“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.

The Big Lie of “Partial Decriminalization”

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. – George Orwell, “Politics and the English Language”

Two kinds of language are often employed in propaganda: simple yet emotionally loaded, and seemingly sophisticated obfuscations. The former is most frequently used by opponents of sex workers’ rights, especially in appeals to “fight human trafficking”. Yet it is careful use of the latter which has allowed prohibitionists to sell the so-called “Swedish Model” as an alternative.

Specifically, prohibitionists have marketed this scheme as “partial decriminalization” – the supposed decriminalization of those who sell sex, while outlawing those who would buy sex. It’s appealing on two levels. First, it plays upon common stereotypes of the prostitute as victim and “john” or “punter” as lecherous deviant. Second, it appeals to both misgivings about the status quo and uncertainties around full decriminalization. But it also depends upon a suspension of basic logic, and ignorance of both the full legal context and real-life implications, behind this model.

In the first place, whenever an action is made a crime, any other actions necessarily linked to it are also outlawed. This is why a person who knowingly buys stolen merchandise is just as culpable as the one who knowingly sells it. Likewise, it inevitably becomes impossible to separate the sale of sex from its purchase; outlaw one, and the mirror image is complicit in its commission.

Further, the Swedish Model is not limited to just a ban on buying. Sweeping laws against “brothel-keeping” and “living off the avails of prostitution” also remain in place, and are used to penalize sex workers and deprive them of safety. Thus the full legal context of this scheme reveals it to be near-total criminalization, nowhere near the supposed “middle ground” that its proponents would have people believe.

The proponents of this scheme would argue that “prostituted women” would no longer be the targets of police, but instead would be offered social services to help them exit. That’s the theory – but reality is a different matter, with police in Sweden and Norway routinely watching and intimidating sex workers, even bullying their landlords to get them evicted. As for the social services, that only applies if the sex worker repents and embraces the government’s party line; otherwise, they are refused help, even denied condoms to help protect them from HIV and other STIs under the rationale that, because “prostitution is inherently dangerous”, there is no point in helping them reduce any risk of potential harm.

It is a lie to repeatedly refer to the “Swedish Model” as a form of decriminalization, because in fact it still gives police the power and authority to control sex workers. If those who sell sex are to be free of such control – and the abuses that inevitably come with it – the answer is full decriminalization of consensual commercial sex, allowing existing laws against assault and exploitation to protect them. This is what has worked in New Zealand and New South Wales, and what sex workers themselves rightly demand.

Double Whammy Against the Swedish Model

So many proponents of the “Swedish Model” criminalizing clients claim that it’s important to the fight against sex trafficking. Let’s put aside that proponents too often lump consensual sex work in with sex trafficking. Just how are police expected to find victims of trafficking or abuse, especially in an industry that’s been driven underground?

Well, just as law enforcement found Backpage a valuable resource here in the States, their counterparts in other countries also get a significant amount of tips from sex work clients. Even the Swedish police relied on clients for help – that is, until their “sex-purchase” ban was put into place:

[C]lients are less visible than previously and that they are less willing to cooperate in bringing to light coercion, Trafficking in Human beings, or underage persons involved in prostitution. (p. 53)

This is further confirmed by independent researchers, such as anthropologist Don Kulick …

Police report that their efforts to prosecute pimps and traffickers has been made more difficult, because clients, who before the passage of the law were sometimes willing to serve as witnesses, are now disinclined to cooperate, since they themselves are guilty of a crime. (p. 204)

… and public policy consultant Dr. Jay Levy:

[T]he [sex-purchase law] can act as disincentive for sex buyers to report suspected trafficking or abuse, for fear of essentially confessing to the crime of buying sex. One sex buyer I interviewed recalled two or three instances where he had not contacted the police to report suspected trafficking, for fear of legal consequences. He had left the premises without buying sex, and had tried to make other clients aware of the situation via online forums. (p. 8)

But this fact doesn’t just undermine the claim that the Swedish Model helps to fight trafficking and abuse. It also challenges the fundamental premise that clients are all exploiters who don’t care about those who sell sex. It doesn’t make sense to paint all “johns” or “punters” in this way when you have evidence from the police themselves that people looking to pay for sex were willing to come forward and report suspicions of coercion and abuse.

There are also studies like this one from Canada that indicate a significant percentage of sex work clients expressing concern for the well-being. Of course, rabid ideologues like Meghan Murphy predictably dismiss this. But when police are confirming that they know of clients willing help to uncover abuses, what then? That locks the prohibitionists into more of a conundrum – which is to be expected from a movement that puts simplistic beliefs above complex realities.

