Sex trafficking is when evil men steal little girls from the mall and keep them chained to beds where they are forced to service 100 men a day. Sex trafficking is when you ask your husband to sit in the next room while you see a new client, just in case. Sex trafficking is when a child molester agrees to pay for sex with a hypothetical, nonexistent eight-year-old and then shows up to meet them with duct tape and handcuffs. Sex trafficking is when a client asks for a duo and you book an appointment for yourself and a friend. Sex trafficking is when you “conspire” with your rapist and kidnapper to torture yourself. Sex trafficking is when you place an escort ad online for yourself.
Words mean things. Sex trafficking is a legal term with many different definitions in different states and countries. The legal term has become confused with the common mainstream usage—which tends to involve people being forced into prostitution—and this has led to a lot of confusion all around. As journalists, our job is to be precise with language and provide accurate information to the public. When reporting on sex trafficking, or sex trafficking cases, consider describing what has been alleged or what the statute the person is being charged with actually says—because it rarely refers to people being forced into prostitution.
Content warning: This piece contains general discussion of child sexual abuse.
Reading about the plight of Latesha Clay, the child in Grand Rapids, MI sentenced to nine years in prison after being used as live bait in a robbery scheme, the thing that struck me was the use of the word “victim.” Of course, referring to Latesha Clay as a victim of human trafficking and the rampant racism of the criminal justice system makes sense. However, in this case, the 15-year-old mother is being painted as a villain. Every time I’ve seen the word “victim” used in relation to Latesha Clay, it’s been used to describe the men who responded to her Backpage ad, which featured the words “teen sex.”
To give you a quick rundown, in case you haven’t been exposed to this case in the media (and how could you have been? Almost all the coverage on it features the same news story that ran last October on a local crime blotter), Latesha Clay was used by two older teenagers, Trayvin Donnell Lewis, 18, and Monee Duepre Atkinson, 17, to lure men to their motel room. Both Lewis and Atkinson await criminal convictions, and like Clay, have both been charged as adults, though legally only Lewis is no longer a minor. Charging Black children as adults for crimes less severe than their white juvenile counterparts have committed is nothing new, but it is especially disheartening in the case of Clay, who, at 15, is a long ways off from adulthood.
Mlive, the website that initially ran her story, asserts that a man came to a hotel room expecting to have sex with a teenager. Upon arrival, he was greeted by Clay, who took the agreed upon payment and stepped aside. Lewis allegedly then came forward brandishing what investigators later said was an Airsoft pistol with the orange tip removed—not even a real firearm. He ordered him to the ground and requested the man’s money and cellphone. The older teens then allegedly forced the “victim” to drive to an ATM and withdraw a mere $300 before taking them back to the hotel. The teens also allegedly cleared the history from the victim’s cell phone.
After the man—unharmed except for his pride—called the police, a search of the hotel room turned up the three suspects as well as $650 in cash and the doctored Airsoft gun. Lewis is being charged with possession of a firearm during the commission of a felony, even though an Airsoft gun was the only firearm found on premises. All three teenagers were hauled in and interrogated.
Something that stands out starkly in this case is the police department’s total exoneration of the men who were soliciting sex from a teenager over the internet in the first place. Kent County Undersheriff Michelle LaJoye-Young has gone on record assuring “robbery victims” that the department is not focused on investigating them for solicitation of prostitution in this case, urging them to come forward.
While there has been no shortage of sex trafficking panic in the media leading up to Super Bowl 50, there has also been a refreshing plethora of reasoned reporting regarding the oft inflated and falsified statistics that anti-trafficking organizations tout around major sporting events. Friends, I am no statistician, and I will not waste this post on statistical arguments for whether or not sex trafficking is happening around major sporting events. I think it’s clear that many different kinds of labor trafficking do happen around the Super Bowl and other major sporting events because it happens everywhere all the time. But, not at the level of, say, 10,000 child sex slaves in need of immediate rescue/incarceration/return to abusive situations. As an Aquarian, an INFP, or whatever other woo woo descriptor you can think of for someone who is “emotionally intelligent,” I’d instead like to talk about my anecdotal observations on American football fans, and how likely I feel they are to hire anyone for sex.
I was born and raised in Denver, Colorado, or “Bronco’s Country” as some folks like to call it, home of the team currently en route to the Super Bowl. My own family’s love for yelling at the TV during a Broncos’ game determined my personal distaste for the sport—as did some realized misandry and unrealized classism. For many years of my life, my opinions on football fans were often based on my own uncomfortable childhood and the Broncos fans I saw around me; football fans were lovers of patriarchy, capitalism, violence and, worst of all, the status-quo. With these sorts of stereotypes in mind, it’s easy to understand where a lot of the assumptions may come from around the Super Bowl sex trafficking myths.
Tuesday morning, Homeland Security and Brooklyn police raided the offices of Rentboy.com, arresting its CEO and several current and former workers, seizing six bank accounts, and freezing the website in what the U.S. Department of Justice’s press release bragged was a raid on the “largest online male escort service.”
Coming right on the heels of Amnesty International’s controversial and much talked about decriminalization policy, the raid was a shock to many in the sex work world. Law enforcement agencies appear to be turning their eyes on sex work advertising services in North America, from the crackdowns on Backpage and Redbook, to Canada’s new anti-sex work law—the Protecting Communities and Exploited Persons Act—which includes provisions banning the advertisement of sexual services.
According to the release, it took a crack team of detectives and the assistance of the Drug Enforcement Administration’s Field Office to work out that despite Rentboy.com’s claim that the site only facilitated companionship, it was actually advertising sex. “As alleged, Rentboy.com profited from the promotion of prostitution despite their claim that their advertisements were not for sexual services,” said New York Police Commissioner Wiliam Bratton in the press release.
Reading the press release, I was immediately struck by its use of rhetoric. Unlike official statements around the crackdowns on Backpage and similar services that are known primarily for advertising cis women sex workers, no mention is made of Rentboy aiding the nefarious work of sex traffickers. As well, unlike in most sex work raids, no mention is made of anti-trafficking organizations reaching out to supposed “victims.” It is a loud and curious omission given that police find it impossible to talk about sex work at all these days without discussing trafficking.
This year, Congress decided that the term “john sting” needed a rebrand. What, they wondered, would justify all the wasted resources and manpower under a veil of moral indignation? After they put their collective hive mind together, a new, shinier, more bureaucratic term emerged. John stings are now called federally funded anti-trafficking work.
The change came earlier this year when Congress further institutionalized End Demand-style tactics by expanding the definition of who can be charged with human trafficking to include those seeking services from sex workers. And the way that these practices are being implemented is moving anti-trafficking work even further from addressing victimization—moving away from victims all together, in fact.