Jimmy Carter Just Advanced Unfortunate Myths & Stereotypes About Sex Work

Last we heard of Jimmy Carter, America’s 39th POTUS and a self-avowed feminist, he had triumphed over cancer at a spry 91 years of age. You’d think he’d just enjoy old age in silence, but nope, he’s making headlines again for a pretty disappointing reason: Carter just published a problematic op-ed on sex work with The Washington Post, advancing a number of myths and harmful stereotypes about the trade that are inherently rooted in a mix of slut-shaming and classism.

If you’re not down to read all 691 words of the former president’s think piece, or at least want to get a feel for it before diving head-first into an unsettling pool of paternalism and well-meaning misogyny, here are some annotated excerpts. Carter begins:

“Some assert that this ‘profession’ can be empowering and that legalizing and regulating all aspects of prostitution will mitigate the harm that accompanies it. But I cannot accept a policy prescription that codifies such a pernicious form of violence against women. … If paying for sex is normalized, then every young boy will learn that women and girls are commodities to be bought and sold.”

I’m sorry, but first things first, you don’t get to define “empowerment” to women who lack your economic privilege, who didn’t have access to education, and whose only means of survival are a trade you’re trying to cut off. Frankly, you don’t get to define “empowerment” to any women, economically privileged or no. If women find empowerment in trading sex for money, is that really the worst thing in the world?

We live in a country where mass shootings have become commonplace and lobbyists like the NRA can essentially buy politicians, where 45 million Americans live in poverty, about 30 million Americans still don’t have access to health insurance, where one in five women and one in 16 men will be a victim of sexual assault, and your big takeaway is that we need to “rescue” women from their only source of income?

Onto the next issue I take with that excerpt alone: If “violence against women” were really the concern here, why not clearly distinguish nonconsensual sex trafficking of girls and women involved in consensual sex work? Or work with Vice President Joe Biden and focus on targeting campus sexual assault, or domestic abuse?

Lastly, if you view women who sell sex as objects to be “bought and sold,” has it ever occurred to you that you’re the problem? In this sense, you’re binding the whole of a woman’s identity to the mere act of sex, and view sex work not as a woman merely selling a service, but selling her entire self. And, on a separate but equally important note, the assumption that sex work is all about objectifying women overlooks male and gender-nonconforming prostitutes who might not be the majority in this line of work, but are still human beings worth consideration.

He continues:

“There is a much better policy option. …

Pioneered in Sweden and adopted most recently in Canada and France, this strategy involves decriminalizing prostituted women and offering them housing, job training and other services. Instead of penalizing the victims, however, the approach treats purchasing and profiting from sex acts as serious crimes. Another key component is public education about the inherent harms of prostitution for those whose bodies are sold.”

In the United States, most politicians still think universal health care and free public college tuition – public services enjoyed by pretty much every other industrialized nation in the world – are far too much to ask for. I can only imagine how our Congress of predominantly old, Christian white men would react to the prospect of investing in women who have so irreconcilably “demeaned” themselves.

While the Nordic model might address and benefit women who are only involved in sex work because they have no other means to earn an income, it would still be undermining the fact that despite the classist and misogynistic undertones of the whole debacle, does anyone really have the right to condemn or regulate the conditions and context of sex so long as it’s between two consenting adults?

Not all sex workers are cornered, helpless, and without any other options and it would be awfully paternalistic to tell them or anyone what’s good for them.

Carter then proceeds to advance the myth that legalizing sex work somehow makes the trade spread and grow:

“[In] Germany and New Zealand, which have legalized all aspects of prostitution, have seen an increase in sex trafficking and demand for sexual services. …

If full legalization is adopted, it will not be the “empowered sex worker” who will be the norm — it will be the millions of women and girls needed to fill the supply of bodies that an unlimited market of consumers will demand.”

sex work
CREDIT: Matthew Peyton/Getty Images

Conveniently enough, Carter forgot to mention how, ever since legalizing sex work, rates of violence toward sex workers dramatically decreased because of “the ability to screen clients and take credit card numbers,” according to The Daily Beast.  Sex workers in these countries are also protected by “occupational health and safety laws.”

The reason these ideas coming from Carter are especially disappointing and concerning is that Carter is a respected and valued figure in the feminist community, as a pacifist and human rights advocate. Sure, he’s never been one to glorify abortion, but for all his Methodist fervor, he’s still consistently stood with women’s right to choice, and also frequently speaks out against gendered discrimination. Thus, he has credibility with feminists that someone like, say, Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush don’t, and his op-ed could easily influence those who are less informed about the realities of the trade.

While we’re on the topic, off the top of my head, here’s some more prevalent myths about sex work not referenced in Carter’s article but worth debunking:

  • Legalizing sex work doesn’t make sexually transmitted infections more widespread. After sex work became legalized in Germany, there was no difference in rates of sexually transmitted infection between sex workers and the general population.
  • The criminalization of sex work doesn’t make it any less common, but it sure makes violence toward sex workers more common.
  • All in all, no matter their intentions, laws against sex work don’t empower women but strip them of their autonomy and put sex workers in danger. As per Amnesty International, these laws “often mean that sex workers have to take more risks to protect buyers from detection by the police.”
jimmy carter
CREDIT: Larry Busacca/Getty Images

Carter’s op-ed comes months after Amnesty International’s campaign for the decriminalization of sex work on a global scale.  The evidence is clear: decriminalizing sex work is the best way to protect sex workers. But many notable feminists including Girls’ Lena Dunham believe that the act of consensually trading sex for money is, as Jamie Peck at  Death and Taxes put it “inherently demeaning” to women.

Despite her willingness to be open when it comes to portraying and discussing modern abortion rights or body positivity, Dunham’s tone-deaf attitudes on sex work wasn’t her first strike to intersectional feminists keeping score.  She also has a bit of a racial blind spot, but that’s neither here nor there.

Regarding sex work, Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton has also taken heat for her stances. Clinton pretty much believes that it’s demeaning to women and should be illegal. When one Bernie Sanders surrogate essentially called Clinton a “corporate Democratic whore,” some made the valid point that many of those who lost their shit over the term have never cared about the plights of actual “whores.”

It’s the 21st century and we still live in a world where female sexuality can legally be regulated by the government when in many cases, the women involved in sex work are reliant on the trade for income and survival.

In an ideal world, everyone would have access to education and the resources to get a steady job and no one would feel cornered into purusing sex work as a trade. But in the U.S. and many parts of the world, that’s not the reality.  We might as well ensure that the safety and dignity of sex workers are being protected, rather than the opposite.

Sex might be sacred to others and that’s A-OK. But to some, it’s just a physical act. If it’s consensual and comes with financial benefits, is that really the end of the world?