Inherently Harmful?

A key component of prohibitionist ideology is the assertion that commercial sex is “inherently harmful”, with variations such as “inherently violent”, “inherently degrading”, and so forth. This is the apparent justification behind rejecting any attempt at harm reduction or reform. In their minds, amelioration is pointless because it’s not just a case of prostitution having “bad things” associated with it, but that prostitution is inherently bad.

Ask the question of what makes selling sex “inherently” bad for the seller, and you hear one of several theories about what sex “really is” or “ought to be”, and how applying that theory to something other than sex isn’t right because “sex is different” because, well, it just is, okay? Yeah, prostitution is “inherently” bad because sex is “inherently” different.

you-keep-using-that-word

For an action to be inherently bad or harmful, then there must be unavoidable negative consequences in every case regarding said action. Consuming sugar, for example, is not in itself harmful. Indeed, we depend upon glucose to stay alive, and it’s only when the amount consumed becomes so large as to overwhelm the metabolism that harm is created.

On the other hand, being hit with an axe is inherently harmful. Even if the edge is dull, and the force not too great, it’s still sufficient to cause pain and possibly a bruise. Certainly better than losing a body part or bleeding to death, but harmful nevertheless. That doesn’t mean, however, that axes themselves are inherently harmful, and indeed properly using one brings about benefits. Also, even though using an axe in this way causes harm, there are a few contexts where doing so constitutes a lesser harm than not doing so, such as amputating a trapped limb where the alternative is abandoning the person to die.

Prohibitionists will often respond by posing the loaded question: “So, are you saying that prostitution is harmless?” To which I would explain that commercial sex, like any other activity, carries a risk of potential harm, and that any actual harm is dependent upon many factors, some simple (using condoms) and some complex (psychological disposition). For some people, consensual sex work is not only very low risk, it may actually provide benefits. A 1986 doctoral dissertation by Dr. Diana Prince, for example, indicated that 97 percent of escorts surveyed experienced increased self-esteem after entering the profession. For others, sex work is either the best available or least deleterious option available to them. To date, I’ve yet to see a reliable study showing anything more than ten percent of prostitutes being forced, while a number of studies reveal that many people choose to enter commercial sex for a number of reasons.

So the available evidence does not support a hard-and-fast dictum that selling sex is inherently harmful. Instead, we see a complex continuum of diverse experiences. That leads us to the question of which approach best applies to all such contexts; more specifically, who is best qualified to determine whether a person may engage in sex work. Given that our society regards both sexual and commercial interactions as generally best decided by those autonomous individuals so involved, it follows that such a principle extends to the buying and selling of sexual services, with any regulation for health and safety being formulated and implemented primarily by the individuals engaged in said work. In short, the full decriminalization of sex work by consenting adults, which provides the fullest range of options for both preventing and ameliorating any potential harm that may occur.

Of course, the prohibitionists would have none of this, and even some well-meaning moderates and liberals would call for some degree of government regulation and containment (“legalization”). The problem with any form of criminalization and stigmatization is that it deprives those involved in sex work of the tools they need to minimize the risk of potential harm, from negotiating power to legal recourse. And while legalization may ameliorate some conditions, too often it leads to a “back-door criminalization” for many sex workers. This also applies to those who have been coerced into selling sex, as Amnesty International notes:

[C]riminalization of sex work can hinder the fight against trafficking – for example, victims may be reluctant to come forward if they fear the police will take action against them for selling sex. Where sex work is criminalized, sex workers are also excluded from workplace protections which could increase oversight and help identify and prevent trafficking.

If anything, the prohibitionist drive to continue criminalizing commercial sex is what is inherently harmful to sex workers.

Woozle Effects and Heffalump Atrributions

[With thanks to Cris Sardina]

In the stories of Winnie the Pooh, he becomes concerned that certain creatures will try to steal his honey – namely, Heffalumps and Woozles. At one point, he and Piglet go on a Woozle hunt, walking about a clump of trees until they find some tracks and follow them, growing more worried as the number of footprints grows and grows. Then Christopher Robin comes along, and points out that the two have been walking in circles, and the tracks they are following are their own. Later on, Pooh is out on a search when he falls into a pit on top of Piglet. He remembers that he would dig such pits as a trap for Heffalumps, and now wonders if the Heffalumps dug this pit to catch him. It’s later suggested that this is one of Pooh’s own pit-traps.

woozlehunt
Oh, bother.

