Of Sex Work and Censorship

Un-retired call girl Maggie McNeill on selective enforcement of sex work

“Censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second.” — Phil Kerby

Maggie McNeill, aka “ The Honest Courtesan,” returns to the show to discuss her latest article for Reason Magazine on a creeping threat to free speech. She reports how Visa and Mastercard have revoked credit card payments for PornHub under intense political pressure from progressive puritans and social conservatives alike. While non-users of the platform may think this won’t affect them, it is likely only the beginning of a strong push — led by a new bipartisan coalition — to censor large swaths of the internet and eliminate so-called “Section 230” protections.

In addition to her background as a librarian, McNeill has worked as a sex worker for much of her adult life. Her frank and compelling blog (meticulously indexed) sheds light on the many myths and misconceptions surrounding her chosen profession. Contrary to what the Nicolas Kristoffs and Josh Hawleys of the world would have you believe, not every working girl or actor in pornography is a victim of abuse or sex trafficking. Read for yourself and find out (Safe For Work).

McNeill explains why criminalization of sex worker backfires, and why we should all be concerned about our free speech rights given the way the political winds are blowing.


Bob Zadek: Welcome to the Bob Zadek Show, the longest running live libertarian talk radio show in all of radio. Thank you so much for joining me again this Sunday morning. We are the show of ideas, never once the show of attitude. I thought it might be fun this time of year to discuss the last vestige of puritanical America, the occupation of sex work and how it it is moralizing in the extreme. Libertarians universally rail against criminalization of an activity which has no victim, which is totally private, which doesn’t harm anybody. It is up to these participants alone to make an uncoerced decision to participate or not, it doesn’t bother anybody.

Nobody should care, but they do. We have cared since the founding of our country. The states have more or less criminalized prostitution since our founding. At the federal level, prostitution started to become illegal in the early part of the last century with the passage of the Mann Act, which was transporting a woman across state lines for immoral purposes. Ever since 1910, the Federal criminal law has criminalized prostitution.

What strikes me as strange is that nobody questions why we still have these archaic laws on our books. We are not talking about acts that are acknowledged to be criminal and should be prohibited. We are not talking about exploitation of minors in America.

We are not talking about coerced activity. We are not talking about anything like that. We are talking about the act of a male and a female agreeing to trade sexual favors for money and all of the related activities that spin out.

To help us understand the issues, I’m happy to welcome back to the show, Maggie MacNeil. Maggie knows about these issues firsthand. She was in her prior life, a sex worker. She understands the experience firsthand. She has been blogging about the relationship of society and sex work for the last decade.

Her blog, The Honest Courtesan, is widely read and her columns are heavily researched. Maggie knows what she is talking about, both from us studies and from her own life experiences. Maggie, and I will explore how the enforcement of these archaic criminal statutes that criminalize or attempt to criminalize private sexual activity are inherently inherently racist. During this somewhat unpleasant wake period in American history, we ought to be highly sensitive to the racial component of all of this. Maggie, welcome to the show this morning.

Maggie McNeill: Good morning, Bob.

Defining The Umbrella of “Sex Work”

Bob Zadek: What activities are included in your writing, as sex work? Are all of them illegal? Are some of them illegal? Where are we in America today on sex work? To make it clear to our audience, we are talking about consensual activity conducted by adults that is uncoerced.

Maggie McNeill: Bob, sex work is an umbrella term. It applies to anything. It’s a little controversial, even among sex workers. Selling one’s own erotic labor is sex work. Prostitution, of course, stripping, performing porn, camming, phone sex, any of this kind of thing. Managing a brothel is not considered sex work. It is certainly adjacent, but it doesn’t involve one’s own erotic labor. Working in an adult bookstore wouldn’t be sex work, either. Of the various branches, the only one that’s really fully criminalized in the United States right now is prostitution. Even many of the others like stripping and porn are attacked.

But we have incidents, like for example, a few years ago in San Diego, the cops raided a strip club and had all the dancers lined up and strip searched them. You have the censors trying to censor porn. So that’s under attack, even though it is legal. So you’ve got that sort of thing. The only ones I think of that are rarely attacked are the ones that are not flashy enough. Like phone sex. It has almost no visible presence that prohibitionists can get a hold of. They would sound silly if they attacked it.

Current Legal State of Sex Work

Bob Zadek: Is prostitution a crime on the books? Is it not enforced? Is it enforced sporadically? What is the degree of enforcement? We have a lot of laws that are selectively enforced at the whim of local law enforcement officials. How aggressive is prostitution enforcement in the country?

