The War on Sex
Cathy Reisenwitz dissects the bipartisan moral panicking around “trafficking” used as pretext for crackdowns on consensual sex
Cathy Reisenwitz, editor in chief of the Sex and the State Substack, explains what’s wrong with criminalizing sex work as a solution to the problem of human trafficking. While the latter is a real problem worthy of our attention, she says, the government has made a scapegoat out of sex workers engaged in consensual acts with other consenting adults, while neglecting to go after the real culprits behind human trafficking.
Listen or read the interview summary below:
Bob Zadek: Hello, everyone, I’m Bob Zadek, host of the country’s longest-running libertarian broadcast. We’re nationally streamed at 8:00 AM Pacific Time Sundays on the 860 AM The Answer app.
My podcast archive provides more than a decade of historical issues. And bobzadek.com offers resource materials, book lists, and other topical podcasts, and more. My show strives to offer in-depth content on social, political, and economic issues which really matter, with the ideal guest, accessible and entertaining. And every show will meet our standard of ideas, not attitude.
Our country is controlled by two major political marketing cooperatives. They’re called political parties, but they are not. In theory, the unifying force in a political party is a set of common beliefs, and that at election time, voters get to choose which set of beliefs they support. It’s a source of continuing astonishment to me that our country can survive with so many issues that both parties get wrong.
Today, we’ll discuss one of those issues, which is driven by religious fanaticism, misplaced moralism, political opportunism, sexism, racism, and class warfare. That’s a lot for one issue to cover, but it does.
To help me sort out this important issue that nobody seems to get right. I’m happy to welcome to the show, Cathy Reisenwitz. We’re going to discuss sex work in general and its decriminalization specifically. Cathy is the editor-in-chief of Sex and the State. Her writings have appeared in the Chicago Tribune, Daily Beast, and Reason Magazine. She’s been quoted by the New York Times Magazine and has appeared on Fox News and Al Jazeera America. Cathy, welcome to the show.
Cathy Reisenwitz: Thanks for having me, Bob.
Is Sex Work Magic?
Bob Zadek: Okay, we’re talking about sex work. Quite a broad, somewhat undescriptive topic. First, tell us what we both mean by sex work, so the audience has a frame of reference.
Cathy Reisenwitz: Absolutely. The analogy I like to use is the food industry. We all understand that the food industry encompasses a wide variety of subcategories, restaurants, grocery stores, food carts, etc. Sex work is similarly an umbrella term, encompassing all forms of erotic labor — everything from someone who writes erotica, to someone who performs in pornography, to someone who does “full-service sex work” — that would be your escort. That’s the sex work umbrella.
Bob Zadek: That’s a lot of activities. We use the phrase “sex work,” which means it’s basically service for money or for some compensation — almost always money. We’re talking about a service provided by one person to another. Now, of the subcategories of sex work, not all of them are illegal. Give us in broad terms which types of sex work are legal, which types of sex work are illegal, and which are regulated, just in very broad terms.
Cathy Reisenwitz: There are many categories of legal sex work. For example, making pornography is legal. Being an OnlyFans creator is legal, being a stripper is legal, being a phone sex operator is legal. The main category of illegal sex work is, as I said, full-service sex work. A straightforward exchange of sex for money is not legal in most parts of the United States, or in most parts of the world. It is a little gray sometimes because there are many places where escorting is legal. Escorting is when you pay someone for their time, during which sex may or may not happen. There’s also sugar dating, which is legal. That is where you pay someone to either go on a date with you or be in a relationship with you. And generally, sex occurs, but it doesn’t necessarily have to.
As far as regulation goes, a lot of sex work is highly regulated. When you look at strip clubs, for example, there are a lot of restrictions on where strip clubs can be located. There are often laws about how naked the performers can be at strip clubs. Sometimes there are laws that dictate if it’s a full nude strip club, you can’t serve alcohol, etc. Even phone sex operators are restricted and regulated in what they can talk about on the phone. A lot of phone sex operators have to worry about getting obscenity charges if they talk about certain acts — just talking about the acts can get them an obscenity charge. Sex work is highly regulated, but the category that I’m focusing on decriminalizing the most is full-service sex work, because the harms of criminalization of full-service sex work are so great, and the case for decriminalizing it is so compelling.
