Sound Off: The Ethan Zach Trio Sex Work Sessions

Introduction by Ethan Jacobi: Over one year ago, I began working on a “Sex Work” episode for my podcast, The Ethan and Zach Trio. With the aid of my spirit guide, M., I dove in at the intersection of sexuality, labor and law. Together with my co-host Zach, we conducted several hours of interviews with M. and her associates, all of whom possess expertise in the sex industry. I also conducted my own research, all with the aim of understanding this issue from every possible perspective: historical, legal, practical, and philosophical. Zach and I are grateful to M. for allowing us to promote our show on this platform, as we join you in your efforts to protect the lives and livelihoods of sex workers across the world

The goal of this podcast is to convince people that consensual sex work between adults should not be criminalized. We all know this is true, because we have listened to sex workers, and because we are dedicated to enacting laws that make them safer, instead of targeting them. But I believe that understanding our own position is only the first step. In order to have the largest impact, we need to understand our philosophical opponents. We need to convince them that criminalizing sex work is doing more harm than good, and that decriminalization is the best possible solution to the issues that they care about.

To this end, I have decided to structure the podcast as investigative journalism. Besides listening to proponents of decriminalization, I have also sought out the most intelligent and even-keeled voices on the other side of the debate, those who are opposed to decriminalization. My goal is to present the full story, in all its complex beauty, and in an unbiased way…

As much as that will be possible!

Because the fact is, I have already decided that I am a proponent for decriminalization. I made that clear at the beginning of this description. But I have made every effort to put myself in the shoes of the ideal opponent. There are people out there who will agree with me on most points, and yet they will not see eye to eye with me on this issue. If at the end of this show, they do not feel as if I have given voice to their arguments, then I’m afraid it won’t have much of an impact on future legislation. Future legislation which depends on changing the minds of the opposition.

So, with that said, here is a small portion of a much larger final product. This is an early draft of what I hope will blossom into a well-polished study on sex work. Imagine that by this time in the show, I have already introduced the opposition, and I have moved onto the high-level arguments of the proponents for decriminalization. One of the major reasons to decriminalize sex work is to disentangle it from sex trafficking. The current legal framework that criminalizes commercial sexual activity does little to protect victims of sex trafficking, and yet it does an incredible amount of harm to sex workers.

But more than that, the stigma associated with sex work is due, in large part, to its dominant characterization among sex work abolitionists. At the start of this recording, we will hear from one of those abolitionists, demonstrating how sex work and violence are inappropriately fastened at the hip. Following this, we will hear excerpts from our very first interview with M., in which we spoke about the dangers of such highly sensationalized conflations.


I hope that you enjoy what you hear, and I hope you will join me later in 2017 when we release the full version of this podcast. Until then, stay strong in your fight to end violence against sex workers!!

-Ethan Jacobi Photo by M.Dante

Begin audio transcript:

NARRATOR: So far, we’ve examined the main points on each side of the sex work debate. And despite their differences, there is one thing that they can both agree upon. The fact that, despite decades of international efforts, violence against sex workers remains a huge problem. At every stage of the process, sex workers are highly at risk. Often, the circumstances that drive people to sex work are inherently dangerous, like unsafe homes. Or worse, unsafe countries. And once in the sex industry, workers face countless dangers, not only from the typical culprits like clients and pimps, but also from the very police who are supposed to protect them. And even leaving sex work can be dangerous. Society simply does not yet open its arms to embrace people who have been sex workers. 

But when the discussion turns from exposing violence to actually understanding it, to listening to what victims want, and most importantly, to preventing violence of this sort from ever happening, the two sides of the sex work debate could not be more at odds with each other.

Just listen to the way  sex work abolitionist, Sarah O’Brien, describes it:

SARAH (2:00): Let’s be very clear. 

NARRATOR: This is Sarah O’Brien, speaking at the Oxford Union, a debate society in the U.K. 

SARAH: Whether legal, or illegal, in all its sectors, street prostitution, brothel prostitution, various forms of private enterprise, prostitution has always been and always will be a system that sexually privileges the sex buyers, who are overwhelmingly male, at the expense of those selling, mostly young women. Prostitution is inherently physically and psychologically harmful.

NARRATOR: Sarah is part of what’s know as the “End Demand” movement. Essentially, it’s an effort to curtail criminal justice practices that target the workers. Instead, this group seeks laws that go after the purchasers of sex. I’m going to discuss this legislative model in detail a little later in the show, but for now, let’s look closely at what Sarah said. To her, prostitution is simply another form of violence against women, regardless of how it is characterized by sex workers. Which is what makes it so easy for her to say things like this:

SARAH: In embracing sex work as a career choice, which the proposition proposes, we are choosing to embrace a society where girls and women are objects to be treated as garbage, frankly, and denigrated for male sexual pleasure.

