The Bodies Back Model: Re-Indigenizing the Policy Debate on the Sex Trade
On this anniversary of 9/11, we pause to consider the important role of the sex industry in facilitating the United State’s Global War On Terror and American occupation in Hawaiʻi, the Philippines, Afghanistan and Iraq. Prostitution is a vestige of slavery that was sanctioned, normalized, and institutionalized for over 100 years by the War Department/Department of Defense near U.S. bases as a “military necessity.” It was only recently, well after 9/11, that the U.S. Department of Defense reexamined its stance, at least on paper. Regardless, the military’s peer culture of sex buying as a “right of passage” continues. It harms the occupied nation’s adults and children because incentivizes sex trafficking of both in order to meet augmented demand for transactional sex.
In 2018, DOD’s network was ranked 19th out of almost 3,000 nationwide networks on the amount of peer-to-peer child pornography sharing. In 2019, 75% of the pedophiles arrested for attempting to arrange sex with a child during Hawaiʻi’s first pedophile sting were U.S. military personnel. The mantra “What happens TDY, stays TDY” persists (TDY meaning ‘temporary duty,’ or occupation). Abolishing the sex industry is key to ending U.S. colonization. Ending U.S. colonization is key to reducing the demand for sexual exploitation. Up until now, this imperial context was missing in the U.S. debate on prostitution policy.
The Nordic Model is a policy piloted in 1999 in Sweden that decriminalizes sex workers and relies primarily on the criminal justice system to penalize sex buyers with jail time. This model is heralded by the problematic mainstream anti-trafficking movement. The New Zealand Model is a policy piloted in 2003 that removes accountability for sex buyers, sex tourists, brothel-owners, and other bosses/people profiting off of sex workers, not just sex workers. The New Zealand Model does not only decriminalize all parties involved in prostitution, it also legalizes the industry by establishing a total system of sex industry-specific regulations such as fines for sex workers that fail to practice safe sex or meet their tax obligations.This model is heralded by Libertarians and, increasingly, the international development industrial complex.
The Nordic Model policy for prostitution is a bad fit for the racist, prison-pocked, consumer-crazed landscape of the United States. The New Zealand Model is exponentially worse, for everyone but a minority of “voluntary sex workers” who are majority settler and white. A new policy model is rising from the global anti-imperialist, socialist and indigenous Left. It’s time to exit the liberal cul-de-sac and head toward the #BodiesBack movement.
The Bodies Back Model is about noncarceral abolition of imperialist systems that run on and necessitate dominant and subordinate groups of people. The Bodies Back movement looks to pre-patriarchal history and asks what does it mean to be a woman beyond serving men and society? What does community safety look like when men’s needs, desires, and safety aren’t valued more than everyone else’s? Here are the policy elements:
- Decriminalize people who agree or are hired to provide sex or sexual access— all people who are pressured to commercialize their bodies to create profit — without exception. Repeal the atavistic crime of “prostitution.”
- End social stigma toward people sell sex for something of value by shaming the act of buying sexual access as exploitative. Stigma is directed at people in the sex trade no matter how they got there. Why is sex buying not equally stigmatized? Prostitution is seen as the “woman’s role” and women’s work,” not merely because of double standard anti-promiscuity morals for women. Cisgender heterosexual men are not generally “sex workers.” There are fewer cisgender heterosexual men in the sex industry than there are children. However, cisgender heterosexual men sex workers also face social stigma for assuming “women’s role.” Consequences to people currently or formerly in the sex industry who are subsequently outed must be prohibited. Countries that have attempted to destigmatize sex workers by normalizing this sexist industry have not been successful. The euphemism “sex work” and the legal recognition of prostitution have not ended social stigma of people who have prostituted, reduced violence against them or led to labor rights for the majority. The industry itself promotes the objectification of women because most men would have a difficult time purchasing sex from people they fully humanize. We need a new approach that shifts the public’s understanding of the issue, humanizes women and LGBTQ people, and places the blame for prostitution’s existence on systemic sexism, sex buyers and the settler colonial state.
- Exploitation intervention. The government has a responsibility to create social equality and collective safety by interrupting systems of exploitation, including intervention in men taking advantage of women’s marginalization to obtain sexual access to their bodies. Prison is not an effective intervention. Prison is also the opposite of accountability. Prison has established its hegemony to the point that some people will argue that accountability is code for prison. We must end the conflation of prison and accountability. Prison and police abolition are urgently necessary but will not automatically make communities safer because men as a gender group are not socialized in any way to make women feel safe. Men are socialized to believe they must have sex or they will suffer, and that their suffering takes precedent over everyone else’s needs. Based on these beliefs, men have turned society including children into their sexual gratifiers. Men must be held accountable as harmdoers. Further, demand intervention can be done alongside the decriminalization of sex workers. There are horror stories under all the policies — full decriminalization to the Nordic Model — where sex trafficking intervention have gone wrong, were not implemented as intended, or was too reliant on police. Those should not be excuses to give up on designing something radically better.
- Create a new offense of ‘sexual exploitation’ that does not rely on incarceration or pain-infliction, and while fostering the dissolution of the criminal justice system: 1) Progressive fees and fines that fund support for people in the sex trade; 2) Gun ownership ban/gun confiscation; 3) Fulfillment of a 50-week minimum men’s accountability program (not a traditional “john’s school”) rooted in empathy building, self-love, gender based awareness training and critical race theory; 4) Family accountability processes because 67% of sex buyers want to stop buying sex but they and their loved ones may need support to face up to the multi-faceted harm of their behavior; and 5) Ensure that the law does not selectively target working class men of color, who are the minority of sex buyers in the U.S. states that have been studied.
