I’m a sex worker, I like being a sex worker, and I am an activist for the rights of sex workers. As part of that, I would like to see a world where no one is forced to do sex work. That does happen sometimes, and it's bad. But forced sex work is not the huge and scary problem some people would like you think it is. It is not okay that it happens at all, but it simply does not happen NEARLY as often as anti-sex workers say it does.
To begin with, understand this fact: When lawmakers and anti-sex work activists say “sex trafficking” they mean ANY exchange of sex for money, even if it is between two adults and completely voluntary. Let me say that again, because I think it bears repeating. To an anti-trafficking activist, an adult person, fully in possession of her rational faculties and completely independent of anyone else’s influence, who chooses to exchange a sexual act for money = a sex trafficking victim.
I think this is deeply insulting to people who really are victimized. I think one should only use the work trafficked to mean a person who is truly being forced or coerced, or controlled by another person in a way that's harmful or exploitative. I also think it's unjust to invalidate the agency of an adult person. You own your body, and if you, as a consenting adult, choose to have sex with another consenting adult, the state should not have the right to say, "No, we don't approve of your reason for having sex, so we are declaring your act to be a crime and arresting you both." It does not matter if you decided to have sex because someone bought you dinner, or because they offered you a diamond ring, or if they offered you a hundred dollars.
Further, no one should declare that you are a "victim" of anything without your consent. It is for the person who has had the experience to identify whether she/he was a victim of something or not. It’s wrong to impose a label on someone they did not choose for themselves.
Since about 2008, the rhetoric about any act of sex for money has changed, and it is now all defined as "trafficking". That's happened for a variety of reasons, most of them to with the allocation of grant money and the erosion of civil liberties. So the War On Sex Workers* is much like the War On Drugs. There is a system of restrictive ideas about what kind of behavior is socially acceptable, which have been woven into government policy and law, and there are a lot of people whose jobs and money and sense of power are all dependent on keeping that system in place. If there is no social panic about shadowy international crime rings and millions of women and children being abused in sensational ways, those people will lose power.
Plus, whenever sex is involved, some people have emotional responses which are based in their own experience rather that of the putative victim. There are religious organizations and moral crusaders involved in anti-trafficking who are not shy about their wish to impose a certain type of morality and social control, especially on women.
In addition, keep in mind that to many people, arresting and imprisoning US sex workers is not only a moral issue but part of a multimillion-dollar industry. Whenever there is money moving around, in the form of government grants and private donations to anti-sex work NGOs, and lucrative contracts and tax benefits to the private-prison industry, motivations can drift pretty far from the strictly altruistic. Laws against prostitution are selectively enforced, generally based on race and class, and overwhelmingly by gender. So the people at the bottom of the social-power pyramid are those most likely to be hurt by the laws against it.
That's why when you read scary headlines about “X Bazillion People Are Being Sex Trafficked", it does not necessarily mean the person is underage, or has been taken from one place to another, or is an undocumented immigrant, or is being forced or coerced into doing sex work against his/her wishes. It also doesn't mean that anyone can actually see/find those supposed victims, since they are often pure invention, as we will see.
People can be abused in systems of sex work - just as they can be abused in non-sex work forms of labor, and in all other social systems. But criminalization and stigmatization of all sex work is not the right answer. People are abused in the social institution of marriage, too. But we do not outlaw marriage and arrest anyone who says, "I do." People are raped, but we do not respond to that fact by outlawing all consensual sex. On a moral level, we do not want anyone to be harmed. But when it comes to allocating public resources to combat that, the current system does not work. It is not useful to treat a very wide spectrum of people around the world as if they were all the same one-dimensional “victim”, and neither is it wise to try to condense this multifaceted issue into a few bits of bumper-sticker wisdom.
My goal here is to create sharper understanding of how the situation is not as black-and-white as people are often told, and that some of the systems that are ostensibly used to "help" people are not what those people themselves want, and may actually cause even more harm. It's crucial to have a true understanding of the reality of the situation, so we can devise systems that offer anyone being victimized real assistance while also treating them with dignity and being respectful of their agency and their wishes. To that end, this is the reading that I recommend to get a fuller understanding of the challenges of helping those who need help, without criminalizing, stigmatizing and generally imposing a very binary victim/criminal worldview onto a large and diverse set of people.
