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Trafficking Laws: Abetting Violence Against Sex Workers

nobadwomenTerra Burns runs the informative Sex Trafficking In Alaska site, which provides information on how Alaska’s sex trafficking laws harm the people they are supposed to protect and those who are in the sex industry by choice. This is a speech she will be giving today, December 17th, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers.

In Alaska, independent prostitutes and actual trafficking victims have been prosecuted under state and federal trafficking laws. Keyana Marshall, one of the featured cases on Terra’s site, is a victim of violent sex trafficking who was convicted under federal law of conspiring (with her trafficker) to traffick. You can listen to Keyana tell her story here.

A few years ago I was visiting a friend in Canada, where prostitution is basically legal. She was working with a collective of escorts—they worked together and shared the expenses of a workplace, advertising, and security. In the United States, they call this a sex trafficking ring and the women involved would be called felons, but in Canada they just call it common sense, more fun, and more safe.

So, we’re sitting around and the phone rings. It’s a woman who had been part of the collective but she’d gotten back together with a boyfriend and no one had heard from her in a while. She said she only had a minute to talk, that her boyfriend had just stepped out and he would hurt her if he knew she called. He had been keeping her in a hotel room, feeding her drugs, pimping her out and taking all the money.

This is the sort of sex trafficking that people need protection from.

SESTA’s Growing Threat To The Sex Worker Internet

Senator Richard Blumenthal testifying in favor of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, with that sincere, constipated look one gets when testifying in favor of anti-trafficking legislation. (Via Youtube)

You can always count on a corporation to look out for its own interests. An existential threat to their business model will even trump the good PR that comes from beating on everyone’s favorite marginalized punching bags, sex workers). So, until recently, major tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Google opposed SESTA,the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. Their business models depend on user-generated content, and SESTA would overhaul Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which previously protected internet platforms against liability for the actions of users.

But following a compromise earlier this month between Silicon Valley and the bill’s Congressional sponsors, SESTA has passed the House and is headed to the Senate. Though they tried to keep their involvement quiet, cloaking their advocacy in the lobbying group the Internet Association, tech companies pushed hard for changes to the bill. An amended version of the bill released on November 3 by Senator John Thune addressed many of their concerns. Initially, SESTA took aim at any facilitation of user sex trafficking. But an amendment to the bill now specifies only “knowing conduct” as “participation in a venture,” meaning in general terms that sex worker advertising sites are now the only ones on the hook while Facebook and company remain immune from sex trafficking liability. Another key revision that spurred a change in the Internet Association’s position involved the development of bots policing content. In earlier versions of SESTA, developing such bots would constitute knowledge of the platform being used to facilitate sex trafficking. Similarly, Backpage’s keyword filters for policing content were used in its Senate hearing as evidence that it had knowledge of and was facilitating sex trafficking. Its own reporting efforts were used against it.

The bill also now specifies that state law enforcement officials using SESTA to prosecute individuals or entities would have to use federal law as a basis for their actions. That’s very handy for the tech companies, as in some states, “sex trafficking” can mean just about anything. While the federal definition of sex trafficking involves force, fraud, or coercion (or the involvement of minors, though this leads to situations in which young street youth get arrested for trafficking for helping their friends in the business as soon as they turn 18), a number of states, such as Alaska, have much broader definitions. This can include cases such as two escorts simply working together. A 2012 records request found that two such escorts were arrested and charged with sex trafficking as well as with prostitution—both alleged victims were arrested and charged with sex trafficking each other.

The bill remains draconian. There are enormous liabilities attached to user content for internet companies, which is a huge incentive to police that content heavily. Platforms that host advertising for sex workers are definitely still in the crosshairs. In fact, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) points out, SESTA will even target companies retroactively, a measure that was no doubt included as a way to go after Backpage. No actual intention to assist in any sex trafficking is necessary in the newest version of the bill either, so long as it is “facilitated” in some way, a term which courts have interpreted broadly.

Going Negative In The Champagne Room: California Edition

Are California Republicans around just to make us appreciate how classy Philadelphia Republican strip club-themed ads are? Maybe! This little piece of work must be a parody, because there’s no way something like this gets taken seriously for a second. They’ve edited the face of LA city council member/congressional candidate Janice Hahn onto the body of a stripper surrounded by Black men who are holding guns and singing “Give me your cash, bitch/So we can shoot up the street/Give me your cash, bitch/So we can buy some more heat.” This is apparently based on her support for a Scared Straight-style program that worked with former gang members.

