“Signs” of Trafficking to Make You Wonder

Last weekend, I flew out of town to attend a conference where the annual meeting of the National Coalition for Sexual Freedom was being held, having been invited to co-present on sex workers’ rights for the Coalition’s leaders. I took just a small backpack crammed with clothes, papers, and other items. The room was paid for by another NCSF activist, who was staying in a suite with their partner. As is my usual practice, I kept the “Do Not Disturb” sign on the entire time, as well as leaving the TV on, because I’m one of these folks who is more comfortable with an unmade bed than having others go through my things.

Believe it or not, I might have been tagged by a hotel employee as a possible sex trafficker.

“Huh!? What did you do wrong?” Well, according to a checklist provided to hotel employees by the Department of Homeland Security, I displayed at least three “general indicators” of human trafficking:

  • Few or no personal items when checking in.
  • The same person reserving multiple rooms.
  • “Do Not Disturb” sign used constantly.

Oh, and the fellow activist who paid for my hotel room? They hosted get-togethers in their suite throughout the weekend, inviting conference attendees to learn more about NCSF – another red flag: “Constant flow of men into a room at all hours.”

Now, to be fair, these are just four out of some four dozen indicators, some of which are clear warning signs of coercion or abuse. But the four I mentioned, and several more, are so vague or subjective that, when read out of context, could lead to invasions of privacy and false accusations.

Here are some others:

  • Individuals avoid eye contact and interaction with others – Whoever came up with this probably never knew that this is not uncommon for people on the autism spectrum, or who rank high on the introversion scale.
  • Individuals appear to be with a significantly older “boyfriend” or in the company of older males – How old is “significantly older”? Does this mean May-December relationships are now automatically suspect? What about a young woman accompanied by an older relative?
  • Evidence of pornography – Uh huh. Remember, we’re talking hotels here. Many of which have adult pay-per-view. Some have newsstands that sell Hustler and Penthouse. Or maybe the government has bought into the idea that nude photos in a magazine is some sort of “gateway drug” …
  • Extended stay with few or no personal possessions – Because airlines never lose people’s luggage. Right?
  • Provocative clothing and shoes – Excuse me, but has anyone noticed the trend in many high schools to declare virtually any female student’s attire short of a prairie dress as “provocative”?
  • Excessive amounts of sex paraphernalia in rooms (condoms, lubricant, lotion, etc.) – Okay, I’m sure some readers are wondering why I put this here. Set aside the vagueness of “excessive” for a moment. This particular “indicator” gives no mention of context. My recent trip was an example. The conference in question was for members of the BDSM community. So, yes, folks are going to bring all sorts of erotic accoutrements (and that’s not even touching on the various merchants and sex educators setting up booths there). And given that BDSM, swinger and polyamory conferences try to be discreet, just imagine a hotel worker not being informed of their presence and seeing a room filled with … get the picture?
  • Room paid for with cash or pre-loaded credit card – Because people with credit problems who are thus unable to get “real” credit cards never need to stay at a hotel, hm?
  • Minor taking on adult roles or behaving older than actual age (paying bills, requesting services) – Seems like a legit concern, right? Well, have you ever encountered a family where the parents are recent immigrants, and the kids have a higher proficiency in English? I have. The kids not only translate for their parents, they learn out of necessity how to deal with all sorts of situations, including how to handle money.
  • Room rented has fewer beds than patrons – Because college kids don’t trying to save money by cramming four people into a room with two beds. Or a family displaced by fire, or eviction. Yeah, those never happen.
  • Car in parking lot regularly parked backward, so the license plate is not visible – Yeah, absolutely no one has a car with a front license plate. And except for evil traffickers, everyone parks front first, right?
  • Patron claims to be an adult although appearance suggests he/she is a minor – Ask anyone who works at a bar if they’ve had to card an adult who looked younger than they are. Yup, it happens. Happened to me when I was thirty-five. And about half a dozen other people I know.

