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.”
On December 9th, several advocacy groups signed a letter to MSNBC encouraging Deb Finan, the vice president of the network, to reconsider the program. Along with numerous sex worker rights organizations, many legit anti-trafficking networks signed on, too. As the letter explains, one disturbing tactic Aaron Cohen uses, as outlined in his book, Slave Hunter: One Man’s Global Quest to Free Victims of Human Trafficking, is “[getting] close to the women [he meets] on the job.” I mean, close. So close, in fact, he invites these alleged victims back to his hotel room for some good ol’ fashioned white savior cuddling and kissing. Call me crazy, but this sounds like a very specific kind of fetish—a fetish for power and prestige and, clearly, for a kind of intimacy premised on the distinct roles of hero and victim.
As someone who also gets down with role-playing, I have no qualms admitting I understand the hero/victim fetish. The cultural narrative surrounding sex trafficking—that is, attractive, young sex slaves in bondage—is purposefully erotic. Admitting this purposeful eroticism, though, would offend the moral sensibilities of the average American so, thus, the program is promoted as charity. With Slave Hunter, you don’t have to feel ashamed of your boner! Like all forms of amoral and apolitical advertising that have but one goal—making money—Slave Hunter is a form of socially acceptable titillation. The program is banking on our societal sexual repression/obsession with sexual behavior that challenges heteronormativity, either by commodifying it, by exposing its inherent power dynamics, or by moving beyond it entirely. But because a show about leather dykes who get off by getting punched in the face wouldn’t air with the same fervor as Slave Hunter, our cultural boner for kink has to be repackaged as philanthropy.
To be honest, I’m done wasting energy on any one individual’s fucked up opinions on sex work. What I am concerned about, though, are the larger implications of shows like Slave Hunter for female-identified people. This show and others like it so clearly demonstrate how we, culturally, make young women’s virtuousness synonymous with sexual chasteness. The victim/hero fetish fueled by programs like this also suggests that young women rarely tarnish their own virtuousness through an agential sexual coming of age—that is, we rarely get off as a culture when women choose their sexual partners. We much prefer the guilt-free, philanthropic boner associated with depictions of women and girls as sexual victims.
I will continue to defend Chris Baughman’s character. That’s the point, really: The perpetuation of the masculine, white savior complex is not the result of a few ignorant nitwits caught in a goofy game of fame and fortune, but rather an entire system of discourse and laws that privilege certain sexual proclivities while criminalizing or discouraging others. What if Baughman were able to “end abuses associated with the sex industry” by working with those most vulnerable to said abuses? What if Cohen could hire a nice professional submissive without fear of shame or arrest? What if sex workers actually got paid for the fantasies they continuously provide on programs like Slave Hunter? What if we could all get off the way we want to without hurting or shaming others?