sex trafficking

Anchorage, Alaska (via Flickr user paxson_woelber)

Anchorage, Alaska. (image via Flickr user paxson_woelber)

On April 4, 2014, Anchorage Police Department officers responded to a report of a “hysterical female.”  The woman reported that she had lost her purse and she believed her coworker had taken it.  In response, she’d threatened to tell the police about the “prostitution ring” they were involved in, and her coworker had threatened to assault her if she did.  Three months later, officers with the Alaska State Trooper’s Special Crimes Investigative Unit decided to follow up with that “hysterical female.”  They did so by flying to the town where she was then working independently and booking an escort session with her.

“Oh baby,” an officer can be heard moaning in a recording of the encounter,“I’ve never had that before.”

Moments later, other members of the Special Crimes Investigative Unit can be heard entering the room and putting the woman in handcuffs.  Under Alaska state law, which has redefined all prostitution as sex trafficking, the woman is a sex trafficking victim.  In the incident report, she is listed as a victim.  She called 911 and reported that she was, by their definition, a sex trafficking victim, and they chose to follow up on that by what sounded like having sexual contact of some sort with her during a prostitution sting operation. [READ MORE]

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Meg Munoz. (Courtesy of Meg Munoz)

Meg Munoz. (Courtesy of Meg Munoz)

Meg Munoz became an escort at age 18, and had a relatively good experience working. She then took a break from the business for two years.  Some time after her return to the work in order to pay for college, a close friend turned on her, blackmailing her and forcing her to turn over all her earnings to him for the next three years.  Her experience led  Munoz to found Abeni, an Orange County-based rescue industry organization. But Abeni’s participation in nuanceless anti-trafficking rhetoric bothered her, and after some re-examination, Munoz repurposed Abeni to be a safe space for both sex workers and trafficking survivors.  Nowadays, Munoz uses her unique experience as both a voluntary worker and a survivor of exploitation to attempt to create understanding between the sex workers’ rights and anti-trafficking movements.

Prominent activists with history as trafficking victims, such as you and Jill Brenneman, have come out on the side of decriminalization of sex work. You turned Abeni, your organization, from a rescue industry vehicle to a safe haven that serves both trafficking survivors and sex workers—plus the people who fall in between those two identities—and promotes their agency. Ruth Jacobs, a woman with deeply negative sex work experience, also recently made an about face from being a sex work abolitionist to joining the sex workers’ rights movement. How do you interpret this phenomenon?

Jill’s story wrecked me in some of the worst and best ways. She’s one of those people that you want to make everyone sit down and listen to. Her story is a powerful reminder of just how complex this can be, but how necessary the more critical conversations are in regards to hearing different voices and current legislative trends. But most of all, my hope is that [her story and those like it] would allow people to humanize sex workers and survivors in ways that extend beyond the victim narrative. Ruth Jacobs does this very well. I [see] Jill and Ruth’s perspectives as that of women with deep, intimate, experiential knowledge (both negative and positive) of the industry. They seem to genuinely understand how approaching sex work and exploitation with risk reduction concepts and better policy can boost agency and save lives. I don’t think any of us want to further entrench ourselves in more policies and laws that isolate, stigmatize, and criminalize already marginalized people.

What made you personally change your mind about Abeni being an anti-trafficking organization, motivating you to make it into “a reality based social services organization for sex workers and trafficked people”?

From a practical standpoint, Abeni was founded on developing the kind of support I wish I’d had when I was in the industry. But, from a philosophical standpoint, we had a lot of maturing to do. Back in 2009, we were the only Orange County-based organization of its kind. I was coming out of, but still being influenced by the Christian culture I’d been a part of for the last 10+ years.

We’re starting to see a slow cultural shift, but what I was hearing in regards to those in the industry usually sounded like this:

  • Girl (or usually a girl) experiences abuse, trauma, or loss.
  • She’s addicted or broken, so she enters [the] industry and experiences more of the same.
  • She meets Jesus, repents, gets rescued/leaves the industry, and then some modified version of ‘happily ever after’ follows.

The inherent danger in that is when the Christian community become consumers of these stories and insist on acknowledging and promoting only a singular type of industry experience. That’s dishonest and damaging. I just didn’t feel like that narrative reflected my story or the complexity of so many other stories I’d heard. There are hundreds of reasons people enter the industry and those were missing from the conversation. Also significant to me was the fact that it didn’t reflect my spiritual narrative, which has been a significant part of my journey.

In order for Abeni to evolve, I was going to have to evolve. I was processing trauma as well as my non-trauma experiences, so it took some time for me sort through that. I left escorting following years of intense abuse and exploitation, so that was fresh on my mind and it definitely influenced how we saw the industry. We were always supportive but ultimately had an agenda that was “exit-hopeful.” As long as we were serving “repentant” women who’d internalized their stigma, hated sex work, and felt shame about working in the industry, we served a purpose. We didn’t realize we were part of the rescue industry and, ultimately, part of the problem. We were the ones to call if you had a dire need for lip gloss or cookies. But after about a year, I began to instinctively understand that we lacked relevance and substance. I started to feel an incredible amount of conflict in regards to how we were growing and our direction. I could write a book on that alone.

