A Very Large Grain of Salt

Recently, someone posed a question via the Contact page: “You seem very skeptical of the anti-trafficking movement. What about the women who share their experiences of being trafficked? Do you actually think they’re lying?”

I should preface my answer with the caveat that the various anti-trafficking organizations do not make up a single monolithic movement. There are at least two major anti-trafficking trends:

  • Those who oppose sex work, conflating it with trafficking, and are ideologically driven to favor punitive measures directed mostly against clients while claiming to help “prostituted women”; these are represented by neoliberal groups like Demand Abolition, radical feminists like Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, and “faith-based” organizations like Shared Hope International.
  • Those who make a distinction between sex work and sex trafficking, generally supporting a rights-based approach that often includes harm reduction and decriminalization of voluntary commercial sex; they include groups such as Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women and Freedom Network USA.

As you might guess, I favor the latter over the former. A major reason for this is that the rights-based groups are very careful in their research and presentation; they are not only rights-based, but fact-based, including an appreciation for the nuance and complexity of lived experiences for both sex workers and sex trafficking survivors.

If a rights-based group presents the story of a sex trafficking survivor, I’m much more inclined to accept it as is. The track record of such organizations suggests that they have checked it and not altered the narrative in any way (at least not without the consent of the survivor). So, why not accept narratives from the more ideological anti-trafficking groups?

Look at their track record. These groups and their leaders have a history of distortion, embellishment and fabrication in order to advance their goals. Stories are often presented second-hand, with no means of verifying them, almost invariably following the same narrative template. Even when survivors are given space to tell their stories, they are “encouraged” to “re-frame” them.

In social and behavioral science, re-framing usually refers to shifting the perspective from which one views an event or piece of information. It does not, however, include or support embellishing the narrative in question. Unfortunately, as survivor Jill Brenneman noted in an interview: “As difficult and extreme as my experiences were, [ideological anti-trafficking activists] wanted me to re-frame them, meaning add things that didn’t happen to make it worse.” In an even more notorious and flagrant example, Long Pros, a young Cambodian woman, was coached by Somaly Mam to recount a story of being stabbed in the eye by a vicious pimp – until her parents and doctors provided evidence to refute that account.

Let that sink in.

Is it any wonder, then, that individuals such as Somaly Mam, Chong Kim, Stella Marr, Justine Reilly, and others have been able to misrepresent themselves as “victims” and “survivors” within such organizations, or to set up shop on their own to bilk donors of their cash? Or how evasive these groups become when the game is played out?

I’m certainly not accusing every survivor connected with these groups to be fraudulent. I’m sure many have suffered, and turned to these groups for support. But given the propensity for these groups to twist facts and manipulate others into doing the same, these survivors should not be surprised when I and others take their stories with a very large grain of salt. And if, indeed, you were persuaded to embellish your own story in the name of “re-framing”, I would hope that you come clean and speak out. Such truth-telling is not an act of betrayal, but of personal integrity.

Hollywood and the Prohibitionists

It’s not just that prohibitionists love having celebrities on their side. It’s not just that they keep accusing supporters of sex worker rights of “falling for the fantasy” of Pretty Woman. Prohibitionists are in love with Hollywood because, like the film industry, they prefer to package things in eye-catching tropes that doesn’t strain the brain.


Two films highlight the obsession with sex trafficking. The most recent is Eden, released in 2012 with Beau Bridges as a corrupt lawman in charge of a ring who kidnap underage girls and turn them into sex slaves for profit. Said to be “inspired” by the stories of Chong Kim – who claimed to be a survivor of trafficking, and was later found to be a fraud – the movie is filled with lurid and shocking imagery, from warehoused girls in undies to outright torture. The film’s narrative goes even more overboard than Kim’s own confabulations (which had also grown more sensational over time).

The “sex slave” trope was also used in the 1972 film Prime Cut, starring Lee Marvin as a mob enforcer sent by his boss to collect a debt from another boss (Gene Hackman) and rescuing one of several girls (Sissy Spacek) who are drugged and kept naked in cattle stalls for auction. Seeing it after Eden, one has to wonder if Prime Cut was even more of an inspiration than Chong Kim’s tales.


Prohibitionists also fixate on street prostitution and the pimps who supposedly seduce runaway teens into the trade – the central theme to the 1985 movie Streetwalkin’ with Melissa Leo as Cookie and Dale Midkiff as her abusive pimp/boyfriend Duke. This film is so laughable in its cheesy portrayals, I almost imagine Melissa Farley or Donna Hughes “consulting” on the set.


Perhaps the most iconic image of prostitution would be that of Iris in Taxi Driver, played by Jodie Foster opposite Robert De Niro’s Travis Bickle. Iris becomes a fixture of fascination and pity for Bickle, who later goes to the brothel where Iris works and unleashes his violent rage against the pimp and other nefarious fellows. Forget that, throughout the film, we’ve been witness to Bickle’s disturbing descent. Forget that his attack came after a failed attempt to assassinate a Presidential candidate. Bickle took down the bad guys, and helped Iris get back home, so now he’s a hero – a fantasy that now feeds the contemporary “anti-trafficking” movement.