What is “Sex” from the Law’s Point of View?
Bob Zadek: Compliments of Bill Clinton, we now have learned post-1990s that it’s a sensible question to ask, “What does sex mean?”
We’re not going to go into mechanics, but you said, “exchanging sex for money.”
Now, of course, you weren’t quoting from the statute, you are helping a lay audience understand what we’re talking about. But the statutes must be pretty specific, because criminal law has to be specific, or else somebody cannot tell if they’re breaking the law. In very broad terms, with no prurient details, when you say exchanging sex for money, what does that mean to our audience? What can or cannot you do for money?
Cathy Reisenwitz: I’ve been continually surprised at how broadly a lot of legislation is written. But I would say, often, it is up to the interpretation of police and prosecutors what constitutes sexual contact. For example, if you give a naked massage, but there’s no genital contact, is that sex work? Unclear. But generally speaking, when I hear about people being arrested and charged for sex work, there is genital contact involved.
Bob Zadek: It’s general — it’s not a precise statutory definition. So, therefore, in the margins, people can be committing a crime without realizing it.
Cathy Reisenwitz: I think if you are paying someone directly for a service you would consider sexual, you probably know whether you’re doing that. But again, when it comes to sugar dating or escorting, you probably know whether you’re having sex or not, and you probably know whether you’re paying someone but the line is messy around, are you paying for the time? Or, are you paying for the sex? That’s harder to prove.
Bob Zadek: What’s so interesting to me about this topic is that in the history of mankind, the world did not criminalize the kind of sexual activity that we, today, in 21st-century America, criminalize. In the span of human experience, it is an unbelievably new concept. In general, criminal law ought to respect an underlying morality — some baseline that everybody agrees if this happens, it violates some normal human interaction that is bad for society and ought to be prohibited. Yet the underlying morality which criminalizes sex work is almost new to the western hemisphere. Where did we get this from?
Cathy Reisenwitz: My understanding of the situation is that some of the first laws against prostitution were passed in the early 1900s in the United States. The laws mentioned and coincided with two trends. One was an influx of immigrants into the United States, and a lot of young women moving from rural areas to urban areas without their families. This created a moral panic around loose women from overseas corrupting the nation’s native-born men, and naive girls from the country getting pulled into sex work and getting corrupted by sex work. That created the demand for these laws against prostitution.
Why Women’s Rights Movements Support Criminalization of Sex Work
Bob Zadek: What’s interesting is, as with so many topics that I cover, whether it’s immigration, drug regulation, and even to some extent gun laws, they have bigotry — an ignorant, almost superstitious bias — at their roots.
It’s not founded in sound public health. It’s not founded in harm to others, because if there’s any activity that’s private to the people involved, it’s sex work. Even identifying who is the victim — the person who is the seller, or the person who is the buyer? — is a bit of a challenge.
It’s the same bias, when you describe the naive country girls coming into the city, that drove our country to prevent women from voting for so many years — because women were delicate flowers that needed to be protected. It was sexist. One would think that the same movement that got us to the point that women are universally acknowledged as having equal rights, with equal competence and equal dominion over themselves, ought to have been equally forceful in undoing the sexist bias in the criminalization and regulation of sex work.
Am I right in saying that, in general, there’s a strong women’s movement to continue the regulation or criminalization of sex work? It’s like the role of the NAACP, and organizations that seem to protect the rights of black people, yet they oppose school choice — which is profoundly beneficial to black people — for political reasons. It’s always been strange that black rights organizations have been so vigorous in opposing school choice. Same with those women’s rights organizations and their position on sex work. Help us understand that very strange position, which seems to be contrary to what women ought to want for themselves.
Cathy Reisenwitz: Yeah, totally. As problematic as it is to talk about mainstream feminism — yes, within whatever you could call mainstream feminism, there is strong strains of what I call sex negativity, which is the idea in opposition to sex-positive feminism, which is a subset of feminism, which says that sex is inherently morally neutral. What the sex-negative feminists seem to believe is that sex is magic: that a woman can fully consent to cleaning a toilet for money, or doing domestic labor for money, or making a latte for money, but for some reason, she can’t consent to having sex for money.