This is not to say that people who engage in trafficking and other nefarious activities don’t do these things. They do – and so do lots of other people. If a survey showed that a majority of traffickers spoke two or more languages, it doesn’t mean that being able to speak another language indicates that someone is a trafficker. It’s also typical of anti-trafficking rhetoric that these assumptions are rooted in biases about gender, race, class, and immigration status. Imagine a hotel employee, with superficial “trafficking awareness” training, reporting a guest – perhaps even you – on the basis of such hasty generalizations.

Human rights abuses should not be fought by the abuse of other rights. If we are to bring criminals to justice, or help victims find relief, then let’s make sure we are well-prepared to do it right, rather than run roughshod over innocent people.

Options for Fighting Sex Trafficking Under Decriminalization

Repeatedly, prohibitionists claim that their punitive approach to “end demand” for commercial sex is the only effective way to fight sex trafficking. Problem is, not only have they failed to make good on their promise, but their strategy is hopelessly flawed on many levels:

  • By failing to distinguish between consensual sex work and coercive sex trafficking, this approach harms far more people than it helps.
  • Punitive measures also drive the commercial sex industry further underground, making it harder to gather the reliable information needed to understand and deal with trafficking and other abuses.
  • The emphasis on punitive measures over providing social support deprives people from seeking or gaining the assistance they need, whether to escape coercion or transition out of sex work on their own terms.
  • So-called “awareness campaigns” give supporters of this approach a false sense of accomplishment; for example, there is little or no accountability that the proceeds from the sale of “survivor-made” merchandise actually goes to programs that assist trafficking or abuse survivors.

The response of prohibitionists to these criticisms – the few times they do respond to critics – is to insist that decriminalizing sex work would only make things worse instead of better. Thing is, this claim isn’t supported by the evidence. Five years after decriminalizing sex work in New Zealand, the government report showed reduced harms, and no evidence that decrim encouraged sex trafficking as predicted by the law’s opponents.

Of course, full decrim by itself doesn’t halt or reduce trafficking. But it does provide the framework of accountability and transparency needed to do so. That includes requiring employers to show that they are not coercing or abusing their workers, or hiring anyone underage – just as with other businesses. It means sex workers being able to organize like other workers for better working conditions, more equitable laws, and reduced social stigma.

There’s another way to combat sex trafficking which would work under the New Zealand model, one based on existing campaigns to address labor trafficking and abuses in other industries, and which would involve sex work clients in collaboration with their providers. This is a strategy of ethical consumerism.

fairtrade
The primary example is the Fair Trade movement, which provides certification for businesses in various industries – from coffee and cocoa to textiles and jewelry – that they adhere to standards regarding labor conditions and sustainable agriculture. It is then left to consumers to only purchase, or at least show a preference for, goods which are so certified, thus shifting market demand to encourage more businesses to follow suit. While the system is not perfect, it has shown a measure of success in some areas; Fair Trade consumerism was a contributing factor in improving conditions in India’s tea industry.

Legal recognition of commercial sex businesses only partially assures clients that their providers are not being coerced or abused. Specific principles and goals would need to be spelled out, just as with existing Fair Trade businesses. This small bordello in Whangarei, New Zealand, is one example of a commercial sex enterprise doing just that.

banchocolate
If we followed the all-or-nothing thinking of sex work prohibitionists, we would ban chocolate. After all, much of it is produced by child laborers under harsh conditions. Forget that there is an option that encourages better conditions. Forget that driving an industry underground, and using police resources to arrest black market merchants and their customers, has never been shown to succeed. We need to send a message!

Well, there are more effective ways of sending messages, whether you’re buying and selling chocolate, chamois shirts, or a charming time with an erotic professional. Decriminalization opens the door to those options.

The Demons of Prohibitionism

Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a God, but never without belief in a devil. – Eric Hoffer

During the satanic ritual abuse panic of the 1980s and 1990s, it wasn’t enough to raise the alarm about isolated sociopaths using pentagrams and occult practices to control others. No, the crusaders warned of massive conspiracies, infiltrating all levels of society and government, exploiting and killing who knows how many innocents. The fact that they had no real evidence to support their claims did not deter them. After all, simplistic messages are much more effective at rallying people to your cause – and raking in the bucks.

