Trafficking

The RedUP gang at yet another conference. (Photo courtesy of Red Umbrella Project.)

The RedUP gang at yet another conference. (Photo courtesy of Red Umbrella Project.)

When I accepted the chance to go the International Human Trafficking, Prostitution, and Sex Work Conference in Toledo, Ohio, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The organization I work for, Red Umbrella Project, attended the conference to present our report on New York’s new Human Trafficking Intervention Courts. Just the fact that they accepted us—a sex worker-run organization—to speak threw me for a loop. When I saw that members of SWOP (Sex Worker Outreach Project) and Miriam Weeks (AKA Belle Knox) were also speaking, I wondered if this conference might prove an exception to the usual anti-sex work stance of the rescue industry. After all, “sex work” was right there in the title. Someone in charge must have understood the complex reasons people get into sex work better than to assume that everyone everywhere within the sex industry is being exploited and trafficked, right? But as a sex worker, I also knew what the rescue industry—and what seems like most of the world—thinks of me and my job.

Our organization has just completed an eight-month study on New York’s Prostitution Courts, now known as Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs). Now, in 11 jurisdictions within New York state, anyone charged with prostitution is assumed to be a victim of human trafficking and instead of being charged as a criminal can choose to do five to six sessions in a diversion program.

It felt to me like we were pretty well received. We didn’t deliver an impassioned speech about the plight of American sex workers, we instead explained the trafficking courts of our city, pointing out how they aren’t meeting the needs of the people they’d taken a seemingly more compassionate legal stance for. Our study found that the racially motivated arrest tactics of the NYPD were very visible within the courts, and that due to a shortage of capable interpreters, defendants who spoke English as a second language were progressing through the system at a third of the speed of native English speakers. We also suggested that the six weeks of therapy the diversion programs provided did little to address the needs of people doing sex work for survival. After a defendant charged with prostitution completes their mandated diversion program, they have an open record for six months, which can be a barrier when trying to find other work. They also cannot be re-arrested during this period or they have to start the process from the beginning again.There are more and more new court systems in the US that are similar to New York’s, and the idea of using “human trafficking” as a term that refers to all people in the sex trades is becoming more popular. And most of the time, the fight to end human trafficking is led by people who make no distinction between someone who is forced or coerced into the sex industry, someone who enters it by choice or curiosity, and the myriad scenarios in between the two. We saw a lot of this in the Toledo conference.

The best example might be the woman who, after finding out what Red Umbrella Project does, asked us, “But if your organization is made up of current and former sex workers, how do you keep the current ones from recruiting the former ones?” The member who she asked was floored as he tried to explain that that has never been a problem. How could you explain to someone with that view of sex work that no, our organization is not partially made up of unscrupulous hookers lurking around trying to sucker recovering trafficking victims back into a life of drug-addled degradation? We all tried to explain, taking varying tacks with forced cordiality. We explained that RedUP is made up of sex workers from all walks of life and varying circumstances, that our main goal is to give our members the tools to tell their own stories and advocate for themselves, and would you like to take a look at our literary journal of sex worker memoirs? It was exhausting, but it felt important for us to be there, no matter how much teeth-gritting it took.

[READ MORE]

{ 10 comments }

(Image via St James Infirmary's flickr)

(Image via St James Infirmary’s flickr)

I have experienced a lot of abuse in my life. The realization of each instance was a gradual process, despite how accustomed I should be to identifying it by now, despite how thoroughly I understand the dynamics, the signs, the underbelly of the beast. I have always believed, since I was 18 years old, that talking about the abuse was not only cathartic but a small step towards ending the silence surrounding it. It’s not my fault, so why should I be ashamed? Why should I protect abusers with my silence? Still, the realization that I am in fact someone who was forced into the sex industry, that group of silenced victims fauxmanists and policy makers alike claim to care so much about, was a realization that happened in stages. It was a slow process right until I was shouted down by a sex worker exclusionary radical feminist because my views on sex work and decriminalization weren’t taking into account the lives of people who were forced or coerced into the industry or abused in it and unable to leave. And I was livid, because that is my story.

The definition of what constitutes sex slavery and sex trafficking is intentionally blurry. Obfuscating the reality of sex industry abuse is a deliberate tactic utilized to attack the industry in general. Most people I know imagine trafficking victims to be forced to travel from South East Asia or Eastern Bloc nations in terrible conditions to arrive in affluent countries where they can be bought and sold as objects by sadistic rapists while being kept under lock and key. In truth, NGOs and governments usually define trafficking as involuntary participation in the sex trade. In essence, the term sex trafficking is a misnomer; the “trafficking” itself may be no more than a 15 minute drive from home to the brothel, like it was for me. It’s a phrase that brings up very specific associations that are generally inaccurate.