What many mainstream feminists have done — we call them Sex Worker Exclusionary Feminists, or SWERFs — is they have identified correctly that sex work is often exploitative, and that there are lots of harms that are associated with doing sex work. All true. But they’re ignoring that there are lots of harms and exploitations associated with all work. It varies with how much power you have in the work that you’re doing. If you’re a CEO, you’re probably going to be exploited a lot less than if you’re a janitor. Same with sex work. If you’re a high-end sex worker who is well educated and has lots of other options, you’re going to be treated better than if you are a survival sex worker who has to work outside.
More importantly, what they’re ignoring is that what makes sex work more dangerous than it needs to be and more exploitative than it needs to be, is its criminalization of stigmatization — that without criminalization and stigmatization, people doing sex work could easily do other things if they find that they’re being exploited, or they don’t like it.
When you decriminalize sex work, where it has been tried, there are lower rates of exploitation, lower rates of violence, and less trafficking. Instead of looking at the situation and saying, “Sex work is worse than it needs to be because we’re still stigmatizing and criminalizing it,” they’re saying, “Sex is magic. It’s a special category, and we need to use the force of law and violence to force women to not engage in it.”
That’s where they really miss the boat.
How FOSTA & SESTA Turn All Sex Work into “Trafficking”
Bob Zadek: The legislatures, both state and federal, have somewhat recently enacted very broad sex work regulations, all under the guise of protecting women. And so you have a bunch of legislators, all with little or no knowledge, nor any insights of the type you have just explained to us, even without ever hearing the other point of view, have enacted pretty broad, very sweeping legislation. Talk about unanticipated consequences. Talk about collateral damage. These pieces of legislation do that. We would like to think a legislator is sent to think through, have hearings, and draft legislation that’s focused and designed to fix a clear problem. These items of legislation are the opposite. We have legislation such as FOSTA, the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act. Who knows how they come up with these titles? If a consumer product seller would use that label on their product, they’d be in prison, because it is so misleading.
Cathy, if we talk about the legislation, we will explain so much of what we as a country get wrong. Tell us the brief story of the FOSTA legislation: What the goal was, what the problem was that was attempted to be fixed, how they attempted to fix it, how wrong they got, and who are the victims?
A tall order. I can break up that question to sub-parts. First, what is FOSTA and what was the harm they were intending to focus on?
Cathy Reisenwitz: We are in the midst of a moral panic around sex trafficking in the United States. There are multiple organizations with evangelical roots and evangelical funding, whose whole mission is to “raise awareness about sex trafficking.” And so, what they do is they raise millions-
Bob Zadek: Help us understand because that phrase appears all the time. It’s like a blind label they get to attack like fascism. What is sex trafficking, as you use the phrase, so the audience can follow your explanation?
Cathy Reisenwitz: Thank you. Sex trafficking officially is when you coerce someone into sex work, and generally speaking, move them or help them move across countries or across states in order to do sex work that they are not consenting to. Unfortunately, in the United States, the government at the state or federal level in most cases does not differentiate between adult consensual sex work and sex trafficking. Any instance of sex work, in the eyes of the law, can be considered sex trafficking.
When you look at the news reporting on sex trafficking arrests and sex trafficking stings, in every case I’ve examined, what you find is either adult consenting sex workers who have been labeled human trafficking victims, sex trafficking victims.
In the cases where sex trafficking does occur, where somebody really is coerced into doing sex that they don’t want to do, in every case I’m aware of, it’s either an instance of domestic violence — someone’s partner is forcing them into sex work — and/or it’s an issue of immigration status, where someone has a shaky immigration status. In many cases they are not forced but coerced into doing sex work, which they wouldn’t otherwise do if they had a solid immigration status. So that’s the definition of sex trafficking.
