I’m Katha Pollitt’s “Highly Educated” Leftist—And A Sex Trafficking Victim

by Tara Burns on May 22, 2014 · 20 comments

in Silly Media Coverage, This Time, It's Personal


If you can read this, you’re too fancy to matter. (image courtesy of The New Inquiry)

Earlier this year, The New Inquiry published this quiz, “Are You Being Sex Trafficked?” which appeared in an earlier form here on Tits and Sass. Katha Pollitt hinged part of her “Why Do So Many Leftists Want Sex Work to Be the New Normal?” essay on the imagined qualities of TNI’s writers and audience:

Of course, if you are reading the New Inquiry, chances are you’re not being sex trafficked; if you’re a sex worker, chances are you’re a grad student or a writer or maybe an activist—a highly educated woman who has other options and prefers this one. And that is where things get tricky. Because in what other area of labor would leftists look to the elite craftsman to speak for the rank and file? You might as well ask a pastry chef what it’s like to ladle out mashed potatoes in a school cafeteria. In the discourse of sex work, it seems, the subaltern does not get to speak.

The problem is not that the subaltern was not getting to speak, but that Pollitt was unable to listen because of her own ideas about how trafficking victims should present. We asked Tara, the author of the quiz, to respond.

On April 2nd I was at the Freedom Network’s Human Trafficking Conference in San Francisco speaking to a group of law enforcement and service providers about how to do outreach to people who are trafficked in to the commercial sex trade. I was there as part of a federal program designed to offer the experience and expertise of sex trafficking victims like myself with the goal of improving services to other sex trafficking victims. The other survivor presenting and I both had extensive experience as youth involved in the sex trade, as adult sex workers, and as social service providers. We spoke of our experiences with law enforcement and service providers and made recommendations to those present about how they could best provide outreach to sex trafficking victims.

At the end, the facilitator flipped through our feedback forms and laughingly told us that one person thought that our presentation hadn’t been about sex trafficking at all. Apparently there are rules for being a good victim: 1. Victims should cry 2. They should talk about horrible things done to them by criminals, but not by the police 3. They should not have opinions, and 4. If they do have opinions, they should present themselves as traumatized enough so that those opinions are easily discountable. If victims don’t behave this way, their status as victims can be called into question.

The same day I was spilling my guts about my dad pimping me out as a kid, Katha Pollitt’s “Why Do So Many Leftists Want Sex Work To Be The New Normal?” was published. In it, she mentioned my writing at The New Inquiry and wrote that “chances are [I’m] a grad student or a writer or maybe an activist—a highly educated woman who has other options and prefers this one.” She’s right: I have become a graduate student, a writer, and an activist. Those seem to be the ways for women like me to get our voices heard. Rather than listening to privileged women like me, she said that people should listen to “the subaltern…the women at the heart of this debate: those who are enslaved and coerced—illegal immigrants, young girls, runaways and throwaways, many of them survivors of sexual trauma, as well as transwomen and others cast out of mainstream society.”

Let’s be honest: she doesn’t care about my victim credentials, unless I present as a good, sobbing, opinionless victim she can use as trauma porn to promote her own ideas. She doesn’t care that thirty percent of the violence experienced by sex trafficking victims is at the hands of the police, or that according to the Ohio Attorney General’s 2012 Human Trafficking Annual Report, the most common buyers of trafficking victims worked in law enforcement. If she really cared about the voices of “the subaltern,” she would have listened to groups like the Young Women’s Empowerment Project and supported decriminalizing victims of sex trafficking instead of whining that sex work might be seen as normal. Oh, by the way, we do know the difference between sex and a piece of pie: That’s why we charge $300 for one and $3 for the other.

What if sex work was seen as normal? She said it encourages rape by making men feel entitled to sex. Has being able to buy a piece of pie ever made you feel entitled to assault a waitress or smash a pie case to get a piece? No, this is all about her discomfort with other people having sex in ways she doesn’t approve of. But there’s no acceptable universe where her moral comfort is more important than other people’s safety.

Ms. Pollitt went to Harvard and Columbia and has published four books and won a bunch of awards. It certainly looks like she has a lot of power in shaping the views of modern feminists. I hope she’ll consider using her influence on behalf of “the subaltern” instead of trying to shut us up—even if we break all the good victim rules by having opinions.

Ecowhore is a sex worker of many kinds, an anarcho-primitivist, and a lover of the world. She has written two Kindle books, Whore Diaries: My First Two Weeks As An Escort and Whore Diaries II: Adventures in Independent Escorting. Read more at ecowhore.com

{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

maxine doogan May 22, 2014 at 1:10 pm

Lets end the demand for porn trama


Lane May 22, 2014 at 9:19 pm

“Let’s be honest: she doesn’t care about my victim credentials, unless I present as a good, sobbing, opinionless victim she can use as trauma porn to promote her own ideas.”

