Photo: Danielle Blunt

The National Organization for Women, the United States’s largest grassroots feminist organization, has long taken a stance against the decriminalization of sex work, despite efforts from groups like Decrim NY to emphasize how criminalizing sex work endangers the lives of women who make their living off of it. And according to a new report, that stance has put some of NOW’s members, particularly those who skew younger and women of color, at odds with national leadership.

The Daily Beast reports that NOW is “tearing itself apart,” thanks in part to leader Toni Van Pelt, who testified in October against a bill that would decriminalize sex work in Washington, D.C. Van Pelt, speaking on the behalf of every NOW chapter, deemed the bill an “extreme threat to women and girls” and claimed sex work was “the most extreme version of the violent oppression of women.” And yet, leaders of individual NOW chapters did not share Van Pelt’s views on sex work. Some of those chapters, in fact, were working locally to support legislation that would legalize it—including the Washington, D.C. chapter, which supported the exact bill Van Pelt testified against.

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Per the Daily Beast:

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.

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Chapter president Monica Weeks told the Daily Beast, “I’m so done with just staying quiet. 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 noted that the NOW members pushing for decriminalization are “primarily black and brown women” in the New York and D.C. chapters. “I just find it very patronizing, in a very patriarchal way, to be telling young women what’s best for them,” Weeks said.

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Other NOW members said they’ve received missives from Van Pelt urging them to speak out against decriminalization bills, including a recent one from Rep. Ayanna Pressley, which would decriminalize sex work on a federal level. Van Pelt also reportedly used demeaning and shaming language to refer to sex workers, calling them “prostituted persons” and claiming that “no mother would want their daughter to be a sex worker.”

Van Pelt’s position represents an outdated feminist view on sex work, one that conflates sex work with sex trafficking, and suggests that women do not have ownership over their own bodies. But sex workers, particularly those in marginalized communities, may end up meeting clients in dangerous locations to avoid police; sex workers also report police harassment and sexual assault, are often undocumented and at risk for deportation, and generally suffer major economic losses when facing arrest.

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NOW currently supports the “Nordic” model, which would hold those who buy sex criminally liable instead of sex workers, but supporters say that model is insufficient, and still ultimately punishes sex workers.

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