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.