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Rescue is for Kittens: Ten Things Everyone Needs to Know about “Rescues” of Youth in the Sex Trade

Date: September 20, 2013

In preparation for the International Human Trafficking, Prostitution, and Sex Work Conference at University of Toledo next week, I created a new handout! Please feel free to share this page, or download the PDF version for distribution.

Also, please take a look at my other handout on the topic, Understanding the Complexities of Sex Trafficking and Sex Work/Trade: Ten Observations from a Sex Worker Activist/Survivor/Feminist, which is also available as a PDF file.

Instruction for printing the PDF file: print both pages back to back in “calendar style.” Cut the paper horizontally to make two copies from one sheet of paper.


Rescue is for Kittens: Ten Things Everyone Needs to Know about “Rescues” of Youth in the Sex Trade

written by emi koyama (emi@eminism.org)
version 1.0 (last updated 09/20/2013)

1. Most “rescued” youth are 16-17 year old. While media and politicians often sensationalize very young victims who are 13 year old or younger, they are outliers. The misperception of unrealistically low average age is harmful because it misdirects necessary policy responses.

2. “Rescue” actually means arrest and involuntary detainment of minor “victims” by the police in many cases. Some jurisdictions have passed “safe harbor” laws that abolished prostitution charges against minors, but young people are still being arrested under some other criminal charge, and are then sent to detention, child welfare system, or back to home.

3. Many “rescued” youth have experienced child welfare system before starting to trade sex. Many have ran away from foster family or group home, and do not feel that going back to the system that have failed them already is a solution to problems in their lives. When they are forcibly returned to these institutions, many run away again as soon as they can.

4. There are “push” and “pull” factors that contribute to the presence of youth sex trade. “Push” factors are things that make young people vulnerable, such as poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia/transphobia, family violence, failure of child welfare system, and the breakdown of families due to incarceration and deportation; “pull” factors are things that lure youth into the sex trade, such as the existence of the commercial sex market itself and its facilitators (buyers, online classified sites, etc.). Anti-trafficking policies such as “rescues” place exclusive focus on the “pull” side of the equation while neglecting to address the vulnerabilities created by the “push” side.

5. Without policies that truly address the “push” factors, any reduction in the “pull” side, such as lower demand for commercial sex due to more policing, or closure of online classified sites, only functions to impoverish youth further, making them more vulnerable overall rather than less. Street youth still need to survive, and thus still have to find different ways to do so, most likely doing things that are also criminalized.

6. Street youth are routinely harassed and mistreated by the law enforcement, and do not view the police as their protector. Social service agencies that work closely with the law enforcement’s campaign to “rescue” youth lose the trust of the people who need to access the services. Any public response to youth sex trade must start from the acknowledgment that the law enforcement is one of the primary sources of violence in the lives of street youth, and cannot be relied upon to provide the solution.

7. Youth in the sex trade eventually become adults. Because the society focuses on “rescues” instead of providing resources and opportunities that would improve their long-term well-being, many youth are left unable to pursue economic opportunities outside of the underground economy, and will be treated simply as criminals once they are 18.

8. “Rescue” operations result in the mass arrest and criminalization of adult women in the sex trade, many of whom would have been identified as underage “victims” several years earlier but are now treated as criminals. Many adult women (as well as teen girls) arrested during “rescue” operations are mothers, and their children may be taken away and placed in the child welfare system as a consequence of their arrest.

9. Individuals arrested as “pimps” during “rescue” operations are not necessarily abusers, traffickers, or exploiters; in fact, many are friends, family members, partners, etc. who happen to provide room, transportation, mentoring, security, and other assistance to people in the sex trade, or are financially supported by them, even though they are not abusing, coercing, exploiting, or otherwise hurting that person. Sometimes, women are arrested as “pimps” for working in pairs to increase their safety. Indiscriminate arrests of friends and others as “pimps” when they are not abusers, traffickers, or exploiters lead to further isolation of people who trade sex, putting them at greater risks.

10. Street youth need housing, jobs, education, healthcare, and other resources and opportunities. Being thrown in jail or detention does not provide them, nor does being sent back to families or institutions that they had run away from in the first place. Youth in the sex trade deserve our support, and must be given a voice in determining how the society can best support them!

Please send your feedback to emi@eminism.org!

h/t Claudine O’Leary, founder of Young Women’s Empowerment Project, for the phrase “rescue is for kittens.”

Rescue is for Kittens cover

My remark for the March for Ivanice Harris

Date: August 27, 2013

Below is a recap of a brief remark I made at the march for Ivanice (Ivy) Harris, a Portland woman who was murdered while vacationing in Hawai’i earlier this year. A U.S. Marine was initially arrested for her murder, but was released after the law enforcement concluded that there was not enough evidence to convict him.

Sex Workers Outreach Coalition (SWOC) was invited to send someone to give a speech at the march because Ivy was working as an escort. I attended the march representing SWOC.

But minutes before the speech, I was asked to be “discreet” because there were children in the audience, along with Ivy’s mom. Specifically, they asked me not to mention “sex work” or anything related to that, not even the full name of Sex Workers Outreach Coalition.