Maggie McNeill: If you had asked me this question 15 years ago, I would have told you that enforcement was indeed sporadic. What happened was in about 2008–2009, the police departments of the country realized that the growing sex trafficking hysteria was a cash cow. One notable example that in 2009 in San Jose, California, it disbanded their vice unit for lack of funding. The following year they regrouped it and rebuilt it with the same cast of characters, but they now called it the Human Trafficking Task Force and it was under a federal grant. So there’s a lot of money to be made for police departments in so-called “sex trafficking busts.”

All they have to do is claim that their prostitution stings or prostitution raids are to go after sex trafficking, and the feds give them money for it. They can sound like heroes to the media. Nobody is being rescued. Lives are being ruined. One of the primary activities that cops use to get what they laughingly call evidence for prostitution, is to rape or sexually assault sex workers and call that evidences of prostitution. So that’s pretty awful. To your question, it depends on the state. Some states are extremely aggressive in enforcement and some states not so much. So Florida is very bad. Texas is very bad. Ohio is extremely bad. In the others it comes and goes. New Mexico Is not aggressive but Arizona right next door is extremely aggressive. Washington State does quite heavily go after sex workers up here.

Sex Trafficking: A Clouded Meaning

Bob Zadek: You mentioned, you mentioned the phrase “sex trafficking.” What does that mean exactly, because it’s in the news a lot. It happened with Kraft in Florida. That was a sex trafficking raid. Kraft is of course the owner of the patriots football team. He beat the rap, as they say and film noir. He was acquitted in his trial. He had pretty good facts and pretty good lawyers. What is sex trafficking in its law enforcement in a somewhat technical sense?

Maggie McNeill I’ve actually written snarky columns before about the lack of meanings of the phrase “sex trafficking.” It is generally used to mean pretty much whatever the speaker wants it to mean. If you are a feminist types or a christian fundamentalist type, it can mean almost anything sexual. You have the immigration cops using it to mean undocumented border crossing. Cops tend to use it to mean prostitution. In the strict legal sense, what it means is the use of force, fraud or coercion. That’s the phrase. In other words, if you lied to a person and misrepresented what percentage of the money they would be getting, that would be considered sex trafficking. If you literally put a gun to someone’s head or threaten their family or something, that would also be considered sex trafficking. Those kinds of incidents are so fabulously rare that they just don’t make a good bang for the buck.

There was a series of raids right around Thanksgiving in Ohio, Florida, and Massachusetts, if I remember correctly, where they had the cops do your standard ordinary old prostitution sting by putting the disguised police woman out in 70s movie drag, or putting fake ads in on the internet to lure unwary clients– that sort of thing. They arrest 150 or 200 people and they call it a massive sex trafficking raid. There was no sex trafficking. There are no allegations of sex trafficking, nobody is accused under the sex trafficking laws of that state. But they never asked this question. They just repeat the police press release.

Bob Zadek: Those of us who pay attention to policy behind criminal law statutes wince when we learn about criminal law that is arbitrary, where it is impossible to know if you are breaking the law. How could anybody citizens be expected to respect the law if it is vague in its drafting and arbitrary in its enforcement. That just builds disrespect, which weakens civics civil society in general. With prostitution, is it a crime to be the customer or only a crime to be the seller? Are both breaking the law or is only the seller breaking the law in general?

Maggie McNeill: In the United States, under so called faux criminalization, which is pretty rare by the way. A lot of former communist countries and communist countries have it as well. So in Russia, and in a lot of the former Soviet republics in Vietnam, in China, adn in Islamic states in the Middle East, everything associated with it is illegal. So selling it is illegal buying is illegal, advertising is illegal, talking about it is illegal, etc. In most countries, they have what we call legalization, and under legalization, the act itself is not illegal.

Many things around it are illegal. So for example, the actual selling of sex might be legal, but keeping a place where you could meet customers would be illegal, advertising would be illegal, helping someone else in some way, like being a maid or driver for a sex worker, would be criminal. Decriminalization means it’s not illegal at all, it’s treated like any other service industry. There might be rules around it, like zoning.

Finally, you get this weird hybrid that has become very popular in the past few years, which is called a Swedish model, or sometimes the Nordic model. Women are held to be not not capable of making a rational decision when it comes to sex work, and so the man is responsible. In those places, on paper, selling is legal, but buying is illegal. And I say on paper, because the fact of the matter is in those places, if they want to prosecute a woman anyway, they can get her on other things like advertising or pimping or whatever. Even when they don’t prosecute them, there are civil penalties. They will take their children away, they will evict from their homes, that sort of thing.

