Trafficking

(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.

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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]

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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.”

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VAMP members after the raid (Photo by Dale Bangkok, courtesy of Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers)

VAMP members after the raid (Photo by Dale Bangkok, courtesy of Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers)

Sitting in a warm room in Phnom Penh with several other women from the Asia Pacific region, Kamalabai Pani, a sex worker and a board member of Veshya Anyay Mukti Parishad (VAMP, Prostitutes’ Collective Against Injustice) in India, became visibly upset when discussion turned to the efforts of U.S.-led feminist groups to discredit several United Nations bodies’ recommendations to decriminalize sex work in support of HIV prevention. These recommendations have been welcomed by sex worker-led groups as they believe criminalization endangers not only condom use but their very livelihoods.

In their writings and speeches, Western feminist groups have used the tactic of labeling sex worker collectives—essentially a form of trade union—as “promoters of prostitution” and “traffickers.” This lack of logic infuriates sex worker union advocates and the impact on sex workers’ lives is far more severe.

A warm woman with a demeanor of quiet strength, Pani spoke with anger recalling the raid on the VAMP community on May 20th, 2005. “These guys came to our brothel area and gave out contraceptives and sweets. Then they asked us details about the girls, how much they studied and things like that. The next day, a Friday, then came the police. There were about 40 people in plain clothes, 20-30 police in six vehicles that came to the red light area of Gokulnagar. They blocked off about five lanes and the houses. They did not ask us anything, they just came in.”

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(Photo by the Edinburgh Eye)

(Photo by the Edinburgh Eye)

Last week in Cleveland, Gina DeJesus, Michelle Knight, and Amanda Berry escaped from Ariel Castro’s “house of horrors”  where he imprisoned the women in a nightmare of rape and torture for almost a decade. Castro has been arraigned on four charges of kidnapping and three charges of rape. The courageous women escaped with the help of Charles Ramsey, a neighbor who broke into the home after hearing Berry’s screams. A charismatic man, Ramsey became an instant celebrity after declaring he knew “something was wrong” when he saw that a “pretty little white girl ran into the arms of a black man.”

Everything about the Cleveland kidnapping case—from Ramsey’s critique of race to the captive women’s histories of abuse—has stirred important conversations about domestic abuse, sexual abuse, police incompetence, and race. Unsurprisingly, for those of us who follow trafficking hysteria,  it’s also inspired a lot of talk about sex trafficking.

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