Fast forward to the present day, and we see the same tactic being employed by those seeking to “abolish” commercial sex rather than assure greater safety. In their case, the principal “demons” are those who supposedly seduce or coerce women and youth into selling sex – the evil and abusive pimp. In the minds of prohibitionists, virtually all prostitutes are under the thumb of some pimp or other procurer who sends them off to be degraded at the hands of some desperate “john” or face hideous consequences.

But just as the conspiracy theories of the satanic panic eventually unraveled, so we’re beginning to see with the distortions of the prohibitionists. Not only is the stereotypical pimp a rarity, but in many cases where a third party helps with bookings or other aspects of the business, it’s the sex worker who is the boss.

In 2008, the John Jay College of Justice in New York City published a report on minors involved in commercial sex (click here for a copy). The results contradict many of the assumptions around sex work and survival sex, including the involvement of so-called pimps, referred to by the authors as “market facilitators”. According to this study, only ten percent of underage people who sell sex in NYC work with such a facilitator, and only eight percent reported being coerced by one. Indeed, 84 percent of female youth in the study had never even encountered a pimp.

Now, if a vast majority of runaway, throwaway and neglected teens who engage in selling sex do so without a pimp or “facilitator” around, it follows logically that adults who enter sex work are doing so in similar fashion, and in similar numbers. While many use social media and other online platforms to connect with clients, some will hire people to do web design and screen calls. These third parties may be “living on the avails of prostitution” but they hardly fit the stereotype of a controlling pimp.

Of course, it’s all too easy for prohibitionists to argue that anyone taking a percentage of a sex worker’s earning is “exploiting” them, especially at the rates that some insist upon. Setting aside the numbers for a moment, think about what’s going on. Person A is looking for clients, and Person B is offering to use their skills and time to help Person A to do so more effectively and safely. Why shouldn’t Person B receive payment for such services? Literary agents receive commissions for helping authors to get published, art dealers get a cut for selling a painting, and so forth – and we generally consider such arrangements to be acceptable business practices, so long as both parties mutually agree to the terms.

Yes, in some cases, the arrangements between sex workers and such market facilitators could be more fair. But this reality only strengthens the case to decriminalize the commercial sex industry. Let’s stop demonizing those who facilitate the affairs of sex workers and their clients, and provide all of them with greater transparency and accountability.

The Case for Decriminalizing Pimping

[Originally posted July 7, 2016]

Recently, the UK Parliament’s Home Affairs Select Committee issued a recommendation to decriminalize certain aspects of prostitution. While some sex worker rights organizations and activists hailed the move, others have expressed caution. Too often, those who have advocated the so-called “Swedish Model” claim that it “decriminalizes sex workers” while supposedly tackling “exploitation”; in reality, this regime is best described as asymmetrical criminalization, with its real-world results being disastrous for the very people supposedly being “helped” by this approach. Is it any wonder that Norway’s government actually stated in a report that the hardships meted upon sex workers in that country was considered a sign of success?

It thus bears repeating that what the vast majority of sex workers want is full decriminalization of their work, including their relationships with third parties. In response, those who wish to keep or expand criminal prohibitions drag out the tired trope of the “abusive pimp” – now labeled a “sex trafficker” – using manipulation and coercion to “lure” and “enslave” young girls into the trade. Even so-called moderates who support half-way measures for making prostitution legal wind up swallowing this blue pill; yes, they say, let people sell sex if they want, but let’s keep the ban on those evil pimps.

There are two major problems with this, rooted in the dichotomous definitions given to the word pimp. The first is that the best research actually shows that the villainous stereotype is such an anomaly that some sex workers consider it a myth. A goodly percentage of escorts are “independents” who operate as sole proprietors; in fact, many of these independent escorts are employers themselves, retaining the assistance of others for everything from website design to office administration to transportation and security.

