This is our truth, tell us yours
Asymmetric criminalization is the sensible description of the proposal being floated by anti sex worker activists under the guise of the Nordic model. The transaction will have one party who is breaking the law, the buyer, and one party who isn’t, the service provider. The service provider has no interest in reporting the buyer to police, so, for the offence to be evidenced, the police have to either criminalize the attempt, and entrap buyers, or to use intrusive surveillance to detect the criminal acts.
When you say it as baldly as that it appears an even worse idea than at first glance. For police to use intrusive surveillance, to observe the payment being made, they will need to know who to target. That means that, even thought they are not committing a criminal offence, sex workers will have to be on police intelligence databases. How will those databases be compiled?
I know a few sex workers. They work, for the main, in an industry where pseudonyms are the norm, where they have a work phone and a private phone, where they have completely separate online identities (where they advertise and make arrangements) and real life identities. Having a separate online professional identity compared to your reali life identity is not unique to sex workers of course – ask Grant Shapps. So what will police have to do to unpick this other world of pseudonyms, of carefully organized anonymity? In case you’re assuming it will be easy, the best, and easiest to read guide to online anonymity I’ve ever come across was written by Brooke Magnanti, introducing me to the slightly exotic world of TOR, amongst other things. In order to crack sex worker data, the police will have to be prepared to use the same level of technology and analysis they currently use against terrorism.
Here’s the first problem for those in favour of asymmetric criminalization; it can’t be enforced without infringing the rights of privacy of the non criminalized parties, the service providers. It will involve much greater surveillance and intrusion than going round newsagents and writing down the phone numbers from any cards in the window advertising a large chest for sale. It will be utterly disproportionate, and it will value the human rights of people who aren’t criminals, the service providers, less than other citizens.
Listen to the antis, and you’ll get the impression that enforcing the asymmetric law is nothing more than standing around watching, and seeing who hands over the cash in an obvious and blatant way. It doesn’t work like that.It never has. Various states in the USA have criminalized the purchaseof sexual services in the past; entrapment is the most popular form of enforcement.
In the absence of electronic surveillance, or data from probing bank payment systems after the event, police will rely on forcing the non-criminalized party to make statements. This is, of course, nothing new. There is a long and sordid tradition of police using pressure on sex workers, the threat that they will be sanctioned in non-criminal ways, via the threat that they will be referred to social services as unfit parents or identified to their landlords as unfit tenants. How else will police secure a statement?
So, in order to achieve the asymmetric criminalization beloved of antis, we’ll need intrusive surveillance or coercion of witnesses who are not themselves criminalized. This, apparently, will be a good thing, and will not in anyway represent a diminution of the human rights of individuals.
There’s only one word for that. Bullshit.