For much of last month, the hash tag, “#coolmendontbuysex” was trending on twitter. Even now, one day into February, there are still scattered mentions of it on social media.
It all started with a blog post on nordicmodelnow.org that encouraged men to use the hash tag, #coolmendontbuysex, “...to raise awareness that prostitution-buying is damaging and drives the vast prostitution industry, most of whose $186 billion annual global turnover goes into the pockets of pimps and traffickers.”
The post goes on to make bold statements like “...many people say – she chose to do it and therefore it’s consensual and completely ethical. To these people, we say please educate yourself about the reality.”
Clients do understand the reality though, perhaps better than anti-sex work abolitionists might think.
On their website, Clients of Sex Workers Allied for Change (CoSWAC) provides a space for clients of sex workers to share their experiences as part of an effort “...to dispel myths surrounding participation in paid sex.” In a Twitter exchange with Queens Free Press, they offered the following insight on the #coolmendontbuysex hash tag:
“This hashtag sound like something a grade school student would come up with. It certainly doesn't reflect the complex and diverse realities of why people go to sex workers. Many clients have offered a glimpse into this in our website's 'Share Your Stories' page. The interactions between clients and their providers has nothing to do with being 'cool;' it has everything to do with real human emotional needs.”
Also noticeably missing from Nordic Model Now's blog post are discussions of the experiences of actual sex workers.
So the men behind #CoolMenDontBuySex may be feeling smug right now but they fail to realise that buying a woman drinks/dinner/drugs/lingerie/flowers/trips in the hope they'll get sex in return is ALSO an exchange. We all have currency, I'm just more upfront about it.
— Tash Murphy (@tash_murphyxxx) January 10, 2018
Australia's approach to prostitution varies by state. In some states, prostitution is legal and regulated, while in others, it is legal and not regulated,but brothels are illegal.
What might seem like just a hash tag is so much more according to Talya De Fay, a sex worker and human rights activist from New South Wales.
It attaches a bullseye to the backs of sex workers.
“Hashtags like #coolmendontbuysex are simply modern-day versions of the old witch hunts by Nordic Model supporters,” writes De Fay in a Twitter exchange, “They try to silence the majority of people who believe women and others who do sex work should be given the safety and protection of the law that others have. In addition, they try to crucify people, by trying to incite harm towards anyone who try to stand up to them [SIC]. Except instead of being called a ‘witch’, they call you a ‘pimp’ aiming to rouse others to their side through hate.”
De Fay says she entered the industry twice—both times completely by choice. The first time, it offered her an escape from an abusive home situation.
"The work was fine, but I also still believed the society hype," she writes,"I thought I was the bad person because society said so. THAT, rather than the work, created anxiety & other issues for me the first time".
The second time, she was a student at university, studying psychology.
The second time was different.
It was then that realized it was about more than just sex.
“I saw there was more than just sex…”she writes, “People seeking someone to talk to or the need of simple human touch…I made a conscious choice to make sex work my career to help my clients that need it and to be a voice to help stop the needless assault that is being allowed to happen to people who do this work.”
Unfortunately, many still don’t see the many other dimensions of sex work.
De Fay once tried to take a stand against supporters of the Nordic Model online, and faced such backlash that she tried to avoid the internet for a few days.
“They care about their moralistic end goal,” writes De Fay of those who have used the hashtag, “If it means the women and others doing this work are hurt, assaulted or killed, then so be it…Many sex workers have tried to speak to them in calm and open discussions, but there is nothing you can say. They resort to labeling you as a pimp, and gang up to bully you if you disagree.”
In some ways, this hash tag could also be seen as a continuation of that backlash that De Fay initially encountered when she tried to take a stand against the Nordic Model. Still, the backlash continues to isolate both those who do not agree as well as sex workers.
That isolation could prove to be dangerous for sex workers.
“…the more we are silenced or ignored, the more we are forced into the shadows of society,” writes De Fay, “In addition, this is when our lives are at stake, [this is] when we hear of people who do sex work being harmed or killed.”
As a solution, De Fay points to a tweet by Dr. Lynzi Armstrong:
Instead of being cliche and tweeting #coolmendontbuysex why not spend some time actually learning about sex work from sex workers and make a commitment to LISTENING and supporting their rights,rather than trying to ruin their incomes?Just a thought.
— Lynzi Armstrong (@DrLynziA) January 9, 2018
“I couldn’t say it better myself,” writes De Fay.
Those who created the hash tag claim they want “…to raise awareness that sex buying causes misery & human suffering.”
De Fay says they have it wrong.
She says it is the laws that cause that misery and that suffering. The situation is made more difficult because De Fay writes that anyone who tries to challenge their narrative is labeled a “pimp.”
It is these same people who choose to ignore the fact that Amnesty International said that the Nordic Model caused ham to women and others who are already isolated.