Bob Zadek: In other words, the government believes that women are per se, incapable of having consented to this activity because somebody else decided it is somehow unpleasant or whatever negative label you want to put on it. They create a presumption that cannot be overcome. It’s a presumption that’s irreversible, that a human being cannot consent to offer sex for money. Therefore, the activity itself had to have been coerced, because it couldn’t have been consented to because nobody in their right mind would consent. In other words, Cathy, a woman doesn’t have the capacity to consent. So built right into what you said is this sexist statement women lack the emotional or intellectual capacity to consent.
So, how does the statute fix this nonexistent problem?
Cathy Reisenwitz: Where I was going with the evangelical organizations is that they want to end all commercial sex in the United States, including online pornography. And they’ve ginned up this moral panic about human trafficking in the US. They do things like create tip lines, where you can call in and say, “Oh, I found an instance of human trafficking.”
But these cases aren’t confirmed. So anytime somebody sees an adult consenting sex worker outside, they call that in and say it’s sex trafficking. Cindy McCain, who is a huge proponent of this moral panic, reported an interracial family as an instance of sex trafficking because they were in an airport and they were interracial.
The same instance can result in multiple tips. These organizations are putting out press releases and documentaries, saying, millions of people in Texas alone are human trafficking victims, based on data that are worse than worthless. The best estimates indicate that sex trafficking in the United States is very rare, and again, a result of domestic violence and immigration status when it happens.
So anyway, because they want to end commercial sex and online pornography, they have ginned up a moral panic around sex trafficking happening online. The idea is that when people are advertising their escorting services online, every instance of that is actually an instance of sex trafficking, and the pimp is writing the ad and forcing the woman to service the client. They want to take all places where a sex worker could advertise their services and force them offline, so they created a piece of legislation that made online platforms liable for any sex trafficking that might happen on those platforms.
We have documented proof from the Justice Department itself that for instance, Backpage, which was a place where sex workers would advertise, would find instances where they thought that human trafficking was happening and proactively alert the Justice Department. In addition, online platforms send millions of instances of child sexual abuse material to the Justice Department, where the Justice Department takes zero action already.
Regardless, these legislators decided based on the testimony of these evangelicals — and again not hearing anything from sex workers, not hearing anything from the people who would actually be impacted by this — “We’re going to make these platforms liable for any sex trafficking that might happen.” Well, platforms don’t have the time and energy to make sure that every instance of sexual material that comes across their platform is fully consensual. They can’t investigate every single thing. And what they did was they just booted all sexual content off their platforms. So, in the wake of SESTA-FOSTA, which passed in 2018, Google started removing people’s —
Bob Zadek: SESTA is an acronym for the legislation Cathy is talking about. The full name is Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. When Cathy says SESTA, it’s that body of legislation that transfers liability onto otherwise neutral and immune platforms who are just providers on the platform and that’s all.
Cathy Reisenwitz: Thank you. I’m using SESTA-FOSTA interchangeably for the piece of legislation that passed. Platforms started just booting all sexual content, so people lost their private Google Drive files, sex educators’ education materials were taken offline. Platforms took down their personal sections. But most importantly, sex workers lost the places where they could advertise, and they lost the places where they could exchange safety information, which means that sex workers couldn’t screen their clients before they saw them, and they couldn’t find and negotiate with clients over the internet, which means they had to find clients and negotiate with clients in person. Both of those things are far more dangerous than doing it online. We saw rates of sex workers being murdered and sex workers taking their own lives rose significantly after the passage of SESTA-FOSTA. Nearly all sex workers saw their incomes decline. They saw their quality-of-life decline, sex work became more dangerous.
Before SESTA-FOSTA passed, law enforcement told Congress, “This is going to make it more difficult to find trafficking victims, because we work with platforms right now. Platforms when they send us tips because they see something fishy, we go investigate. That’s how we find sex traffickers. This will make it harder for us.”
