Maggie McNeill’s Film The War on Whores Harpoons the Rank Hypocrisy of the Rescue Industry

Illustration taken from film poster for "War on Whores"
From the poster for Maggie McNeill's new documentary, "The War on Whores." (courtesy of Maggie McNeill)
Sex worker, writer and savant Maggie McNeill's new documentary, "The War on Whores," should be required viewing for all journalists covering the movement to decriminalize sex work.

It’s a testament to the moral duplicity of our age that Amazon.com’s customers can purchase such rousing examples of cinéma vérité as California Gangbang Sluts and Dude, Your Mom Did Porn, while the gatekeepers of this discriminating internet bazaar catch a case of the vapors over the word “whore.”

According to Seattle-based author, blogger and filmmaker Maggie McNeill, her new documentary, The War on Whores, was forced to undergo a name change by some flunkies at Amazon, where her film is now available for streaming as The War on Sex Workers.

McNeill, a self-described “unretired call girl,” related this tale on her blog, “The Honest Courtesan.” She claims that Amazon demanded the bowdlerization from Paul Johnson, McNeill’s collaborator and the film’s director, “despite there being lots of titles containing that very-ordinary word all over their site.”

So far, Amazon has not replied to my request for a comment on the controversy.

Though the film’s name is altered on Amazon’s site, the original title remains as part of the films’ opening credits (and on the DVD’s packaging, per McNeill). Moreover, the documentary can be rented for the same amount under its uncensored name on Vimeo.

Too hot for Amazon? McNeill says bluenoses at Amazon turned their nostrils up at the title for her new documentary. (courtesy of Maggie McNeill)

McNeill has accepted Amazon’s inane censorship as the price of doing business.

“[F]rom an ethical standpoint, I don’t feel as though faking modesty in a title is any different from faking an orgasm:  it’s just done to please someone in order to get them to give me money,” she wrote on her blog.

The film is part autobiography, part exposé  on the deceitfulness of the so-called “rescue industry,” a cabal of nonprofits, talking heads and cops that has created a nationwide moral panic over “sex trafficking,” which, legally, is forced sex work, as opposed to sex work among consenting adults, aka, “the world’s oldest profession.”

(Not that these fascistic do-gooder types care to make the distinction between sex trafficking and garden-variety prostitution. Conflating the two is necessary to the rescue industry’s long con.)

In the film, McNeill describes her upbringing in Louisiana as rather normal and uneventful. She was educated by nuns at a Catholic school, and though sex wasn’t talked about at home, she was not taught to believe that sex was dirty or to have unrealistic notions about it.

Her epiphany about sex work came not long after she turned 18. She had taken a job house-sitting for a man, who returned home earlier than expected. When the man made a pass at her, she asked if she could “stay on the clock” and receive the original amount she had been promised for several days work, $350. The man said yes and 30 minutes later, she left, cash in hand.

“[F]rom an ethical standpoint, I don’t feel as though faking modesty in a title is any different from faking an orgasm:  it’s just done to please someone in order to get them to give me money.” — Maggie McNeill

McNeill’s origin story stands in stark contrast to the propaganda of the anti-sex trafficking fanatics, who argue that women cannot freely choose sex work as a profession, because they are always coerced in one form or another, either by violence, or by the modern-day Babadooks of capitalism, or the patriarchy.

But McNeill has an intellect sharper than a diamond cutter, possesses more than one college degree, and is a brilliant writer whose work has appeared in Reason magazine, the Cato Institute’s Cato Unbound, and the Washington Post,  where a 2014 column of hers, “Lies, damned lies and sex work statistics,” remains part of the requisite syllabus for anyone following the fight for decrim, one of the great civil rights struggles of our age.

Along with McNeill, fellow libertarian-minded feminists, such as anti-war activist and writer Angela Keaton and Reason associate editor Elizabeth Nolan Brown, break down the psychology and the reality of the anti-sex trafficking movement. The film traces its origins to the pornography wars of the Reagan administration, where social conservatives and radical feminists joined forces in an anti-sex crusade the nation had not witnessed since the white slavery panic that occurred around the beginning of the 20th Century.

As anyone can easily see from the cornucopia of porn online, that coalition’s attempt to force its prudery on others was a colossal failure. But in the early 2000s, those disparate elements reunited to rebrand all prostitution, which the populace regarded as relatively benign, into “sex trafficking,” taking its name directly from “drug trafficking.”

Keaton credits McNeill with being ahead of the curve in predicting that the “war on whores” would replace the war on drugs. Indeed, with the ever-expanding legalization of medicinal and recreational marijuana, ganja is no longer the revenue stream it once was for law enforcement nor can it remain the bête noire it’s been for moralists.

“It will happen,” writer and anti-war activist Angela Keaton says of decriminalization, “it’s just that people are going to have to get their heads around certain things…like minding their own business.”

Brown, who has written about this phenomenon at length, details the inherently coercive nature of the police doing stings to entrap sex workers and arrest them on the premise of “saving” them from a life of  sex slavery. It’s a ruse laid bare in the documentary by video clips of busts in action, wherein cops slap the cuffs on sex workers and clients alike.

Much as they did during the war on drugs, the federal government and the states have passed laws cracking down on sex trafficking, while enhancing police powers and pouring millions of dollars into combatting a public menace that, in reality, is far less prevalent than forced labor or many other categories of crimes.

“It creates really perverse incentives where we’re actually encouraging the industry to go further underground, [and] encouraging people to do away with screening mechanisms and things that might make themselves safe,” Brown argues.

Paranoia over sex trafficking also facilitates morbid collaborations between prosecutors and ideologically-driven nonprofits. Such a collaboration occurred in recent years in King County, Washington between the prosecuting attorney’s office there and oil heiress Swanee Hunt’s group, Demand Abolition. Hunt’s organization donated nearly $192,000 to fund King County’s jihad against sex work, which brought down a website, The Review Board, where adult men discussed consensual encounters they’d had with adult sex workers.

As two of the defense attorneys in the case explain, the women involved were not being trafficked. Lives were crushed nonetheless, and to what end?

The only cure for this witch-hunt mentality, McNeill and others in the documentary assert, is decriminalization, an idea that is gaining traction in places like New York and Washington, DC, where local activists and enlightened politicos are backing legislation to end the criminalization of sex work and validate the autonomy that all humans should have over their bodies.

“It will happen,” Keaton says of decriminalization, “it’s just that people are going to have to get their heads around certain things…like minding their own business.”

For more about Maggie O’Neill, check out:
‘Every Totalitarian Movement Needs a Bogeyman’: Sex Worker and Author Maggie McNeill Sounds Off About the Government’s Pillorying of Michael Lacey and Jim Larkin

About Stephen Lemons

Stephen Lemons is an award-winning investigative journalist with more than 20 years of experience covering everything from government corruption to white-supremacist gangs. In addition to Front Page Confidential, his work has appeared in Phoenix New Times, the Los Angeles Times, Salon.com, and the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Report magazine.

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