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Kaytlin Bailey On Sex Work Decriminalization

SWCEO Interviews Kaytlin Bailey

Blog Post Written By: MelRose Michaels


Kaytlin Bailey is the Founder & Executive Director of Old Pros, host of The Oldest Profession Podcast, and the writer/performer of the one-woman show Whore’s Eye View.

She is a globally recognized leader in the sex worker rights movement, quoted in The New York Times, Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, New York Post, The Village Voice, The Nation, and NBC. She has written op-eds for The Daily Beast, Vice, and Reason magazine. She has been invited to speak on Fox Business, Sirius XM, Yale Law School, Penn University, and UCLA.

SexWorkCEO interviewed Bailey during our October 3rd live Twitter space to talk about the history of sex work, decriminalization, current legislation impacting sex workers, and more. The following is an excerpt from that interview.

MelRose Michaels: Can you tell us a little about yourself and Old Pros, the organization you founded?

Kaytlin Bailey: Old Pros is a nonprofit media organization I founded that creates conditions to change the status of sex workers in society, so I have a background in lobbying and legislative efforts.

I was also the founding director of communications for Decriminalize Sex Work. Still, after spending several years talking to legislators about changing laws, it became evident that we need better policy on this issue. We need to invest in culture change, which Old Pros does.

We try to elevate sex workers from history, which is a compelling tactic for reminding folks in our community, including our legislators, that sex workers have always been contributing members of every community they've been a part of, which, if you know anything about the oldest profession, you already know is all of them.

I'm also the host of The Oldest Profession podcast. We are going into our fifth season, which is very exciting. And I'm currently touring my one-woman show, Whore's Eye View, which is a mad dash through 10,000 years of history from a sex worker's perspective.

MelRose Michaels: I want to double down on something you mentioned here just because I think it will add some context because our audience is typically more digital sex work-based and not full service. When you say elevate sex workers from history, can you give some examples?

Kaytlin Bailey: We use sex workers at Old Pros relatively broadly. We've done episodes on folks who have been very open about their background in sex work. We did an episode on Stormy Daniels. But we've also focused on folks whose sex work background was maybe not as well known, like Maya Angelou or the first woman to run for president in the United States, Victoria Woodhull. We also did episodes on Marilyn Monroe, Phryne from ancient Greece, and Empress Theodora from the Byzantine Empire. We've also done a lot of episodes about sex workers who settled the West US, like Lou Graham, who actually invested and effectively funded Seattle public schools in the 1890s. We focus on different sex workers from different periods. Still, we seek to elevate their stories, talk about their contributions, and how they were navigating stigma and criminalization in their lifetime.

MelRose Michaels: That's so incredible, and I can see why that would also be incredibly powerful for the mission. If you can document and expand on what these influential figures have contributed to society, it's tough to ignore our impact.

Kaytlin Bailey: Absolutely. I think it's also important to remind folks, especially folks who identify as feminists, that sex workers have been trailblazers in terms of getting into predominantly male-dominated spaces. One of my favorite stories is Veronica Franco, born in the 1500s in Venice. Even the wealthiest women in Venice then were not allowed into the libraries and were discouraged from reading. Most tutoring for girls focused more on embroidery than learning to read or write. Still, because Veronica Franco chose to become a courtesan, she was granted access to the library. She became a famous writer, editor, and advocate for women in her lifetime, not in spite of being a sex worker but because she was a sex worker. She traded respectability for access, which all kinds of people have done throughout human history.

MelRose Michaels: Why is decriminalization necessary for sex workers? What's the difference between decriminalization and legalization of sex work?

Kaytlin Bailey: Decriminalization of sex work means removing criminal penalties for adult consensual sex workers, which means that no one is arrested, evicted, fired, or loses custody of their children just because they engage in this work. Decriminalizing criminal penalties around adult consensual sex work does not legalize rape, kidnapping, or other violent crimes that have become synonymous in the minds of many voters and legislators due to this enormous propaganda campaign conflating human trafficking with sex work.

Decriminalization doesn't create a new regulation apparatus, which I know folks in the adult content industry are familiar with. That's a highly regulated form of sex work. Another example of regulated full-service sex work would be the brothels in Nevada. A stat that I would like to give that I think is immensely clarifying for why this is something that sex workers are not advocating for is that Nevada is the only state in the country with legally regulated prostitution. Still, it has the highest arrest rate per capita for prostitution-related offenses because it forces anyone who wants to work legally to work within the very tight restrictions of these brothels.

