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Slave Hunter and Cultural Boners

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.”

Some Sportsball Feelings Before Super Bowl 50

Peyton Manning
The Denver Broncos’ QB, Peyton Manning

While there has been no shortage of sex trafficking panic in the media leading up to Super Bowl 50, there has also been a refreshing plethora of reasoned reporting regarding the oft inflated and falsified statistics that anti-trafficking organizations tout around major sporting events. Friends, I am no statistician, and I will not waste this post on statistical arguments for whether or not sex trafficking is happening around major sporting events. I think it’s clear that many different kinds of labor trafficking do happen around the Super Bowl and other major sporting events because it happens everywhere all the time. But, not at the level of, say, 10,000 child sex slaves in need of immediate rescue/incarceration/return to abusive situations. As an Aquarian, an INFP, or whatever other woo woo descriptor you can think of for someone who is “emotionally intelligent,” I’d instead like to talk about my anecdotal observations on American football fans, and how likely I feel they are to hire anyone for sex.

I was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, or “Bronco’s Country” as some folks like to call it, home of the team currently en route to the Super Bowl. My own family’s love for yelling at the TV during a Broncos’ game determined my personal distaste for the sport—as did some realized misandry and unrealized classism. For many years of my life, my opinions on football fans were often based on my own uncomfortable childhood and the Broncos fans I saw around me; football fans were lovers of patriarchy, capitalism, violence and, worst of all, the status-quo. With these sorts of stereotypes in mind, it’s easy to understand where a lot of the assumptions may come from around the Super Bowl sex trafficking myths.

We Deserve Better: Reflections On The War On Backpage

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.

The State Is A Trafficker: Why Alaska Arrested Amber Batts

Anchorage, Alaska (via Flickr user paxson_woelber)
Anchorage, Alaska. (image via Flickr user paxson_woelber)

On April 4, 2014, Anchorage Police Department officers responded to a report of a “hysterical female.”  The woman reported that she had lost her purse and she believed her coworker had taken it.  In response, she’d threatened to tell the police about the “prostitution ring” they were involved in, and her coworker had threatened to assault her if she did.  Three months later, officers with the Alaska State Trooper’s Special Crimes Investigative Unit decided to follow up with that “hysterical female.”  They did so by flying to the town where she was then working independently and booking an escort session with her.

“Oh baby,” an officer can be heard moaning in a recording of the encounter,“I’ve never had that before.”

Moments later, other members of the Special Crimes Investigative Unit can be heard entering the room and putting the woman in handcuffs.  Under Alaska state law, which has redefined all prostitution as sex trafficking, the woman is a sex trafficking victim.  In the incident report, she is listed as a victim.  She called 911 and reported that she was, by their definition, a sex trafficking victim, and they chose to follow up on that by what sounded like having sexual contact of some sort with her during a prostitution sting operation.

Sex Trafficking: A Media Guide

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.