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.”
(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.
On Dec. 20 the Senate passed Senate Resolution 439: “A resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that Village Voice Media Holdings, LLC should eliminate the ‘adult entertainment’ section of the classified advertising website Backpage.com.”
I am clearly weeks late responding to this. This happened in the flurry of holidays, travel, and the Sandy Hook shooting media storm. It was also on the heels of December 17 so most of the sex work activist community was burned out and exhausted. Though not necessarily intentional, the highly unfortunate timeline of events is important to note.
In immediate practical terms, this doesn’t mean much. A simple resolution only expresses nonbinding positions of the Senate. No one is required to do anything is response. But the implications are disturbing.
The growing campaign against Backpage is a continuation of the same work that successfully shut down the Adult Services section of Craigslist. The same bad logic, false data, flawed principles, ineffective solutions and racist bullshit apply.
The Village Voice, which up until recently was part of the same subsidiary group as Backpage, declared in 2011 that “the Craigslist beat-down was absurdist theater.” Remember the debacle when Ashton Kutcher declared himself a spokesman for the anti-trafficking movement? If you don’t – here are some reminders. It was a perfect illustration of the absurdist theater that the Voice pinpointed.
But they have responded very differently to the campaign to shut down Backpage.
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.