What you see below is what I said under this last-minute restriction.

Thank you for allowing me to say a few words. My name is Emi and I am part of SWOC coalition, which is a group meeting at Portland Women’s Crisis Line. We are social workers, activists, and community members advocating for women like Ivy who are doing what we need to do to survive, support our family, pay for school, and such.

At SWOC and Portland Women’s Crisis Line, we hear a lot about violence targeting women like us. We are targeted by people who commit violent acts on us. We are targeted by the media that disrespect us when they report about violence against us. We are targeted by the law enforcement that refuse to investigate violence against us. And too often we are also abandoned by our family and friends.

But today, I am very surprised and encouraged to see you all here, family and friends of Ivy who have not abandoned her, who are demanding justice for her. Thank you very much for your presence, your support, your love. I’m proud to be part of this march. Thank you very much!

Here’s the news article about the march from Portland Observer. “Like” BRING Ivanice HOME page on facebook to receive updates about the case!

Send Emi to Toledo Human Trafficking, Prostitution and Sex Work Conference!

Date: August 18, 2013

Sex worker activists, allies, and friends,

Brief summary first: this is a request for donations to help me present at an anti-trafficking conference.

I have been accepted to present at the 10th annual Human Trafficking, Prostitution & Sex Work Conference at University of Toledo in September. This is not a conference I have ever attended or had been planning to attend, but I was strongly encouraged to submit a proposal to present at this conference by several people I met at Desiree Alliance conference last month.

People who have attended the conference in the past have told me that there used to be more representation of sex worker activists at this conference, but over time it has attracted more of the anti-trafficking crowd who promote “rescues” and persecution. But they also describe the conference organizer as being supportive of sex worker activists and allies, and encourages all attendees to listen to each other with an open mind.

Because of my extensive research on the harmful impact of misguided anti-trafficking policies as well as on grass-roots alternatives to the mainstream anti-trafficking discourse, and also because of my background in both sex worker’s rights movement and feminist anti-violence movements, I feel that I am best positioned to bridge the gap with well-intentioned but misguided anti-trafficking activists and social workers and get them to think differently.

The problem, of course, that it costs money. The conference waives registration fees for the speakers, but it still costs close to $1000 for airfare and lodging. I can reduce the cost by several hundred dollars by flying in to Detroit instead of Toledo, and I hope to do that if I can figure out the transportation from Detroit to Toledo, but that still costs $600-700.

I hesitated reaching out to my friends for donations, because I don’t want to use up my friends’ resources for this conference, in case I or someone close to me have a more urgent need (such as unexpected medical expenses) that we need to fundraise for. After all, this conference is not all that important to me personally, even though I feel that it is important politically for our community.

So I only ask you to donate if you also believe that it is important for me to be at the conference for the impact I will make, and not because you are my friend and want to help me with whatever I need. I might some day come to you to ask for help with urgent financial need, but this is not that.

That said: if you are still interested in helping me get to the conference, please donate! You can send money via Paypal to emi AT eminism DOT org or donate at the crowdfunding page. If I don’t raise enough money to attend the conference, I will refund your donations (minus the transaction fees). You can use donation links on my online button/zine store too (and while you are there, order my buttons and zines!).

Thanks!

Pressuring or requiring cab drivers and hotel workers to report suspected prostitution will backfire

Date: July 30, 2013

In the previous post, I wrote about how penalizing cab drivers, hotel workers, and others for building relationship with people in the sex trade (instead of immediately reporting it to the police, as the law enforcement requests) isolates people in the sex trade (youth or adult, trafficked or not) and make them more vulnerable. But some people continue to insist that the right thing to do is to call the police, so here is further explanation.

Public policies often have unintended consequences. That is, when the government takes measures to encourage certain actions and discourage others, it does not necessarily lead to the desired result, and might even cause unanticipated harms. So the question we should ask is: what will happen if the government requires or pressures cab drivers, hotel workers, and other businesses to report suspected sex trafficking cases, including any suspected minor engaging in prostitution?

Cab drivers, hotel workers, and others witnessing potential sex trafficking cases have several options to choose from. They can 1) call the police, 2) pretend that they are not seeing anything, 3) refuse services to them, or 4) approach the potential victim and build relationship so that they can offer resources if they need and want them (including calling the police if that is what they want).

Businesses might call the police in the very rare cases when they are 100% certain that the person is being trafficked, or the victim is clearly underage (someone who appears like a pre-pubescent, for example). But when it is uncertain, which things usually are, businesses are reluctant to call the police on their customers.

When the cost of acting on a suspicion that might be wrong (such as calling the police under false impression) is high, businesses recognize that it is in their best interest to remain (or feign) uninformed about the situation (option 2), or simply distancing themselves from it (option 3), rather than risking angering innocent customers (option 1), or learning too much about the situation by becoming too involved with people who might be in the sex trade (option 4), making them complicit in the crime in the eyes of the law enforcement.