Unfortunately, we live in an incredibly whorephobic society. So, all the regulations around these brothels are not about empowering workers or improving our safety and health. It's about containment, control, and ensuring that we separate the folks working at brothels from the general community. Mandatory STI testing forces folks to register, which becomes a subpoenable fact about you for the rest of your life. Rules that effectively make it very difficult for legally registered sex workers in Nevada to go places and do things.

MelRose Michaels: What are some examples of legally punishable offenses concerning being a registered sex worker in Nevada?

Kaytlin Bailey: If you are a registered prostitute in Nevada and you are working at a brothel, then you are not allowed to leave the premises of that brothel and go to a bar, to the movies, or go out to dinner. Your literal freedom of movement is restricted. You're expected to fly in and stay on the premises of that brothel. If you do have to leave for some reason, then you have to redo, at your own expense, the legally mandated STI tests that you're paying for.

I've also interviewed several folks working in brothels who told me they still use this ancient technology. They're not doing simple blood tests. You have to go through the full pap smear. There's also deliberate confusion between state, county, and house rules. This gives a lot of leverage to potentially abusive or exploitative managers. I've had several just in the restaurant industry telling you that you must do something or are not allowed to do something. You don't really know if you're hearing a personal preference on the point of your manager or if you're hearing about a state law. And that creates a disempowered work environment for folks doing this already deeply stigmatized work.

I also think it's important to point out that the presence of legal and regulated brothels in Nevada hasn't done anything to diminish the still criminal full-service sex work that's absolutely happening in Vegas and Reno. The overwhelming majority of people who choose to engage in sex work in Nevada are doing so outside of this system for lots of reasons.

MelRose Michaels: When discussing decriminalizing sex workers, how does that impact johns/clients in the space?

Kaytlin Bailey: When we talk about decriminalizing sex work, we're talking about decriminalizing all aspects of sex work of sex work. So, neither selling, buying, nor facilitating is a crime when talking about adult consensual sex work, and you're not talking about an additional violent crime or the presence of minors, which would be illegal in any context.

MelRose Michaels: That helps clarify things because I think people often get confused because they believe decriminalization is just for the customers or clients buying or it does not apply to the sex workers themselves. I think the confusion also gets a lot of sex workers on team legalization versus decriminalization.

Kaytlin Bailey: I think it's essential to understand that distinction. And I also understand, colloquially, we use the word legalized to mean not a crime. So many people say, “Oh, we should totally legalize sex work.” They're with us on these issues. They mean nobody should be arrested, evicted, fired, or lose custody of their children just for engaging in this work. But the devil's in the details. When you start talking about policy, I think it's essential for listeners and advocates to understand the history of labor protections or how workforce regulation is used. We live in a whorephobic society, and every example that we've seen of regulation has led to restriction, forced registries, and ways of isolating sex workers from the communities that we're a part of.

MelRose Michaels: Can you give historical context for that statement?

Kaytlin Bailey: The U.S. has a long history of red light districts. Storyville in New Orleans is one of the best-known examples. Fairbanks, Alaska's red light district, which we have an episode coming out this season, had a red light district into the 1960’s. But all these regulatory efforts are about separating sex workers from “respectable women.” So, when you talk about red-light districts, licensing, or registration, you're trying to carve out a community of folks who can be treated as second-class citizens where this stigma will follow them.

We also have a long history of mandatory STI tests in the U.S. The American plan, which was implemented in 1917 here in the U. S., comes from the older version in Britain called the Contagious Diseases Act, which started in the 1860s. That empowered law enforcement to detain not just known sex workers but any woman suspected of promiscuity, forcing her to undergo a medically inaccurate STI test because this was the late 1800s/early 1900s, decades before we had effective tests or treatment. If a doctor thought you were contagious or gave him too much attitude, you would be forced to register, which would follow you. It would come up if you ever tried to marry. It would come up on employment applications. It impacted people's ability to secure homes. And, as we know, the fastest way to trap somebody into a life of prostitution against their will is to arrest them for it. Doing so closes off so many other paths, and that's precisely what we've seen in the past.

MelRose Michaels: This brings me to another important distinction I want to make. The difference between partial decriminalization and full decriminalization. Can you clarify that?

