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Prostitution Is on the Verge of Being Legalized — These Women Want it to Stop

As bills to decriminalize prostitution continue popping up across the country, these advocates say there’s a better way to support people in the sex trade.

By Shalayne Pulia Sep 12, 2019

From left: Shobana Powell, Ane Mathieson, Rebecca Dince Zipkin, Melanie Thompson, Yvonne Chen, Alexi Ashe Meyers, Shandra Woworuntu, and Laura Ramírez in New York. Photographed by Mark Lim.

Earlier this year, when a bill calling for full decriminalization of prostitution was introduced in New York, eyes across the nation turned to the Empire State. Supporters think the bill and others like it would create a safer environment for people exploited in the sex trade and empower them to have agency over their bodies.

But Alexi Ashe Meyers, an attorney at Sanctuary for Families (SFF) and co-chair of the New York State Anti-Trafficking Coalition, insists this is not the case. Ashe Meyers, who has dedicated her career to supporting survivors of gender-based violence, says full decriminalization would more than likely lead to an increase in sex trafficking, which is currently an estimated $150 billion-a-year global industry.

“If you remove any impediments to buying sex and normalize it, there’ll be an increase in that act. People from the most impoverished and marginalized communities then get trafficked in to meet that demand,” she explains.

“I want people to understand how regressive and antifeminist it would be to decriminalize an industry in which women are bought and sold for the pleasure of men.”

Ashe Meyers and the sex-trade survivors, lawyers, and experts featured here support the Equality Model (also known as the Nordic Model), in which only those who buy sex as well as third-party exploiters are criminally prosecuted.

This framework, already in place in several countries such as Sweden, Canada, and France, not only keeps sex workers out of jail but also provides them with access to medical care, housing, and other social services to help them leave the industry. It also establishes education initiatives to spread public awareness about the harmful effects of the trade.

As part of a coalition of anti-trafficking organizations, SFF, which serves more than 15,000 survivors of domestic abuse, sex trafficking, and other forms of gender-based violence in New York each year, is planning to launch a campaign to advocate for Equality Model legislation. Hear from some of its leadership and allies, below.

Shobana Powell

SFF’s survivor leadership coordinator runs a program that helps survivors of gender violence get involved in advocacy, directly support their peers, create and consult on programs and policies, and spread public awareness. “One of the survivors I work with said I helped her dream for herself again. And, to me, that is the most beautiful definition of empowerment,” she says.

“My life’s goal is to walk alongside survivors, bear witness to what they’ve been through, and clear the way for them to spread their wings.”

Ane Mathieson

SFF’s lead program specialist of justice and empowerment for teens, which helps young people who have been exploited in the sex trade, studied the Equality Model’s effects in other countries from 2012 to 2013 and has been pushing to bring the legal framework to the U.S. ever since.

“We shouldn’t be OK with men and boys’ using their socioeconomic power to buy sexual access to someone with less power,” she says. “The Equality Model instead recognizes people who are bought and sold in the sex industry as survivors and provides them with services they need to heal.

The time is right for folks to be receptive to passing this fundamentally more feminist and empowering legislation.”

Rebecca Dince Zipkin

"People talk about prostitution as the oldest profession. We see it as the oldest form of oppression,” says the former sex-crimes prosecutor and current SFF attorney, who is helping develop the coalition’s upcoming campaign.

“The idea behind decriminalization is that buying sex from an 18-year-old would become effectively legal. Do we want to say as a society that that’s OK just because a girl has had her 18th birthday?” she says. “Our main goal is to make it so that people don’t have to sell their bodies in order to survive.”

Melanie Thompson

“I support women’s rights. I support body autonomy,” says Thompson, who was trafficked at age 12. Today, as a survivor advocate, she has become a powerful voice for her peers. “I love sex just like the rest of you guys, but I am against when your agency succumbs to misogyny.

Buyers don’t differentiate whether or not you’re in this by ‘choice’ or if you’ve been kidnapped. They only see dollar signs on your body. And to keep people from going back to that life, we need to have services and resources in place for people like me, for people like Shandra [Woworuntu, a sex-trade survivor].

With the Equality Model, we can instate those things.” Yvonne Chen “It’s really a nuanced conversation about power and control,” says the supervising program manager of SFF’s Anti-Trafficking Initiative, who leads educational outreach and trains professionals who may come in contact with trafficking victims.

“If we decriminalize the buying [of sex], then our clients feel like there’s more power given to people who have abused them.” Instead, Chen wants to shift the focus and tackle core issues of inequality, like poverty, that lead people into the sex industry in the first place.

Shandra Woworuntu

The former financial analyst was lured to the U.S. in 2001 from her native Indonesia under the guise of a job offer. Within hours of landing in New York City, she was sold into the underground sex trade. She first escaped her situation by jumping out of a second-story bathroom window.