Indeed, after SESTA-FOSTA passed, by all indications, sexual trafficking rose, and law enforcement had a harder time. So not only was it totally unnecessary, because platforms were already complying, and because platforms were already responsible for submitting any kind of sexual illegality to the federal government. They already were, and the federal government was already not doing anything with that information. It didn’t fund the investigation or prosecution of sex trafficking, or child sexual abuse material at all. It didn’t do what it was supposed to do. It made the problem it was supposed to solve worse, it curtailed free speech rights, it limited the ability of competitors to these platforms. It puts a huge onus on these platforms, which makes it more difficult for competitors to arise, and it led to the deaths of sex workers.
Distinguishing Real Trafficking from Moral Panicking
Bob Zadek: First, we start with a nonproblem, then we go and fix the nonproblem with a statute which is a major problem. Far more than the non-existing problem they were trying to fix, as a result of which life becomes more dangerous for sex workers. And I suppose there is an ignorant subset of the population, which would say, “fine, an additional unadvertised benefit,” but shame on them, obviously.
We have sex workers’ lives become more dangerous. And all these sex workers want to do is enter into a voluntary, mutually-beneficial, uncoerced exchange of consenting adults. That’s all they want to do. And federal legislation has made their life cheaper and more hazardous and more expensive and less pleasant, with less control to fix a nonexistent superstition about sex trafficking and, Cathy —
Cathy Reisenwitz: I want to stop you, just —
Cathy Reisenwitz: I want to be clear. Sex trafficking absolutely is a problem. It absolutely does exist and where it exists, it’s a horrible thing. Nobody should have to do any kind of work if they’re not fully consenting to. Absolutely, sex trafficking is a problem. It’s simply not a problem in the United States on the scale that’s being widely claimed. And, second, it doesn’t fit the definitions that people are using to define it. And, third, it is not going to be solved by stigmatization and criminalization. It will only be made worse. All of the evidence indicates that to limit human trafficking — sex trafficking, specifically — the most efficacious way is to decriminalize sex work, provide material support, and streamline immigration. And so, it is a problem, these are not the solutions.
Bob Zadek: The environment you are describing, with the superstition and hysteria, I think, you used that word involving —
Cathy Reisenwitz: Moral panic.
Bob Zadek: Moral panic. I flashback to — I guess it was the 90s when we went through, perhaps a decade of fear that nursery schools and daycare centers were engaging in Satanistic practices, and they were permanently harming young children. Dorothy Rabinowitz wrote passionately about that for a decade in the Wall Street Journal. Families were put in prison for a very long time under the flimsiest of evidence that they were engaging in satanic practices, and then it went away. It disappeared from the earth. Also, let’s flashback to, shall we say, Salem, Massachusetts. Superstition drives policy, harms innocent lives, and then it goes away and leaves in its wake a lot of destroyed lives.
Cathy Reisenwitz: Moral panics never go away. They just rebrand. And absolutely, the sex trafficking moral panic is a rebranding of the Satanic Panic of the 90s. What’s infuriating about both of these moral panics is that the problem is very real, in that sexual abuse of minors is absolutely rampant in the United States. There are a ton of kids getting sexually abused in the United States. But the vast, vast majority of that sexual abuse is happening at the hands of family members. Then after that, it’s coaches and pastors and teachers and people who are close to the children, who have access to the children, who are in positions of authority over the children.
There are no confirmed instances of ritualistic satanic sexual abuse in daycares — that was not happening. We’re ignoring the real sources — the real threat to kids’ safety, which is the family, in the home, and the people that are close to the children who have access to the children. Focusing on the scapegoat, where we’re afraid of the fact that women are entering the workforce in mass, which necessitates the use of daycare. And so it was, “burn the daycare operators.”
Now, we have a situation where domestic violence whether it involves sex work or not, is very common. It’s very rampant. People abusing workers who have shaky immigration statuses is very common, whether it involves sex or not. You go to Amazon — they’re misusing people who are on H-1B1 visas constantly — and you do have instances of people being coerced into sex work, but it’s not random dudes in vans, kidnapping white women in Target parking lots.
We have all this panic around the scapegoat of the other when we need to be looking at what are the systems in place that make it dangerous to be a sex worker in the United States, and its stigmatization and criminalization of sex work, not stranger danger.