By the definition above, I guess I’m a trafficked person. Wider definitions also include underage sex workers, so a lot of people I know who started before they were 18 years old are as well. This is fairly well understood in most sex worker activism and yet there seems to be no emphasis in our movement on acknowledging and supporting survivors who enter the industry through force or coercion. Through describing some of the difficulty of my experience within activist circles, I hope to be able to offer some insight as to how to better support all members of our community while tackling head on the erroneous idea that antis are trying to help survivors within the industry.

When I was 21, I went to a queer event at my university and met a bunch of people, including a few sex workers. We hung out, chatted, and exchanged Facebook info. I went home and told my partner about the experience. I was primarily interested in talking about the workshop I’d run and the friendships I’d made but my (now ex) long term boyfriend was fascinated with the idea of my becoming a hooker. During our relationship he’d visited various brothels a number of times (though he’d sworn he wasn’t doing that anymore) so I guess at that point he knew more about the industry than I did. Behind my back, he began talking to my friends on Facebook through my account, pretending to be me, asking about the work and how to get into it. Meanwhile, he would bring up the idea whenever the issue of money came up—which it often did, with him being a meth addict—when we were in bed together, really any time he could. When his cajoling, against the backdrop of his verbal, sexual and physical violence didn’t work, he delivered an ultimatum: if I didn’t start hooking, he would start cooking meth again. I had been through this before: visits from the cops at all hours of the night; waking up and walking into my living room with ammonia gas filling the house my children were sleeping in; strangers coming through the door and cutting up, weighing and bagging ice in the kitchen; and his escalating violence under the influence of his constant use and paranoia. It wasn’t something I could go through again. The potential money I could be making working with a friend at the parlor, $100 to $500 a night, seemed like a much better choice. He was already using my bank card to take all of my money to the point where a friend of mine had to steal a container of formula so I could feed my daughter because my ex spent my last $50 on half a point. Sex work seemed like an out. And you know what? It was.

[READ MORE]

{ 37 comments }

(Image by Scott Long, courtesy of Scott Long)

(Image by Scott Long, courtesy of Scott Long)

The Cambodian garment industry’s factories often serve as the canonical example of sweatshops. Women toil away in them for long hours with low pay and awful, unsafe working conditions. There are regular mass faintings due to poor ventilation, chemicals such as insecticides and shoe glue, long hours, and lack of access to health care.

There are about 650,000 Cambodian garment workers, and 90% of them are women. The current Cambodian minimum wage is US$80 per month, though the lower end of a living wage in Cambodia is twice that, at US$160. Many Cambodian garment workers have organized themselves and are working to institute change through collective bargaining and by pressuring companies looking to improve their brands’ image. Local unions have even secured support from a number of international corporations, and these corporations and unions (as part of IndustriALL Global Union) were able to meet peaceably with government officials on May 26th. At issue were a new trade union law, mechanisms for setting wages, a demand for a US$160 per month minimum wage, and the fates of 23 garment workers who were arrested in January for protesting working conditions and pay. Unfortunately, a strike that was planned for the previous month failed. Still, protests continued.

The 23 workers were arrested as part of a violent government crackdown on January 3rd that left at least four dead and 80 wounded. There were similar protests and crackdowns the previous November, when police shot and killed one protester and wounded nine. There was another protest the previous September over mass dismissals of workers on strike and intimidation measures including the presence of military police during inspections.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, however, practically idolizes Cambodian sweatshops. Kristof has recently come under fire for disseminating false stories about sex trafficking that were fed to him by the Somaly Mam Foundation and Mam’s “rehabilitation center” AFESIP in his columns, in the forward to her memoir, and in his 2012 “documentary” Half the Sky. Information about Mam’s fraud, however, had been published in the Cambodia Daily since 2010, and it is highly unlikely that Kristof was unaware of this fact. Her fraud and its horrific consequences for local sex workers were hardly a secret among sex worker rights activists in the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Work Projects.