She was caught but escaped again on foot, this time successfully. Since then she has established the Mentari program, which helps other survivors of abuse, violence, exploitation, and trafficking reclaim their independence by offering them vocational training, education, and job-placement opportunities.

“You have to empower people with resources,” she says. “I’m not afraid to fight for that because I know I am a change-maker. I can change the world.”

Laura Ramírez

The program coordinator at the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women and organizer at the New York City chapter of transnational feminist-advocacy organization AF3IRM says people learn very quickly not to underestimate her despite her 4-foot-11 frame, especially when it comes to standing up for herself and for all survivors of abuse and victims of inequality.

“I think the biggest thing that mainstream feminism gets wrong is that it’s focused on individualism,” she says. “That takes away the collective responsibility we have to our sisters all over the world. I’m not going to stand for that. Anything that happens to my sisters happens to me.” Inside the InStyle

Remembering the Yazidi men, women and children murdered and enslaved in ongoing genocide by ISIS

The brutal genocidal campaign of mass murder, rape and enslavement began five years ago on August 3, 2014. Today, the Women Refugees Advocacy Project held a ceremony in Vancouver to demand justice for the Yazidi.

Marker of Change, Thornton Park, August 4, 2019
(Photos by Lianne Payne)

My Person of the Year: Nadia Murad
by David Suissa | Dec 19, 2018 | Editor's Note

Nadia Murad was 21 in the summer of 2014 when ISIS militants attacked her Yazidi village in northern Iraq, close to the border with Syria. The militants killed those who refused to convert to Islam, including six of her brothers and her mother.

According to media reports, after being captured, Murad was taken to Mosul, where she was forced to convert to Islam and endured three months as a sex slave at the hands of the militants. She was bought and sold several times and subjected to sexual and physical abuse during her captivity.

She tried to escape, but was immediately caught by one of the guards, she told the BBC. Under their rules, she said, a captured woman became a spoil of war if she was caught trying to escape. She would be put in a cell and raped by all the men in the compound. The militants called this practice “sexual jihad.”

“Referring to the thousands of women still in ISIS’ grip, Nadia Murad added: ‘It is inconceivable that the conscience of the leaders of 195 countries around the world is not mobilized to liberate these girls.'”

A Muslim family that had no connection with ISIS helped Murad escape. She managed to cross into Iraqi Kurdistan and found refuge in camps with other Yazidis. She later reached Europe and now lives in Germany.

Since winning her freedom, Murad has campaigned for the thousands of women who are still believed to be held captive by ISIS.

She was awarded the Václav Havel Human Rights Prize by the Council of Europe in 2016, and called for an international court to judge crimes committed by ISIS in her acceptance speech in Strasbourg, France.

That same year, Murad also was awarded the Sakharov Prize for Freedom of Thought by the European Parliament. She was named the United Nations’ first goodwill ambassador for survivors of human trafficking later that year.

In October of this year, Murad was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

“A woman being raped on a battlefield in Mosul should get as much attention as a woman being raped in a hotel room in New York City.”

Despite all that, Murad still hasn’t become a household name in the United States. As The World Tribune reported after her victory, “News that Yazidi sex slave survivor Nadia Murad has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to end the use of sexual violence as a weapon of war barely registered on the American media radar screen.”

Because she’s gone largely unnoticed in America in the era of #MeToo, if I were editor of Time magazine, Murad would have been my choice for Person of the Year.

Murad offers a unique opportunity for the #MeToo movement to become more global. Among the things I love about the movement is that it wasn’t a flash in the pan. Since it exploded on the scene over a year ago, more and more victims of sexual abuse have felt free to speak out. A crucial conversation has begun. Justice, however halting, is being served. The cause is now ingrained in our national consciousness.

Murad’s story takes the issue of sexual abuse from the home and workplace to regions of armed conflict. It expands the #MeToo movement internationally to where it is sorely needed.

In her address after receiving the Nobel Prize, as reported in The New York Times, Murad condemned “the international community’s indifference to wartime sexual violence and pleaded for new efforts to arrest or punish those responsible.”

“Thank you very much for this honor,” she said, “but the fact remains that the only prize in the world that can restore our dignity is justice and the prosecution of criminals.”

Referring to the thousands of women still in ISIS’ grip, Murad added: “It is inconceivable that the conscience of the leaders of 195 countries around the world is not mobilized to liberate these girls. What if they were a commercial deal, an oil field or a shipment of weapons? Most certainly, no efforts would be spared to liberate them.”

We like to think of globalism in terms of economic interdependence and the protection of the environment, which are hugely important. But justice for victims of sexual abuse ought to be another pillar of globalism. A woman being raped on a battlefield in Mosul should get as much attention as a woman being raped in a hotel room in New York City.

As Murad told the Jewish Journal in an interview last year, “When ISIS is held accountable, when my people are protected, when the women are freed and my people live with dignity, I will be happy then.”

Accountability. Protection. Freedom. Dignity. Happiness. Not a bad list for 2019.

Happy New Year.


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