Successful Examples of Decriminalization
Bob Zadek: Are there states, Cathy, that do a markedly better job than others in general, in the relationship between the criminal justice system and sex work writ broadly? Are some other states we can look, to learn about their experience and whether they are right or the more restrictive states are right?
Cathy Reisenwitz: There are definitely countries that do a better job. So, for example, New Zealand is one. I think there are two others that have decriminalized sex work.
But in every place that has tried decriminalizing sex work to my knowledge, again, rates of violence against sex workers have gone down, rates of violence against clients have gone down, rates of STIs have gone down, rates of human trafficking have gone down, and the working environments are also less exploitative. For the United States, sex workers are generally regulated at the city level, at least full-service in-person sex work is generally regulated at the city level. And the laws don’t generally vary that much, but what does vary a lot is prosecution. Prosecutors have a ton of leeway and discretion in who they’re prosecuting for what crimes. Police will direct their energy accordingly if they know the prosecutor isn’t going to prioritize these prosecutions, and they will often harass sex workers less. And cities like, certainly San Francisco, and there are others.
The prosecutors, at least, the last prosecutor, not San Francisco’s current prosecutor, but San Francisco’s last prosecutors went on records, “That I am not prosecuting adult consensual sex work offenses.” And we have seen where police are able to encourage and to work with sex workers instead of harassing and arresting them. That’s one of the best ways to find and rescue true human trafficking victims because sex workers will often know who’s being coerced and who is doing it voluntarily. It just works a lot better for police to work with sex workers than against them if you’re actually trying to reduce instances of human trafficking.
Decriminalization vs. Legalization
Bob Zadek: There has been a clear trend, a healthy trend towards decriminalizing drug use. We all follow that the states have rebelled against Washington in a huge victory for federalism — we libertarians are cheering for that. Irrespective of the fact that it’s a federal crime, it’s not a state crime.
Is there any kind of a trend of a similar nature or the opposite direction involving decriminalization, maybe legalization, maybe ultimately licensing (I think Nevada has licensing) or is it too early to even be that hopeful?
Cathy Reisenwitz: I’m quite hopeful. In 2020, for the first time, the majority of United States voters said that they favor decriminalizing sex work. And we’ve seen legislation proposed in multiple cities to decriminalize sex work. Scott Wiener in California proposed legislation to decriminalize sex work at the state level. I believe, Portland, had a decriminalization measure. I think there was a statute in Michigan that was proposed. There’s an organization called Decriminalize Sex Work that’s actively working to decriminalize sex work. I definitely think that there’s hope, and I want to take a second to differentiate between legalization and decriminalization. Sex workers by and large support decriminalization over legalization. And the reason is that when you have legalization, generally speaking, it’s highly regulated in terms of who gets a license, and you’re forced to work in a brothel. There are generally not very many brothels to choose from, and it ends up being more exploitative than it would otherwise be, because you have such limited options.
A lot of the regulations put on the brothels are really to keep incumbents out — they’re very corporatist. They’re not really associated with health and safety, because one of the worst parts of legalization is that it leaves open a black market. And if you want to do sex work, but you don’t want to work for a brothel, you still have to deal with all of the harms of criminalization. And, again, if you have a situation where you’ve got a large black market for sex work, that again makes it more difficult to find and rescue, human trafficking and sex trafficking victims. A better model for making life better for everyone is decriminalization over legalization.
Bob Zadek: I hadn’t thought of that distinction between you measure that. So, thank you so much. I learned something important just now. Lights went off in my brain. I didn’t know I could be a more intelligent advocate for decriminalization. I always imagined that decriminalization was a step in the continuum. And ultimately, the holy grail was legalization. But you have just now dissuaded me. I’ll just ask you, it’s going to be election time, who to vote for as well.
Does one political party (they’re really marketing machines, and I’ll call them political parties) get it right more often than the other? This is kind of a bipartisan era — no party has the high ground. Can you help us sort that out? It’s very difficult because neither party has underlying philosophy. They just tried to put together the right position on enough issues to get 50.1% of the popular vote. They have no core, no lodestar of beliefs, but it’s a hard question.
