anti-trafficking hysteria

It’s Chuck Grassley! (image courtesy of Gage Skidmore)

As yet another terrifying resurrection of the zombie Republican health care cut bill looms over the nation, sex workers have their own nightmare legislative threat to deal with this month. That’s because, in the midst of this year’s iteration of commemorative 9/11 pomp, two anti-trafficking bills passed unanimously in the Senate which would vastly expand federal power to criminalize and harm sex workers.

The Trafficking Prevention Act (TVPA) of 2017, introduced by Republican Chuck Grassley but immediately garnering the bipartisan support anti-trafficking bills always accrue, is an expansion of a 2000 law. This 2017 version of already odious legislation makes the phrase “broad overreach” a piddling understatement.  It begins with an amendment named for Frederick Douglass,  referencing the historical Black suffering of slavery in legislation which would actively harm Black sex workers in an act of supremely tone-deaf appropriation, and goes downhill from there.

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Content warning: This post contains discussion and accounts of trafficking, debt bondage, and exploitation, both in the context of sex trafficking and trafficking in another industry. There are also brief references to experiences of domestic violence, child abuse and neglect, custody loss, structural violence from criminalization, and violence against sex workers.

In the last four months, I have been in the most unusual employment circumstances of my life. I am kept in a small box with no access to even basic human needs like hot meals and showers. I am forced to stay there until my employers are ready to use me again. I am only permitted to shower when my employers are not using me. Up to a week in between showers has passed.

I am not paid for all of the work that I have performed. I am forced to share my small box with strange men when my employers demand it. These men have become aggressive and verbally abusive toward me. I am not allowed to know if the men have been violent to others before I work with them. I have been harassed sexually by my employer and I’m viewed as a sexual object by an overwhelming number of the men that surround me.

I am paid less than minimum wage for the hours that I work. I am kept apart from my family and do not see my home for months at a time. In fact, since taking this job I have not seen my home once, though I was promised I’d be brought home every three to four weeks.

I do not have access to healthcare despite having been the victim of a violent physical assault by one of the people they had living with me in my box. I’ve asked repeatedly to go home to see a doctor, but my employers keep me in my box. They keep moving my box around the nation so that I am too far away to escape and return home. I suspect they keep my pay minimal so that I cannot afford to escape.

I first saw the signs from Truckers Against Trafficking at truck stops around the nation. They were your basic public awareness flyers with signs about how to recognize human trafficking. Then at the port of entry in Wyoming, I saw a different poster from Polaris asking, “Do you want out of the life?”.  I thought for a moment and realized that I do feel as if I am being trafficked and I do want out of “the life”.

For the first time in my life, I feel like I should call Polaris for help, but I can’t. Because I am no longer a sex worker.

This all began after I left sex work.

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With every new presidency comes the expectation that the First Spouse will adopt a cause that is considered sufficiently non-controversial in nature. So as the doomsday clock ticked ever faster towards the Trump inauguration at the end of 2016, people not only speculated about which nightmarish regressive agendas Donald would make a waking reality while in office, but also about which one First Lady Melania would take on as her own.

The Slovenian former model has faced a barrage of accusations about her patchy immigration record, leaked nude photo spreads, and most salacious of all (and most relevant to our interests at Tits and Sass), suggestions that she once worked as a “high-end escort” in New York. For all these reasons and because it is the issue du jour with celebrities, suburban moms, and religious zealots alike, the anti-trafficking movement is just the ticket for Melania’s pet project. But before I explain exactly why that is, let’s get to know centerfold-posing, married-to-a-repulsive-billionaire, definitely-not-a-prostitute Melania Trump a little bit better.

For the past 24 years, each prospective First Lady has submitted a personal cookie recipe to Family Circle magazine, which readers then vote on to determine who will make the best wife and mother to the Nation, because patriarchy. If her pre-election baking skills are any indication, the current First Lady is a woman who does not give a single shit about political life. “Melania Trump’s Star Cookies” even look sad in their professional photographs online. In essence, the recipe is for a needlessly complicated sugar cookie which calls for two egg yolks but only one egg white. Why does she hate us? There’s a half-hearted dollop of sour cream at the very end which, I imagine, is supposed to be a feeble wink at her Slavic roots. Then, in some sort of lazy nod toward patriotism, she instructs us to “use a 2 ½ inch star-shaped cookie cutter.” If you don’t own one, you’ve already let the terrorists win. After you “heat oven to 350F”, the last instruction is, “Can I go home now?” To put this in perspective, Michelle Obama made “White and Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies.” See what she did there? Because Michelle Obama is always in it to win it.