Start here: Journalist Melissa Gira Grant’s article “The War On Sex Workers”*. Grant has written a lot on this topic, but this is a good snapshot of the problem. "Although nearly all prostitution-related law in the United States is made at the state or municipal level, redefining prostitution as trafficking provides a rationale for federal action against the sex trade... It is about an unholy marriage of feminism with the conservatism and police power that many feminists claim to stand against." http://reason.com/archives/2013/01/21/the-war-on-sex-workers
A perfect example of how false statistics about prostitution are uncritically accepted and repeated by (paid) celebrity spokespeople to drive public policy: Village Voice Takes on Ashton Kutcher, 2011 http://www.villagevoice.com/2011-06-29/news/real-men-get-their-facts-straight-sex-trafficking-ashton-kutcher-demi-moore/full/
(My remarks about that: http://www.thestranger.com/seattle/control-tower/Content?oid=9028548 )
The story of a landmark study by John Jay College of Criminal Justice that "demolished virtually every stereotype surrounding the underage sex trade". For example: the majority of underage people doing sex work are actually young men of color. http://www.houstonpress.com/2011-11-03/news/lost-boys/full/ The FBI reports that $80 million is spent annually for law enforcement and social services to rescue approximately 200 child prostitutes per year. That's a $400,000-per-rescued-child average. Also, only 10% of underage sex workers report having pimps.
That lie about “the average age of entry into prostitution is 12 to 14 years old” has also been debunked.
And here: Claims made by charity often indicates a potentially damaging approach to addressing human needs.
And here: http://maggiemcneill.wordpress.com/2011/11/27/the-law-of-averages/
And here: Unpacking the myth: “the average age of entry into prostitution is 13″
The fact that the alleged hundreds of thousands of sex trafficking victims simply cannot be found has been noted. "President Bush has blanketed the nation with 42 Justice Department task forces and spent more than $150 million -- all to find and help the estimated hundreds of thousands of victims of forced prostitution or labor in the United States. But the government couldn't find them." http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/09/22/AR2007092201401.html Washington Post, 2007.
In spite of federal funding and a special task force, police in Honolulu cannot find even one trafficking victim in a year of looking. (But they still want more money.) An excellent series of article about sex work in Hawaii. http://www.civilbeat.com/articles/2012/03/15/15152-cops-prostitutes-and-pimps-arrests-turn-up-no-trafficking-victims
Anti-trafficking org throws parties and collects donations, but where did that money go? “Missouri Attorney General takes action against Stop Child Trafficking Now. The nonprofit spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to fund private “special operatives” teams to gather undercover intelligence about child sex trafficking. SCTNow claimed to work closely with law enforcement. However, when pressed for more details, SCTNow could not point to a single case in the country where information lead to an arrest or prosecution.” http://www.kshb.com/dpp/news/local_news/investigations/missouri-attorney-general-takes-action-against-national-nonprofit-after-41-action-news-investigation#ixzz2REMDbXr5
How trafficking stats get made: those arrested for prostitution are promised leniency if they say "I was trafficked". http://www.whas11.com/news/local/LMPD-Prostitution-triples-sex-trafficking-a-concern-at-Derby-time-205301341.html …
Chattanooga police recently found exactly one trafficking victim, although a study in 2011 claimed the area had "more than a hundred". Quotes from an editorial: "Chattanooga Police Chief Bobby Dodd said the sex trafficking incident...was "the only one I know of." And also, "The study is, apparently, based on erroneous surveys and severely lacking in verifiable facts... Unfortunately, local organizations appear unprepared to help what few sex trafficking cases there may be in the Chattanooga area." http://www.timesfreepress.com/news/2013/jan/26/sex-trafficking-study-apparently-free-press/