NARRATOR: Sex work abolitionists see very little distinction between consensual sex work and forced sex work. Or at least that’s how they frame it in their arguments. These crusaders against sex work unabashedly erase the barrier between consent and non-consent. And that sort of brazen rhetoric is particularly dangerous when it comes to such a tricky concept, like consent.

Consider, for a moment, how difficult it is to define consent when it comes to work and money. Not only for sex workers, or even just workers in general, but for all people everywhere who engage in negotiations. Not many people would choose to keep their job if they didn’t have to. And even fewer would choose to pay so much for their cars or homes, or even healthy food, if it weren’t so expensive. The anti sex work movement is willing to blur the line of consent by applying blanket notions of violence to vastly different acts. And this is bad for everyone. But mostly for those people who choose sex work as a profession.

Sex Worker View on Violence

M.: It [prostitution in the form of street based work, brothel work and escorting]  has somehow all become conflated as the same sort of violence against women.

NARRATOR: This is M. That’s not her real name. She asked us to use it in order to protect her identity. And why is that, you might ask?

M.: I identify as a sex worker.

[M. is also a sex trade survivor, having been a transient teen

NARRATOR: And besides having to conceal their own identities to avoid undue prosecution, sex worker advocates like M have to had to work very hard to distinguish their work, which involves consensual sex between adults in exchange for money, from just about every other type of violence you can imagine. That is because the laws that have been passed, and the ways in which these laws are enforced, do little to distinguish sex work from other, very extreme, forms of violence. M. listed out all of the various forms of violence covered under one such law, The Violence Against Women Act  also known as VAWA.

M.: …acid throwing, breast ironing, bride burning, date rape, domestic violence, dowry death, honor killing, female genital mutilation, female infanticide, femicide, foot binding, forced abortion, forced marriage, forced pregnancy, forced prostitution, genocidal rape, human trafficking, murder of pregnant women, rape, pregnancy from rape, Sati, which is suicide of a widow by fire. She will walk into a fire and die by fire so that she can be with her husband. Sexual slavery, sexual violence, and violence against prostitute.

ZACH: What kind of law is this, like a United Nations thing?

M.: This is the Violence Against Women Authorization Act, which is an internationally recognized act, where nations are working together.

ETHAN: So what’s the rub? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?

M.: Well VAWA is a good thing. It’s bringing attention to very serious issues. What we might be experiencing here, and I don’t know, because I haven’t been able to have any serious one on ones with politicians, is how those topics are then applied to saying that consensual sexual exchange for money amongst adults who are in mutual agreement to do that here in the US or in Europe or in Central America or in Africa or in Asia. Where is the parallel to these horrible horrible things? Because not that making one’s living by sucking dick for dinner is awesome, but if everyone is in agreement that you want to do that for a short while or as a life choice I think personally that’s really different than, I don’t know, genocidal rape, murder of pregnant women, etc. 

ZACH: The difference is about freedom.

M.: Well also these are really violent things and commercial sexual exchange [shouldn’t] have violence attached to it.

ZACH: But even the violent things. What if they were done consensually for money?

M.: (mocking Zach for the idea of consensual self burning). There are certain things where paternal law steps in and if you really feel that your life purpose is Sati, there might be some public trouble with that

ETHAN: (asking for clarification about Sati)

M.: (explaining Sati) We’re not just talking about consent. We’re talking about one thing that doesn’t have any pain or violence or permanent damage necessarily attached to it. nDo you really view oral sex for money as…

ETHAN: Well, I think if we’re gonna get at the heart of the issue then we have to talk about rape

M.: Rape is definitely where this becomes sensitive. Because some people do view commercial sexuality as rape. Because it is not in the sanctity of marriage. That is a challenge.

ZACH: To me that is the issue. That’s where the conflation is actually occurring. It must be rape if you’re paying money for it.

M.: (adding with facetious seriousness) And you leave feeling fiscally raped, and she leaves feeling physically raped and everyone’s unhappy and we want to go and light ourselves on fire. It’s awful, but that’s not really realistic on a global level.

ETHAN: Right, these laws are made by people who have never…probably never needed to purchase a sex worker. Never engaged in sex work on their own part. Right, so there’s a huge…

M.: Wait, if we could just step back a minute. In the Violence Against Women Reauthorization Act of 2013, which has now gone through quite a few years of reauthorizations. It was put into effect in the 90s. Here, let me do this again…Forced prostitution is a crime, genocidal rape is a crime, human trafficking, the murder of pregnant women, rape, pregnancy from rape, Sati, sexual slavery, sexual violence, violence against prostitutes. This doesn’t say that prostitution is a problem. Violence against prostitutes is being recognized here. Somehow, in the state by state application of acknowledging this and the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, which is the first time that, I believe, federal focus could go out on an international level and actually have impact internationally. All of these things are now being defined as what prostitution is. It has somehow all become conflated as the same sort of violence against women.

ZACH: It’s because people don’t know what goes on. They don’t understand the actual marketplace.

M.: Are you sure they don’t?