Big Mother Is Watching You: The Swedish Model Goes Stateside

In the fifth installment of her column, Big Mother Is Watching Youa guide to prominent anti-sex worker activists and officials, Robin D.  outlines the major figures promoting the End Demand/Swedish Model phenomenon in the United States. 

When the Sex Purchase Ban passed in Sweden in 1999, prostitution was legal there. Proponents of the Swedish Model in the U.S. talk about “decriminalizing the women,” but implementing this model has never involved the removal of criminal laws against anyone. It’s mostly all talk. Several U.S. jurisdictions (Illinois, Colorado, Atlanta, Boston, Chicago/Cook County) have had laws branded “End Demand” pass. In none of these cases was any effort made to remove criminal penalties for sex workers.

Here are some of the key players involved in bringing the Swedish model to the United States:

Rachel Durchslag, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, Hunt Alternatives Report Fund Author

Rachel Durchslag.
Rachel Durchslag

“I saw a film about human trafficking, and I was haunted. Then I found Chicago was a major hub for human trafficking. Once I realized my own city was not stepping up, I felt called to do something,” says Rachel Durchslag, Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (C.A.A.S.E.) founder and Sara Lee heiress. But this tourist in human suffering couldn’t take it for long, and she didn’t have to. In 2013, she left her human trafficking work to practice Reiki.

Since her youth, Durchslag grappled with poor-little-rich-girl syndrome in isolation until, at a retreat for “young funders” (read: people with inherited wealth), she found peer support. “After I said my great-grandfather started Sara Lee, I felt this lightness that I don’t think I’ve really ever felt before then. That was the first time I had ever publicly said that, and all of a sudden it clicked, I didn’t do anything wrong to be born into this family, there’s nothing productive about me feeling continually guilty about being born into this family, but there is a lot that I can do,” she explained to 136 Radio. What she did was use her trust fund to start the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation, a key player in the passage of an End Demand ordinance in Cook County in 2008. They have since done some good work in making progressive criminal justice reforms including the repeal of felony prostitution in Illinois, but they are unwavering in their continued support for the criminalization of sex work clients.

Durchslag has written for the Huffington Post about reading client forums. Like the Invisible Men Project does, Durchslag appropriates the suffering of victims of violence to justify policies that clearly make sex workers’ problems worse. She does so in a very prurient manner, both in the article above discussing a 2013 C.A.A.S.E. report she co-wrote on client forums and in the report itself, in which she stoops to quoting rape perpetrators describing their crimes on review boards, without regard for the wishes of the subjects of those reviews. This disturbing voyeurism is interspersed with discussions of relatively neutral topics, such as determining what’s on offer at spas advertising erotic massage. If workers weren’t getting arrested, go figure, maybe they could tell Durschlag what services they provide directly.

Durchslag also seemed to love to give other people like her access to her tourism of the sex industry. She invited colleagues and friends to participate in the publicity around a “human trafficking play” with the dehumanizing title Roadkill.

Pole Taxes Not “Genius”

Last August, the Texas Supreme Court upheld the “pole tax,” otherwise known as the Sexually Oriented Business Fee, a $5-per-patron tax on strip club customers, and in January, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the case, letting the law stand. Collected at the door along with the cover charge, the tax is intended to fund sexual assault prevention programs and health insurance for low-income residents. In the year since, the Illinois legislature passed a similar bill, intended to fund rape crisis centers, which is now awaiting the governor’s signature. There’s also one on the table in California that would, you guessed it, fund “sexual assault treatment and prevention.”

Now the Houston City Council has passed its own pole tax, an additional $5-per-patron tax to fund the processing of rape kits. It was this instance that caught the eye of Jezebel’s Dodai Stewart, who proclaimed it “genius.”  It’s not entirely clear if she was being serious or sarcastic when she wrote “Pretty smart to use money from folks who enjoy sexualized women to aid sexually assaulted women.” What, exactly, does that mean? That sexuality, sex work, and sexual assault are simply different points on the same curve of behavior? That a man who pays to look at strippers is somehow also responsible for the rape of another woman? How gross does this tax feel for strippers in Houston who have been raped?