Contrary to the sensationalistic rhetoric of “modern day slavery” and “sex slavery,” the actual practice of sex trafficking–where one person exercises power and control over another person to exploit that person sexually for financial gain–usually looks more like domestic violence than chattel slavery (or what most people imagine chattel slavery are like). We should not hesitate to call the police when we hear or see signs of immediate, life-threatening violence from our neighbor’s house, of course, but calling the police may not always be the best response when we are supporting a friend or neighbor who is in an abusive relationship. [Emphasis added.]
Emi Koyama’s critique of NYC’s new taxi law suggests revising our ideas of effective support for people who want out of the sex trade.
As has been discussed a million times at Tits and Sass there are very few statistics about actual accounts of child sex trafficking. There is however a shockingly high rate of ignorant and misguided moral crusaders equating consensual adult sex work with sex trafficking of children, and using unfounded numbers about child sex trafficking to discredit adult sex workers. Though we here try to discourage such lazy notions because of the increased violence and stigmatization it creates for our work, most mainstream media outlets still publish scandalous statistics on sex trafficking based on little to no science and applaud the efforts of popstars and religious zealots who continue to site said statistics.
It’s incredibly hard to accurately determine the number of underage sex workers and the accompanying details of their life. Nonetheless, researchers Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank decided to tackle this issue head on in New York, by interviewing prostitutes under the age of 18 and then using scientific algorithms to extrapolate total numbers of child-aged sex workers as well as learn characteristics of that population. Lost Boys: New Research Demolishes Stereotype of Underage Sex Worker recently published by SFWeekly* explores the findings of the John Jay study and the unsavory response to their results from non-profits, media, police, and legislators.
The researchers surprised themselves and others by strongly disproving the mythologized child prostitute trope: a tween girl whose every move is dictated by a malicious pimp. Instead, this new data paints a different picture starting with gender. Actually 45 percent of kids who sell sex for money are boys. The average age these younger sex workers start working is not a prepubescent eleven or twelve but fifteen, and only 10 percent were involved with a pimp or madam. Finally, almost all of the youths, 95 percent of them, said they sold sex for money because it was the most stable and sure way to support themselves. The study asserts that the total number of teen sex workers in New York is 3,946.
I was excited to read and review Off the Street. The true story of Las Vegas vice cop Christopher Baughman, leader of the Pandering Investigation Team (PIT) and Human Trafficking Task Force, it seemed like the perfect read for a sex-work-loving, law enforcement supporter such as myself.
The story begins when a prostitute on the Strip is beaten for two days by her pimp, who’s also the father of her son. Baughman becomes her crusading investigator, despite the victim’s objections to leaving her attacker. Baughman seems to understand the cycle of violence and abuse with which he’s so familiar, and acknowledges the woman’s reluctance to assist in the case. He acknowledges that there are indeed “bad” cops:
“I understand that the power of the badge can only amplify qualities in a person. For instance, a good man with a badge can only amplify qualities in a person. … There are others who carry a badge and feel an automatic sense of entitlement. They might bend over backward for some citizens, but declare in the same breath that any ghetto is just a self-cleaning oven. These men have also become my enemies. I have no use for them. They have dishonored their position, slighted the city I love and tarnished the badge that I carry.” [READ MORE]
Yesterday, we posted Part One of an interview with Sex at the Margins author Dr. Laura Agustín. Today we present our second and final segment.
It’s incredibly common now to see abolitionists argue that when prostitution is legal, as it in Amsterdam, trafficking only increases. What does the most current research actually suggest?
Everyone wants this thing called research to prove one position or another, but it can’t. Even if there were enough funds to do massive studies with a range of methodologies and amazingly objective researchers, the target is impossible to define and pin down. It’s the same problem as with numbers, the fact that the subjects of interest are operating outside formal networks. Of course you can have small ethnographic studies that provide real insight into particular people at a certain time and place, but those studies cannot prove anything in general. And certainly not about legal regimes, as in the quarrel over which causes more exploitation.
Over a very long period we may come to understand the effects of a regime like the Dutch, but it is too early now. I did research in Holland amongst people concerned with how the policy was working in 2006, when it was already clear that offering regulation only brought part of the sex industry into government accounting. Businesspeople interested in operating outside the law continued to do so; many escort agencies and other sex businesses refused to register; migrants not allowed work permits came and worked anyway and so did people facilitating their travel and work, and, in many cases, exploiting them. None of which proves that the whole system ‘increases trafficking’. You cannot even coherently discuss an increase in trafficking when there are no baseline figures to compare with. On top of which agreement about what everyone means by the word trafficking simply does not exist. This goes for both the Dutch situation and the Swedish – claims about trafficking going up or down cannot be proved. [READ MORE]
Upon the publication of her book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labor Markets and the Rescue Industry, anthropologist Laura Agustín became a hero to many sex worker activists. Her research cuts through the usual moral hysteria and emotionality invoked by the idea of trafficking to radically revise discussions about migration and sexual labor. Both her blog (linked above) and her book contain rational assessments of an unfair world in which people exercise choice even when they have limited options; where citizens of developing countries, like citizens of developed countries, have an urge to see more of the world; and where a single story cannot usefully articulate the experience of multiple, diverse human beings. When it comes to her approach, she explains, “I am disposed to accept what people tell me, and believe in their ability to interpret their own lives.” She kindly agreed to answer some questions for us about the current state of trafficking laws, what she calls the Rescue Industry, and public (mis)conceptions.
How did you first become interested in the sex industry?
My interest was in the experiences of friends and colleagues in Latin America who wanted to work in Europe. Travelling outside the formal economy meant having very limited choices, and, for women, selling sex and working as live-in maids were practically the only choices. People I knew conversed in a normal way about how to get to Europe and which of the jobs seemed better for them personally. I saw how certain outsiders were focussing on something they called prostitution, but I didn’t understand their anxiety about it. My original question wasn’t about migrants at all but about these people, who wanted to stop others from travelling and stop them from taking jobs they were willing to accept – all in the name of saving them. During my studies I decided that thinking in terms of commercial sex and the sex industry were one way to resist this Rescue ideology. [READ MORE]