ZACH: You conflate violence against women with consensual acts. Why do people want to do that? Because they think non-violent sexual consensual acts as evil. They think it’s a source of evil in the world. And they’re going to take any opportunity they can to associate it with some source of evil. These people are just waiting for something evil to come along that they can attach and associate consensual adult sex with.

ETHAN: That’s one theory. (suggesting an alternative theory) The source of some of the confusion, the source of some of the conflation, is that it wasn’t all that long ago that we were behaving like animals, and we’re still sort of figuring out this whole human decency thing.

M.: I think that one thing you’re right on with that is that in a really short period of time, our world has opened up very differently than it’s been. We have the internet. We have exposure to things that we didn’t necessarily have exposure to easily before. We have this new world order forming. And with that, there are realities that are different from what our cultural standing is. We have a greater melting pot of cultures that have been coming together and having to figure out how to live and work with each other. And we’ve been having to do this during a very challenging time of continuous war, religious opposition, radical religious opposition. Forms of cultural domination as we’re going into this new worldview. That’s a lot. So I think with that, people are not sure how to integrate with other cultures and beliefs that do not view what they view as the norm of their lives.

ZACH: The funny thing to me, though, is that these kind of absurd instances where the law just gets to go rogue, the law decides to take the law into its own hands.

ETHAN: That’s a good way to put it. Just real quick, before you go on. That thing before that you were reading, that’s well intentioned. The point is that it’s become, it’s inadvertently targeted sex workers and clients.

M.: I don’t think that we have read in the paper in any of these last six months about people being arrested for Sati or genocidal rape or murder of pregnant women as part of a cultural practice. And maybe it’s because I’m not exposed to Al-jazeera, the Saudi Al-jazeera, maybe there are TV networks that I don’t see and they are showing these things. But in my day to day life, what I see right now, is that there is a really huge crisis in street level sex work and the interactions between law enforcement, sex workers, customers and sex workers, customers and law enforcement.

NARRATOR: Every year, there are thousands of stories about women being hurt and killed in the sex trade. Many of them happen without ever being reported on by major news networks. 

Stories like these don’t exactly help the situation. They plant in people’s minds the very conflation we were trying to counter while speaking with M. But they also point out the obvious lack of protection for sex workers. All of these laws have had little effect on the safety of women. 

In an article published in February 2013, Time Magazine summarized the effect of the law on domestic violence. And though the issues of domestic violence and sex work are different, the response of lawmakers and the effects of these laws are analogous in many ways. The article reads, “VAWA has increased prosecution rates of domestic violence cases, but there is little conclusive evidence that it has significantly reduced the incidence of violence.” 

The article goes on to quote some leading feminist researchers on the subject of criminal justice responses to domestic violence, including Donna Coker, a law professor at the University of Miami. She says, “When you institute a mandatory arrest policy, the hope is that you will control the police and make sure they respond. But too often, it has the unintended consequence of increasing the potential for state control of marginalized women.”

And even if you disagree that these laws, which focus so much on prohibition and law enforcement, have inadvertently made the situation worse for victims, you should be able to see that they haven’t improved the lives of women like M.

M.: So what happens if you wake up one day and find that you have been defined as being on the wrong side? But it’s actually your entire life. So how do you get not he right side or the neutral side? That’s one of the challenges. People like me are currently like social pariahs.

NARRATOR: As well intentioned as they were, the authors of VAWA and other similar laws failed to do one crucial thing. To ask sex workers what they want and to take them seriously. If they had done this, they would have realized that the vast majority of sex workers are advocating for the same thing: decriminalization. A new approach to the problem of violence against women and other marginalized groups. If everyone can agree on certain acts that are bad (human trafficking, domestic violence, acts of war against women), then we should focus our enforcement efforts on these segments of crime, and not on street level prostitution.

SUMMARY OF CHANGES FROM VAWA REAUTHORIZATION 2013 DEFINITIONS • Amends definition of “culturally specific” to return to original 2005 intent • Defines “population-specific” services and organizations • Adds “intimate partner” to eligible relationships in domestic violence definition • Adds “rape crisis center” and “sex trafficking” definitions • Amends rural definitions to include Tribes, and updated census data • Improves “sexual assault”, “Tribal coalition”, “personally identifying information” and “victim services”; adds “Alaska Native Villages” • Clarifies that “community-based organizations” are non-governmental and nonprofit • Clarifies that “Intake or referral, by itself, does not constitute legal assistance” • Adds “religion, sexual orientation, gender id”.

Above sample supplied by the National Task Force to End Sexual and Domestic Violence Against Women

RESOURCE LINKS on the Violence Against Women Act:

NOTE: Most immediately viewable literature discusses how the Act relates to U.S. domestic violence. The Act does not claim to represent the needs of sex workers.  Rather, it seems in past authorization versions to acknowledge prostitutes should not be tortured and murdered without penalty. The anti trafficking language added in 2013 seems to confuse and conflate issues pertaining to trafficking and prostitution.

Zach and Ethan Trio
Zach and Ethan Trio