As a result, policies that are intended to promote option 1 (calling the police) actually lead businesses to choose options 2 and 3, and foreclose further the possibilities for more innovative solutions that meet people in the sex trade, build rapport with them, and assist them in ways they desire.

Operation Cross Country VII Roundup and Comments

Date: July 30, 2013

Across country, yet another round of FBI’s Operation Cross Country sweep took place over three days last week, which is (supposedly) aimed at “rescuing” young people who are trafficked into prostitution and arrest those responsible for trafficking them. This is the seventh and the largest Operation Cross Country sweep to date, with 76 cities participating.

According to FBI, law enforcement agencies have “recovered” 105 youth and arrested 159 “pimps.” It is important to remember that, because of the broad definitions of “sex trafficking” and “promoting prostitution” (which is often considered “pimping”), these youth may or may not be under control of or exploited by a third party, and these “pimps” may or may not be controlling or exploiting the youth.

I have written previously about how these “rescue” operations uncover rather small number of minors who are in the sex trade (between one and two youth per city on average), while putting a large number of adult women in jail (see this and this). The pattern seems to hold true this time around: law enforcement agencies “rescued” (as in, they handcuffed and took away) 105 young people aged 13-17 in 76 cities in three days, which is about 1.38 youth per city.

Here is an updated chart summarizing the impact of Operation Cross Country I thru VII.

Spotty Data from FBI’s Operation Cross Country sweeps
Source: FBI press releases; last updated in July 2013

  Date Cities “Rescues” “Pimps” Other Arrest
1 06/25/2008 16 21 unk 389
2 10/27/2008 29 49 73 642 (518 adult sw)
3 02/23/2009 29 48 unk 571
4 10/26/2009 36 52 60 700
5 11/08/2010 40 69 99 885
6 06/25/2012 57 79 104 unk
7 07/29/2013 76 105 159 unk

As with the last time, I am also compiling information that are not on FBI’s website, but made public through local media (who probably get information from FBI).

City-by-City Roundup of Media Reports on Operation Cross Country VII
Source: FBI press release unless otherwise specified; last updated in July 2012

