What’s in a Hub?

But if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation even among people who should and do know better. – George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

One of the City of Boston’s many nicknames is “The Hub” and there is some truth behind it. Boston is a transportation, commerce and communications hub for the New England region, perhaps even a bit beyond. Then there’s the historical importance of Boston, especially with regard to the American Revolution, both in terms of events and intellectual inspiration. Yet it’s hardly the “Hub of the Universe” that some jokingly refer to, nor is it on the same tier as New York or Los Angeles.

I raise this because prohibitionists, both the ideological fanatics and the cynical opportunists who ride their tailcoats, have a tendency to distort the meaning of words so that they make them sheer drivel. The word hub has become one such term, when used in their attempts to foment panic around human trafficking.

Often we think of hubs in terms of central points of convergence, where people and goods arrive on their way to another destination. Airlines fostered this, with their relatively cost-effective method of having the bulk of their flights travel into and out of a major metropolitan airport. Of course, given the size of the United States, and the number of airlines currently active, we also have “focal cities” which serve as secondary hubs, not to mention very large cities serving as hubs for multiple airlines. Still, by sheer volume, we’re able to determine where these air travel hubs are, and their relative rank in terms of volume and other factors:

Let’s contrast this with a map recently issued by the Polaris Project, a so-called anti-trafficking organization which Elizabeth Nolan Brown called “one of the biggest purveyors of bad statistics dressed up as ‘human trafficking awareness'”. This map supposedly shows the various “hubs of human trafficking” in the United States:

How is it that human trafficking not only has more “hubs” than the airlines, but in remote places like Montana? Furthermore, given that human trafficking is an underground industry, just how did Polaris determine where and at what level this or that location is a “hub”? Indeed, this whole map begs the question of how any city or town, of any size or location, is designated a “hub of human trafficking” – and my own hypothesis of how and why is rooted in an age-old political paradox.

Too many American politicians are prone to promising their constituents two key desires: law and order, and low taxes. That creates a problem. In order to accomplish the former, you need to raise revenue; but so long as you fulfill the latter, you’ll inevitably fall short unless you find another source of cash. Lately, a major source of that revenue has come in the form of civil asset forfeiture, yet the old standby has been to get Federal grant money by claiming that your jurisdictions has some “problem” connected with some issue that will get national politicians riled up enough to fork over some dough. This was very common during the War on Drugs (with even small towns claiming to have an “epidemic” of drugs) and the War on Terror (because we can’t let even one small town become a “soft target”). So with the War on Trafficking (which is, in reality a War on Sex Workers) all you need to get your piece of the pie is to declare your locale to be a “hub of human trafficking” – and it doesn’t even matter if you have no real data to prove you’re a hub, because the prohibitionists who started this whole boondoggle never even bothered to set any criteria for defining a hub. Add to that the number of “non-profit” groups like Polaris with their hands in the cookie jar, and you can see how the number of hubs multiplies, and how much of our tax dollars goes to feed the cycle.

Now, I certainly don’t expect either crusading fanatics or political opportunists to see the light of day. Part of me, however, is hoping that a combination of economic realities and not-so-enlightened self-interest will lead to a clash between the two camps as they vie for shrinking grant/tax monies, leading to someone somewhere deciding to clarify what is meant by “human trafficking” and what constitutes a “hub” wherein such an enterprise goes on. When that happens, that will be yet another opportunity for sex workers and their allies to be heard, and to propose real alternatives.

Taking Sex Workers for a Ride

Here in Boston, there is an organization for homeless and at-risk youth called Bridge Over Troubled Waters. They began in the 1960s as a group of women offering sandwiches and a supportive ear to runaway, throwaway and neglected teens in Boston Common and Harvard Square. Over the decades, they grew into a model organization, with a mobile medical van as part of its street outreach, and the first emergency shelter for homeless youth in the country.

One of the reasons they have been as effective as they are is that they take the time to build rapport with street youth. They don’t impose their will on them; they meet them where they are, or wait for them to come.

That, I have learned, is vastly different from the vision of those who seek to “rescue” people from sex work, especially street-based sex work. Seattle is one example of this, where police don’t simply refrain from arresting street-based sex workers, they take them for a ride to members of the city’s “Organization for Prostitution Survivors,” which touts itself as offering “counseling and advice” to sex workers.

If that’s anything like the “counseling and advice” given by Peter Qualliotine in Seattle’s “john school” program, then sex workers in that city would be wise to steer clear. Qualliotine – an art college dropout whose only qualifications for running such a program is that he worked for prohibitionist fanatic Melissa Farley – attempts to indoctrinate members of his “STOP Exploitation” classes in a noxious hodgepodge of extremist ideology and shame-filled pseudoscience, all wrapped up with a speech reminiscent of an evangelical preacher’s temperance sermon abjuring the faithful to swear off liquor.

Of course, I would expect Peter Qualliotine, Alisa Bernard, and others at OPS to scoff at my description, denouncing me as a “sex trafficking apologist” or member of their mythic “pimp lobby” for daring to question their dogma. Let me pose a couple of important questions for them: If commercial sex is so universally terrible, and if you are offering such beneficial services, why do you need undercover police officers to bring street-based sex workers to you under false pretenses? If you’re so convinced that no one really consents to selling sex, how is using the police to deceive and intimidate women into listening to you any better?

Frankly, I don’t expect an answer from them. But for anyone else reading, think about the use of such disingenuous means to achieve their ends. And remember that this is being done on the taxpayer’s dime.

Trumping the Prohibitionists

Donald Trump’s latest debacle has weakened him even further by revealing that he’s not merely using the far-right as a steppingstone to power, but that he indeed supports their bigoted beliefs. This is not, however, Trump’s real Achilles’ heel. His entire methodology of “shooting from the hip” without concern for consequences, and most importantly his refusal to admit to, and apologize for, any mistakes he makes, is what will lead to his ultimate undoing.

This is the same weakness in the prohibitionist camp – their own sense of self-righteousness and absolutism prevents them from seeing when they make mistakes, much less owning up to them.

When journalists began to question Somaly Mam’s story, then expose her pattern of deception and fraud, did “anti-trafficking” activists in this country step back and take stock? Hardly. Many like Nicholas Kristof tried to minimize the damage, and some like Susan Sarandon even supported her efforts to form a new foundation in her name.

Groups like Polaris continually claimed that “the average age of entry into prostitution is thirteen” – and when this was thoroughly debunked those groups waffled and took their time pedaling back on the bogus figure.

Anti-prostitution activists and law enforcement have been pushing the panic around sex trafficking so much, they are now seeing histrionic claims multiply beyond their own control – yet they are still unwilling to admit that their own distortions and confabulations are the fatal flaw. Let’s also not forget the radical feminist concept of “re-framing experiences” by embellishment, exaggeration and even outright fabrication.

This is no reason, however, for sex worker rights groups to be overconfident. Just as Trump tries to divert attention from his errors as part of his “doubling down” tactic, it makes sense that prohibitionists will do the same. They will look for any flaw, any error, any shortcoming in their opposition, and exploit it for their own purposes. We need to anticipate these attacks, own up to any mistakes, show how we responded, and most importantly, bring the conversation back to the core issue of empowering sex workers by removing legal barriers, and holding the architects of the prohibitionist movement accountable for the harms they have caused.

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.