This leads into the second problem with regard to anti-pimping laws. While the public has been given a narrow and loaded stereotypical definition, the law defines the act more broadly as deriving financial benefit from the prostitution of another. As a result, those employed by independent escorts are deemed to be “exploiting” them, simply because of the way the law is worded. Indeed, this overly sweeping definition may also be applied to anyone who receives any significant funds from sex workers, from those who rent or sublet apartments, to their children or other relatives. If we really wanted to take this to the extreme, we could consider any and all transactions done with “the profits of prostitution” to make just about everyone a pimp – newsstands, coffee shops, dry cleaners, even the neighbor holding a yard sale.

I’m sure those seeking a comfortable middle ground would advocate for a “reformed” anti-pimping law, where the focus is on abuse rather than mere financial gain. This raises the question of what constitutes abuse, and why new laws need to be created when current laws already address such problems. Using violence? We have laws against assault and battery. Taking money from someone who works for you? Laws against theft, and labor protection laws, also provide for that. Turf wars between pimps? Assuming this part of the myth is also true, that would fall under existing racketeering and anti-trust laws. Et cetera, et cetera. If the existence of these laws proves anything, it is that just about every business has some history of exploitative outliers. If the sex industry has more than its fair share, it seems more because of the stigma and lack of transparency which comes from continued criminalization.

Like any group of service providers, prostitutes don’t always work in isolation, even when they do so as sole proprietors. They depend upon various support services, as well as supporting both biological and chosen family members. Decriminalizing sex workers while criminalizing those connected to them in this way is just as asymmetrically unworkable as the criminalization of their clientele. And before we attach the stigmatized label of “pimp” to those so connected, let’s remember how deep those connections may run – even to ourselves.

Putting Away a Childish Argument against Sex Work

[Originally posted May 2, 2016]

I have a friend who is doing a kind of work that, as a young girl, she never thought she’d be doing. She started, albeit grudgingly, because she considered it her least-worst option. Over time, she began to see benefits to doing this work, such as flexible hours and the ability to choose her clientele. As a result, it has become a major source of income, and even with its down sides, she considers it a good job.

No little girl dreams of doing medical coding and billing.

I bring up this story because, if you replace the job description above with “prostitution”, then you have one of the most specious arguments for continuing to criminalize and stigmatize sex work. It is an example of the moral solipsism of so-called “abolitionists”: since they view the selling of sexual services with displeasure or disgust, then they project that every woman must share that view, and certainly our innocent children. To them, a youngster’s hopes for the future are somehow equal to an adult’s real-life attempts to find a job that pays the bills.

There are many reasons why children imagine themselves in certain jobs and not others. Ballerinas and movie stars appear more glamorous than cashiers and telephone operators. Likewise, firefighters and police seem more heroic and respected than garbage collectors and street sweepers. Other jobs are simply unseen and thus unknown by younger folks – warehouse stockers, sewer workers, call center managers, and so forth.

There’s also a reason why young people begin to change their minds about what jobs they want to do. They may become aware of the risks that come with the job, and determine that they are not worth assuming. Ballet dancers, for example, require years of rigorous training and practice, often leading to multiple injuries, all in a highly competitive environment. A cashier, on the other hand, is able to start with simple training, with opportunities for advancing to management and above. Also, young people learn that, in order to make money and gain experience in the work force, they need to start by working in jobs they wouldn’t otherwise choose.

The pressures of parents, peers, and society not only affect people’s job choices, but also the attitudes they assume about themselves. We lift up doctors, lawyers, actors, professional athletes, and that sense of prestige is reflected in their pay. We look down on minimum-wage workers, often seeing them as interchangeable as machine parts, even useless, while still relying on their labor whenever we order a hamburger or buy new clothes. This doesn’t always correspond, of course – look how we speak of the noble calling of teachers, while paying them so little – but how we look at different jobs often becomes a mirror for those who hold them.