Division “Rescue” “Pimp” Adult SWs Notes Source(s)
Atlanta 2 17? 9 FBI Atlanta reports 10 arrests for “pimps” and 9 adult prostitution arrests; FBI in DC reports 17 “pimps.” WJBF and WRDW report 9 arrests for prostitution and 2 for sexual exploitation in Augusta area: does this mean all adult prostitution arrests in Georgia took place in Augusta? FBI Atlanta; WJBF ABC/Augusta; WTVM Columbus; WRDW Augusta
Baltimore 0 3 unk    
Birmingham 3 2 unk   Alabama Media Group; CBS Birmingham; WBRC FOX/Birmingham
Boston 3 0 unk Media report that all three youth were found in Maine, which is part of FBI Boston Division. Maine Sun Journal; WLBZ NBC/Bangor
Charlotte 1 3 unk    
Chicago 2 1 96   Daily Herald (Chicago)
Cincinnati 0 2 unk   Cincinnati.com
Cleveland 1 1 23?   Toledo Blade
Columbia 1 1 unk WLTX reports 2 were arrested for promoting prostitution, not 1. The State (Columbia); WLTX Columbia
Dallas 1 1 unk   Dallas Morning News
Denver 9 6 51 KWGN reports 11 “pimps” were identified, and 25 “johns” arrested. KWGN Denver; Denver Post
Detroit 10 18 41 Detroit Free Press has details on 8 of the 10 “rescues”: they involve seven 17-year olds and one 16-year old. FBI Detroit; WWJ/CBS Detroit; Detroit Free Press; Advisor & Source
El Paso 0 2 16? AP reports 19 arrests in El Paso including three pimps; FBI reports only two pimp arrests. Las Cruces Sun-News
Houston 3 0 unk   Associated Press
Jackson 1 10 24? Jackson Free Press reports 24 people other than the minor and the “pimps” have been arrested on “related” charges, most likely adult prostitution. WJTV Jackson; WDAM Jackson; WJTV CBS/Jackson; WJTV CBS/Jackson; Jackson Free Press
Jacksonville 0 1 unk   Florida Times-Union
Kansas City 1 1 unk   KSHB NBC/Kansas City
Knoxville 0 7 11 Media report 8 “pimps” were arrested, not 7. Knoxville News Sentinel
Las Vegas 2 1 53+ Multiple news media report 2 “pimps” were arrested together with 1 youth “recovery,” even though FBI says 2 victims and 1 pimp. I tend to believe media reports because of the detail it provides (e.g. names of each “pimps” and specific charges against them). Adult women were also met with faith-based anti-trafficking “advocate.” 12 adult women arrested in Reno, 41 in Las Vegas. KOLO Las Vegas; Celebrity Examiner (Sacramento); Las Vegas Sun; KVVU FOX/Las Vegas
Los Angeles 2 3 unk   Los Angeles Times
Louisville 0 3 unk   WHAS Louisville
Memphis 3 2 unk   Commercial Appeal (Memphis)
Miami 0 4 35   Miami Herald; Hartford Courant
Milwaukee 10 0 100   FBI Milwaukee; FOX 6 Milwaukee; Capital Newspapers; CBS Milwaukee
Minneapolis 1 4 unk   WCCO CBS/Minneapolis
Newark 0 5 65+? News-Record quotes U.S. Senator saying that at least 70 arrests took place in New Jersey; The Current reports the same. Detail unknown. News-Record; The Current (Galloway)
New Haven 5 1 4+ 4 adult women arrested in Norwich alone. The Day (New London); Connecticut Post; Norwich Bulletin
New Orleans 6 6 64 KPLC has the breakdown of all arrests. Media report that there were 76 “arrests,” which would mean that “rescued children” were also arrested instead of being treated as victims. Of minors, 2 were from Baton Rouge and 4 from New Orleans. Advocate (Baton Rouge); WWLTV New Orleans; KPLC NBC/New Orleans; KATC Lafayette
New York City 0 0 7+ No “rescues” or “pimp” arrests in New York, but Saratogian and Saratoga Wire report seven adult women were arrested in Saratoga Springs in the course of the sweep. Saratogian; Saratoga Wire
Oklahoma City 3 13 36 The Oklahoman has full listing of all 60arrests connected to OCC7: 10 “pimps,” 36 adult women selling sex, 11 buyers, and 3 minors (age 16, 17, and 17). I assume that FBI is counting three buyers who were caught with the three minors as traffickers (as some law enforcement agencies do) to arrive at the total of 13 “pimps.” KOTV Tulsa; Muskogee Phoenix; Associated Press; The Oklahoman; The Oklahoman
Omaha 0 1 32+ Lincoln Journal Star reports that 5 adult women were arrested in Lincoln. The sole “pimp” is a boyfriend of one of the adult women arrested in the sweep. KOLN reports that there were 33 arrests total in Nebraska, 7 in Lincoln alone. Des Moines Register reports that 33 were “customers,” but this is clearly untrue. Lincoln Journal Star; Des Moines Register
Philadelphia 2 0 unk   Philly.com
Phoenix 2 0 30? KTVK reports “30 people were arrested including several pimps.” However FBI does not report any arrest of “pimps.” KTVK Phoenix
Pittsburgh 0 2 unk    
Portland 3 4 13   FBI Portland; The Columbian (Vancouver, WA); KREM Spokane; The Oregonian
Sacramento 2 2 unk   Fresno Bee
St. Louis 2 0 unk FBI says 2 youth recovered, but KPLR says 3 (age 16, 17, and 17). KPLR also says a pimp was “located.” KPLR St. Louis
Salt Lake City 0 0 unk    
San Antonio 1 4 unk   San Antonio Express-News
San Diego 5 6 50 Union-Tribune reports that three of the teens were returned to home, while other two were sent to detention. NBC reports 6 “rescues,” not 5. NBC San Diego; San Diego Union-Tribune
San Francisco 12 17 65   San Jose Mercury News; KGO ABC/San Francisco; San Francisco Chronicle; Vacaville Reporter
Seattle 3 3 55? FBI Seattle reports 9 arrests for abuse of minor; DC office says 3. 55 adult women were “identified and interviewed”–it is unclear if they are arrested. Seattle Times; The Columbian; King 5 Seattle
Springfield 0 2 unk    
Tampa 3 0 64 Tampa Bay Times reports 8 pimps have been “identified” but have not been arrested. News-Press reports 18 pimps have been identified. News-Press has the breakdown of arrests by county/area, adding up to 64 adults arrested for prostitution. WTSP CBS/Tampa; Tampa Bay Times; News-Press (Fort Myers)
Washington, D.C. 0 0 unk    

I want to make some comments, perhaps repeating myself from before.

First, when you hear that the law enforcement “rescued” or “liberated” young people, think about this photo from FOX News:

FOX News Photo

I’m not sure if this is an actual photo from Operation Cross Country sweep, or a stock photo FOX decided to pull out from somewhere, but this is exactly what “rescue” actually looks like. In fact, if you read closely to news reports, young people are arrested as part of their “rescue.” (Also, FOX News reports that the youngest victim was 9 year old, but that case is not from this raid. It is the youngest victim FBI has ever “rescued” years ago. According to FBI, the youngest victim uncovered during OCC7 was 13 year old, and most were 16-17 year olds.)

I am not suggesting that “rescues” are never necessary. Sometimes, like when someone is forcibly held against his or her will, we have no option but to call the police. But that is not a common experience of young people (as well as adults) in the sex trade: like many victims of domestic violence, even those who are experiencing abuse and exploitation do not leave their abusive environment because that is the best they can survive, given the social and economic circumstances, not because they are held hostage and unable to leave.

Domestic violence advocates know that “rescuing” abuse victims from their homes and forcing them into shelters involuntarily is generally not a solution. They believe, instead, in building resources and voluntary support services so that victims can receive long-term, ongoing assistance in dealing with the situation and leaving the abusive environment if and when they decide to do so. The same principle applies when we are working to support victims of abuse and exploitation in the sex trade.

