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The Worst New Year’s Resolution

Protestors with pink umbrellas and sign reading "Jim Larkin CEO = PIMP" outside Backpage offices
Photo: Melissa Gira Grant

On Dec. 20 the Senate passed Senate Resolution 439: “A resolution expressing the sense of the Senate that Village Voice Media Holdings, LLC should eliminate the ‘adult entertainment’ section of the classified advertising website Backpage.com.”

I am clearly weeks late responding to this. This happened in the flurry of holidays, travel, and the Sandy Hook shooting media storm. It was also on the heels of December 17 so most of the sex work activist community was burned out and exhausted. Though not necessarily intentional, the highly unfortunate timeline of events is important to note.

In immediate practical terms, this doesn’t mean much. A simple resolution only expresses nonbinding positions of the Senate. No one is required to do anything is response. But the implications are disturbing.

The growing campaign against Backpage is a continuation of the same work that successfully shut down the Adult Services section of Craigslist. The same bad logic, false dataflawed principlesineffective solutions and racist bullshit apply.

The Village Voice, which up until recently was part of the same subsidiary group as Backpage, declared in 2011 that “the Craigslist beat-down was absurdist theater.” Remember the debacle when Ashton Kutcher declared himself a spokesman for the anti-trafficking movement? If you don’t – here are some reminders. It was a perfect illustration of the absurdist theater that the Voice pinpointed.

But they have responded very differently to the campaign to shut down Backpage.

Big Mother Is Watching You: Hollywood Edition

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.

If You Can’t Accept Facts, You Can’t Be An Ally

A lot of sex workers and sex worker activists had trouble enjoying their July 4th weekend thanks to Ashton Kutcher, who has been waging war against The Village Voice for airing its concerns about his anti-trafficking efforts and misinformation campaign. On almost every non-sex worker helmed website that covered this story, comments consisted of the claims that 1) misinformation is unimportant, irrelevant, or even justified if it’s for a good cause and 2) anyone who criticizes misinformation in the name of a good cause is necessarily against the good cause. In this specific case, that means critics of Kutcher’s bad stats are in favor of child prostitution. (Fun sarcastic commenter’s summation of this position can be found here.) Some have made the similar assertion that Kutcher’s careless campaigning is a good thing because it’s “gotten people talking” about the issue, as if any incidental end justifies the means, or all discussion is automatically beneficial. Judging from what internet “talking” I saw, lots of self-righteous, under-educated people are feeling even more morally superior than they did before, and many experts and activists feel even more discouraged and devalued.

Quote of the Week

The first assumption is that sex trafficking is a unique problem […] distinct to trafficking for other forms of forced labour, and therefore needs to be addressed separately. […T]he uniqueness of sex trafficking is justified through arguments that the sex industry is not a normal or legitimate industry.

The second assumption inherent within ‘the claim’ is that men’s demand for commercial sex services must be addressed in order to combat trafficking. […T]he demand for products such as footwear and orange juice is not attacked as a cause of trafficking, despite the existence of trafficking victims within the garment and agricultural industries.

The assumption that demand must be addressed in order to prevent trafficking implies a specific policy solution, but only in the context of sex trafficking. It implies that it is necessary to abolish domestic prostitution in order to address sex trafficking.

Yes, it’s a long one, but Erin O’Brien’s thesis (via Scarlet Alliance) is engrossing—and another example of someone investigating trafficking stats well before The Village Voice. It includes references to Shared Hope International, which Feminist Whore touched on in her video.

I hope many people read this, including you know who and Michelle Goldberg, who will be reassured to know that evidence suggest US decision-makers act on ideology and are not particularly concerned with statistics.  (“Research does not necessarily drive policy in the United States. [Carol Smolenski of ECPA] believes that due to a lack of research on the topic, legislators are more likely to act on the justification that ‘I’ve heard this thing happened, this is a bad thing so let’s do something about it.'”)

Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims And Villains (2016)

domesticminorsextraffickingWhen I got arrested recently, my copy of Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains by Alexandra Lutnick came along with me to jail. It’d be fair to blame me, as well as the boys in blue, but I think it’s unlikely that this is the last time this publication will see the inside of an evidence vault or be fondled by the fingers of a police sergeant.

After bail, tearing open my blue possessions bag, I couldn’t help thinking that this book was meant to be in lockup with me. It wasn’t published solely for those with degrees in social service. The text exudes empathy for those left behind in the system. Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking reminds me of the bourbon-infused evenings of my teenage years. I remember feeling desolate and distressed in hotel rooms, dreaming of a world with enough beds and snug blankets.

The text expertly covers the disparity of my vision of the world of sex work and the broader statistical realities of it. This book is exceptionally sourced, as it needs to be in order to defend itself from the inevitable barrage of critique that will come in response to its claims about our failed social structure.

Lutnick isn’t another hapless academic reminding society that there’s an unseen conveyor belt of children being trafficked around the country. This is a view the mainstream media seems far too fond of, one that fails to realize our failures as a culture when it comes to the root causes of youth sex trade work. Instead, she argues that isolating minor sex workers in the margins of society allows us to flee our inherent responsibility to them. The book vigorously motions against a system which criminalizes minors who’ve entered into sex work willingly to escape abusive households. Lutnick contends that the vision our society promotes of young white cis women controlled by external forces is deceptive. Youth in the sex trade are far more diverse in origin, gender identity, and age than popularized media representations of them would lead us to believe.

These minors should be viewed with respect, as conscious proponents of their own motives. Lutnick notes that those left behind in systems of oppression are far more likely to be involved in sex work, as an escape from their abusers as well as systemic violence. As a young femme, there was nowhere for me to go besides the streets. There was money there, opportunity for advancement and excitement. Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking reflects my realities and those of my contemporaries with a clear vision of the true nature of minor sex work.