This is precisely it, a victim narrative for you gives a rescue narrative for them. They can’t stand the idea that they may have made the wrong hypothesis about the nature, scope, and nuances of sexual exploitation vis a vis non-coerced sex work and are using speculative fiction about open sex workers to back-pedal. Thanks for this.


Lori Adorable May 22, 2014 at 10:14 pm

A perfect response to Pollitt’s horrible piece of drivel.


Paul M May 23, 2014 at 8:54 am

It’s just the simplest thing in the world: if men felt entitled to sex, we’d resent having to pay for it. Rapists feel entitled to sex. Men who see prostitutes are willing to pay for it.



Pregunta May 31, 2014 at 2:24 am

I have a serious question: Since you were brought into the sex industry in such a traumatic way, how can you now say that as an adult you chose to do it as consensual sex work? It sounds at least from the outside like Stockholm Syndrome, or some other way in which someone who had undergone a lot of trauma seeks to psychologically cope by convincing themselves they chose the trade. I ask because I have met other sex workers who similarly were forced into the trade while young but now say that they freely choose it. Most importantly, this disconnect between the exploitation that got you in the trade and the choice you say you exercise in staying in it as an adult seems dangerous when advising policy makers. It glosses over the exploitation and advises a softer approach on the issue, which doesn’t seem fair to the many girls who are trafficked into the sex trade and just want to get the hell out. (BTW I’m not arguing about how police often inflict violence or are buyers themselves…I am just questioning this idea of lobbying for a pro-sex-work outlook that ignores how one got into the trade in the first place and says that once one is 18, it’s all trauma-free free choice.)


Robin D June 1, 2014 at 3:14 am

Do you believe that people who disagree with you or have lived a more complicated life than you (or didn’t study social work under Dominique Roe-Sepowitz with zero relevant experience?) are incapable of having opinions about politics? That having experienced serious trauma and not been 100% sheltered one’s entire life makes someone incapable of making decisions or having opinions (rather than the opposite)? That workers are responsible for the decisions of other people such as a husband or son? That people who have experienced something have less well informed opinions than people who have not? Or do you have some other issue that makes you think that this is a reasonable thing to leave as a comment? Do you believe that a person becomes incapable of experiencing trauma at age 18 or do you think that the author believes this? Do you think making “empowered decisions” matters for anyone not directly affected? Do you believe that your criteria for “empowered decisions” are universal? Do you believe that the author is not willing to assist people who are in her former situation or similar ones? Do you believe that people who have experienced rape are incapable of making any decisions around sex at all? Are you aware of the implications of making another person’s decisions around sex FOR them, actually particularly if they have experienced trauma? Do you believe that people are incapable of respecting the decisions of others around their involvement in an occupation whether or not they wish to make the same decision at that point in time for themselves? Do you believe that the U.S. model of criminalizing sex work is universal or that it should be imposed on other countries as it has been? Are you aware that prostitution is legal or partially legal in the majority of the world (vast swathes of Europe, South America, Asia, Australia, NZ, Canada, etc.)? Are you aware that many other countries that criminalize prostitution also criminalize homosexuality? Do you think that people should be criminalized for doing things that you feel are harmful to them personally, whether they feel that way or not? Do you think that you are more familiar with harm reduction and ways of avoiding violence than us? Do you believe that there is anywhere in the world that has implemented the “Swedish model” by decriminalizing the act of selling sex rather than by criminalizing things that were not previously illegal? Do you believe that people who advocate currently for “End Demand”-style legislation in the U.S. have ever made any attempt to remove criminal laws or penalties around the act of selling sex? Are you aware that these same people massively fund law enforcement apparatus and have attempted to provide financial incentives for making prostitution arrests including surrounding the act of selling sex? Are you aware that law enforcement apparatus explicitly conducts stings and sweeps in order to provide, under the guise of fighting trafficking, people to feed into programs that often include religious instruction and almost always consider prostitution to be an “addiction,” full stop? Are you aware that these diversion programs are only available in a minority of cases and that everyone else is actually being charged/arraigned/incarcerated/deported? Are you aware that this splits up families? Do you think that this is justified absent abuse or neglect? Are you aware that these programs do not even provide lunch, in addition to taking up large periods of time that could be spent making money or just living one’s life? Are you aware that “Innocence Lost” results in large numbers of arrests and deportations of sex workers, that young people are still detained, and that they are dragged into family court regardless of their wishes? Do you believe this is a positive thing? Are you aware that when youth help each other out on the streets by working together or giving each other assistance or advice that anyone over the age of 18 can be and often is charged with trafficking? Are you aware that entirely non-sinister and actually really important youth organizations have had to shut down due to justified fear of pandering or even trafficking charges? Are you aware that bringing in a consenting third person, despite being common and not a big deal, is variously pandering/pimping/etc.? Are you aware that people working in rural areas often receive very harsh penalties? If anything I have said is unfamiliar to you or if any of that made you stop and think, I think you might want to consider that you are poorly informed, prejudiced, patronizing, and a big part of the problem.


