Trafficking

With every new presidency comes the expectation that the First Spouse will adopt a cause that is considered sufficiently non-controversial in nature. So as the doomsday clock ticked ever faster towards the Trump inauguration at the end of 2016, people not only speculated about which nightmarish regressive agendas Donald would make a waking reality while in office, but also about which one First Lady Melania would take on as her own.

The Slovenian former model has faced a barrage of accusations about her patchy immigration record, leaked nude photo spreads, and most salacious of all (and most relevant to our interests at Tits and Sass), suggestions that she once worked as a “high-end escort” in New York. For all these reasons and because it is the issue du jour with celebrities, suburban moms, and religious zealots alike, the anti-trafficking movement is just the ticket for Melania’s pet project. But before I explain exactly why that is, let’s get to know centerfold-posing, married-to-a-repulsive-billionaire, definitely-not-a-prostitute Melania Trump a little bit better.

For the past 24 years, each prospective First Lady has submitted a personal cookie recipe to Family Circle magazine, which readers then vote on to determine who will make the best wife and mother to the Nation, because patriarchy. If her pre-election baking skills are any indication, the current First Lady is a woman who does not give a single shit about political life. “Melania Trump’s Star Cookies” even look sad in their professional photographs online. In essence, the recipe is for a needlessly complicated sugar cookie which calls for two egg yolks but only one egg white. Why does she hate us? There’s a half-hearted dollop of sour cream at the very end which, I imagine, is supposed to be a feeble wink at her Slavic roots. Then, in some sort of lazy nod toward patriotism, she instructs us to “use a 2 ½ inch star-shaped cookie cutter.” If you don’t own one, you’ve already let the terrorists win. After you “heat oven to 350F”, the last instruction is, “Can I go home now?” To put this in perspective, Michelle Obama made “White and Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies.” See what she did there? Because Michelle Obama is always in it to win it.

But the unfortunate cookie recipe dates back to September of last year, and it was only the early days of the robust compendium of sad Melania anecdotes we would accrue. Her mood on Inauguration Day matched that of the rest of the world, at least when she thought a certain someone wasn’t watching. If Melania has ever been a sex worker—which she absolutely has not been and feel free to check with her lawyer about that—this is exactly what she would have looked like during those rare moments of solitude when her client was in the bathroom and she no longer had to emote. It’s the facial expression that goes along with that glorious freedom at the end of a call when you step back into the hotel hallway and can finally fart in peace and the sublime pleasure of leaving your armpits unshaven for the whole week you’re on a break from work. Oh sweet relief! Unfortunately, that brief moment caught on camera was but one of many things that fueled dark speculations that there might be trouble in paradise for Mrs.Trump.

At this point it seems like her passion project is avoiding her husband as much as possible (she is excelling at this) so it’s unclear if she’s ready to put much more on her plate right now. If her enthusiasm for public life and antiquated feminine kitchen tasks are any sign of her ambitions to come, then Melania will likely take a path similar to the more apathetic first ladies who came before her, such as Jackie Kennedy, who dedicated her Vassar education and fluency in French to redecorating the White House. Or Lady Bird Johnson shortly thereafter, who believed that planting flowers up and down America’s highways would add some much-needed cheer to hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veteran funeral processions.

But to take the easy way out like these women did would be a grave loss for an anti-trafficking movement that relies heavily on key endorsements from celebrities who have literally no idea what they’re talking about. It would be a loss for the Trump administration which could capitalize on the conservative agenda espoused by most anti-trafficking groups, just as many American governments before it have done. And most of all, it would be a public relations loss for Melania herself, because nothing says “I hate prostitutes and am definitely not one” louder and prouder than mainstream anti-trafficking work.

Here are the top six reasons Melania Trump should support the anti-trafficking industry as First Lady:

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threadbareRed: In journalist Anne Elizabeth Moore’s new book Threadbare: Clothes, Sex, And Trafficking, in which years of her reporting are illustrated by comic artists Delia Jean, Melissa Mendes, Ellen Lindner, Simon Haussle, and Leela Corman, among others, she takes us around the world, untangling the many levels of exploitation and corruption inherent in the garment industry.

Moore takes us way beyond the factories themselves, to shadowy zones I never heard of before reading the book. The garment industry makes use of “Free Trade Zones,” spots on U.S. soil that are exempt from all U.S. rules and regulations, where abuses run rampant.

The author connects all the threads of industrial and imperialist abuses, and presents a seamless and ugly portrait of an imperialism that never died, only changing to better fit the times—an imperialism which is still at the heart of so many exploitations and abuses worldwide. With rope from the garment industry itself, she creates a noose to hang it with. Now we gotta get more people to read the book and spread the word.

