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What the hell is going on with Backpage?

Did this promo code work for you? Let us know! (image via theconceptofawoman.tumblr.com)
Did this promo code work for you? Let us know! (image via theconceptofawoman.tumblr.com)

This week, after an informal request from a law enforcement officer, Visa and MasterCard announced that they would no longer let their cards be used to process payments to Backpage.com, the most widely used site for adult advertising in the United States. American Express had already pulled out earlier in the year. This leaves Bitcoin and prepaid Vanilla Visa gift cards as the only ways to pay for advertising on the site.

Like many ostensible anti-trafficking efforts, this will do very little to actually affect human trafficking. It will, however, impact free speech, and serve to make many sex workers’ lives more difficult.

Feminist Whore’s Horrifying, Must-Watch Video

This is why none of the sex workers I know trust or support Salvation Army.

Feminist Whore has taken the time to go down the rabbit hole to examine some of the groups and actions supported by Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore’s anti-trafficking efforts, and what she uncovers is stomach turning beyond belief. This video is required viewing for anyone who wants to claim any knowledge about sex trafficking and the responses it inspires. But here are some highlights:

Celebrity And The Spectacle Of The Trafficking Victim

The Society of the Spectacle: where a rich actress who once played a sex worker is more credible than sex workers themselves. (Photo by Flickr user Anthony Citrano)
The Society of the Spectacle: in which a rich actress who once played a sex worker is presumed to be more credible than sex workers themselves. (Photo by Flickr user Anthony Citrano)

With Amnesty International’s announcement that its membership will vote on a policy of decriminalization of prostitution this weekend and subsequent protests from celebrities, there’s been considerable verbal diarrhea spewed from the mouths of rich people on the topic of “privilege.” Sex workers like me—people who have the time and energy to advocate for human rights—have been dubbed, over and over, “a privileged minority” by vicious anti-sex work mouthpieces like Meghan Murphy. Of course, it’s a common tactic to delegitimize the very people who are most impacted by structural inequality—if real “prostituted women” are too busy being tied up in someone’s basement to speak for themselves, well, golly gee, they must need someone to speak for them. This is the Spectacle of the Trafficking Victim.

The Spectacle of the Trafficking Victim exists on a continuum of celebrity culture. Our cultural victim narrative and the spectacle it provides—from voyeuristic television shows like 8 Minutes to posters of young girls in bondage—exist only for themselves. This narrative neither reflects, engages, nor critiques reality, offering little more than momentary titillation. The complicated facts of sex work exist beyond the glittery veneer of the spectacle, a veneer that acts as a distraction from our white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy. It’s why we’re more likely to hear public praise for Nicholas Kristoff and his tragedy porn about trafficked little girls in the Times than for the sex workers who provide actual, tangible support for women who have been victimized in the sex industry.

Sex workers who paint nuanced portraits of their own lives have the power to expose our self-referent culture’s take on sex industry victims for what it is: fraudulent. As such, people in the business of philanthropy have upped the anti (uh, sorry). Digging deep into their designer bag of tricks, women like Stella Marr and Somaly Mam give glowing performances as the victim, despite not actually having been victimized. Their performances are applauded by the masses, their sick, cultural desire for the spectacle overriding the actual, lived realities of the people these performances affect most. As a culture, we have come to see selfies as realer than the self; likewise, we understand the spectacle of the victim to be more real than the complex realities of sex work as told by sex workers themselves.

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.

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.