Good intentions weren’t enough and I realized that if we continued down the road we were on, we could hurt or further stigmatize people. That is the thought that broke me. I knew we had to change or shut down, so we did the unthinkable: We literally stopped in our tracks and decided to undergo an organizational soul-searching. We took the next two years and continued to work with those who were already with us, but did little else but learn from and listen to the sex work community, and analyze intersecting issues like human rights, sex work, feminism, race, gender, socio-economics, labor exploitation, policy, etc.

We didn’t know of any other organization[s] that had undergone such radical shifts, so we had no idea how to navigate that. We understood how we’d been viewed by those in the industry as well as those in the anti-trafficking community, so we weren’t sure how we were going to explain our growth and change. We had real concerns about how we would be viewed and received. One of the people I really respect and listen to is Donia Christine because she was honest as fuck with me. When I met her at CCON West back on 2013, she was skeptical and didn’t hold back, letting me know exactly what she thought and what her concerns were. I value that moment so much because it showed me how much work we still had to do. And we don’t mind doing it because the sex worker community isn’t just this group of people we serve, it’s MY community. Sex work wasn’t just a pit-stop for me, it’s part of who I am and part of my identity. I love Abeni’s story because it’s my story, too.

[READ MORE]

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Rachel Phillips, the new executive director of PEERS (Photo via Times Colonist, by Adrian Lam)

Victoria, BC sex worker resource society PEERS has a new executive director and some exciting new developments. After a rough financial situation last year, PEERS had to close the drop-in shelter last August, but between community support and a $100,000 grant from the provincial government it is reopening the shelter five days a week.

Remember last month when Giulia Jones went to Europe and returned to Australia full of Nordic ideas about sex work?  Sex workers in Canberra are telling her they want none of it.

Vietnamese sex workers continue to reject the notion that quitting their livelihood for loans in sums smaller than they would make at work will help them in the long term. [READ MORE]

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Mariko Passion, from "Colonizer Fantasy" series (Photo by Alex Safron, copyright Mariko Passion 2010)

Mariko Passion, from the “Colonizer Fantasy” series (Photo by Alex Safron, copyright Mariko Passion 2010)

Participants: Ho Lee Fuk 1, Nada 2, Christian Vega3, and Kate Zen; moderated by Mariko Passion

We at Tits and Sass wanted to run a series on racial fetishization in sex work. We were interested in questions like “What is it like for sex workers of color to labor in an industry where customers’ racist attitudes are often allowed to run rampant and may even be encouraged by management or workers themselves as a way to generate more income?” “How does your race shape the way you create and market your work persona?” “Are there advantages as well as disadvantages to being of color and working in the sex industry?” Mariko took this idea, found participants, and ran with it, creating an East Asian sex worker round table. We’d also love to hear from non-Asian sex workers of color on their fetishization in the sex trade and how they cope with it, capitalize on it, and rise above it.

Note from Mariko: This is just one roundtable. No social justice lens was used to select the voices heard here, and to be transparent, all the participants have a four year degree and all except one are part of pretty exclusive circles of global activism and First World/class privileged cisgendered folks. This post is not meant to be THE voice of East Asian sex workers, just an interesting, well voiced snapshot.

What are some racialized marketing techniques you have experimented with in your sex work?

Ho Lee Fuk: My ad did say Asian, and I had a full face pic, but it was both to advertise my race and to warn off clients who weren’t seeking [an] Asian [provider]. Of the great and minor disappointments in life, there’s nothing like getting dim sum when you really want lasagna.

Nada: I just try to be myself, I don’t put ASIAN ASIAN ASIAN everywhere.

Kate Zen: Oh, I market it consciously. Especially here in Quebec, where there are fewer Asians around.

Ho Lee Fuk: There are like four male sex workers in the whole East Bay (location, location, location!), and I was the only Asian. Which meant I didn’t have to compete with these muscle girls with nine inch cocks working in SF. I was kind of the prettiest dish on the knick-knacks table at the church bazaar.

What is one scene involving Asian race play that you refuse to do? What is your criteria for rejection?

Kate Zen: I’m kind of ashamed to say that I don’t have a strong criteria for rejection. If you pay me enough money, most dominant roles are fair game, since it’s all clearly pretend to me anyways. I feel that my client’s personal ignorance is his own problem. I don’t usually make it my job to educate him. However, I don’t often switch or play submissive roles, which is more often the Asian stereotype—so sometimes, just by insisting on a dominant role in every scene, I feel that I am rejecting many Asian stereotypes. In fact, it’s a relief that I can say: “Hey Mom! I’m not exactly a doctor like you wanted, but sometimes, I still get to wear a stethoscope!”

Nada: I refused to be a yoga teacher. I think it is the worst kind of appropriation in the West. But don’t worry—I only apply this criteria to my own actions. I understand everyone will do what they need to in their own lives.
[READ MORE]

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Let’s try a thought experiment. ‘Every year thousands of people are promised a job as a dancer, but sadly, they end up here.’ The curtain rises on someone working in a tailor’s shop. That doesn’t quite work the same way, does it? We don’t automatically assume that it would be sad to work in a tailor’s shop (because that would be a horrible and classist thing to assume) and we certainly wouldn’t represent the problem of some people suffering abuse in the textiles industry by showing images of someone  just doing their job. Nor would it make much sense to witness the dawning realisation of a potential customer looking in the window who will never again have a pair of jeans adjusted now he knows that some people in tailoring shops were promised jobs as dancers.

Eithne Crow takes on a video that claims to be anti-trafficking but is, unsurprisingly, mostly the same old anti-sex work propaganda we’re so regular exposed to.

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