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Big Mother Is Watching You: The Polaris Project & Rhode Island

For her fourth installment of Big Mother Is Watching Youa guide to prominent anti-sex worker activists and officials, Robin D. takes a look at the major advocates of the 2009 re-criminalization of indoor sex work in Rhode Island, where it had previously been protected by a legislative loophole. She also outlines heavyweight anti-trafficking organization Polaris Project’s major past and current staff members. 

Katherine Chon, Polaris Project President and Co-founder

Katherine Chon. (Photo via Katherine Chon's Linkedin account)
Katherine Chon. (Photo via Katherine Chon’s Linkedin account)

Katherine Chon co-founded Polaris Project with fellow Brown University graduate Derek Ellerman immediately upon their graduation from the Ivy League school in 2002. While sex worker rights organizations operate on shoestring budgets, Polaris operates on about $4 million dollars a year. Chon had read an article about sex trafficking in Korean spas in her home state of Rhode Island and decided that Something Needed to be Done. So, she filed a pro-criminalization memo with the Rhode Island state legislature and launched her NGO. You might remember that at the time, indoor prostitution was not illegal in Rhode Island, and that it was re-criminalized in 2009: “Rhode Island’s lax approach towards the sex industry in recent years has made the overall situation worse,” Chon wrote then, in a blog post entitled “One of the Terrible Two.” The other  of the “terrible two” she is referring to is Nevada.

Anti-trafficking advocates often claim that they don’t support criminalizing sex workers, just the people around sex workers. But when the rubber meets the road, their actions put the lie to these claims. Rhode Island is a clear example. Chon and her Polaris Project were up in arms about indoor prostitution being legal in Rhode Island, claiming it tied law enforcement’s hands too much. If we can’t arrest and deport sex workers and trafficking victims, they argued, how will we compel victims to testify against their abusers? Sex workers’ lives are destroyed through open criminal records and deportation. So, some of us believe law enforcement’s hands should be tied a little more when it comes to their treatment of sex workers and trafficking victims. Professor Ann Jordan or American University wrote, in a memo to the Rhode Island Senate,

Through extensive experience with trafficking cases, [Director of the Department of Justice’s Human Trafficking Prosecution Section of the Civil Rights Division, Robert] Moossy has learned that women who are trafficked into prostitution are typically afraid of law enforcement because they fear being prosecuted for prostitution and deported and because they often are highly traumatized. Thus, mass arrests of women for prostitution are extremely unlikely to lead to the identification of trafficked women. Instead, Moossy advises patience, intensive and extensive covert investigations and working with non-governmental organizations that are likely to come across trafficking victims. Law enforcement must assure these organizations that they are only interested in going after traffickers, not their victims, in order ultimately to have the successful prosecution of traffickers. The bill [to recriminalize indoor prostitution in Rhode Island] clearly attempts to use threat of prosecution for prostitution as a blunt instrument to convince women to testify against traffickers. It is extremely disturbing to learn that there is some support for the proposed law because it would allow the police to detain women (apparently for their ‘own good’) so that they can be interviewed as possible trafficking victims.

[…]

Women in prostitution need nonjudgmental support and assistance, not arrest, detention and prosecution.

There are many reasons the Rhode Island recriminalization bill could never have and did not help victims of trafficking, as the Sex Workers Project elaborates on in its memos and releases relating to the legislation. But why did Chon and her allies consider everyone else in the sex trade expendable in the first place?

Chon also participates in whipping up false sporting event-related anti-trafficking hysteria.

Thinking About Cyntoia And My Black Body

Cyntoia Brown. (Via Youtube)

Content warning: this piece contains accounts of child sexual abuse and violence against a sex working minor as well as discussion of structural violence. 

I spent my teen years selling sex on the internet. I grew up on the Craigslist Erotic Services section, finding men who would pay me for something I didn’t take seriously because I’d been robbed of the chance to do so. I’d been raped at 12 by my next door neighbor after months of molestation, and subsequently passed around the neighborhood to two other perverts. One was an Albanian fella who definitely sold women, and he could have ended up trafficking me as well. In hindsight, my luck has been insane.

