At a recent hearing in Washington, D.C., the president of the National Organization for Women made it abundantly clear that her organization would not support a bill to decriminalize sex work in the capital.
Testifying in front of the D.C. City Council, Toni Van Pelt, the 72-year-old leader of the storied women’s rights organization, claimed the bill would make Washington a “prime international sex tourism destination” and pose an “extreme threat to women and girls.” Sex work, she said, was “the most extreme version of the violent oppression of women.”
Asked whether the local NOW chapter supported her position, Van Pelt replied firmly: “I am representing all the chapters in the National Organization for Women.”
Watching the testimony from home days later, Monica Weeks, the president of the local NOW chapter, was shocked. Her chapter had never declared opposition to the bill—in fact, they were working on testimony in support of it.
“That [was] the most blatant demonstration of disrespect we’ve had in a long time,” she told The Daily Beast. “And honestly they probably don’t even realize it.”
The episode illustrated a growing divide within the feminist movement on whether the sale and purchase of consensual adult sex should be decriminalized. Numerous human rights groups have endorsed the idea, claiming it would make the sex trade safer and curtail discriminatory policing. But women’s organizations like NOW, founded at a time when many feminists considered prostitution inherently demeaning, continue to oppose it.
Internally, however, backlash is brewing. Younger members and women of color told The Daily Beast they are frustrated by the leadership’s refusal to hear them out on the subject. Some have formed private Facebook groups to vent and strategize, while others have fumed on internal listservs and in letters to the board. A task force meant to reach consensus on the issue stalled without a single meeting.
And the debate only seems to be intensifying. Hours after The Daily Beast reached out to NOW’s national group for comment, Van Pelt sent an email blast to all chapter leaders warning that they “should not speak out in opposition to a national policy in the press.”
“Since the founding of the National Organization for Women in 1966 we have spoken in one voice on the issues critical to women’s equality,” Van Pelt wrote. “It is essential that all chapter leaders and members adhere to positions regarding the issues, public policy and law affirmed by the National Conference or National Board.”
NOW is the largest grassroots feminist organization in the country, with 550 chapters covering every state and the District of Columbia. It has mobilized hundreds of thousands of people to march for abortion access and the Equal Rights Amendment, and spurred the passage of landmark federal anti-discrimination laws. Its PAC has raised millions of dollars for feminist candidates and dolled out coveted election-year endorsements.
Because of this storied history, when NOW takes a stance on an issue, women around the country listen. This year, the group mounted a nationwide campaign against what it called ”sex trafficking and exploitation.” The campaign aimed to “end the demand” for sex work by criminalizing pimps and johns (or in NOW speak, “purchasers of sex acts” and those who benefit financially from the sale of other people for sex.”) A key component of the campaign was opposing the D.C. decriminalization bill.
The D.C. chapter, however, was not on board. After seeing Van Pelt’s testimony in October, the board fired off a letter to the national organization, blasting the president’s “misleading and dehumanizing language,” and the “breach of autonomy and assertion that this language represents DC NOW’s views.”
“Going forward, we ask that that National NOW modify their language to reflect the terms currently accepted and used in the sex worker community and by progressive organizations that show respect for all women and their choices,” they wrote in the letter, first reported by Gay City News.
When Van Pelt did not respond to follow-up emails, Weeks forwarded the letter to all of the state chapter presidents in the country.
“I’m so done with just staying quiet,” Weeks told The Daily Beast. “We’re just pissed and they’re not going to change. And if they're not going to change, at least I'm going to be honest.”
Weeks was not the only one growing frustrated. Several chapter leaders had been quietly seething since the national convention that July, where Van Pelt submitted several resolutions in favor of the so-called Nordic model.
The resolutions called for the removal of criminal penalties for those who sell sex, but not those who buy it—something many activists say does not go far enough to protect sex workers’ rights. A group of younger feminists decided to submit their own competing resolution in support of full decriminalization.
The measures sparked some of the most heated conversations throughout the three-day event, but did not make it to a vote. Instead, the group elected to form a task force to discuss the issue and come to a mutually agreeable solution.
But task force member Tika Viteri told The Daily Beast that the group has yet to hold a single meeting. The only communication she has received in the six months since its formation is an email from Van Pelt, urging members to protest Rep. Ayanna Pressley’s federal decriminalization bill. Viteri said when she pushed back, Van Pelt did not respond to follow-up emails.
“I think they expected everyone to be on board with this,” she said of the national group’s stance. “They weren't quite prepared for what to do if their plan didn’t succeed.”
Even as the task force stalled, the national group continued to send out alerts about the national anti-trafficking campaign—alerts that referred to sex workers as “prostituted persons” and claimed that “no one chooses it as a career path over other professions.” The releases caught the eye of chapter leaders like Michelle Fadeley, who said she was alarmed by the word choice and by Van Pelt’s resistance to criticism.
When local leaders protested, Fadeley said, Van Pelt defended her position by saying that no mother would want their daughter to be a sex worker.
“I was a little aghast at that,” said Fadeley, the president of Illinois NOW. “We could say the same thing about abortion. I don’t think anyone wants their daughter to have an abortion, but that is not a valid argument to not have that choice, and to not support women who choose that.”
