sex worker in New Zealand gives credit for this to the fact that the people writing the laws did one key thing.

New Zealand seems to be only country that’s got it right and that’s because they consulted sex workers. Any other country doesn’t talk to sex workers. They make plans and laws for them without discussing with them or caring about what they say.

John: Exactly. And it’s sad that that’s so surprising. Because unfortunately, it seems most countries’ laws treat sex workers the exact same way we treat cats on Halloween. That is, squeezing them into bad situations without their input or consent and refusing to take their feelings into consideration when they’re clearly not that happy. And look — I’m not saying the New Zealand model is perfect. That woman acknowledges that and there are good-faith disagreements to be had over the finer points of a decriminalization policy. But if we basically agree, as I hope we do, that making sex work safer for the people who do it is a priority, it’s the direction to strive toward. And we’re actually taking some slow steps in the right direction. New York recently repealed its loitering law, and California seems poised to do the same. Meanwhile, prosecutors around the country have announced they won’t pursue certain prostitution cases and will dismiss thousands of pending ones, which is great. And look, to those who are still uncomfortable, out of a concern that there are people who feel economically forced into sex work, I totally agree with you. That is a huge problem. But the fact is, our current laws are not addressing that. If you want to do that, that’s a much bigger conversation. Because fundamentally, the only way to make sure that people have a choice in the way they earn money is to make housing affordable, healthcare accessible, and to not burden marginalized people with criminal records that lead to a cycle of joblessness, homelessness, and desperation. But until such time as we have that conversation — and it doesn’t seem like something enough people are itching to have right now — we need to stop pursuing policies that harass, endanger, and occasionally refrigerate sex workers and instead, start listening to what they actually want. Because, unfortunately, if we don’t do that, then we’re going to carry on looking like a bunch of fucking clowns. And now this.

* * *

Announcer: And now a fond farewell to the Wendy Williams Show.

How you doin’? Uh-uh. First-time customer. This is an accomplished woman according to everybody but me. I don’t know who this is. There is nothing worse than an attractive killer. What the criminology is going on? What the Bruce Lee is going on? What the Luther Vandross is going on with you? Someone is going to get fired. I think it should be you. They took a massive dump in a pair of Manolo Blahniks. I eat my baked potato with the skin. Clap if you eat the skin. Clap if you think she should suffer. Clap if you’ve ever wanted to kill somebody. I am trying to push a burp down. That’s a problem when you start out hot. There is nowhere to go but down. He is so weak, I don’t understand. I am about to ditch respect you crazy. That head is long. Guilty, guilty, guilty. Die, die, die. It’s okay. It’s okay. It’s okay.


John: That’s our show. Thanks so much for watching.


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