Bob Zadek: In my preparing for this topic I was struck by the fact that prostitution has always been around as long as there have been males and females. Prostitution has always been around. Te flyspeck of time when prostitution was considered a crime is a couple hundred years in the span of all of human history. For the most part, prostitutes were simply carrying out a professional activity. It is human nature between consenting adults. It is purely private and uncoerced, as I said earlier in the show.

We have this flyspeck of time, mostly coextensive with the American experience where it became illegal. It’s kind of it’s this tiny bit of time that probably will disappear shortly. But here we are in the midst of it. It’s astonishing to me how this victimless activity has been criminalized, except for in a few counties where it is decriminalized. In discussing the subject today, enforcement, just like drug enforcement, there are higher penalties for inner-city minorities.

Prostitution and Selective Enforcement

Bob Zadek: Is it true that the crime of prostitution is not enforced across the board? Prostitution carried on by upper class or middle class is not enforced while prostitution carried on by inner cities and lower class minorities isn’t forced. Tell us a bit about the selective enforcement, mostly against minorities, of prostitution laws around the country, how much of it is racially motivated or not motivated.

Maggie McNeill: It is a very serious discrepancy. One of the things we among sex work activists have a grim joke about it. What’s being punished in prostitution enforcement is visibility. The more visible you are, the more likely you are to be targeted by the cops. So of course, the number one group that is targeted by cops are street workers. These workers are lower on the socioeconomic spectrum. And rather than advertising on the internet, they walk on the street to be seen.

Bob Zadek: I was going to share a story about a colleague of mine, a middle aged guy, going back into the dating scene having been away from the dating scene for a long time. He had a first date, where he met another middle-aged woman, and they were sitting having dinner on their first date. The woman related to my friend that she was old fashioned. In her standards, the man always paid. That was how she was brought up. If he was going to date her, the expectation was that he would be paying for vacations and meals.

That’s just the way she was brought up. It struck me, what is the difference between that and prostitution? Since it was clear that daily relationships would probably have a sexual component to it and since that was not going to go forward unless he paid for everything, what was the difference except for the race and the class? So police simply are satisfying middle-class standards. It’s like litter in the street. Clean the streets so we don’t have to deal with it emotionally and visually as we go about our daily lives.

Maggie McNeill: Since it is the more visual aspect that is criminalized, think about the most socioeconomically disadvantaged. In the United States, since there are more poor black people than poor white people, at least in cities, then you tend to see a larger percentage of street workers are black, and therefore a larger percentage of street workers are the ones that are getting arrested. The massage parlor phenomenon of courses is largely dominated by Asian ladies.

The short version is, if you look at the history of prostitution enforcement in the United States, it was since the very beginning tied in with race-based enforcement methods. The very first federal prostitution law was the Page Act of 1872. This was intended to discourage immigration by Chinese. This law has always been tied together with anti-Asian racism.

Bob Zadek: My regular listeners will immediately recall shows on drug criminalization, which started early in the 20th century in the United States. Starting in the early part of the 20th century, drugs began to become criminalized at the federal level, and thereafter at the state level, and all that had a profound racial component as well. Around 1913, The New York Times published a news story, allegedly “fact based,” reporting that marijuana should be criminalized, because the evidence shows that when black men use marijuana, they become better pistol shots and they become more sex craved. We see exactly the same racist tendencies dressed up in some moral clothing.

That’s just what’s going on with prostitution. A lot of mainstream feminism rails against sex work in general, prostitution, strip clubs and pornography and it becomes mainstream feminism to oppose that. This struck me as being utterly hypocritical, because after all, part of the mantra of feminism is that it is a woman’s body and she can do what she wants with it. So what struck what strikes me as being somewhat hypocritical is how do feminists defend their opposition to sex work and yet maintain that core principle of feminism, if that is a belief system.

Maggie McNeill: There are rationalizations of why those two are different. The rationalizations are frankly incoherent. What it basically boils down to is, they use the concept of false consciousness. Basically, in a nutshell version is if you make a decision that we disagree with, then you clearly are not making that decision in your right mind. You’re making that decision in delusion. They simply say that a woman who is deciding to have an abortion, she is making a rational decision. A woman who is deciding to do sex work is not in her right mind, something’s wrong with her. And therefore, we have to make a decision for her because she is not in the right mind. It is nakedly hypocritical. There really is just no way you can address it rationally.