Moore interviews retail workers at H&M, a fashion model, former workers and business owners in Austria’s shrinking garment industry, and, most pertinently to us, anti-trafficking NGOs who “rescue” sex workers into the garment industry for a fraction of a living wage. All of it is painfully fascinating, the kind of horrified interest that an especially bad injury might generate, as you read on and realize how deeply all of these facets are intertwined and interdependent.

The garment industry isn’t just implicated in internationally substandard wages for women: it’s one of the root causes of them. The garment industry isn’t just loosely connected to imperialist anti-trafficking NGOs that force women into garment factories: Nike, for example, funds the anti-trafficking org Half the Sky, which is run by Nick Kristof, who not only writes openly in the New York Times about his support for and belief in the necessity of sweatshop labor—he funnels the women rescued by Half the Sky right into garment industry sweatshops which profit the very industries on the board of or funding Half the Sky! And it isn’t Just Half the Sky. Shared Hope International, the local anti-trafficking thorn in my side, has a board member who is also the international HR manager for Columbia Sportswear.

I knew before reading Threadbare that the garment industry profited off the anti-trafficking movement’s “rescue” of sex workers, but I didn’t understand just how inextricably the two were linked. I didn’t understand that it wasn’t just convenient placement and timing—it’s a deliberate, planned strategy to keep wages down and to keep women workers across the world easily exploitable.

Caty: I’m not a huge comics reader, though I’ve definitely gone through some of the classics throughout my reading life, such as Sandman and Watchmen, and on the more literary side I’ve read Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis,  Art Spiegelman’s Maus, and the like. But as graphic novels get more of a foothold in sex work lit with titles like Rent Girl, The Lengths, and Melody: Story of A Nude Dancer, plus popular sex worker comic artists like Jacq The Stripper and even Tumblr darling brothelgirl, I’ve certainly been reading more comics lately. And there’s begun to be more comics coverage of leftist non-fiction, too—Harvey Pekar’s graphic history of Students for a Democratic Society particularly impressed me. So, now, finally, we have the convergence of these trends with non-fiction sex worker and labor rights comics title Threadbare.

I’m not entirely sure the comics format really works here. The fonts can be punishingly tiny, and there’s just SO much exposition. I got stalled on the book myself for months somewhere in the middle of the section on Austria’s fashion history and only ended up finishing it to write this review. On the other hand, the illustrations are gorgeous, and I’m not sure a short prose book would’ve allowed the dense material to be any more accessible.

Red: I came to comics really late; I’ve always had trouble focusing on pages where multiple things are happening. For me, images accompanying a text don’t make it easier to read, it’s too much! I love comics now, after being won over by Matt Fraction‘s Hawkeye, but reading comics and graphic novels is still a lot of work for me if I’m not using the ComiXology app. Threadbare is definitely worth the work, and many of the artists streamlined their panels in a very clear and accessible way.

I came to this book as someone who already knew a lot about exploitation in the garment industry and exploitation in the culture and running of anti-trafficking NGOs, knowledge I got through constant sifting through a sex work Google alert. People ask me for receipts all the time and I am so profoundly grateful to now have a thoroughly sourced and cited book to hand over to clinch my arguments and temporarily silence the twats.

Caty: I agree that this book should become part of every activist sex workers’ arsenal. It delivers some important perspective about sex workers’ rights as a labor movement by connecting the labor issues of garment industry workers and sex workers—who are so often the same people!

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An image chronicling the history of the multi-year war on Backpage. (Photo by PJ Starr, 2012)

An image chronicling the history of the multi-year war on Backpage. (Photo by PJ Starr, 2012)

It’s happening again.

I remember the drop in my stomach as my browser opened on the homepage of MyRedBook in 2014 and I saw the emblems of the FBI, DOJ, and the IRS occupying a page which used to host an escort ad, review, and forum website used by thousands of providers across the West Coast. It was at that moment when I realized what the stakes in the war on sex trafficking truly were. Two years after Prop 35 passed in California, broadening the definition of trafficker to anyone “who is supported in part or in whole from the earnings of a prostitute”, and four years after the multi-year battle against Craigslist resulted in its Adult section being taken down, it was clear: sex workers’ ability to advertise online was going to be taken out from under us.

At the time, I worked at St. James Infirmary providing healthcare services to current and former sex workers. Over the next several months, I witnessed people being flung into economic turmoil. A lot of the community talked to me about going back into the street or going there for the first time. Others tried to pack into strip clubs, where their money was split by management, or focus on porn—also under attack by the state through Prop 60. Some people successfully moved their business onto other more costly or exclusive advertising platforms. And some people left the business altogether, either to new forms of income or to try to exist on the scraps of government support available to the unemployed.

I saw the closure of MyRedBook increase stratification within the industry, widening the gap between those sex workers able to appeal to the more elite clientele of other websites and those who had to move onto the street and deal with the violence of being outside.