“A normal reaction, knowing that statement was true would be to want to amend and fix it,” De Fay writes.
Hopefully that “normal reaction” will come sooner rather than later.
In Canada, it is legal to sell sex, but illegal to purchase it. Additionally, running escort agencies and massage parlors is also illegal.
When asked for a term to describe what she does, Emele Devine picks “courtesan.”
“For me, I've always liked courtesan, so romantic,” explains Devine in a Twitter exchange with Queens Free Press, “For me, it was something I’d always wanted to [do], ever since I really understood what a courtesan was.
According to Devine, courtesans are “strong, powerful and intelligent…a living work of art.”
They’re in complete control.
Not many jobs offered those feelings of stability after the recession of 2008. Sex work made it possible for her to pay down her debts, start saving, and also provide assistance to friends and family when needed.
Perhaps equally important is the job satisfaction Devine found.
“I got to make it what I wanted it to be, full of love and passion and understanding for my fellow human,” she writes.
Word choice is important to Devine, and it’s a major part of her problem with the “#coolmendontbuysex” hashtag.
“It’s a testament to separation and the morality argument,” she writes, “It doesn’t actually acknowledge the topic, it just takes a stance of seeming high ground. The choice of vocabulary, ‘cool men,’ gives an impression of depravity and exclusion if you’re one of those who does purchase [sex].”
For Devine, the hash tag shows ignorance, fear and misunderstanding, and is a rallying cry for “easy minds.”
People who choose to engage with the discourses get hung up on semantics, and are more concerned with defending their team than making an actual difference.
“I think hashtags are a good tool when used to encourage conversation, but crap like this is sensationalist bullshit,” she writes.
Indeed, the hash tag fails to draw a distinction between consensual and non-consensual activity—a point which Devine rightly notes puts actual victims of trafficking in greater danger.
The thing is, some might argue that in an ideal world, this hash tag could have had the potential to encourage those conversations.
“In an ideal world, this hashtag would be a great opportunity to further the conversation, normalize sex work, and give a voice to those who normally have to hide in plain sight, or be seen and not heard,” writes Devine, “I wish I could say it would be a platform to encourage enlightenment and understanding…Where’s our representation in the media, in government?...It’s not enough to create a social media gimmick, it’s important that sex workers and our clients are respected and loved everywhere.”
The New Jersey Red Umbrella Alliance (NJRUA) a working alliance of activists and allies who are dedicated to promoting, defending, and advocating for the human rights of sex workers in the state of New Jersey.
The “ #coolmendontbuysex” hashtag might’ve constructed its narrative on sex work without taking the voices of sex workers into account. In contrast, the NJRUA makes every effort to re-insert the voices of sex workers into conversations on sex work so sex workers themselves “…can lead a movement to advocate for their own human rights.”
Janet Duran, NJRUA activist and North Jersey Regional Director offers the following feedback about the hash tag in a Twitter exchange with Queens Free Press:
“When I first saw it, I was wondering what it was about. I saw the majority did not care & it was bullshit. I thought at that point, just disregard—not worth the effort. This hashtag can only really have an effect on folks who are already anti [sex work]. I feel most intelligent people who are thinking decrim won’t be swayed. I already felt like, ‘What was up with this bullshit?’ I really rarely engage in the bullshit. I may make a general statement with my opinion, other than yourself.”but even this time I just felt it would be such a waste of time, letting them see we care because really most of us don’t. So best to not even engage. As for messages for folks using it [the hashtag], it is basically just ignorant and you can’t speak for what a real man is to anyone.”
Particularly important to note is that contrary to what the creators of the hash tag claim, Duran wasn’t trafficked. The money she has made hasn’t gone into the pockets of pimps and traffickers. Quite the opposite. The money she made afforded her a certain degree of independence.
“I got involved in the business to escape an abusive relationship & finish school quickly, so it was the best job that worked with my schedule and gave me cash as quickly as possible to relocate,” she writes, when asked to explain why she got involved in the industry.
“Nothing About Us, Without Us”
It is difficult to write a conclusion to a story on the sex work debate--a debate that has no clear end in sight.
We do know one thing for sure though. The debate won’t go anywhere till sex workers are given a seat at the table, and have their experiences taken into account.
Emele Devine agrees.
“The best response is ultimately the honest one: each one of us telling our truth with our own words,” Devine writes, “Patience, kindness [and] compassion are our tools to further our cause effectively…Speak with love and honesty, and for fuck’s sake, listen.”
And people ARE listening.
“I am seeing members of the public and people who do sex work using this hash tag to call these fanatics out on their shame game,” writes Talya De Fay, “I am really proud of them. It is important that people stand up to those who bully others. It shows that the public won’t let the little people be pushed around anymore. That is a society worth fighting for. That is what we try to teach the next generation.”