robin d

Senator Richard Blumenthal testifying in favor of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act, with that sincere, constipated look one gets when testifying in favor of anti-trafficking legislation. (Via Youtube)

You can always count on a corporation to look out for its own interests. An existential threat to their business model will even trump the good PR that comes from beating on everyone’s favorite marginalized punching bags, sex workers). So, until recently, major tech companies like Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, and Google opposed SESTA,the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act. Their business models depend on user-generated content, and SESTA would overhaul Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 which previously protected internet platforms against liability for the actions of users.

But following a compromise earlier this month between Silicon Valley and the bill’s Congressional sponsors, SESTA has passed the House and is headed to the Senate. Though they tried to keep their involvement quiet, cloaking their advocacy in the lobbying group the Internet Association, tech companies pushed hard for changes to the bill. An amended version of the bill released on November 3 by Senator John Thune addressed many of their concerns. Initially, SESTA took aim at any facilitation of user sex trafficking. But an amendment to the bill now specifies only “knowing conduct” as “participation in a venture,” meaning in general terms that sex worker advertising sites are now the only ones on the hook while Facebook and company remain immune from sex trafficking liability. Another key revision that spurred a change in the Internet Association’s position involved the development of bots policing content. In earlier versions of SESTA, developing such bots would constitute knowledge of the platform being used to facilitate sex trafficking. Similarly, Backpage’s keyword filters for policing content were used in its Senate hearing as evidence that it had knowledge of and was facilitating sex trafficking. Its own reporting efforts were used against it.

The bill also now specifies that state law enforcement officials using SESTA to prosecute individuals or entities would have to use federal law as a basis for their actions. That’s very handy for the tech companies, as in some states, “sex trafficking” can mean just about anything. While the federal definition of sex trafficking involves force, fraud, or coercion (or the involvement of minors, though this leads to situations in which young street youth get arrested for trafficking for helping their friends in the business as soon as they turn 18), a number of states, such as Alaska, have much broader definitions. This can include cases such as two escorts simply working together. A 2012 records request found that two such escorts were arrested and charged with sex trafficking as well as with prostitution—both alleged victims were arrested and charged with sex trafficking each other.

The bill remains draconian. There are enormous liabilities attached to user content for internet companies, which is a huge incentive to police that content heavily. Platforms that host advertising for sex workers are definitely still in the crosshairs. In fact, as the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) points out, SESTA will even target companies retroactively, a measure that was no doubt included as a way to go after Backpage. No actual intention to assist in any sex trafficking is necessary in the newest version of the bill either, so long as it is “facilitated” in some way, a term which courts have interpreted broadly.

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Bonnie at the Different Avenues office in D.C. (Photo by PJ Starr)

Bonnie at the Different Avenues office in D.C. (Photo by PJ Starr)

Content warning: This interview contains graphic descriptions of police violence and rape, imprisonment, and domestic abuse.

Bonnie is a veteran sex workers’ rights activist who has done outreach work in the D.C. area since 2001. She was a HIPS (Helping Individual Prostitutes Survive) client who lived on the streets in Maryland. Later, she was inspired by the work of Robyn Few and others to participate in activism and community organizing through SWOP-Maryland. Last year, she recorded sound for No Humans Involved, a documentary film produced by PJ Starr about Marcia Powell, the street sex worker killed by the negligence and cruelty of the Arizona prison system in 2009. Currently, she’s on a community advisory board with John Hopkins researchers for the SAPPHIRE (Sex Workers And Police Promoting Health In Risky Environments) study, which examines the role of police in HIV risks faced by Baltimore cis and trans sex working women.

You’ve been doing outreach since 2001, originally to D.C. and Prince George’s County Maryland, and later to Northern Virginia and Baltimore as well, using HIPS supplies and sometimes your own money. Where does your dedication come from?

I enjoy it and have to do it and will never stop doing it. That’s because I have memories where the ends of bread, dry socks, housing, a place to get high [where they would] not send me to jail, or a place to avoid drugs (depending on my mood), were my biggest dreams.

I have 8 years where I can proudly say the drug I am allergic to has no power over me. 

Up until very recently I provided housing. I had to stop, and now I provide referrals and transportation to shelters or transitional living or an affordable place to live, whatever is asked of me.  My current venues are methadone clinics, BDSM clubs, immigrant sex work apartments, drug testing clinics, and sex or BDSM party houses. I never leave someone who wants to be inside outside. What if it was the last time I saw that person? What if they were arrested for being homeless i.e. trespassing or loitering; really any charge. A Prince George’s County cop told me and I will never forget: it does not matter what I/we do, it only matters what he/they write on their papers.

Privileged, housed people may not understand that, and it is something I cannot explain. There are two separate worlds, where the language barrier is experience.

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For her third installment of Big Mother Is Watching Youa guide to prominent anti-sex worker activists and officials, Robin D goes to Hollywood to check out do-gooder celebrities and the whorephobic campaigns they run.

Susan Sarandon and Meg Ryan

Susan Sarandon flexes her activist muscle at the Witness Focus for Change Benefit in 2009 (Photo by Kate Glicksberg, via Witness Flickr account)

Susan Sarandon flexes her activist muscle at the Witness Focus for Change Benefit in 2009 (Photo by Kate Glicksberg, via Witness Flickr account)

Meg Ryan doing a TED talk in 2010. (Photo by Flickr user redmaxwell)

Meg Ryan doing a TED talk in 2010. (Photo by Flickr user redmaxwell)

Susan Sarandon and Meg Ryan were key players in NGO fraud Somaly Mam’s ascendence in Hollywood. Mam is the celebrity activist exposed by Newsweek in 2014, after a slew of articles about her fabrications appeared in The Cambodia Daily in 2012 and 2013. She ran a re-education camp filled through brothel raids and therefore populated by local sex workers held against their will and others deemed to be “at risk” through Mam’s organization AFESIP (Agir Pour Les Femmes en Situations Precaires). Both populations were instructed on at least several occasions to lie about their stories and concoct trafficking tragedy porn to relate to visitors and journalists.