Eventually, Backpage, relatively unused in the Bay Area prior to the RedBook seizure, garnered enough web traffic that it became the website for those of us who want to work independently and inside, but don’t have the body, gender, or class presentation desired by the majority of clients looking at websites such as Eros, Slixa, and Seeking Arrangements. It is especially utilized by folks living outside urban metropolises, where other advertising platforms, if they exist, are largely unused. TS Blair, a friend of mine who works in the South, says:

As a transgender woman working in a small city, BackPage is the only resource for sex work outside of the street for so many bodies. You go on Eros, it’s exclusively white cis women on there. If BackPage shuts down, so many of us will have nowhere else to go.

And now, in the wake of Backpage’s CEO Carl Ferrer being arrested Thursday on felony pimping charges, what does the future hold for sex workers dependent on Backpage for survival? While some are already established on other sites and venues or are able to float on their savings for a while, many are left waiting to see if their only source of income will disappear, eliminated by law enforcement hell bent on “rescuing” them.

The specifics of if, when, and how Backpage will be stripped of its erotic services section are unclear. Unlike MyRedBook and, more recently, Rentboy, Backpage has not been seized as a company. The company that owns the website, Atlantische Bedrijven CV, is based in the Netherlands, where prostitution is legalized. Civil liberties experts agree that in the US, the Communications Decency Act protects online service providers from being held liable for third party posts, and Backpage’s legal counsel told the Guardian that the site intends to fight what it calls “frivolous prosecution.”

Still, there is currently no substantial information available on the future of the website, so all there is to do is wait. The political landscape seems unfavorable, especially considering this week’s news about Rentboy CEO Jeffrey Hurant pleading guilty to charges of promoting prostitution. Many of us question what comes next.

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domesticminorsextraffickingWhen I got arrested recently, my copy of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains by Alexandra Lutnick came along with me to jail. It’d be fair to blame me, as well as the boys in blue, but I think it’s unlikely that this is the last time this publication will see the inside of an evidence vault or be fondled by the fingers of a police sergeant.

After bail, tearing open my blue possessions bag, I couldn’t help thinking that this book was meant to be in lockup with me. It wasn’t published solely for those with degrees in social service. The text exudes empathy for those left behind in the system. Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking reminds me of the bourbon-infused evenings of my teenage years. I remember feeling desolate and distressed in hotel rooms, dreaming of a world with enough beds and snug blankets.

The text expertly covers the disparity of my vision of the world of sex work and the broader statistical realities of it. This book is exceptionally sourced, as it needs to be in order to defend itself from the inevitable barrage of critique that will come in response to its claims about our failed social structure.

Lutnick isn’t another hapless academic reminding society that there’s an unseen conveyor belt of children being trafficked around the country. This is a view the mainstream media seems far too fond of, one that fails to realize our failures as a culture when it comes to the root causes of youth sex trade work. Instead, she argues that isolating minor sex workers in the margins of society allows us to flee our inherent responsibility to them. The book vigorously motions against a system which criminalizes minors who’ve entered into sex work willingly to escape abusive households. Lutnick contends that the vision our society promotes of young white cis women controlled by external forces is deceptive. Youth in the sex trade are far more diverse in origin, gender identity, and age than popularized media representations of them would lead us to believe.

These minors should be viewed with respect, as conscious proponents of their own motives. Lutnick notes that those left behind in systems of oppression are far more likely to be involved in sex work, as an escape from their abusers as well as systemic violence. As a young femme, there was nowhere for me to go besides the streets. There was money there, opportunity for advancement and excitement. Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking reflects my realities and those of my contemporaries with a clear vision of the true nature of minor sex work.

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This isn't sex trafficking. (An image used in a campaign for anti-trafficking organization Voices for Dignity, by Flickr user dualflipflop)

This isn’t sex trafficking. (An image used in a campaign for anti-trafficking organization Voices for Dignity, by Flickr user dualdflipflop)

Sex trafficking is when evil men steal little girls from the mall and keep them chained to beds where they are forced to service 100 men a day. Sex trafficking is when you ask your husband to sit in the next room while you see a new client, just in case. Sex trafficking is when a child molester agrees to pay for sex with a hypothetical, nonexistent eight-year-old and then shows up to meet them with duct tape and handcuffs. Sex trafficking is when a client asks for a duo and you book an appointment for yourself and a friend. Sex trafficking is when you “conspire” with your rapist and kidnapper to torture yourself. Sex trafficking is when you place an escort ad online for yourself.

Words mean things. Sex trafficking is a legal term with many different definitions in different states and countries. The legal term has become confused with the common mainstream usage—which tends to involve people being forced into prostitution—and this has led to a lot of confusion all around. As journalists, our job is to be precise with language and provide accurate information to the public. When reporting on sex trafficking, or sex trafficking cases, consider describing what has been alleged or what the statute the person is being charged with actually says—because it rarely refers to people being forced into prostitution.

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