Kaytlin Bailey: This frustrates me as someone who works in this space because it confuses legislators. Partial decriminalization now goes by many names: The Nordic Model, The Swedish Model, End Demand, The Feminist Model, The Entrapment Model, or the Equality Model.

We've seen partial decriminalization implemented for decades in places like Sweden, Norway, Canada, and Northern Ireland. Maine became the first state to adopt this policy, although police departments nationwide have been experimenting with this. And all of these laws, whatever they're calling it, are all grounded in eradicating prostitution. The narrative is that anyone selling sexual services, always framed as a woman (often framed as a white woman), is a victim of violent, coercive control. Anyone purchasing sexual services is a violent criminal or a perpetrator and should be treated as such.

The theory behind this law is that it will end the demand for prostitution and, therefore, this kind of violent exploitation. But the problem is that for these legislators or proponents of this law, prostitution, sex work, and all kinds of erotic content symbolize exploitation and violence against women.

Legislators and proponents of partial decrim are not interested in ending exploitation, addressing violence, or addressing the systemic vulnerabilities that make us more vulnerable to violence and exploitation. They are treating prostitution as the problem in and of itself, and the goal is to eradicate the oldest profession, not to elevate the negotiating power of providers or materially help people who may find themselves in a rough situation.

MelRose Michaels: Can you explain coercive control?

Kaytlin Bailey: I first became familiar with the term coercive control through the lens of domestic violence and looking at the wheel of different tactics. However, I think it's also a great way of looking at systems of government and, specifically, policing. But coercive control effectively means that you have all these choices, right? Work choices, sex choices. All the choices exist on a spectrum of choice, circumstance, and coercion. And coercive control is a manipulation tactic where an individual or an institution tries to leverage your vulnerabilities and whatever power they have to force you to make a choice you don't want to make, whether that's not leaving the house, quitting your job, or hitting your children in the case of a domestic violence situation. In a way, I would argue that MasterCard's policies on erotic content are an example of coercive control.

MelRose Michaels: When we talk about decriminalization as a whole, I find that frequently, especially in the digital sex work space, creators don't understand why it applies to them because they associate it often with full service sex work. Why does decriminalization matter to all sex workers, not just full service sex workers?

Kaytlin Bailey: I want to go further and say that decrim matters to everyone. Decrim especially matters to women, and it’s doubly crucial to queer folk because the stigma around sex work is a very expansive category. 70,000 people are arrested in the United States every year for engaging in prostitution, but millions more lose their homes, jobs, or kids for engaging in this work because of that stigma. And that stigma hurts you regardless of whether or not the sex work that you're engaging in is technically legal or not. There are perfectly legal strippers, cam performers, and erotic content performers who lose custody of their children, are kicked out of nursing schools, and face community consequences effectively for engaging in this work.

I would also argue that I've never met a domestic violence victim who wasn't called a whore in a terrible and derogatory way, whether they've ever engaged in this work or not. With this grooming rhetoric that we're increasingly seeing applied to the queer community, we're starting to see how sexual violence or stigma is being applied to folks in the LGBTQ+ community, regardless of whether or not they've ever engaged in anything that could be described as sex work.

I think it's vital for folks when they hear of these laws about trafficking victims (or they'll say that it's about full service sex work) that they understand these laws are being applied and have always been applied in a very broad way.

Looking back again at the American Plan, which was implemented in this country in 1917 but was enforced in this country into the 1970s, tens of thousands of women were picked up off the street, forced to engage in these incredibly invasive venereal exams, and then potentially put into a lock hospital or arrested or put some kind of record. They didn't need to prove that those women had engaged in prostitution.

The same thing applies, especially from a digital context (even if you are engaging in perfectly legal content creation) because the technology that's been developed by some of these “anti-trafficking vigilantes” (Thorn comes to mind) folks are being stopped at the border because AI and facial recognition technology is connecting your government ID to the content that you create.

It doesn't matter that content is not a crime now. All of that ancient stigma is influencing your interaction with border security and law enforcement and has the potential to disempower you for the rest of your life, which is what the antis want to be true.

MelRose Michaels: I would love to discuss Thorn, getting stopped at the border, and how AI impacts this because I don’t hear many conversations around that. I know people who are actively experiencing this. So, can we go into that a little bit?

