Over the last decade, Ashley Judd has become as known for her activism as she has her acting. Judd was one of the first women to accuse Harvey Weinstein of sexual assault, and she has been a vocal advocate for the #MeToo movement; she has also come out strong as an anti-prostitution advocate. In an Instagram post last month, Judd conflated the two issues by asserting that “survivors” of prostitution — or “paid rape,” as she called it — “are saying #MeToo.”
There was an immediate backlash, even though Judd’s remarks were in line with her public support for Demand Abolition, a group which seeks to eradicate “the illegal commercial sex industry in the US.” Despite the flood of criticism from sex workers and their allies, who believe she is spreading misinformation about sex work and consent, Judd has only doubled down on her position that “cash is the proof of coercion” and that “buying sexual access commodifies … girls and women’s orifices.”
The debate came to a head last Thursday, December 6th, during an event at the Wing, a New York, members-only women’s co-working space where Judd was being interviewed by The New York Times’ Cara Buckley. According to the Daily Beast, a group of activists arrived at the event to show their opposition to Judd’s anti-sex work views in two ways — a group congregated outside for a silent protest, while a woman identified as @SXNOIR (the name of the platform that she founded) attended the talk and seized the opportunity to engage with Judd on her recent remarks. During the audience portion of the event, @SXNOIR asked Judd to explain her work with Demand Abolition, listened to her response, and then told Judd that she was there to call out the actress for not listening to sex workers like her.
“I’m here today to call you in and to say that we’re ready to talk,” @SXNOIR told Judd. “We want to sit down with you, we want you to hear our stories… there are a lot of women who do consensual sex work.”
Though their back and forth was respectful, it did not lead to a particularly meaningful discussion of their conflicting views. Judd complimented @SXNOIR for being “beautiful and eloquent,” and assured her, “I’m on your side. I’m not on the side of the pimps, the brothel keepers, and the pornographers.”
Judd’s views on prostitution have been somewhat contradictory, as she’s expressed support for both total abolition and decriminalization over the years. More recently, Judd has espoused her support for the so-called Nordic Model, in which buying sex is illegal, but selling it is not. In response to @SXNOIR’s question about her work with Demand Abolition at Thursday night’s event, Judd took the opportunity to call for a “demand reduction” strategy that decriminalizes women and girls in the sex trade, and criminalizes those who purchase sex. Rolling Stone sought comment from both @SXNoir and Demand Abolition, but did not hear back prior to publication. Judd’s representatives directed Rolling Stone to a statement the actress posted on Facebook over the weekend.
“I deeply value and am totally open to dialogue and open communication with the sex worker community, and eagerly await hearing back from the activists to whom I have reached out,” Judd wrote. She went on to state that she supports “all women’s bodily integrity and sexual autonomy,” but later writes that “one cannot consent to one’s exploitation,” and espouses her belief that when a man “purchases sexual access to a woman” “his female colleagues and his loved ones … become the collateral damage.”
“Inside of a woman’s body is not a workplace,” Judd wrote, blaming the commodification of women’s bodies on buyers and “a distortion of the argument that it’s just capitalism and entrepreneurship.” While she acknowledged that “for some folks … their body is their commerce,” providing them with “the economic means to survive,” Judd didn’t grapple with how criminalizing buyers in order to theoretically reduce demand has real-life ramifications that harm the very women the Nordic model supposedly aims to “save.”
“What adherents to this approach don’t understand is that such laws only make working conditions much more dangerous for sex workers and do very little to curb the demand for commercial sex,” Alison Bass, author of the book Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law, wrote for the Huffington Post in 2016. “Many sex workers are careful to screen clients before they meet with them, asking for detailed information about who they are and where they work. … Laws criminalizing buyers would make such screening much more difficult — what buyer is going to readily divulge such culpable information — and thus jeopardize their ability to work safely.”
Studies show criminalization of consensual sex work in any form does not make anyone safer. In countries which follow the Nordic Model, like Sweden, fear of arrest has driven away low-risk clients, leaving sex workers more vulnerable to violence as they seek to make up the difference. Not only that, but the policy has actually increased the overall number of sex workers in that country, and did not reduce trafficking.
“We have the data — in places where they increased policing of only clients/johns, violence increased, the level of violence people were willing to endure before they reported it to police increased, and people end up seeing more clients for less money,” activist Kate D’Adamo told the Daily Beast. “It’s not a question mark anymore. This is willfully valuing an opinion over someone’s life.”