Other members said they, too, saw hypocrisy in NOW’s stance. “What I don’t understand is how an organization that says, ‘My body my choice,’ is coming out and saying [sex work] is wrong,’” said Montgomery County, Maryland, chapter president Jennie Rose D'Elia-Dufour. “It’s, ‘My body my choice,’ unless you’re trying to make money to support yourself.”
Madison, Wisconsin chapter president Mara Jarvis was so upset that she started a Facebook chat with other chapter leaders to vent her frustrations. It quickly swelled to over a dozen angry members. They contemplated writing a letter to the national board, but settled on bringing a resolution to the next conference instead. Several other leaders said they would support a similar resolution.
“We’ve been at the forefront of every fight of the last 50 years,” California chapter president Kolieka Seigle said. “To not be on the right side of history this time is a travesty.”
Much of the current debate centers around what, exactly, NOW’s position is. Van Pelt has repeatedly told leaders that official NOW policy supports the Nordic model, citing a 2016 resolution on child sex trafficking. She reiterated that sentiment in a statement to The Daily Beast, adding that the organization “welcomes diverse opinions from our members and open discussion on all of our issue areas.” .
“NOW’s national policy is that we support the Equality/Nordic model, which would decriminalize people who are prostituted and provide programs that would help them to successfully exit the trade and access counseling, health care, housing, training and employment,” Van Pelt said. “NOW’s President speaks on behalf of the grassroots, who themselves have decided on this position at our 2016 conference.”
But other members argue that a resolution on child sex trafficking has nothing to do with trading in consensual adult sex. Florida chapter president Kim Porteous said her chapter passed a resolution in favor of decriminalization last year, not realizing that it could conflict with current NOW policy. “Human trafficking is horrendous and it has nothing to do with choice,” she said. “Sex work does.”
In fact, NOW passed a national resolution calling for decriminalization in early 1970s, at the height of the second-wave feminism porn wars. While activists like Catherine McKinnon and Gloria Steinem were arguing that pornography and prostitution perpetuated patriarchy, local NOW chapters were canvassing with sex worker rights groups and protesting mandatory STI-testing laws.
That decision was not without controversy—Berkeley NOW member Tish Sommers argued then that legalized prostitution was “only a mask for greater exploitation of women’s bodies”—but the pro-decriminalization faction ultimately won out. A resolution adopted at the 1973 national conference called for removal of “all laws relating to the act of prostitution per se, and as an interim measure, the decriminalization of prostitution.”
It’s unclear what happened between then and now to change the organization’s views. (Asked when the organization's official stance had changed, Van Pelt cited only the 2016 trafficking resolution.) But by the late 1990s, NOW had signed on to a letter calling for all sex work to be considered a form of exploitation. Today, the organization's website proclaims its full support for the Nordic model, claiming that decriminalization would lead to “even higher rates of human trafficking and perpetuat[e] an already vicious cycle of oppression for women.”
To many members, the dispute comes down to a fundamental disagreement on whether people can truly choose sex work. NOW’s national leaders have repeatedly claimed that most sex work, if not compelled by outright force, is coerced by societal pressures like poverty, racism and misogyny. Decriminalization advocates, meanwhile, believe the decision to enter sex work is often consensual—if not always happy.
Viteri described the competing views as a Venn diagram, with sex work on one side and sex trafficking on the other. “Some of us believe that there is ... some overlap between sex work and sex trafficking,” she said. “Some of us believe that it is a solid circle.”
“If you believe that it’s a solid circle, then it makes it more difficult to accept that nuance,” she added.
A majority of Americans, meanwhile, appear to have accepted some of that nuance. Last year, four Democratic presidential candidates came out in favor of decriminalization, and legislators in both D.C. and New York state introduced bills to that effect. Groups like the World Health Organization, Amnesty International, and Human Rights Watch have all called for similar reforms. A recent study from Data for Progress found that nearly three-quarters of all Democrats — and a majority of voters in both parties — support full decriminalization.
The shift is a generational one, but also societal. The Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, has generated a better awareness of how policing can harm marginalized communities. Trans activists have flagged how anti-prostitution laws inordinately affect them, as trans women are disproportionately policed, harassed and attacked for their participation in the sex trade.
Unsurprisingly, these divides crop up in the NOW membership. Within the organization, Weeks said, “a lot of the people that are pushing back are the younger members, particularly people of color.”
“The people who are leading the initiatives in New York and D.C. are primarily black and brown women,” she added. “So I just find it very patronizing, in a very patriarchal way, to be telling young women what’s best for them.”
Despite pushback, there are signs that NOW’s position on sex work could slowly be changing. The Florida NOW chapter is standing by their resolution on sex workers rights. D'Elia-Dufour, the Maryland leader, is planning to bring a local sex workers’ rights organization in to educate her chapter. It seems inevitable that a resolution on decriminalization will be brought at this year’s national conference in Washington. It would need only 75 signatures to pass to a floor vote.
Zoe Bardon, one of NOW’s youngest members at age 17, said she sympathized with the older generation of feminists, who were working on this issue long before she was born. But ultimately, she felt they would be unable to resist the shifting tides.
“NOW is always on the forefront of the feminist movement, since our inception in 1966,” she said. “I think it’s just a matter of time before we fully embrace decriminalization. But hopefully it will happen sooner rather than later.”