[READ MORE]

{ 9 comments }

War_on_the_White_Slave_Trade_01Despite ample warnings about the prevalence of con men seeking to prey on easily malleable puppets like me, it is indeed a sad truth that I almost became the victim of a murky, seedy, dark, sex trafficking ring operated by equally murky, seedy, dark (-skinned) men. Eww! As we all know, prostitution—er, sex trafficking?— is never a victimless crime. Physical violence against prostituted women is underreported, which can only be true because…feminism! Indeed, all fact-based evidence to the contrary should be deeply scrutinized using right-wing silencing tactics and progressive rhetoric, ie: “You can’t possibly speak to your own experiences because your experiences perpetuate violence against women.” Furthermore, prostitution and sex trafficking are synonyms because if you disagree with that statement, you’re a pedophile! So, if you want to end modern day slavery worldwide, don’t talk about structural constraints like poverty or growing discrepancies in wealth. Instead, let the logical fallacy of “appealing to emotion” be your guide and, please, listen to my super sad story.

As a woman who dabbles in psychotropic drugs like cannabis and occasionally listens to rap music—both of which, mind you, glamorize “The Game”—I should have taken heed of cultural mouthpieces’ contentions that even consensual sex for girls like me is not consensual at all. That’s why academics, the state, and philanthropists must define consent for me. Of course, being the rebel that I am, I ignored all this socially inflicted self-doubt and left the house alone, anyway. Full disclosure: I was wearing a short skirt and was slightly tipsy off a glass of wine, so I alone am responsible for any and all violence encountered. But since I clearly suffer from false consciousness—I would have worn pants, after all, had I not suffered this insufferable condition—I am certainly incapable of being held accountable for any of my actions, ever. [READ MORE]

{ 1 comment }

Appropriately bleak looking promo for Slave Hunter (via msnbc.com)

Appropriately bleak looking promo for Slave Hunter (via msnbc.com)

In 2011, I had the privilege of speaking on a local television program, Face to Face with John Ralston in Las Vegas. At the time, I worked on a national research initiative called the Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children (CSEC), a federally funded project. The US Department of Justice (DOJ) created CSEC in an effort to curb the alleged epidemic of sex trafficking of minors. I say “alleged epidemic” because, as most sex workers’ rights advocates know, research on sex trafficking often employs shoddy methods. Indeed, many “studies” on sex trafficking have proven to be deeply flawed or outright fabricated. The most famous example is Richard Estes and Neil Alan Weiner’s study, The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S., Canada, and Mexico (same name, unrelated to the DOJ study.) When we hear that 300,000 children are sex trafficked into the US every year, for example, we should assume that statistic comes from Estes and Weiner’s study. Their research has been largely debunked by scholars of sex work (not to mention sex workers themselves) and not just because they operationalize the number of children “at risk” of commercial sexual exploitation as “users of psychotropic drugs,” among other things, in their study. They also claim that undocumented children are at higher risk for sexual exploitation, yet they fail to thoughtfully analyze the economic and social reasons why an underage, undocumented person might exchange sex for something in return.

Along with CSEC’s primary investigator, Dr. Spivak, I was asked on Face to Face to debate claims made by then-Las Vegas vice detective Chris Baughman. Indeed, CSEC proved over and over that underage people in the sex industry are in much more complicated situations than anti-trafficking movements would have us think. Baughman’s appearance was also a promotional opportunity—at the time, his new book Off The Street, a “true life story of [a man] fighting to protect a class of women who are too easily forgotten and readily dismissed,” had just hit the shelves. Despite grabbing onto the nonsensical trope that sex work is never a victimless crime, Baughman was a rather soft-spoken and open-minded man behind the scenes. I can say with the utmost sincerity that I’ve never had such a fruitful interaction with a cop. He listened intently as I recounted, off air, abuses I’d faced as a sex worker in Las Vegas—not at the hands of brutal pimps, but from the sadistic wiles of Las Vegas’ finest. I explained that my sisters and brothers were routinely giving blowjobs to cops in exchange for police protection. I told him I was in the process of filing a civil suit against Las Vegas Metro and that I’d experienced significant backlash from the head of vice because of it. He took out a business card, wrote down his personal contact information, and instructed me to call anytime. “We’re both trying to end abuses associated with the sex industry,” he said. “Let’s work together.” I agreed.

That was two years ago. Not much has changed in Las Vegas save for more punitive policies intent on eradicating the sex industry (funded by right-wing Christian non-profits that somehow manage over a million dollars in profit every year). And, oh yeah! Chris Baughman now has his own television program with Aaron Cohen called Slave Hunter. The new MSNBC series reveals, “in captivating detail,” what happens in the sex trafficking underworld. Posing as potential clients, Baughman and Cohen arrange to meet sex workers for the purposes of “[putting] in motion a plan to allow them to escape their bonds and build a new life outside of sex trafficking.”

[READ MORE]

{ 4 comments }