Kaytlin Bailey: Totally. Ashton Kutcher's company, Thorn, started as a form of sex tech. He was involved in the tech startup world, and he was proposing that he wanted to make it easier to catch traffickers. So, how did he do that? He didn't invest in housing. He didn't invest in health care. He didn't invest in child care or all of the things that sex workers have said that we've needed for literally hundreds of years. Instead, he created a technology that scrapes the internet for escort ads or adult content, which uses AI and facial recognition technology to connect that to your government ID. Then, he makes this freely accessible to law enforcement to help children who are being trafficked. However, he gives law enforcement a very powerful tool to continue their centuries-long campaign of harassing adult consensual sex workers.

They also use the same rhetoric around the end-demand laws with the age verification stuff happening with porn sites. This has been a devastating blow for legal adult content creators. It also creates a real fear of stigmatized lists and registries and things that don't serve public safety but serve as a deterrent to push sex work even further underground.

As sex workers and advocates, we can clearly communicate why arresting our clients and customers doesn't make us safer. Everywhere we've seen these laws implemented worldwide, violence against sex workers increases. As a former full-service sex worker myself, screening practices are something that we create with the tools that we have available for us. But when you are operating in a system where the client is criminalized, it becomes impossible to tell the difference between a reasonable client who might be a little bit nervous about screening and so maybe reluctant to provide identifying information or a predator who's posing as a client who's using the fact of his criminalization to push you to meet faster or in a more remote location with less identifying information about him.

I can't say this enough. Everywhere these so-called end-demand, feminist, or equality model laws have been implemented, violence against sex workers and women generally increases. And everywhere we see barriers removed where it's easier for adult consensual sex workers to connect with clients, where you remove those barriers, violence against women goes down.

In fact, this incredible comparative analysis showed that Craigslist erotic services lowered the female homicide rate by, on average, 17 percent. That's insane. We need to let people outside of sex work know that we are not saying, “Yeah, it would be nice if we could protect kids, but that's going to get in the way of my money.” No, that is not the argument. The argument is that these laws make all of us less safe.

MelRose Michaels: When sex workers are engaging in conversations either in real life or on social platforms about advocating for decriminalization, what points should they be discussing?

Kaytlin Bailey: You can confidently say that decriminalizing sex work is the only policy that reduces violence. We don't stand alone on that. Amnesty International, the World Health Organization, and Human Rights Watch support these views. Any human rights-based organization that has looked at this issue with integrity has consistently found that removing laws criminalizing adult consensual sex work, removing barriers to STI testing, or making it easier for sex workers to report abuse against us without facing criminal penalties ourselves makes us safer. Not forced registries, not mandatory STI testing, not regulated brothels, and certainly not criminalizing our clients, landlords, partners, or the people we employ to help make this business easier and safer for us.

MelRose Michaels: I believe the only way we can effectively come together is through community. To impact change in any meaningful way is to be a united group. How can the online sex work community more effectively support full service sex workers in the fight for decriminalization?

Kaytlin Bailey: Unfortunately, we are all united by our shared experience of whorephobia. It doesn't matter if the work that you're doing is technically legal. We are on the ascent of what I believe to be another moral sex panic, which impacts full-service sex workers. It impacts the LGBTQ+ community. It impacts people in contraception or abortion care providers and absolutely impacts people who are making erotic content. We've seen these patterns before. I don't believe that we all have to love hanging out with each other. It's okay if we want to go to different parties with different music, different food or whatever. So long as we are speaking with a shared voice, decriminalizing sex work is the only policy that reduces violence, and no one should be arrested, evicted, fired, or lose custody of their children just for engaging in this work.

You can bring that message to the communities that you're already in. Decriminalizing sex work helps folks who are victims of exploitation. It helps folks struggling with poverty and the multiple overlapping systems of violence we've created. It helps people who are operating at the top of this game. Nobody’s options should be limited just because they engage in this work.

You can find Kaytlin Bailey on Twitter at KaytlinBailey and Instagram at kaytlin bailey and Old Pros on Instagram & Twitter.

Follow SexWorkCEO on Twitter & Instagram.


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the blog post above are those of the authors/guest speakers and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SexWorkCEO or MelRose Michaels. Any content provided by our bloggers, authors, or guest speakers is their opinion and is not intended to malign any religion, ethnic group, club, organization, company, individual, anyone, or anything.


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