Robin D June 2, 2014 at 7:39 am

And do you think that the author is unwilling to assist people in her former situation or similar? Maybe that sort of sentiment on her part is what motivated her to speak on a survivor panel at an anti-trafficking conference. Makes…sense.


Tara June 1, 2014 at 10:40 pm

Laying aside the question of whether I’m capable of making choices or not, I think that even if people have been trafficked into the sex trade and just want to get the hell out, it is wrong to arrest them and leave them with a criminal record that makes it difficult for them to obtain housing or employment. It is also wrong to create a system that leaves them vulnerable to police abuses and unable to report crimes that are committed against them, even if they are victims.


Robin D June 3, 2014 at 7:27 pm



Pregunta June 5, 2014 at 9:13 am

Hello all, I didn’t realize for a while that my comment had posted and received responses. Interestingly, the main issue I had was something that Robin D alluded to, the issue of privilege. I come from an inner city area where people do sex work as a way to make ends meet or girls are forced into the game while still teens and so to be honest, I generally have regarded websites that paint a rosier picture of the sex industry as middle class white girl activism. Also from the outside I could not understand why someone who started off in the industry by force would come to view it in a positive light. Hence why I found Tara’s story intriguing yet confusing and posted my original comment. However, I am able to admit when I might be wrong and since yes, I am outside the industry and no, I do not know the details or complexities of anyone’s life, I am willing to reexamine my assumptions. I have never believed in criminalizing sex workers – rather, my main concern (to answer the question ‘why do you care??’) was that activism could go too far in the other direction of tying law enforcement’s hands when it comes to cracking down on pimps, sex trafficking rings, etc. Of course, law enforcement is not the holy grail and has been the source of many problems, including in my own community, but I am not convinced the baby has to be thrown out with the bath water. And it SEEMS to me that people in this online community would generally oppose law enforcement attempts to treat sex workers as potential trafficking victims. All this is to say, Tara I shouldn’t have phrased my original question as a personal attack on you, but rather should have just said that I find the relationship between trafficking and choice in this instance to be confusing TO ME and I personally am not sure how a broader policy approach can take into account those nuances and complexities. Lastly, since it seems this website is meant more as an online safe space than a place to take questions from outsiders, I’ll look for other places to try and engage.


Tara June 7, 2014 at 5:01 am

I don’t want law enforcement to treat ANYONE like a potential trafficking victim, because what they do to trafficking victims is violently arrest them and charge them with prostitution or with conspiring to traffick themselves or just plain trafficking.


Tara June 7, 2014 at 5:28 am

And LOL at this:

> Tara I shouldn’t have phrased my original question as a personal attack on you

It’s not about it being a personal attack – it’s about the institutionalized idea that if I’m not too privileged to speak than I must be to fucked up to speak and if that’s not it there’s probably another reason you can find not to listen to the people who have actually been affected by sex trafficking and related policy because you should really never listen to us.

> I find the relationship between trafficking and choice in this instance to be confusing TO ME

Here’s how I heard someone smart explain it once: you can be raped, and then you can choose to have sex again. Being raped doesn’t take away your ability to choose or to consent (or not consent) in the future.

Something I’ve heard from a lot of trafficking victims (and that matches a lot of my experience) is that they didn’t mind the work, but they minded the boyfriend or agency owner or whoever who became abusive. Imagine that you’re doing whatever your job is now, and then one day your boss says you’re going to have to start doing twice as much work for half the money, and if you don’t he’ll call the state and you’ll lose your kids and go to jail, because your job is immoral and means you’re stupid and morally confused. That’s a very typical trafficking scenario, but would it make you hate your job? If you got another job in the same field later would it mean you suffered from stockholm syndrome and weren’t capable of making viable choices? When I was young I liked sex work. The problem wasn’t that I was going to a house with nice ladies where I had sex that wasn’t violent for the first time ever, the problem was that I’d been isolated and abused by my dad for my whole life. (Later things got way more complex for me.)

Email me if you want. I’m happy to educate. hobostripper at gmail.


pat April 6, 2015 at 11:09 pm

awwww hellz yeah. this was good. i just love this site sometimes.


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