But the unfortunate cookie recipe dates back to September of last year, and it was only the early days of the robust compendium of sad Melania anecdotes we would accrue. Her mood on Inauguration Day matched that of the rest of the world, at least when she thought a certain someone wasn’t watching. If Melania has ever been a sex worker—which she absolutely has not been and feel free to check with her lawyer about that—this is exactly what she would have looked like during those rare moments of solitude when her client was in the bathroom and she no longer had to emote. It’s the facial expression that goes along with that glorious freedom at the end of a call when you step back into the hotel hallway and can finally fart in peace and the sublime pleasure of leaving your armpits unshaven for the whole week you’re on a break from work. Oh sweet relief! Unfortunately, that brief moment caught on camera was but one of many things that fueled dark speculations that there might be trouble in paradise for Mrs.Trump.

At this point it seems like her passion project is avoiding her husband as much as possible (she is excelling at this) so it’s unclear if she’s ready to put much more on her plate right now. If her enthusiasm for public life and antiquated feminine kitchen tasks are any sign of her ambitions to come, then Melania will likely take a path similar to the more apathetic first ladies who came before her, such as Jackie Kennedy, who dedicated her Vassar education and fluency in French to redecorating the White House. Or Lady Bird Johnson shortly thereafter, who believed that planting flowers up and down America’s highways would add some much-needed cheer to hundreds of thousands of Vietnam veteran funeral processions.

But to take the easy way out like these women did would be a grave loss for an anti-trafficking movement that relies heavily on key endorsements from celebrities who have literally no idea what they’re talking about. It would be a loss for the Trump administration which could capitalize on the conservative agenda espoused by most anti-trafficking groups, just as many American governments before it have done. And most of all, it would be a public relations loss for Melania herself, because nothing says “I hate prostitutes and am definitely not one” louder and prouder than mainstream anti-trafficking work.

Here are the top six reasons Melania Trump should support the anti-trafficking industry as First Lady:

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WTF, Backpage?

by Caty Simon on January 13, 2017 · 14 comments

in News, Politics

A screenshot of Backpage’s New York City escorting page as of 1/12/2017.

We all knew it was coming. With California Attorney General Kamala Harris filing a second set of multiple charges of pimping and money laundering last month against Backpage CEO Carl Ferrer and shareholders Michael Lacey and James Larkin, and with Ferrer and his shareholders’ Senate hearing coming up last Tuesday before the Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, plus the trafficking hysteria-fueled media scrutiny Backpage had been under over the past couple of years—well, let’s just say that few of us were buying Backpage credits in bulk anymore. But most of us expected that the government would find some way to stop Backpage’s adult ads operation, however legally unlikely that might seem after years of efforts to do just that by law enforcement zealots. (After all, the California State Superior Court spanked Harris pretty hard verbally in last month’s decision on her first set of Backpage charges, reminding her that the Communications Decency Act specified that third party sites were not liable for their posters’ illegal content. And on Monday, the Supreme Court stated it would not hear an appeal on a similar Backpage case.)

But what actually ended up happening is that on Monday night, a few hours after the publication of a Senate report accusing Backpage of editing ads to minimize evidence of trafficking, Backpage execs decided to shutter their U.S. adult ads themselves as a free speech protest. Where the ads had once been, the site announces that they are “censored” by the government in a loud red font. Visitors are encouraged to speak out in support of the martyred site by using the hashtags #FREE SPEECH #BACKPAGE on social media.

That night, us sex workers collectively panicked, wondering how we would survive this month with no well-established national advertising site to garner low-end to middle-end escorting clients.

As usual, when powerful institutions decide to use the sex work debate for symbolic ammunition, it’s sex workers who suffer horrific real life consequences. Here, two competing neo-liberal agendas are clashing, indifferent to the material plight of the sex workers caught between them.

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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.

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