Cathy Reisenwitz: That’s a good question. I would say that as the War on Drugs ramps down, I believe that we are ramping up the War on Sex. And by we, I mean Republicans for the most part. The 16 states that have declared porn as a public health emergency are not blue states. When I hear a politician talking about new laws and new funding for stings for sex trafficking, they don’t tend to be Democrats, they tend to be Republicans. It was the Utah legislature that passed a law that every device sold in the state has to have a porn filter installed and turned on by default.
I would say Republicans are definitely worse on the War on Sex than Democrats are. But Democrats are not good. So, SESTA — FOSTA was introduced, I believe, by Kamala Harris — it was definitely championed by Kamala Harris. There are a lot of Democrats on board with SESTA-FOSTA, and Democrats definitely participate in the sex-trafficking moral panicking. But of the legislators who are submitting the decriminalization sex or decriminalization bills, all of them are Democrats as far as I can tell. I would say they are both terrible, and the Republicans are worse.
Bob Zadek: I think also when it comes to sex trafficking, the hysteria is global because the UN is a frequent offender and contributor to that hysteria. All of these organizations wrap themselves in some moral superiority. That’s always a very comfortable starting point, without any focus on as the errors of FOSTA and SESTA about the downside of their position. It’s feel good for them and live worse for lots of other people.
The Wells Fargo Sex Worker Embargo
Bob Zadek: Wells Fargo did something on this subject, which struck me as being both indefensible, mean-spirited, and senseless. I’m talking about the rebirth of a subject which I spoke about several years ago, when it was very much in the news called Operation Choke Point, we may revisit that subject in a second, but tell us what Wells Fargo has done, and see if the audience agrees with me, with my kind of angry label on their action.
Cathy Reisenwitz: Yeah. Wells Fargo dropped the accounts of several legal sex workers and just said, “We’re not going to serve you anymore. You don’t have access to your bank account.”
Bob Zadek: “We don’t like you.”
Cathy Reisenwitz: “We don’t like you.” And this is part of a huge widespread, consistent pattern within the financial services industry to exclude and discriminate against even legal sex workers. People are losing their bank accounts. You have Visa and MasterCard dropping Pornhub saying, “We’re not going to serve Pornhub.”
It’s based on their own moral squeakiness of deciding, “We don’t like sex workers. We don’t like the sex industry, and so we’re just not going to serve you.” It’s extremely harmful to all sex workers, but especially to the most marginalized. They’re going to have the hardest time recovering from this hit. And, again, it makes no one safer. It makes people worse off and hits the marginalized the hardest. Also, they can feel morally pure.
Bob Zadek: This is revisiting, I mentioned, Operation Choke Point, this heinous banking activity that first came to light about 4–5 years ago. I did a show on this. Government was seeking to put out of business lawful activities that the federal government just didn’t approve of. Think of a gun shop — obeying all the laws, all the licenses, being careful in its record-keeping, selling a lawful product. The government didn’t like it. So, the government encouraged banks to close the accounts of gun shops. Well, if you don’t have a bank account or a credit card, you can’t function. A lawful business that somebody in government didn’t like, now, how did they do it? They declared that for a bank to have a gun shop as a customer was an unsafe and unsound banking practice. They declared that activity threatened the institutional reputation, get this, of a bank. As if Wells Fargo has a positive institutional reputation to begin with. It tarnished their reputation and it encouraged Wells Fargo, in this case: “Get rid of legal sex workers, and the country will love you and forgive all your transgressions.”
Wells Fargo didn’t really have a press release, it just came out. And it’s that practice of the obscene overreach of government.
Cathy, I want to close by thanking you, because you’ve given us an optimistic view. You have told us that in your informed opinion, the trend is moving towards the decriminalization of sex work, albeit quite slowly. There is hope that one elected official’s morality will not be forced on the rest of us, preventing consenting adults from engaging in a mutually beneficial, uncoerced exchange.
Cathy, thank you so much for giving us an hour of your time. Your insights are wonderful. You taught me a lot in just this mere hour.
Cathy Reisenwitz: Thanks for having me.
Originally published at https://bobzadek.substack.com on October 4, 2022.