I wrote previously about an innovative project in the anti-domestic violence movement in which hairstylists are trained about basics of domestic violence and survivor support. Hair salons are ideal place to provide support and information because it is a female-oriented space where many women spend a lot of time talking about their lives–much lower threshold than calling a crisis line. When hairstylists are trained to be good listeners and informed community advocate, they can build a relationship with women struggling with their relationships and offer support and referrals when they want it.

Anti-trafficking advocates too often neglect decades of development within the anti-domestic violence movement that can and should inform our approach to assisting youth and adults in the sex trade. Too often, anti-trafficking policies penalize people like cab drivers and hotel staff as well as friends and family members for developing any relationship with people involved in the sex trade (especially when there are pimps involved) unless they immediately call the police or other “rescuers,” labeling them “pimps” or promoters/facilitators of prostitution/trafficking. By preventing people in the sex trade from developing relationship, these policies isolate them and make them more vulnerable to violence and abuse.

Another things I want to point out is the incoherence of the anti-trafficking hyperbole in the face of this three-day, nationwide prostitution sweep. Anti-trafficking organizations routinely claim (falsely) that there are hundreds of trafficked “children” in any given city, who are forced to have sex 10-15 times a day, every day: if that is the case, why do they only find 105 minors in a three-day police sweep mobilizing law enforcement agencies in 76 cities? And if the “average age” someone is first trafficked into prostitution is 13, as anti-trafficking groups routinely claim (falsely), why is the youngest person they could find in the three-day nationwide sweep 13? It does not make sense.

Finally, I’d like to say kudos to Los Angeles Times for the best (by comparison, that is) mainstream coverage of OCC7, in which the paper focused on the failure of the foster system that creates vulnerabilities for young people. I would add, though, that it is not just foster system that is broken; it is our welfare system, our education system, our immigration system and criminal justice system (because many young people end up in foster care after parents are deported or imprisoned), and of course everything else.

As Los Angeles Times points out, any young people are on the street after running away from the child welfare system. “Rescues” only put them back into the system that have failed them already, and chances are they will run away again. And of course when many young women are arrested for prostitution in these raids, more of their children will go into the child welfare system. We need to stop spending millions of dollars in these useless law enforcement campaigns and use that money to fix social institutions that fail youth in the first place.

P.S.
Speaking of media coverage: here’s the most bizarre photo accompanying the article about OCC7:

Bizarre News Photo

[Update] Maggie McNeill confirms that the photo in the FOX News article is a stock photo.

Confusion and Contradiction in Law Enforcement Views on Sex Trafficking

Date: June 22, 2013

On June 18, I attended a public forum on human trafficking in Washington County (Oregon) sponsored by Respect for Life, a Catholic anti-abortion group. Main speakers were both representatives of the law enforcement, Tigard detective Yonsoo Lee and Multnomah County detective and deputy sheriff Keith Bickford.

Lee was to discuss domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) while Bickford would focus on trafficking involving “foreign-born” victims, but they both ended up addressing almost exclusively about young people trading sex. (This division between DMST and “foreign-born” trafficking reflects a larger re-organization of law enforcement units, as I have explained before.)

Detective Lee, who is also a deputized federal agent with the FBI, advised the audience that his presentation was PG-13, and surely enough he showed a series of online escort ads and other images with semi-explicit pictures of women, for no apparent reason. “We here in suburbia don’t often see human trafficking, but it is happening behind closed doors,” Lee stated.

Lee said that he was “pretty weary” of statistics, but nonetheless cited the oft-repeated (and thoroughly debunked) figure that “the average age of entry into prostitution is 12-14.” “From our experience, it holds true” he said, because he has encountered some girls who started trading sex at ages as early as 10 or 11. However, it was clear from the way he was discussing “our experiences” that these very young girls are anomalies, which makes it implausible that the “average age” can be anything close to 12.

He then admitted that the average age of girls (minors) he actually encounters (as opposed to the age at which they supposedly began trading sex) is about 16, which further makes us wonder how all these 10-14 year olds avoid encounter with the law enforcement for so many years before they finally come to his attention. The only plausible explanation is that the “average age” figure is totally wrong.

The most interesting part about Lee’s presentation was about how the law enforcement identify online sex ads that might involve trafficking. According to him, the law enforcement looks for ads for different girls that share the same contact information, user identifier, or other characteristics that indicate that they are not working alone. He also searches for older ads by the same poster, because sometimes people are less sophisticated when they begin using the internet for advertising, and there might be more identifying information in earlier ads.

Another example Lee gave is an ad found in an escort board that uses another provider (sex worker), not clients, as a reference. On boards, providers and clients both use references to avoid dealing with the law enforcement, but a new provider would not have any references, so she may ask another provider she knows to vouch for her authenticity. But, to Lee, this indicates that she is not working alone, which means it might involve trafficking.

This tactic is worrisome because the fact that someone is not working alone does not necessarily mean (and usually does not mean) that that person is being trafficked: it might be someone who is helping out the individual, or multiple individuals working together. Some sex workers choose to work with others for their safety, and may be forced to abandon this safety measure if doing so makes them more vulnerable to be targeted by the law enforcement.