“I have been personally inspired by the work of Somaly Mam and I encourage anyone who can devote time and money to help Mam continue to make a difference in this world,” Sarandon stated on the Somaly Mam Foundation website. Ryan appears in Nicholas Kristof’s documentary Half the Sky, which lauded Mam’s organizations for their work. Both Sarandon and Ryan were photographed multiple times with Mam at various Hollywood events and fundraisers.

Sarandon seems to have missed the point of the May 2014 expose of Mam in Newsweek, saying that she continues to believe Mam’s story regardless. Mam’s victims, though, apparently aren’t worth her consideration. Sarandon has made no public statement on the testimony of the women now saying that Mam coached them to lie and fabricate horror stories about being trafficked, including Srey Mao and Meas Ratha; nor on the medical records on purported Mam trafficking victim Long Pros’ eye, proving that her eye was removed in surgery for a tumor and not by an imaginary pimp gouging it out; nor the untold many sex workers who have been and continue to be imprisoned in “rehabilitation centers,” including AFESIP’s center.

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Cindy McCain speaking at an event hosted by The McCain Institute in Phoenix, Arizona on November 22, 2013. (Photo by Flickr user gageskidmore)

Cindy McCain speaking at an event hosted by The McCain Institute in Phoenix, Arizona on November 22, 2013. (Photo by Flickr user gageskidmore)

Welcome to Big Mother Is Watching You, a guide to prominent  anti-sex worker activists, most of them women. This new feature is brought to you by Robin D.,  veteran activist with SWOP-Denver. Today’s Mothers are a pair of powerful heiresses and philanthropists who, of late, have focused their efforts on influencing policy affecting sex workers. 

Cindy McCain

Cindy Hensley McCain is an American beer (Anheuser-Busch) heiress with an estimated 2007 net worth of $100 million dollars, plus an income of at least $400,000 per year and at least $2.7 million in stock from Hensley & Co., one of the largest Anheuser-Busch beer distributors in the United States. Hensley & Co. was founded by her father Jim Hensley in 1955. McCain’s fortune was a major driver of her husband Senator John McCain’s failed Presidential bids in 2000 and 2008. In addition, she serves on the boards of a few well-funded charity NGOs, and is currently the chair of Hensley & Co..

Cindy McCain has been stoking sports event-related trafficking hysteria since at least late 2013, using the occasion of Super Bowl XVIII in her home state of Arizona to attach her name to the cause. She has campaigned for End Demand-style anti-trafficking legislation both in Arizona and at the federal level.  She began her human trafficking work in conjunction with The McCain Institute, a Washington, D.C. think tank funded in part by Walmart Stores, FedEX, and Paul E. Singer, a hedge fund manager and vulture capitalist implicated in the collapse of the Argentine economy in 2012.

Sports-event-related trafficking hysteria harms sex workers in a few ways. Unfortunately, law enforcement have started using these occasions as opportunities for ramped up stings and other arrests. Sex workers often expect that large sports events might bring increased business, only to find that not only is this not the case, but they’re at higher risk for arrest during these events. The harmful effects of “End Demand”-style legislation are well-documented, especially in the US, where no attempts are ever made by proponents to remove penalties against sex workers, and where penalty increases often target actions that sex workers take to stay safe, as well as prostitution itself. [READ MORE]

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(Image by Scott Long, courtesy of Scott Long)

(Image by Scott Long, courtesy of Scott Long)

The Cambodian garment industry’s factories often serve as the canonical example of sweatshops. Women toil away in them for long hours with low pay and awful, unsafe working conditions. There are regular mass faintings due to poor ventilation, chemicals such as insecticides and shoe glue, long hours, and lack of access to health care.

There are about 650,000 Cambodian garment workers, and 90% of them are women. The current Cambodian minimum wage is US$80 per month, though the lower end of a living wage in Cambodia is twice that, at US$160. Many Cambodian garment workers have organized themselves and are working to institute change through collective bargaining and by pressuring companies looking to improve their brands’ image. Local unions have even secured support from a number of international corporations, and these corporations and unions (as part of IndustriALL Global Union) were able to meet peaceably with government officials on May 26th. At issue were a new trade union law, mechanisms for setting wages, a demand for a US$160 per month minimum wage, and the fates of 23 garment workers who were arrested in January for protesting working conditions and pay. Unfortunately, a strike that was planned for the previous month failed. Still, protests continued.

The 23 workers were arrested as part of a violent government crackdown on January 3rd that left at least four dead and 80 wounded. There were similar protests and crackdowns the previous November, when police shot and killed one protester and wounded nine. There was another protest the previous September over mass dismissals of workers on strike and intimidation measures including the presence of military police during inspections.

New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof, however, practically idolizes Cambodian sweatshops. Kristof has recently come under fire for disseminating false stories about sex trafficking that were fed to him by the Somaly Mam Foundation and Mam’s “rehabilitation center” AFESIP in his columns, in the forward to her memoir, and in his 2012 “documentary” Half the Sky. Information about Mam’s fraud, however, had been published in the Cambodia Daily since 2010, and it is highly unlikely that Kristof was unaware of this fact. Her fraud and its horrific consequences for local sex workers were hardly a secret among sex worker rights activists in the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Work Projects.

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