The tone of news stories about prostitution arrests will sometimes read as slightly more sympathetic than in the past: "She has been caught in a sting. Her day is ruined, but the police hope her life can be saved." But the people are still arrested. This is how anti-trafficking groups work: they want to rescue people - by arresting them. http://www.wjla.com/articles/2013/04/prostitution-led-by-growth-of-area-gambling-police-say-88017.html
Here’s an example of how lies about sex trafficking issues are used to control and punish adult sexual behavior, criminalize citizens who have harmed no one, and extract money for the state: Nevada Sex Trafficking Bill AB67. "There is a lot of federal money available for anti-trafficking efforts in a time of austerity and sequestration when many budgets are being slashed." http://www.projectredumbrella.org/no-on-assembly-bill-67-ab113/http://www.projectredumbrella.org/no-on-assembly-bill-67-ab113/
A study of arrests in Denver reveals that prostitution busts affect women more than men: adult males made up 39 percent of arrests, while adult females made up 61 percent,and women are more likely to get jail time: 70 percent of women, as opposed to just 36 percent of men. http://blogs.westword.com/latestword/2012/05/prostitution_denver_study_women_johns.php
Arresting prostitutes takes resources away from truly needy. The Illinois Department of Corrections reported 127 prostitution admissions in 2012, at a cost of two million dollars: http://www.dnainfo.com/chicago/20130321/chicago/prostitution-charged-as-felony-should-be-dropped-say-preckwinkle-gainer#ixzz2RB5ahC1U
The Superbowl Myth:Whenever there is a major sports event like The Superbowl or The Olympics, there is always a rumor that huge flocks of trafficked sex workers will “brought in” for it. That has consistently been shown to be untrue. http://glaconservatives.co.uk/blog/andrew-boff-asks-mayor-why-500k-was-wasted-on-an-alleged-increase-in-trafficking-which-never-took-place-during-olympics/
And here. http://www.snopes.com/sports/football/escort.asp
And here. http://www.laweekly.com/2012-02-02/news/super-bowl-prostitution-hoax/
And here. http://nextcity.org/daily/entry/new-orleans-braces-for-unlikely-surge-in-sex-workers
The Global Alliance Against Trafficking of Women (GAATW) released a 75-page paper disproving the myth that major sporting events attract large numbers of sex workers, let alone human traffickers. “There is no evidence that large sporting events cause an increase in trafficking for prostitution.” (PDF) http://www.gaatw.org/publications/WhatstheCostofaRumour.11.15.2011.pdf
Sex Work Views Globally:
UK, The Guardian, 2008: Britain's "Poppy Project" which received 5.8million pounds in funding, was widely denounced by 27 key figures in sex work research from prestigious universities across the UK and overseas. They stated that the report was conducted with neither ethical approval nor acknowledgement of evidence and co-authored by a journalist known for producing anti-prostitution findings. “You can't just churn out political propaganda and say it's research. You end up with very dangerous policy.” http://www.guardian.co.uk/education/2008/oct/03/research.women
UK, The Guardian, 2009: Inquiry fails to find single trafficker who forced anybody into prostitution. "The UK's biggest ever investigation of sex trafficking failed to find a single person who had forced anybody into prostitution in spite of hundreds of raids on sex workers in a six-month campaign by government departments, specialist agencies and every police force in the country." http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/oct/20/government-trafficking-enquiry-failshttp://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2009/oct/20/government-trafficking-enquiry-fails
UK, The Guardian, 2009: "The sex trafficking story is a model of misinformation... the UK's 2003 Sexual Offences Act uses the word to describe the movement of all sex workers, including willing professionals who are simply traveling in search of a better income....The cacophony of voices has created the illusion of confirmation."