“Where do victims come from?” Lee said that of 38 girls identified in connection to a brothel raid, four were former Tigard High School students. They are recruited online via social networking sites as well as outside schools and at shopping malls, Lee said.

Detective Keith Bickford followed Lee to discuss international trafficking, which is supposed to cover both labor and sex trafficking, but quickly narrowed down his talk to sex trafficking involving gangs and drug cartels (I’ve discussed the shift in the anti-trafficking discourse to treat trafficking as a primarily “gang problem” before). He told the audience that he had recently spoken with custom and border control agents in Arizona, who warned him about the “coming storm” of the emerging alliance between gangs and cartels.

“Cartels are very well funded, and very well armed,” said Bickford, pointing out that cartel members are connected even to some foreign diplomats. “A foreign consulate can be a cartel member… Mexican Consulate here in downtown Portland: Who knows?” he said. “Cartels have terrorist type of mentality,” he continued, referring to how they infiltrate educational and political systems.

An audience member raised his hand and asked if cartels also traffick “our children” to Mexico. “Yes, I’ve seen quite a bit of it,” Bickford responded. I don’t really have any prior knowledge about this, but I have a hard time understanding what profit motives Mexican cartel might have to take extra efforts and risks trafficking U.S. children to Mexico when they could easily exploit Mexican children: it just seems implausible to me.

I have seen Bickford speak several times before, and it was surprising that he spoke with so much hyperbole and fear-mongering. While I disagree with many of his stances, I had always thought he was one of the more rational, even compassionate member of the law enforcement (for example, he often stresses the need for the law enforcement to work with undocumented immigrants rather than targeting them, coming very close to publicly advocating for comprehensive immigration reform). I worry that he drunk the cool-aid during his trip to Arizona where he was exposed to the extreme elements of U.S. boarder patrol.

All these discussions raised fear among the audience, as exemplified by a father who stood up and asked the presenters if it was safe for his teenage daughter to ride public transit by herself. A law enforcement officer in the audience responded with a reality check: “Washington County is a safe place. There are bad people out there, but we aren’t talking about guys pulling girls off buses.” Yes, only cops do that around here.

Another law enforcement officer spoke out from the audience to point out that “these girls” are usually not “good students from good families.” “They are coarse, they speak back at us, they don’t want to go to school, and they run away. They like the way it is because they can stay up and party all they want, take whatever drug they want. That’s why they don’t come forward as victims.”

I felt that law enforcement agents are caught in a bind between the view they have traditionally held about young people in the sex trade (i.e. they are teenage whores, delinquents from socially undesirable backgrounds) and the politically fashionable view that dominates the “anti-trafficking” craze (they are innocent young girls victimized in modern-day slavery). These views are contradictory and confusing to those listening to these presentations, but they co-exist in the minds of law enforcement officers through a single common thread, which is the need for further criminalization of people of color, street youth, immigrants, and other targeted communities.

Regardless, many audience members seemed to connect the issue of human trafficking to the larger schema of “culture war.” Several audience members suggested that human trafficking–or rather, the presence of young people in the sex trade–was caused by the “coarsening of the culture,” represented by the “promotion of promiscuity” through sex education in schools. “What role did Planned Parenthood play in promoting promiscuity and sex trafficking?” a retired attorney asked. Another audience member pointed out that materials used in sex ed mentions Planned Parenthood website, which may lead to trafficking. “We need to stop Planned Parenthood,” she said.

In response, both Lee and Bickford failed to confront the misperception that sex trafficking was about promiscuity: Lee said that he did not know enough about sex ed curriculum to comment, while Bickford stated that parents need to be aware what websites their children are accessing (in response to the question about the harms of youth accessing Planned Parenthood’s website). I realize that this was a forum hosted by an anti-abortion group, but I think they could and should have said something along the line of: “I understand that there are different opinions about Planned Parenthood and what it does, but sex trafficking is not about promiscuity. It is about violence and exploitation.”

This association between Planned Parenthood with sex trafficking may seem ridiculous, but ultra-conservatives have successfully shut down community organizing network ACORN under the entirely made-up claims including the allegation that the organization offered assistance to a pimp to traffick Central American women and open a brothel, so it is not far-fetched to say that they are trying to do the same to Planned Parenthood. Anyone who is actually concerned about the well-being of young people in the sex trade need to challenge anti-trafficking campaigns that center religious extremism or law enforcement expansionism.

The Oregonian’s “fact check” on “average age” myth: They were aware of the falsehood for almost three years

Date: March 5, 2013

Last month, while distributing a error-ridden “fact sheet” on commercial sexual exploitation of youth (CSEY/CSEC) to a roomful of audience members, Multnomah County Collaboration Specialist for CSEC Joslyn Baker said that the line that stated (inaccurately) “the average age of entry into commercial sex industry in the U.S. is 12 years old” might need to be changed because there is a “pushback from local media.” I did not know what she was referring to at the time, but surely enough, The Oregonian finally decided to fact-check the claim in its PolitiFact Oregon column last week.