At any rate, the first story has given rise to the concept of the Woozle Effect, whereby a study of dubious veracity is cited over and over, and as a result of such repetition is assumed by more and more people to be true, without ever checking the original source. The anti-prostitution camp is particularly prone to the Woozle Effect, with examples such as:

  • The average age of entry into prostitution is thirteen – This “statistic” was actually manufactured by drawing from and misrepresenting two separate sources: a 2001 study of young people under 18 years old, and a 30 year-old survey of 200 sex workers who were asked what age they first had sexual intercourse. Despite being repeatedly discredited, many prohibitionists keep repeating this claim, often never citing the source.
  • The Super Bowl and other major sporting events are magnets for sex traffickers and sex buyers – Again and again, so-called “anti-trafficking” groups keep raising this alarm (and raking in donations as a result). Police in the locales where these events are held rush in to “rescue the victims”, often estimated to be in the tens of thousands. The reality? According to this study by the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women: “There is a very wide discrepancy between claims that are made prior to large sporting events and the actual number of cases found. There is no evidence that large sporting events cause an increase in trafficking for prostitution.”
  • Most prostitutes suffer from PTSD and low self-esteem – The only source for the PTSD claim was a study done by Melissa Farley, which was roundly criticized for both its evaluative and sampling methodologies. As for the self-esteem question, this seems to be more an assumption based on cultural prejudice, whereas actual research indicates that “97% of the call girls [surveyed] reported an increase in self-esteem after they began working in prostitution”.
  • The vast majority of prostitutes are controlled/coerced by pimps – I’ve heard this from people I meet several times, and I always respond with two questions: “How many is this ‘vast majority’?” and “Where are you getting your information?” In response to the first, every single individual who has provided a percentage has given me a different one, ranging from 65 to 97 percent. As to the second, not one person has been able to cite an actual study, with most saying that they heard or read it “somewhere”.

heffalump
This leads to what I call the Heffalump Attribution, where people reductively assign cause for a behavior or social phenomenon to the deliberate actions of some outside agent. At the least, this is a sloppy misuse of Occam’s Razor; at worst, it’s scapegoating. Either way, attributing prostitution to some person or organized group isn’t just prevalent with contemporary prohibitionists, it’s a foundational article of faith. Since they believe that no woman would choose to sell sex, they must have been coerced in some way by one or more people. And who are they?

  • Pimps and traffickers – The most obvious choice, with pimps being stereotypically portrayed as abusive overseers. Problem is that there’s no evidence to support for such a claim, even when studying underage sex workers.
  • The Pimp Lobby, a.k.a. Pro-Prostitution Mafia – Prohibitionists not only believe that pimps control all “prostituted women” (or, “prostituted people” on the rare occasions when they acknowledge that men and transfolk also sell sex); they insist that pimps, traffickers and other evildoers are part of some vast conspiracy to push to make their business legal. Now, who are the principal group of folks advocating for commercial sex to be decriminalized? Sex workers. And how do prohibitionists respond? By accusing those very same sex workers of “actually being pimps” or “coerced by pimps” or just plain “not representative”. It’s ironic that the sex worker rights movement is the only labor movement in history which is routinely accused of being a front for their supposed bosses.
  • Sex work clients, a.k.a. “johns”, “punters” and/or “sex buyers” – Demonized as pathetic losers or sick deviants, the only disagreement among prohibitionists appears to be whether they should be rehabilitated through so-called “johns schools” or just plain locked up. I’m sure that clients have also been accused of being part of the mythical Pimp Lobby, despite the fact that client activism for sex worker rights has only very recently gotten off the ground.
  • Backpage, preceded by Craigslist, preceded by alternative weekly papers – The legal pressure to close any and all venues by which sex workers may advertise their services and communicate with potential clients is based on the belief that the folks running such venues aren’t just businesspeople trying to make money, but part of the grand conspiracy to “sell women and girls”. Forget that the best evidence shows the overwhelming percentage of advertisers to be the sex workers themselves. Forget that Backpage did more than any other site like it to identify and report suspected trafficking of minors. Forget that closing such sites increased the dangers to the most marginalized and vulnerable sex workers. They must be blamed, shamed and punished at all costs! And now that they have shut down their adult section, just how much trafficking has been stopped? None.
  • Amnesty International – I could go on a rant about this, but I think the satirical video below captures it splendidly:

Dorothy Allison noted that “Things come apart so easily when they have been held together with lies.” Whether the Woozles and Heffalumps of the prohibitionists are the result of rationalization or deliberate deceit, the best way to hunt and trap them is by simply asking – even demanding – to know the source for such assertions, and to keep questioning in the press for proof. No one who is genuinely confident of the truth of their claims should object to such scrutiny – and no one is obliged to believe anyone who tries to avoid it.