Cyntoia Brown’s story feels too close to home. Brown killed one of her abusers at the age of 16. When I was 16, I met a man on Yahoo Personals who seemed nice. After a four hour session, he didn’t want to pay. He kicked me out of the house and I had to find my way home. He could have killed me, and I thought he would, because he grabbed me so hard to throw me out. That session could have been my last, and no one would have been the wiser. If I’d been abducted, my mom would have been looking for a ghost; she had no idea what I was doing.

“There Can’t Be Numbers:” An Interview With Laura Agustín, Part 1

Upon the publication of her book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labor Markets and the Rescue Industryanthropologist Laura Agustín became a hero to many sex worker activists. Her research cuts through the usual moral hysteria and emotionality invoked by the idea of trafficking to radically revise discussions about migration and sexual labor. Both her blog (linked above) and her book contain rational assessments of an unfair world in which people exercise choice even when they have limited options; where citizens of developing countries, like citizens of developed countries, have an urge to see more of the world; and where a single story cannot usefully articulate the experience of multiple, diverse human beings. When it comes to her approach, she explains, “I am disposed to accept what people tell me, and believe in their ability to interpret their own lives.” She kindly agreed to answer some questions for us about the current state of trafficking laws, what she calls the Rescue Industry, and public (mis)conceptions.

How did you first become interested in the sex industry?

My interest was in the experiences of friends and colleagues in Latin America who wanted to work in Europe. Travelling outside the formal economy meant having very limited choices, and, for women, selling sex and working as live-in maids were practically the only choices. People I knew conversed in a normal way about how to get to Europe and which of the jobs seemed better for them personally. I saw how certain outsiders were focussing on something they called prostitution, but I didn’t understand their anxiety about it. My original question wasn’t about migrants at all but about these people, who wanted to stop others from travelling and stop them from taking jobs they were willing to accept – all in the name of saving them. During my studies I decided that thinking in terms of commercial sex and the sex industry were one way to resist this Rescue ideology. 

Casualties of War: The Wars on Drugs and Trafficking

(Screenshot from CNN video.)
Racism, much? (Screenshot from CNN video.)

After several years of working in nonprofit agencies that take a harm reduction approach to working with drug users and sex workers, I’ve observed many similarities between the war on drugs and the war on trafficking. As the drug war has lost popularity, the war on trafficking has gained momentum. Both the war on drugs and the war on trafficking are housed within the criminal justice system, operating through punishment and incarceration. Both wars seek to eliminate their abstract opponents by attacking communities of drug users and sex workers, composed mainly of poor people of color.

“There Can’t Be Numbers:” An Interview With Laura Agustín, Part 2

Yesterday, we posted Part One of an interview with Sex at the Margins author Dr. Laura Agustín. Today we present our second and final segment.

It’s incredibly common now to see abolitionists argue that when prostitution is legal, as it in Amsterdam, trafficking only increases. What does the most current research actually suggest? 

Everyone wants this thing called research to prove one position or another, but it can’t. Even if there were enough funds to do massive studies with a range of methodologies and amazingly objective researchers, the target is impossible to define and pin down. It’s the same problem as with numbers, the fact that the subjects of interest are operating outside formal networks. Of course you can have small ethnographic studies that provide real insight into particular people at a certain time and place, but those studies cannot prove anything in general. And certainly not about legal regimes, as in the quarrel over which causes more exploitation.

Over a very long period we may come to understand the effects of a regime like the Dutch, but it is too early now. I did research in Holland amongst people concerned with how the policy was working in 2006, when it was already clear that offering regulation only brought part of the sex industry into government accounting. Businesspeople interested in operating outside the law continued to do so; many escort agencies and other sex businesses refused to register; migrants not allowed work permits came and worked anyway and so did people facilitating their travel and work, and, in many cases, exploiting them. None of which proves that the whole system ‘increases trafficking’. You cannot even coherently discuss an increase in trafficking when there are no baseline figures to compare with. On top of which agreement about what everyone means by the word trafficking simply does not exist. This goes for both the Dutch situation and the Swedish – claims about trafficking going up or down cannot be proved.