While I was glad to see that The Oregonian now officially acknowledges that there is no basis for this oft-repeated yet demonstrably false claim, its investigation falls short of what I, just a local activist, wrote almost three years ago; in fact, everything PolitiFact Oregon writer Janie Har examined and wrote about in her column was already in my three-year old blog post, including the 2001 University of Pennsylvania study, and Shared Hope International’s 2009 report that shows a pie chart that does not match the claim made in the main text and does not include a citation. Har contacted Shared Hope for further clarification and received no response, which is what I had already done in July 2010.

Furthermore, Har makes this issue about the truthfulness of Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel’s column published in August 2010 as well as her more recent comment to Oregonian columnist Elizabeth Hovde this past January, but somehow fails to point out that Elizabeth Hovde claimed in her Oregonian column that “the average age of entry into prostitution is 13” the month before Commissioner McKeel wrote it. More than likely, The Oregonian misled Commissioner McKeel in the first place, before it realized the mistake and decided to blame it on her.

I first read the claim about the “average age” in Hovde’s column, and was immediately suspicious. There are certainly young people 13 or even younger who are sexually exploited for commercial gain, but they are definitely outliers. If the average age was actually 13, there would have to be many more 8 or 10 year olds being forced into prostitution that is realistically possible to counter-balance all other people who are entering in their late teens or adulthood. So I started looking up the source, and it was very easy to find out that the figure was not based in any actual evidence. My investigation led to my writing the aforementioned blog post which explained how the claim was false, in more detail than Har was able to articulate three years later.

I also contacted Elizabeth Hovde on July 3, 2010 to share my findings.

From: Emi Koyama
To: Elizabeth Hovde
Date: July 3, 2010
Subject: Average age of entry

Ms. Hovde,

I’m contacting you to correct the error in your Oregonian column about sex trafficking.

You cite USDOJ as the source to state that “the average age of entry into prostitution is 13.” This is incorrect.

DOJ has not conducted any such study, but cites a report from researchers at University of Pennsylvania titled “The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children In the U. S., Canada and Mexico” (attached for your viewing). This report is NOT based on representative sampling of people who work in (or have worked in) prostitution, or even of youth who are/have been in prostitution, as the report itself states.

The “average age” is also based on the minors who were studied, which means that no adults in prostitution, including those who started working in prostitution after the age of 18, were included. This is like studying the average age of death for those who died as minors: the average age of death would be probably something around 13, but it has no bearing whatsoever on the average life expectancy of the general population. Similarly, the “average age of entry” among minors has no bearing on the actual average age of entry for all people who are or have been in prostitution.

Further, because the study only surveys minors, those who entered prostitution early have much greater chance of being studied than those who started at 16 or 17. That is, someone who started at 13 has five years to be studied by the researchers (because that person can be 13, 14, 15, 16, or 17 at the time of the study), while those who started at 17 only has one year. As a result, the number of people who entered at 13 are inflated by the factor of five compared to the number of people who entered at 17.

But even without knowing this, common sense should tell you that the average age of entry cannot possibly be 13. Let’s consider two possibilities: 1) the distribution of the age of entry is normally distributed (bell curve), or 2) it isn’t normally distributed. If the age of entry is normally distributed, that would mean that there are equal number of 8 year olds entering prostitution as there are 18 year olds–which you know isn’t true (if it were, we’d see much more media coverage about 8 year olds being prostituted). If the distribution isn’t normal, it would likely mean that there are many times more 11-13 year olds entering prostitution compared to 16 and up (to compensate for the fact there are very few pre-teens entering prostitution)–which once again cannot be true.

The only conclusion that is consistent with logics and common sense is that the average age of entry isn’t 13, but is closer to 18 or older. That doesn’t diminish the fact that some 13 and 14 year olds are being recruited into prostitution, and we should do something about it. But we need to keep our conversations based on reality and reason, rather than falsehood and panic.

(Cc: to Dr. Stephanie Wahab, Regional Research Institute at Portland State University. If you need help deciphering the UPenn study, she might be able to help you better than I can.)

Emi Koyama

Here’s her reply:

From: Elizabeth Hovde
To: Emi Koyama
Date: July 5, 2010
Subject: Re: Average age of entry

I appreciate the information, Emi. I was using two sets of information. The DOJ Web site lists the Pennsylvania info. The DOJ also commissioned a study with Shared Hope INternational (The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking), which found a 12-14 age of entry in field surveys in 10 cities (I think … need to revisit to be sure).

I will contact appropriate sources about how to phrase the information better. You’re right that my column should make reference to the fact that the average age of entry for a YOUTH is 13, rather than a blanket statement. I will relook at my column and list a correction as needed. I haven’t visited the column since the edit. Does that phrasing make sense to you?
Thanks for the note and the concern.

Onward,

Elizabeth

I was not aware of the Shared Hope report, so I downloaded a copy and started analyzing it.