Swanee Hunt’s Archaic Essentialism

Perhaps the most well-known and influential prohibitionist today is Swanee Hunt, the founder of Demand Abolition. Her large inheritance, extensive social connections, and saccharine Southern charm make her a formidable advocate for this or any cause. But unlike so-called “radical feminist” academics and theoreticians with their belief that sex is a construct for male domination, or evangelical and fundamentalist Christians who conflate sex outside of heterosexual marriage with sin, Hunt seems to draw on yet another ideological source.

I base this on how she has invested the resources of the Hunt Alternatives Fund. Along with Demand Abolition, she has established two other projects:

  • Political Parity – The front page declares: “Elevating the number of women in the highest levels of government is more than a matter of representation. It’s essential to shaping a more just society.”
  • Inclusive Security – “We’re changing who makes decisions about war and peace,” because, according to Hunt, “a greater role for women is essential to global stability.”

Essential. It’s not just a matter of equity to include women in government and peacemaking. Hunt believes that there’s something about being a woman which makes it necessary. The language she uses echoes that of centuries before, that women are somehow the guardians of morality, hence equally if not better qualified than men to govern society.

This belief stemmed from the “separate spheres” ideology, promoted by opponents of women’s suffrage. They argued that the biological sexes were meant to function in different areas of life – men in the public sphere of politics and commerce, women in the private sphere of motherhood and domestic care. Anti-suffrage advocates opined that women did not need the vote, because they were able to influence society profoundly by instilling moral virtues in their sons.

Suffragists such as Christabel Pankhurst responded to this, and the increasingly sexualized attacks on women during the suffrage campaign, with a synthesis. Since women were given the responsibility for moral education, and since men clearly had failed to show moral character in the public sphere, it was therefore necessary for women to gain the vote so as to make the political and public spheres more moral. Pankhurst and other suffragettes hence expanded the original slogan of “Votes for Women” to include “Chastity for Men”.

This blend of feminist indignation and Victorian moralism also led to the anti-prostitution stance of many leading activists. Just as male employers forced their attentions on female staff, and male police and prison guards molested and tortured female inmates, so it must be that prostitution consisted of men commercially coercing women to satisfy men’s libidos. The answer was tougher laws, homes for friendless women, and taming men’s sexual appetites.

Given Hunt’s background, it should be no surprise that her own rhetoric shows traces of such ideas. In her own biography, she describes being raised in a conservative and privileged environment where women were not expected to engage in public affairs, but to be hostesses, wives and mothers. From a culture of feminine domesticity to a belief in women’s “essential” role as moral caregivers – and moral guardians – is no great leap.

I have no doubt that Swanee Hunt would argue that she is no essentialist. I’m sure she would contend that she bases her beliefs on the experiences of women. Granted, women around the world share many common experiences, but (a) there are still significant differences based on other factors such as race and class, and (b) that doesn’t mean that every individual women is automatically qualified for political leadership, or that one woman may dictate the sexual and occupational choices of others. If anything, her overgeneralizing about women’s experience seems just another variation on the essentialist theme.

At best, Hunt’s vision is simplistic and limited. At worst, her ignorance of complex intersectional realities, and her brazenly privileged assertion that she somehow knows what’s best for others, is harmful.

The Sling-Chair Curve: Skewing Results to Hide Inconvenient Findings

There are seven people I know who have worked in coffee shops. One hated it, and his former boss. Two loved it, with one still working as a barista. The remaining four would describe their experiences with various words ranging from “okay” to “tedious”, but would not describe it as terrible; it was a way to earn money and employment experience, and each has indicated that they’ve taken something positive or constructive from the experience.

Seven is hardly a representative sample, but the range of attitudes summarized here follows the usual distribution for any given occupation or activity – a few detest it, a few delight in it, and most take a mixed or ambiguous view. Even jobs that most would consider “ideal” follow this curve; not everyone is cut out to be a movie star, for example, and some who think they’d love it are likely to be disappointed once they discover the reality from the inside.

I bring this up because those opposed to commercial sex seem to feel that such realities simply could not apply to sex workers. In their minds, only an extremely small percentage like their jobs, and the rest all hate it and are being compelled to do so. So instead of the classic “bell curve”, a graph measuring attitudes of sex workers towards their work would be asymmetrical and inverted, like a sling chair – the positive end turning slightly up, the negative end going almost straight up into oblivion, and near-zero in between. Such uneven and polarized distribution is virtually unheard of in social science, and is a sign of flawed methodology based on confirmation bias.