Sex Work and Coercion

Bob Zadek: Part of the argument against criminalization of prostitution, is that the woman who engage in it are coerced. They are under intense pressure because nobody would do that work unless they were forced to. Therefore, it is exploitation. This word, like greed, is so misused in society that it is only used when there is no better argument to use. So tell us how much of that argument is malarkey? How much of that is true? To what degree? Is it a rational decision that is uncoerced for people in the sex trade industry?

Maggie McNeill: Sometimes a person’s choices may be constrained.A person may only have a limited number of jobs that they are qualified for, or that are available at a given time. And the fact of the matter is that sex work is nearly always in demand. If you have no other options, sex work can seem like a good one. If you have got limited options, sex work can be a good one. If you have limited options that are present, sex work can be the best one. There are many cases like that.

In my case, for example, I had a great difficulty playing well with others. I have trouble taking orders. I have trouble not doing things my own way. Having a business of my own, having a business that I control, where I’m the one that makes all the decisions is really good for my mental health. So for me sex work was a way for me to make more money than I would have made at the other things I was qualified for. That comes up over and over.

They usually will say that the two things that motivated them most were money and flexibility. A lot of women who are single mothers do sex work because it allows them to be with their children and work around the children’s schedules. I used to have an escort service when a girl like that worked for me. She only worked within school hours.

Sex Work or Not? More Blurred Lines

Bob Zadek: You mentioned escort service. I know they are legal and it was a legitimate commercial activity. It was astonishing to me how the escort services and regulators have to sort of walk this fine line. An escort service is simply a service where a male will hire an escort to be on his arm at a public event so he can be seen with a trophy woman and accomplish whatever business or personal or social purposes he wants to accomplish. He pays the woman for an evening for her time. After all that there is no sex. But what if they kiss?

Escort services must make regulators insane as they draw these absurdly artificial fine lines. Imagine you hire an escort for the evening. You pay her from nine o’clock at night until one in the morning. Then she hangs around. Then you have sex. Well, does that switch the whole thing to prostitution? Has she stopped being a paid person? You end up with absurd distinctions, and for what end? Because it isn’t done on the streets, and because people are wearing tuxedos and evening gowns, and the result is exactly the same, and there’s some money that gets swapped along the way and some sex that gets swapped along the way, it is the same deal and the same core human motivations.

I also researched about these sugar daddy websites and sugar daddy services, which are totally legal. Tell us about sugar daddy websites. It’s like for rich people. Tell us about sugar daddy websites and tell us that explain to us how they are legal and what transpires there. I challenge the audience to try to distinguish that with prostitution. Tell us what these websites are.

Maggie McNeill: The engine that drives sugar daddy websites is women who want to pretend they’re not whores, and men who want to pretend they are not paying for sex. You have a lot of different pricing structures in sex work. Almost nobody is charged by the act anymore. You are charging by the hour or minute. Sugar daddy is a form of sex work where the pricing structure is monthly. Some girls on there do sell dates.

Bob Zadek: You have women who will advertise, with photos, that they are looking for a “pull no punches,” that they are looking for wealthy males to be their companion. They indicate their price structure. They expect their medical school tuition to be paid. They expect to be taken on two or three paid vacations a year. They have their rules.The men are told, “do not call unless you are permitted or prepared to pay these fees.” Clearly, there’s no question about it, there is a substantial sexual component to it all. The men advertise on sugar daddy websites what they are prepared to pay. Is that prostitution?

Maggie McNeill: The main rationale seems to be that because the girls aren’t charging by the hour, and because it is not a short term case, it is not prostitution. But even as an escort, I made long term arrangements. I made arrangements that went on for months and months and months. I just recently had an arrangement that went on for about 16 months. We’re not talking about a sharp line. There’s certainly no clear line between them.

Bob Zadek: Just to summarize, the reason I chose this show is because it invites arbitrary enforcement. It’s clearly racial, it criminalizes totally private behavior with no victim. It is imposing through criminal law morality, the most private of decisions people must make. It has no place in society in America at this point in time. Now, Maggie, you write brilliantly on this subject on a very informed basis. How can our listeners follow your work, please?

Maggie McNeill: I’ve got six books on Amazon. And a documentary actually. So if you go to Amazon, and simply search Maggie McNeill, you will find my books. My movie is on Amazon Prime as well.

Originally published at on December 25, 2020.



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Bob Zadek

Bob Zadek • host of The Bob Zadek Show on 860AM – The Answer.