UK, The Guardian: Female reported goes undercover in a brothel to get quotes from women who would be labeled as ‘trafficked’. A brothel worker said, “I regret not working in the sex trade as soon as I got here.” (I’m uneasy about the reporter’s methods, but the quotes remain.) http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/apr/15/brothel-regret-not-working-sex-trade
The United Nations says: "The anti-trafficking law has the brutal effect of punishing trafficked persons, notably persons engaged in sex work. The model of 'raid, rescue and rehabilitation' results in extreme forms of violence against sex workers and their families, violating their basic human rights." http://www.hivlawcommission.org/index.php/news/news/150-separating-consent-from-exploitation?utm_source=Global+Commission+on+HIV+and+the+Law+Newsletter&utm_campaign=4b8dd7a609-Newsletter2_13_2013&utm_medium=email
International AIDS advocates, who are currently required to SWEAR AN OATH against prostitution if they want government grants, say that the oath, and criminalization overall, hampers their efforts to stop the spread of disease. http://newsatjama.jama.com/2013/02/13/jama-forum-the-anti-prostitution-loyalty-oath/
(The anti-prostitution oath is currently before the Supreme Court, and journalist Melissa Gira Grant is covering this story for The Nation. http://www.thenation.com/blogs/melissa-gira-grant )
US policies that conflate trafficking and prostitution in Thailand: http://www.thenation.com/article/crusade-against-sex-trafficking?page=0,1 “I remember talking to US officials who were confused that there could be voluntary prostitution," he says. "They thought, 'Why would we need to differentiate? It's all forced and largely the same as trafficking. If we come across it, we should shut it down.' If you think that sex work is one of the worst things that can happen to a person, then I guess you can say you are rescuing people to take them out of it." The Nation, Noy Thrupkaew September 16, 2009
New Study On Sex Work And The Law In Latin America: “Sex trafficking is criminalized, but often mistakenly blurred with sex work. Confusing sex workers, who have chosen to engage in this area of work, with trafficked persons who have suffered some form of coercion, silences the legitimate voices of sex workers and actually blocks discussions on how to end human trafficking…. As sex work becomes more secretive, so the vulnerability of the human rights of sex workers increases.” http://www.aidsalliance.org/NewsDetails.aspx?Id=291530
Sex work in Australia: (Note: prostitution is legal in Australia, although regulations vary from state to state.) Researchers tell federal parliament that illegal brothel raids a waste of time: "Instead of an evidence-based approach addressing real vulnerabilities, Australia's approach continues to try to detect the mythical trafficking victim and trafficker that is a media-driven stereotype." http://news.ninemsn.com.au/national/2013/04/23/13/16/brothel-raids-a-waste-of-time-sex-workers
More From Down Under: Decriminalizing sex work does not increase problems. In Australia and New Zealand, laws regarding sex work have been undergoing reform aimed at decriminalization since the early 1990s. A 2012 report to Australian Ministry Of Health finds decriminalizing sex work has NOT increased trafficking, or voluntary sex work, or STIs. The whole thing is fascinating, but there’s a summary of the findings on page 6 and its recommendations on page 7. (PDF)
One of the more visible save-the-victims advocates is NYT columnist Nicholas Kristof, but turns out his methods and motives aren't as saintly as one might think. Here's a roundup of some criticism of his campaigns and why he exemplifies "bad advocacy." http://postwhoreamerica.com/nicholas-kristof-half-the-sky-all-the-credit/
In the UK, prostitution per se is legal, although still stigmatized, and like Canada, they have a lot of satellite-laws that hamper safe working systems. (Two women cannot work together because that's "keeping a bawdy house", etc.) But a new concept, "The Merseyside Model" is gaining some ground: treat crimes against sex workers as hate crimes. I was skeptical - and I still am, to some degree - but the approach seems to have some good points in terms of making sex workers safer. http://titsandsass.com/the-merseyside-model-part-i-can-sex-worker-activists-partner-with-the-police-and-a-conservative-london-politician/
UK Dr. Brooke Magnati has a lot of good things to say on the subject: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/sex/9907625/Demonising-sex-workers-makes-their-lives-more-dangerous.html She also tells a story of women being incarcerated in Ireland for (among other things) being promiscuous/sex workers, well into the 1970’s. This is just one example of why many sex workers are extremely leery of “help” from government/charity orgs. http://sexonomics-uk.blogspot.com/2013/01/when-help-is-anything-but.html
This is a good round-up site for current academic research papers and articles about sex work, and its conflation with trafficking: http://sexworkresearch.wordpress.com/
Prolific blogger/activist Maggie McNeil has vast amounts of links and commentary on her blog, "The Honest Courtesan"
Video: Here's a good video, with citations, explaining exactly how the US uses a gag order, The Anti-Prostitution Oath, to impose a fundamentalist morality on public health efforts and constrain harm reduction strategies around the world. http://vimeo.com/43262622
Video: The Thai sex workers rights group, Empower Foundation, has made a ten minute video called "Last Raid In Siam" that shows how they feel about organizations that raid and "rescue" them. (Youtube, has sound, worksafe) "Last Raid In Siam" is funny, but the real-life story often isn't. Two women died while recently trying to escape from an anti-prostitution center where they were being held against their will.
I have a list of people, stories and data like this goes back years, and it get longer every day. If there's an aspect of the situation you still have questions about, or you’d like to discuss this more with me, I’m happy to do that.
Also a list of countries where sex work is legal, and where it is not, and where it's somewhere in between. Notice that the US is one of the few Western, industrialized countries where prostitutes are still arrested.