So-called anti-prostitution researchers like Melissa Farley tend to avoid sharing many of the details of their data-sampling methods; indeed, Farley tends to self-publish her studies, often under the auspices of the organization she runs, thus avoiding the accountability of peer review. Still, the effects of their bias show through in their work. In his paper “The Mythology of Prostitution”, sociologist Ronald Weitzer discusses how such practitioners of “advocacy research” attempt to explain away “inconvenient findings” so as to fit their ideological stance. For example, when Farley’s interviews with women who work in Nevada’s legal brothels revealed lower rates of childhood sexual abuse than she had predicted, she attempted to explain this as being due to “numbing, avoidance and dissociation” on the part of interviewees – in short, Farley claims to know the reality of these women’s lives better than they do.

Such a pattern would explain how a bell curve could become warped into that of a sling chair – simply shove any sex worker with ambiguous or mixed attitudes towards their occupation into the “extreme negative” category, explain the ambiguity as being the result of “defense mechanisms” or some other reason, and voila! But this is ideological skewing, not sound research. I’m not holding my breath for Farley and her ilk to conduct a thoroughly vetted double-blind study, with both sex worker and control cohorts. If someone is doing such a study, I’m sure there are plenty like myself who would love to see the results.

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.

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.

The Question Anti-Prostitution Zealots Refuse to Answer

[Originally posted December 12, 2016]

Like any well-organized endeavor, the movement seeking to do away with commercial sex has worked hard to come up with responses to various questions. When asked about people who say they do sex work willingly and happily, they will either accuse them of being brainwashed or dismiss them as “not representative”. When called to account for distorting or fabricating evidence, they insist there’s a “greater truth” that needs to be heard.

But there’s one question I’ve never heard any prohibitionist address, even when they’ve been asked directly: What about the repeated abuse of sex workers by police?

As much as these so-called “abolitionists” keep trying to pin the blame on clients and people inside the industry, sex workers will tell you that they have more to fear from law enforcement – not just being arrested, but systematic harassment, assault, and exploitation. Elizabeth Nolan Brown of Reason magazine published a summary of almost forty cases of police sexual misconduct in the course of 2014 and 2015. Brown’s report is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s also this Associated Press analysis that almost one thousand law enforcement officers nationwide lost their badges over a five-year period over sexual misconduct, with one-third of those involving people under eighteen. From Oakland to Baltimore, various public and private sources confirm what sex workers have been saying for years about cops robbing, raping and even pimping them out. And it’s not just in the United States. This report from Great Britain shows that police in England and Wales have been sexually assaulting prostitutes and other vulnerable women there as well.

Police in Sweden and Norway – so admired by prohibitionists for their efforts to “crush the sex trade” by “ending demand” – have chosen a different tactic. They bully the sex workers’ landlords, threatening to arrest them for pimping or brothel-keeping, unless they evict the women. Amnesty International’s report shared this particularly disturbing story from Mercy, a Nigerian-born sex worker living and working in Oslo:

A little guy came to the house with a knife. I answered the door. There were nine of us in the house. He threatened us with a knife and robbed our money and phones… He forced us to have sex with him. The police took two or three hours to come. They took us all to hospital and got us a hotel for two nights. Later, we went back to the house and, two days later, the landlord threw us out … The police put pressure on the landlord. She gave us half a day to get out … I had to wander around Oslo for hours with my bags until I found somewhere to stay.

It’s not just that prohibitionists fail to check their facts. They are failing to check their privilege. White and affluent Americans tend to view police as public servants dedicated to keeping their communities safe, with abuses dismissed as individual aberrations. But among marginalized communities, police are seen as an occupying army sent to impose social control, not just with guns and handcuffs, but a variety of weapons and tools, both legal and extra-legal. Now, take a look at the list of major prohibitionist leaders – overwhelmingly white and wealthy. Privilege lays the foundation for denial, and the interdependence of the movement with law enforcement continue to pile upon it.

History, however, shows that such piles of denial inevitably collapse. That happened almost a century ago, when the American experiment with banning alcohol was abandoned as a failure. Despite repeated claims by advocates that it would lead to significant reductions in crime, the Prohibition Era actually saw criminal activity increase – including rampant bribery and corruption of police and public officials. The temperance movement, now dwindled to irrelevance, has paid the price for their denial. And I have no doubt that this prohibitionist movement will encounter the same fate as more people become aware of the facts.