- Create demand prevention modalities such as full implementation of comprehensive sex education that is gender-affirming, gender justice oriented, as well as a strong public awareness campaign against rape culture that explicitly denormalizes sex buying and encourages enthusiastic consent.
- Strengthen concrete programs for economic self-sufficiency, drug treatment, shelter, and mental health care specific to sex trade survivors.
- Defund police and move funds to restorative justice programs that equally prioritize men’s safety and women’s and non-binary people’s safety.
- Fight for policy change to end LGBTQ discrimination.
- End militarism and justly dismantle sexual camptowns that serve the U.S. military with reparations for survivors and economic recovery for communities, e.g., Olongapo, Philippines.
- End the privilege of married status and abolish legal marriage.
- Prioritize non-state alternatives and community-based solutions led by BIWOC, i.e, the at-risk population. For example, Femicide Free Zones and Councils of Women that are place-based, culturally-restorative structures in each neighborhood.
- Model non-Western justice systems and deprofessionalize the law to engage grassroots communities in defining collaborative security that harkens to the matrilineal village. Some examples are the barangay justice system and Native Hawaiian practices of hoʻoponopono.
Colonization is a vast process invading all spheres of a colonized people’s lives, not only their land. It’s further complicated by the fact that social relations during our ancestors’ times were not necessarily patriarchy-free. The Bodies Back Policy is based on a comprehensive decolonization process with the goal of ending the ideological foundation of the status quo: patriarchy (domination).
This is not an intellectual drill. The bodily integrity of BIPOC are on the line daily in this industry, especially trans women. The Bodies Back Policy is based on the following findings from survivors of child and adult sex trafficking, sex workers, prostitutes, assistance networks, union organizers, social safety net administrators, birth workers, and BIPOC historians and activists. This is not to say that jobs, identities, and experiences are a political stance. The views of socialist and anti-imperialists were unapologetically centered over liberals:
- Contrary to the settler colonial version of history, the system of prostitution is new to many places. For example, prostitution was unknown to Native Hawaiians prior to 1778. The first massage parlor brothels, now prolific in Honolulu, were not present until the late 19th century.
- The transatlantic slave trade was both a labor trafficking and sex trafficking system.
- Contrary to the incel myth of male oppression, most sex buyers have access to sex with their partners, girlfriends, or wives. The catch is that freely given sex is not always available whenever and however men want it. Prostitution frees men from the constraints of negotiation, accountability, and enthusiastic consent. Men who buy sex in America are predominantly white, married men, between the ages of 30 and 50, have a disposable income, buy sex during the workday and prefer young “prostitutes.” This is important because explains why the majority of sex buyers will never allow themselves to be identified. They will seek to hide their activities even if the industry is legal. They will seek out sex workers who cannot or will not turn to the police even under “full decriminalization:” young runaways, drug users, houseless people, undocumented immigrants and people under third-party control.
- Sex buying is proportional to the pervasiveness of rape culture in a given society. Sex buying is a shortcut to consent. This behavior is a manifestation of toxic masculinity. Men often cope with feelings of powerlessness, anxiety and self loathing by increasing their control over a situation or person. To this point, demand for prostitution in Hawaiʻi has increased during the current COVID-19 economic crisis, even though tourism has halted.
- Compulsory legal marriage and prostitution are harmful, interconnected institutions that define women as property at the service of men and society. Both should be upended.
- Commercialized sex is a continuation of the harms of colonization, settlement and enslavement and disproportionately impacts Native people, especially children. Evidence is mounting that in Hawaiʻi, Native Hawaiians compose the bulk of involuntary supply for the sex industry. This is the same in Aotearoa (New Zealand) under full decriminalization.
- Sex trafficking and prostitution are distinct legal concepts and should not be conflated. At the same time, these two activities are closely interrelated and should not be decoupled. For example, changes to prostitution laws related only to adults impact the whole market, including children. Full decriminalization of prostitution (which means sex buyers and third party profiteers too), even while retaining anti-sex trafficking statutes, increases sex trafficking including child sex trafficking because 1) there is not enough supply of adult “prostitutes;” 2) most men want young “prostitutes” and 3) most men do not ask the age of the “prostitute.”
- A Māori analysis of the New Zealand policy of “full decriminalization” (2003-present) confirms that this model disproportionately harms Native/indigenous people, people of color, and undocumented immigrants and has not improved conditions for indigenous women in the sex industry despite the government and police co-authored report to the contrary. The systemic harms to sex workers under “full decriminalization” include sexual assault, physical assault, infertility, long-term health consequences, forced abortions, lost custody of children, PTSD, depression, drug addiction, kidnapping, and murder.
- Decriminalization of sex workers is imperative; however, sex buyers’ treatment of sex workers is less a function of criminalization and is more based on buyer’s perceptions of the “value” of the person, especially in the particular venue. For example, women in cheaper venues like outdoor tracks, homeless encampments, and “Asian massage parlors,” receive worse, more violent treatment from buyers under any policy. These venues are retained and even expanded under the “full decriminalization of sex work” regimes like Australia and New Zealand. The conditions within these “low end” venues do not become less violent.
- Climate change and the COVID-19 recession are creating a surfeit of extremely vulnerable people who will have an almost impossible time exiting, let alone support to heal, the sex trade if entered. Governments owe them a well-planned and equitable economic recovery such as Hawaiʻi’s feminist economic recovery plan, not a lazy outsourcing of social problems to the sex trade.
 Ndlovu-Gatsheni, Sabelo
 Arista, Noelani; Manalo-Camp, Adam
 Kake, Jade
 Id. at 5.