The argument of “abolitionists” is that sex work does not qualify as work. If, as Barbara Ehrenreich says, “work is what we do for others”, and transactional sex involves providing pleasure and companionship to others, then their proposition makes no sense. They might retort that sex shouldn’t be work, because it “ought to” involve caring and intimacy, but this in turn ignores the caring and intimate work of nurses, nannies, and other professional caretakers, as well as the actual interactions between many sex workers and their clients.

What bothers me most when I hear or read that “no little girl dreams of becoming a prostitute” is how it perpetuates archaic gender attitudes. We assume that boys must grow into men, and endure the rough and dirty path in that direction – but girls must somehow remain virginal and pure, even if we must paternalize and infantilize them well past puberty.

Women and men make choices that they would not have considered as girls and boys. Their reasons are likewise as varied and nuanced as adulthood itself. Our approval is not the issue; assuring their safety, and affirming their humanity, is what matters.

The Self-Perpetuation of “End-Demand” Fantasies

[Originally posted April 7, 2016]

France has now joined the list of countries who have adopted the so-called “End-Demand” approach in opposing prostitution, by criminalizing the clients of sex workers in the vain hope that the steady drop in demand will lead to the eventual eradication of “white slavery”. Forget that Sweden, which first adopted this approach in 1999, has seen no measurable drop in either supply or demand. Forget that this may only be enforced with highly intrusive surveillance and harassment of sex workers and clients alike. Forget that this whole thing is being propagated by extremist ideologues who concoct spurious research based on their lurid fantasies instead of actual empirical data.

Let’s imagine a large island nation, governed as a federation of five states. A plant grows there — we’ll call it “Gudstoff” — which, when its fruit is consumed, produces a moderate and temporary state of euphoria and relaxation. Some citizens are overly concerned about this plant, and spread myths about it being addictive and causing psychotic breaks. Legitimate scientists see no harm in moderate consumption, and perhaps even some benefits. But, like all politicians, the leaders in all the regions decide that the sale, purchase, possession and consumption of Gudstoff will be misdemeanors punished by fines.

Eventually, a split develops between the political parties. One is led or influenced by anti-Gudstoff ideologues, who push for these offenses to be upgraded to felonies, coupled with eradication procedures. The other, after paying attention to empirical research, favors legalizing Gudstoff and deriving tax revenue, paired with education to address potential abuses. Three of the regions are won by the “anti” party, who institute their strict measures, while the other two become “legal” states.

Anyone with a basic understanding of economics would see that, as the supply of Gudstoff becomes less accessible in the “anti” states, those demanding Gudstoff will simply travel over the border to obtain it in the “legal” states. Result: a seeming increase in demand within the “legal” states, which is met with howls of “we told you so” by those who think Gudstoff is poison. Now I deliberately said “a seeming increase” because, in fact, it is merely a shift in where demand is met, based on local efforts to restrict commerce. The overall demand in the entire island has not changed. But, that doesn’t matter to the “antis”; they see Gudstoff sales spike in the “legal” states, and they are quick to blame legalization.

This is exactly what we have seen in Europe when Sweden and Norway cracked down on sex workers and their clients (and make no mistake, they are targeting sex workers), and with France now making the same mistake, we should see that trend continue as more French and Scandinavian sex work clients travel to “legal” states like Germany and the Netherlands. And if the militant “antis” get their way, and they convince more countries to adopt this approach? Making it harder to buy or sell something doesn’t make it go away; it only leads to changes in strategy.

It’s time that those concerned with the harms connected to prostitution to change their strategies, before they cause even more harms. These harms, if not directly linked to criminalization in any form, are exacerbated by them. This has been noted by a wide range of groups that embrace decriminalization, from the sex worker rights movement to the World Health Organization and the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women. Decriminalization is not a complete solution in itself, but it opens the doors for real solutions to happen. And if we want real solutions, it’s time we listened to both the empirical evidence and the experience of sex workers themselves – not misguided prohibitionists.