Melissa Gira Grant’s article,”The War on Sex Workers,” at Reason this month is awesome. Grant points out so many problems with the movement to combat sex trafficking, which has essentially turned into all-sex-work-is-trafficking. Now, certainly, there is a percentage of women and transwomen, and even men and transmen who are prostitutes who have been trafficked. But there are also many individuals engaged in sex work for their own reasons. I will also grant that very few people grow up with the desire to go into sex work; it is many times an occupation of necessity. But for those for whom it is a choice they make, the anti-trafficking lobby is becoming a real problem.
First, the stereotypical sex trafficking victim is Kim Mills from Taken: a young, attractive, white girl who is kidnapped and forced into sexual slavery. The fear of “white slavery” stems from the centuries-long piracy and slavery campaign of many Arab countries through the 19th century. To terrified white people, white slavery looks something like this:
But that’s not what the typical trafficking victim looks like. That’s because there is no “typical” trafficking victim. People anywhere, at any age, can be trafficked. After the fall of the Soviet Union, countries formerly part of the USSR became a huge source of women and children for the sex trade, and many were shuffled over to Europe, and some across the pond to the US. Parents in poor areas of East Asian countries sell their children to traffickers to work dangerous, labor-intensive jobs in their own country, or in others. People can become victims of traffickers for a variety of reasons- they trust the wrong person, they answer a deceptive ad, they’re willing to take a risk to get out of a difficult situation.
Second, anti-trafficking legislation is hurting legitimate sex workers. For example, Grant points out that
Although ostensibly aimed at supporting victims of forced labor, [the Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2005] provides money for efforts to discourage men from hiring sex workers, including quasi-legal and legal activities such as escorting, pornography, stripping, and phone sex, as well as for investigating the people they attempt to hire. Although nearly all prostitution-related law in the United States is made at the state or municipal level, redefining prostitution as trafficking provides a rationale for federal action against the sex trade.
Sex workers- a group that includes much more than prostitutes- are potentially losing their livelihood due to increased criminalization, and the crackdown on men who pay for legal sexual services. In redefining sex work, such legislation also inhibits sex workers from accessing support and services they might need. A woman in sex work who seeks medical or psychological services might fear being turned over to the police, and so she might not seek out those services. It is pernicious slut-shaming, and feminists (well, everyone) should not be willing to stand for that.
And speaking of feminists, a third point is that some feminists are practicing a frustrating form of benevolent sexism, though many claim to be sex-positive, and pro-choice (which in my view extends way past reproductive rights). There are feminists who are trying to combat sex trafficking efforts by shutting down places of sex trafficking commerce, as Norma Ramos did regarding Craigslist’s now defunct “erotic services” area. Ramos, the executive director for the organization, Coalition Against Trafficking in Women, now seeks to shut down backpage.com, which has stepped into the breach to help sex workers post their trade. Sex work, particularly outcall, has taken to the internet, and this shift has made jobs safer for the workers. If backpage.com’s “adult jobs” area is shut down those people might have to return to the streets, and more dangerous (both legally and physically) locations.
It’s an odd combination: sex-positive feminists joining with conservatives in the name of fighting sex trafficking, which is thinly disguised as a new war on women, especially women who practice a nontraditional type of work. Obviously, everyone has the right to think and believe as they choose. And sex work is a sticky subject. On the one hand, it is degrading to women, who are dependent on men to pay for “using” their bodies. On the other hand, women are in control, because they are the ones providing the services and setting the prices. There is no right answer.
But definitely the wrong answer is to continue to criminalize women who make different choices that we have. For those of us who have never engaged in sex work, we have no idea what we might do if faced with a situation where sex work was the best option. Best not to judge others for making a decision when they were faced with that situation.
The wonderful Feministe has a few posts concerning this subject as well: