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So These Sex Workers Walk Into A Human Trafficking Conference: Red Umbrella Project at the Toledo International Human Trafficking Conference

The RedUP gang at yet another conference. (Photo courtesy of Red Umbrella Project.)
The RedUP gang at yet another conference. (Photo courtesy of Red Umbrella Project.)

When I accepted the chance to go the International Human Trafficking, Prostitution, and Sex Work Conference in Toledo, Ohio, I wasn’t sure what to expect. The organization I work for, Red Umbrella Project, attended the conference to present our report on New York’s new Human Trafficking Intervention Courts. Just the fact that they accepted us—a sex worker-run organization—to speak threw me for a loop. When I saw that members of SWOP (Sex Worker Outreach Project) and Miriam Weeks (AKA Belle Knox) were also speaking, I wondered if this conference might prove an exception to the usual anti-sex work stance of the rescue industry. After all, “sex work” was right there in the title. Someone in charge must have understood the complex reasons people get into sex work better than to assume that everyone everywhere within the sex industry is being exploited and trafficked, right? But as a sex worker, I also knew what the rescue industry—and what seems like most of the world—thinks of me and my job.

Our organization has just completed an eight-month study on New York’s Prostitution Courts, now known as Human Trafficking Intervention Courts (HTICs). Now, in 11 jurisdictions within New York state, anyone charged with prostitution is assumed to be a victim of human trafficking and instead of being charged as a criminal can choose to do five to six sessions in a diversion program.

It felt to me like we were pretty well received. We didn’t deliver an impassioned speech about the plight of American sex workers, we instead explained the trafficking courts of our city, pointing out how they aren’t meeting the needs of the people they’d taken a seemingly more compassionate legal stance for. Our study found that the racially motivated arrest tactics of the NYPD were very visible within the courts, and that due to a shortage of capable interpreters, defendants who spoke English as a second language were progressing through the system at a third of the speed of native English speakers. We also suggested that the six weeks of therapy the diversion programs provided did little to address the needs of people doing sex work for survival. After a defendant charged with prostitution completes their mandated diversion program, they have an open record for six months, which can be a barrier when trying to find other work. They also cannot be re-arrested during this period or they have to start the process from the beginning again.There are more and more new court systems in the US that are similar to New York’s, and the idea of using “human trafficking” as a term that refers to all people in the sex trades is becoming more popular. And most of the time, the fight to end human trafficking is led by people who make no distinction between someone who is forced or coerced into the sex industry, someone who enters it by choice or curiosity, and the myriad scenarios in between the two. We saw a lot of this in the Toledo conference.

The best example might be the woman who, after finding out what Red Umbrella Project does, asked us, “But if your organization is made up of current and former sex workers, how do you keep the current ones from recruiting the former ones?” The member who she asked was floored as he tried to explain that that has never been a problem. How could you explain to someone with that view of sex work that no, our organization is not partially made up of unscrupulous hookers lurking around trying to sucker recovering trafficking victims back into a life of drug-addled degradation? We all tried to explain, taking varying tacks with forced cordiality. We explained that RedUP is made up of sex workers from all walks of life and varying circumstances, that our main goal is to give our members the tools to tell their own stories and advocate for themselves, and would you like to take a look at our literary journal of sex worker memoirs? It was exhausting, but it felt important for us to be there, no matter how much teeth-gritting it took.

I browsed up and down the booths where organizations were selling merchandise or giving out information. The table with the most books for sale drew my eye, but after inspecting it my heart sank after I saw that it didn’t contain a single book written from a pro-sex worker perspective. It did have a book called Not A Job, Not A Choice, and after forcing myself to read the inside sleeve I kept moving. There were plenty of organizations represented that did advocate for better social services for those in the sex trades, which is important, but it seemed to me that a huge part of the conversation was missing.

Of the 65 different presentations at the conference, none of them were focused on agricultural trafficking, which is believed by some to be a much larger industry than sex trafficking. There was only one presentation focused on the trafficking of adolescent males, in which the presenter stated that they knew that there are issues particular to the trafficking and abuse of LGBT males, but that they would not be discussing those. There was little discussion about the trafficking of undocumented immigrants, or how current laws affect them. And the tired, incorrect statistic that the average age of entry into prostitution is 13 was repeated again and again.

We all chose a few lectures to attend. I mostly went the few by sex workers, and those about trauma-based therapy. I went to Christina Parreira’s ” Firsthand Account Of Sexual Labor In The Nevada Brothel” where she discussed how while getting her Ph.D. in sociology she worked in one of Nevada’s legal brothels to compile data on how sex workers feel about their jobs. She told the crowd that she enjoyed her job and would still be working there if she wasn’t married, and gracefully fielded questions from people who still couldn’t get their heads around the idea that anyone would choose to be a full service sex worker.

RedUP’s director, Audacia Ray, attended a presentation where Judge Paul Herbert was discussing the court system where he presides in Columbus, Ohio. Judge Herbert is held in high regard for the growth of Ohio’s CATCH (Changing Attitudes To Change Habits) system, in which diversion programs for sex workers last two years instead of New York’s six weeks. He asked in his presentation if our organization thought that was too short, and when Ray didn’t respond he later said that he thought she wasn’t paying attention. He stated that by their assessment standards , 92% of the defendants that passed through their courts were victims of human trafficking. He repeated the flawed age of entry at 13 statistic, said that 47% of prostitutes sustain traumatic brain injuries, and stated that by selling sex these women are “giving away their most precious gift.”

Emma Caterine introducing a Red Umbrella Project presentation. (Photo by Audacia Ray, courtesy of Red Umbrella Project, via Red Umbrella Project Twitter account.)
Emma Caterine introducing a Red Umbrella Project presentation. (Photo by Audacia Ray, courtesy of Red Umbrella Project, via Red Umbrella Project Twitter account.)

Judge Herbert came up to our booth later while I was at the brothel presentation, and began engaging with RedUP members. We all agreed that diversion programs are an improvement on the old systems, but not on very much else. As Judge Herbert put it “Our police force has gone from saying ‘You’re nothing but a crack whore’ and then sexually abusing them on the way to jail, to saying here’s a complaint, when taking you to jail, but here’s a case worker, and this is your way out, read over that, ask your attorney to get you into this program and this is the last time you ever have to be in jail again.” What we don’t understand is that if the court believes these arrestees are victims, then why put them through an arrest and jail in the first place, at the hands of police that have raped them in the past? Social services programs like this may be very helpful for those who want them, but can’t they be offered on a voluntary basis, without the trauma of arrest and an open police record?

Recently the local Toledo paper covered the region’s latest human trafficking bust. They arrested one man for promoting prostitution and drug-related charges, and two twenty-year-old women for prostitution. The paper also published their full names and addresses. These women can have their records expunged if they come to court and pay $50, but that digital scarlet letter they’ve been marked with won’t go away that easily.

The next day Parreira spoke with Belle Knox about the stigma of being a sex worker. It was an incredibly powerful talk in which Knox shared the violent threats she received from other Duke students after being outed, and said “Feminism should not be about telling women what they can and cannot do with their sexuality.” Seeing someone talk about their decision to have sex on camera for money who clearly didn’t want or need saving was a new experience for a lot of people at the conference. As one audience member said during the Q&A portion, ” I was raised in the church and thought we needed to rescue people from evils. There’s a whole lot of mind-fuckery going on!” Despite the shock, and some persistent disbelief, what the other questions reflected was that this was the first time a lot of attendees had heard a sex worker argue for her right to do her job. I’m not quite sure how many absorbed Knoxs’ point about the isolation of being hated for her work, rather than the job itself, leading to depression, but they were listening.

Later that afternoon SWOP members Kristen DiAngelo and Serpent Libertine gave a presentation called “Anti-Trafficking Trends: Harmful or Helpful? Through The Eyes Of Sex Workers” where they tore through the problems that the abolitionist movement and and the Nordic model cause for sex workers; from California’s 1913 brothel abatement, which forced workers to flee to the streets and much more dangerous conditions, to the federal shut down of Redbook and the sex worker forum Pinkbook, which was used to share safety tips and information on bad clients. After explaining how workers who previously had methods to assess their clients were once again turning to the streets and taking much greater risks for less pay, DiAngelo told the packed room, “This is the first time in a hundred years that we can come here and tell you, you’ve been sold a line of crap.” Her personal experiences showed the wide range of circumstances that can lead to participation in the sex trades, and after telling her complex history, she told the audience, “Before you make a law, ask us.”

What the presenters who spoke from a sex worker’s perspective at this conference did is immeasurably important. There are a lot of well-meaning people working to end human trafficking, but many of them have never spoken to a sex worker about their experiences. They have an image of sex work that they believe is the experience of all people in the sex trades, something that looks a lot like one of the anti-trafficking posters that SWOP members displayed during their presentation: big black hands around the neck and mouth of a scared little white girl. Disgusting racist implications aside, they believe that we are all brainwashed trauma victims in need of saving. Whether we want to be “saved” or not isn’t important because we must be so damaged by sex work that we are unable to make decisions for ourselves. Or as a I overheard a social work student saying: “If these experiences are so traumatizing, maybe victims shouldn’t be allowed to speak at all.”

This is what the rescue industry is suggesting: That because of our experiences, whether we chose them or not, we are too damaged and confused to participate in the discussion of how to improve our circumstances. This narrative of the sex industry is being written by people who are only able to see its most negative and exploitative aspects, not those who are living within it and dealing with the repercussions of forced “rescue” at the hands of the police who have abused us or not taken our complaints of violence seriously. Some can only grasp the over simplified either/or of happy hooker vs. commercial sex slave. Some are fighting for us to be defined as workers by choice, circumstance, or coercion, but even within that model there’s a tremendous gray area where some of us have worked within all those situations at one point. The people writing legislation and running the rescue industry are never going to understand the complexity of our community without us there to explain it. Whether or not they agree with our desire to continue working (they don’t), we need to keep showing up. We need to keep insisting on better social services, less interaction with the police, and the fact that we can speak for ourselves.


  1. I love and appreciate the fact that we are creating our own spaces, reclaiming our own narratives, and telling our own stories. I know it’s exhausting,but I also believe that it is incredibly powerful and worth it. The sex work community is dedicated to that and in it for the long haul. It’s something to be proud of, so thanks for facilitating and encouraging that!

  2. I really enjoyed this. How exciting that anti trafficking conferences are allowing sex workers to tell their side. This is a wonderful turn of events.

  3. This was my third year presenting at this conference and despite all the warnings I received from others who said it would be a hostile environment, they have been welcoming of sex worker rights advocates bringing our perspective in. In previous years, there’s only been a handful of current sex workers in attendance, but this year there was a much larger turn out from “our side” and I hope more sex workers get on board in the future. These are the conferences we should be presenting at, to counterbalance all the anti-trafficking rhetoric that dominates the presentations. I’ve never NOT presented to a packed room at this conference and the attendees are always listening…and having their minds blown at the same time. During Christina Parriera and Belle Knox’s presentation, one woman exclaimed “This is mind-fuckery! I’m now going to look at this as a human rights issue (as opposed to just anti-trafficking).”

  4. I’m so glad you are able to attend these events. I read the article regarding Belle Knox and Christina Parriera, and really really welcome their voices as well. Because of articles, and research like this, I am able to simply past a link to this into any comments section of any anti-sex worker letter, Op-Ed, or whatever, to show a different side to this issue. The reality is sex workers are not consulted, and not listened to, when it comes to legislation even when it is handed on a platter to them, as in the case in Canada with the SCC Beford decision.

    Decriminalization and consultation works. No one ever wants to bring up New Zealand or even Australia in discussions of abolition, because they are success stories of what happens with consultation and decriminalization

  5. This is a powerful article. My article wasn’t accepted this year, but my friend presented. It is perhaps one of the very few instances where the rescue industry foes not have monopoly. I recently gave a talk about the truth behind abolitionist NGOs propaganda to a class of John Jay college students, and I made sure to address some of the issues you mention in the article, stigma and the differentiating between sex trafficking and sex work being two of the aspects I wanted to discuss with the students. As future law enforcement workers, it is important for them to understand the differences and I am worried to see the general attitude toward human trafficking is abolitionist leaning even at this particular school, which prices itself on its expertise in various aspects of urban sociology.

  6. My husband and I were married in Reno by Rev. George Flint, the spokesperson and lobbyist for the Select Legal Brothels of Nevada. So, we are sympathetic to your point of view and in favor of legalization of your activities.

    New point: I think you are all extremely fortunate to be good looking enough to make a living from being attractive to other people. I wonder if you’d had different opportunities along the way, would you not have made as much if not more money in sales or as corporate executives.

    • Sex work is not making a living from “being attractive to other people.” There are plenty of average looking or even ugly (according to the eye of the beholder) sex workers. We’re not models (and btw, fashion industry models don’t rest on their appearance either–they work hard.) Sex work is about selling a specific sort of sexual service/fantasy to a person. It’s about creating a rapport, using your imagination to fill in the blanks of someone’s fantasy, being sexy (which is more work-intensive and more of an ACTIVITY than simply being “attractive”), providing a service, making the client feel nurtured and desirable, etc., depending on what kind of sex work it is. As a very average looking sex worker, I can attest to that. It’s not based on the privilege of being heteronormatively attractive, although certainly workers who possess that advantage earn more.

      And many of us are anti-capitalist sex workers here, which means we much prefer being self-employed and not exploiting someone else’s labor–something that’s much easier to do in sex work than in corporate sales.

  7. I keep seeing our progress in terms of little cracks in the foundation against us, little drops of truth dripping through. What you did in Toledo is the biggest crack I’ve seen. And it happened in the States. WOO-HOO!

    Everyone is commenting about how exhausting it is. It sure is. But this is how oppressed groups proceed. They never give up. We won’t either.

  8. Sex work allows me to go to school, provides a home and allows me to eat. I’m educated and I am choosing to do this work. Trafficking is a world wide phenomena involving millions of people. Trafficking involves people enslaving other people for all kinds of work not just sex work. Slavery should be abolished. Melinda Chateauvert’s book Sex Workers Unite shows how we have historically been able to organize ourselves and create movements that give us power in the civilian world. We can be a movement for choice while also advocating an end to sex slavery.


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