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.

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.