Hollywood is fueled by fantasy. Even when it draws from real life, the writers and directors and actors tend to distill it into a more sensational – and saleable – version. The problem, however, is not with Hollywood’s selling of fantasy. It is when certain viewers are unable to distinguish the fantasy from fact, and even present fantasy as fact. Unfortunately, that is what many prohibitionists are doing, such as when two Seattle organizations held a screening of Eden in May 2013, followed by a panel of “anti-trafficking experts” leading a discussion. When a movement uses a fictional film based on fraudulent claims as though it were a documentary, you have to wonder just how credible they are.


Of course, this doesn’t mean every film about prostitution is unreal. Lizzie Borden’s 1986 movie Working Girls has been hailed as a more realistic portrayal that shows sex work as a job – alternately tedious and humorous like any other, and neither glamorous nor pitiful. Borden was able to do this by actually listening to sex workers about their lives. It’s too bad that Swanee Hunt and other prohibitionists seem unwilling to do the same.

Surviving Fanaticism

In previous writings and conversations, I’ve referred to the current anti-prostitution movement as “zealots”, “extremist” and “fanatical”. Recent events surrounding the Women’s March on Washington only served to confirm that.

When the March organizers posted their statement, they included “solidarity with the sex workers’ movement”. Then, days before the March, it was noticed that this phrase was removed and replaced with a statement of support for “those exploited for sex and labor”. The reaction by sex workers and their allies was immediate, with emails and tweets calling on March organizers to reinstate the original wording. Within hours, the statement was revised again, this time including both phrases. While some opposed making any concession to those who conflate consensual sex work with trafficking, others were content with the final result, even pointing out that sex workers have been fighting sexual and labor exploitation for decades.

Contrast this with the reaction of prohibitionists. Alisa Bernard labeled the original solidarity statement as a sign of “patriarchal leanings”, opposed the compromise wording, and rattled off supposed statistics with no links or citations to substantiate them. An “Open Letter from Sex Trade Survivors” also condemned the inclusion of sex workers in the March, asserting “that ‘sex workers’ rights’ are synonymous with ‘pimps’ rights’ … Don’t believe us? — We couldn’t blame you. It is thoroughly incredible. — So go and ask them. The movement you’re supporting will be happy to tell you that pimps are ‘managers’ and that since they facilitate ‘sex work’ they’re ‘sex workers’ too!” Again, no citation to support their claim.

And, to clarify for those readers who are less familiar with the nuances: While sex workers do prefer the term “third-party managers” to the more pejorative “pimp”, they would only include a manager among their ranks if they had also done actual sex work (like many of the women who run escort agencies). Sex workers also acknowledge that abuse and exploitation by third parties in commercial sex does happen – which is why they support full decriminalization, to provide more accountability and transparency.

Of course, this is completely lost on the prohibitionist camp, who prefer to see things in black and white. They take the most extreme negative narrative – the helpless victim abused by a pimp to be used and discarded by a seemingly endless string of entitled johns – and refuse to accept any other perspective. It’s all bad, so it must all be abolished, and we need tougher laws and more stings and sweeps to “rescue prostituted persons” (arrest sex workers) and “hold buyers accountable” (arrest sex work clients). And when current and former sex workers present different and more complex narratives, or social science research reveals that the facts don’t fit the prohibitionists’ beliefs? Either ignore them, or accuse them of being part of a mythic “Pimp Lobby” that wants to perpetuate “the selling of women and girls into sexual slavery”.

Because I recognize the complex reality of commercial sex, I recognize that coercion and abuse do occur. Where I disagree with the prohibitionists is the numbers they put forward in their claims, and the methods they favor to address the problem. And I’m not just talking about their excessive focus on punitive law-and-order measures. I’m talking about the way that survivors of abuse and exploitation are used and discarded by the very movement that lays claim to rescuing them.

One of the worst examples is Jenny Williamson, founder and CEO of Courage Worldwide, Inc. Her “Courage House” facility in California, intended to provide housing and support to young victims of sex trafficking, shut its doors in June 2016 amid state licensing investigations and complaints from former staff that it was “an exploitative organization that cared more about promoting its cause than caring for the teen runaways it claimed to be saving.” And this isn’t the only so-called “anti-trafficking” group with problems. According to a 2015 investigative piece by Truthout on the anti-trafficking industry, “these groups have shown a remarkable lack of fiscal accountability and organizational consistency, … [they] fold, move, restructure and reappear under new names with alarming frequency, making them almost as difficult to track as their supposed foes.”

Unlike the sex worker movement, which is led by current and former sex workers themselves, the prohibitionist movement’s leadership is dominated by religious conservatives, radical academics, and wealthy benefactors. Yes, there are “survivor leaders”, but more often than not survivors serve as props for publicity and fundraising. More troubling is the extent to which people claiming to be survivors turn out to be fraudulent – Somaly Mam, Chong Kim, Samantha Azzopardi, Valerie Lempereur, a.k.a. Patricia Perquin, and who knows how many more. Given the penchant that prohibitionists have of clinging to beliefs before checking facts, is it any wonder that such problems remain a feature in their movement?

I’m not saying that survivors of abuse and trafficking should not be heard. What I am saying is that the narrative presented by people like Alisa Bernard and the signatories of the Open Letter are not the only ones out there, nor do people with similar narratives necessarily share the same beliefs or reach the same conclusions. Survivors for Decrim is an example of how supporting survivors of abuse and the rights of consensual sex workers need not be mutually exclusive.