Oregon Sex Workers Say a Kristof Governorship Could Jeopardize Their Workplace Safety and Rights

“I don’t want a moral crusader governing anything.”

In the Oregon Senate chamber. (Justin Katigbak)

Yamhill native and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Nicholas Kristof’s bid for Oregon governor has already garnered more than $1 million in campaign contributions, more than half from out-of-state donors like fashion designer Diane von Furstenberg and philanthropist Melinda Gates.

But The New York Times columnist’s fame has not always translated to popularity among the subjects of his reporting.

Sex workers in Oregon say they fear what a Kristof governorship could mean for their safety and rights in the workplace.

“As a governor, in a state where a lot of the economy has to do with adult entertainment, I’m afraid he would try to overregulate or punish any of the existing businesses and also prevent progress being made, such as decriminalization,” says Elle Stanger, co-chair of the Oregon Sex Workers Committee. “So I’m afraid of more archaic, sex-negative attitudes and punitive measures against consensual workers, and therefore a waste of resources for those truly in need.”

Kristof’s previous occupation as a columnist has given skeptics, and potential voters, plenty of published opinions to comb through. And among his most vocal critics are sex workers who say his policy prescriptions are outdated and possibly harmful.

Their criticism may resonate in Oregon in particular, where advocates are planning to introduce a ballot measure to decriminalize sex work as soon as next year.

One of the chief criticisms of Kristof’s reporting on the sex trade is that he conflates consensual sex work between adults with human trafficking. Kristof acknowledged such criticism in a recent interview with WW, but said he disagreed with it.

“There are some sex workers who certainly take me on, and there are others who are enthusiastic,” Kristof says. “Obviously, not all sex work is trafficking. Trafficking is about coercion or about kids under 18. Clearly there are differences. Clearly there is some consensual sex work.”

These topics are not new to Kristof. Since the early 2000s, he’s covered some of the thorny, complex issues of the global sex trade, like sex slavery in Cambodia, for which he faced national scrutiny following accusations that a human trafficking activist and major source of Kristof’s fabricated her background. Then, for much of the 2010s, the columnist focused on the sex trafficking of minors on Backpage.com—a project inspired by an encounter with a trafficking victim called “Baby Face.”

“I write about this issue because I’m haunted by the kids I’ve met who were pretty much enslaved, right here in the U.S. in the 21st century,” Kristof wrote in 2017. “I’ve been writing about Backpage for more than five years, ever since I came across a terrified 13-year-old girl, Baby Face, who had been forced to work for a pimp in New York City.”

The following year, in 2018, Congress passed a package of laws known as FOSTA-SESTA (the Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act), which effectively shuttered Backpage and similar sites. (Disclosure: WW was an advertising partner of Backpage.)

Then last year, Kristof pivoted to a new target: the online video platform Pornhub. Some observers saw a familiar pattern.

“When Kristof turns his notebook in the direction of women with stories of trauma, the resulting narratives most often fall somewhere between beneficent voyeurism and journalistic malpractice,” Melissa Gira Grant of The New Republic wrote in a December 2020 article, “Nick Kristof and the Holy War on Pornhub.” (In a noteworthy twist, one of Kristof’s early boosters for governor is Win McCormick, the Portland publisher who owns The New Republic.)

Policywise, perhaps the biggest rift between sex workers and Kristof is his advocacy of a legal approach to prostitution known as the Nordic Model. Kristof underscored that divide when WW asked if he supported a 2021 Oregon House bill that sought to decriminalize prostitution (the bill died in committee).

“The Nordic Model in Northern Europe has been [used] to decriminalize the sale of sex, but not the purchase of it,” Kristof says. “It typically does not allow pimping in particular. And to me the priority, legally and morally, has to be a focus on preventing trafficking and preventing exploitation of kids.”

But some sex workers argue that the Nordic Model, also known as the Swedish Model and the End Demand Model, actually reduces safety for sex workers and clients, and increases the chance of encountering bad actors.

In May, for instance, Portland police arrested former Oregon House Speaker Dave Hunt in a prostitution sting. As a result, a Portland sex worker told WW that Hunt had been a client—and that he ceased making appointments after his arrest, costing the worker a trustworthy client (“The Sting,” WW, Oct. 20, 2021).

Savannah Sly, a Seattle-based sex worker and activist affiliated with the Oregon Sex Workers Committee, among other regional and national organizations, says the Nordic Model seeks to reduce the number of clients seeking to pay for sex. The result, Sly says, is fewer clients in the customer pool. And because “benign” clients are more easily spooked by the threat of arrest or public shame, she says, the proportion of predatory clients increases.

“It does sound like a feminist, progressive proposal. But it’s carceral feminism,” Sly says of the Nordic Model. “The global sex worker rights movement wants rights, not rescue.”

Sly says the Nordic Model unilaterally treats all sex workers as victims who lack the autonomy to choose to participate in the sex trade.

“Kristof, by supporting the Nordic Model, is actually supporting mass incarceration, expanded police surveillance and detainment abilities,” Sly says. “The public really ought to know that the sex trafficking hysteria—while well intentioned in many ways—is just a continuation of the War on Drugs under a different banner. And Kristof is supporting that by supporting the Nordic Model, whether he understands that or not.”

Stanger questions Kristof’s authority on the matter.

“He’s always been a spectator,” she says. “Nobody should be listening to Nicholas Kristof about this. People should be listening to the sex workers who actually have to navigate these laws, and our clients.”

Sly says Kristof’s latest campaign against Pornhub may foreshadow his approach to governing.

“He’s on a porn crusade now,” she says. “He’s just very black and white about the issues of the sex trade. He feels that it is inherently wrong, which makes him a moral crusader. I don’t want a moral crusader governing anything.”

Kristof says he’s spent his career tackling “hard problems”—and that plenty of people he’s written about object to his reporting.

But as he discussed another topic—whether Portland needs more police officers—he voiced a philosophy that may explain where he and sex workers diverge.

“I do think,” he replied, “that there has to be a greater effort to assert order and also norms.”

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