From: Emi Koyama
To: Elizabeth Hovde
Date: July 5, 2010
Subject: Re: Average age of entry

Hello – thank you for the reply.

I’ve looked up the report (“The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking from Shared Hope International”), but I can’t locate any original research by SHI. On page 30 of the SHI report, there are two statements: “The average age that a pimp recruits a girl into prostitution is 12 to 14” and “Research has shown that the average age of entry into prostitution and pornography is 12 to 14 years old in the United States.” They are sourced to SHI’s training material titled “Prostituted Children in the United States: Identifying and Responding to America’s Trafficked Youth.” So I searched for and found this material on SHI’s website and looked into it, but it cited the DOJ as the source for this “statistics.” In other words, SHI does not seem to have an independent source other than the same DOJ fact sheet (which misrepresents the UPenn study) for the “12 to 14 year old” figure.

There is also a chart and table titled “Average Age of Entry into Prostitution,” with the breakdown of victims’ ages (11 thru 17). I find this chart puzzling for a couple of reasons. First, it doesn’t cite any source for the data, so I don’t know which study it is supposed to represent. The sample size is n=103, while the UPenn study included 63 boys and 107 girls. Second, if you actually calculate the numbers shown in the chart, the “average” os actually almost 15 (14.89), which contradicts the claim that the average is between 12 and 14. The median age (which is probably a better indicator of general tendency) is 16.

That said, it’s still not accurate to state that the average age of entry for a youth is 13. It is accurate to say that the average age at which UPenn research participants reported to have entered is 13, but there are many problems with generalizing this figure. The biggest problem, as I’ve explained in the first email, is how the research method artificially inflates the number of participants who entered into prostitution earlier.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that an equal number of youth enter prostitution at age 13 and at age 17. Members of the first group might be interviewed when they are 13, 14, 15, 16, or 17, while the latter can only be interviewed when they are 17, because those who become older aren’t included in the study. In any given year when the research takes place, we could encounter 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17 year olds who each entered when they were 13, while we will only interview 17 year olds form the latter group, because those who entered at 17 and are now 18, 19, 20, or 21 are not part of the study. When the study is compiled, you would find that there were five participants aged 13-17 who all say that they entered at 13, while there was only one person who reports having entered at 17. It is still wrong to conclude that youth is five times as likely to enter into prostitution at 13 compared to entering at 17, since we started from the scenario that the number of 13 year olds and 17 years olds entering prostitution is equal.

Thus, since we are only studying youth 17 and under, we can’t simply add numbers (age at which the participant has entered into prostitution) and divide by the number of participants to calculate the “average age of entry”; we need to compensate for how the study excludes those who entered into prostitution toward the end of the cutting-off point (18), and make adjustments. Using the data from the chart/table on page 30 of the SHI report, I calculated the adjusted “average age of entry,” which turns out to be almost 16 (15.96). This number (age 16) still isn’t entirely satisfactory, since the research subjects aren’t randomly selected and there are other ways errors can happen (for example, some participants were interviewed in groups with their peers, which is known to distort the data). My calculation is also rudimentary and at best an approximation, since I don’t have access to the complete data. But I suspect that it is much closer to reality than the 12-13 figure.

And details like this matter. Social policies we must enact to prevent and stop sexual exploitation of minors would differ greatly if the average age of entry is 13 or 16. I feel that many people use the lower figure for shock value, to arouse strong emotional reaction toward the issue, but the distortion of reality is irresponsible. We need to understand reality as they are and craft rational and sensible responses to the problem, rather than indulging ourselves in panicked frenzy.

Emi Koyama

I did not hear back from Elizabeth Hovde again.

In conclusion:

  • Yeay! The Oregonian acknowledges that the claim is baseless! (But why is it rated “half-truth” if there is no basis for it? And why did they not mention any other study that contradict 12-14 claim?)
  • I have a feeling that Janie Har read my blog post. How can she not, if she actually did any research? The fact that she mentions the same Shared Hope report and points out the same problems strengthens my suspicion. If she did read my blog, why did she not speak with me or give me credit?
  • Janie Har writes as if the problem comes from Commissioner McKeel, and Oregonian columnist Elizabeth Hovde simply wrote down McKeel’s comment. But the truth is that Hovde herself perpetuated the false claim before McKeel did.
  • Elizabeth Hovde has been aware of the problems Har points out about the University of Pennsylvania figure as well as the Shared Hope report, because I pointed out the exact same problems almost three years ago.
  • Elizabeth Hovde and The Oregonian had the opportunity to stop perpetuating the myth for almost three years, and yet failed to do so as recently as this January. While Janie Har’s column is to be commended, The Oregonian and Hovde need to take responsibility for their part in the falsehood, rather than simply blaming McKeel for it.

Roundtable on California’s Prop 35 and “War on Trafficking”

Date: December 24, 2012

I participated in the roundtable discussion about California’s Prop 35 and “war on trafficking” in the current (January 2013) issue of In These Times magazine, which is also available on its website.

ITT Jan. 2013 Cover

Proposal for Bad Date Line 2.0: Text-Based “Bad Date” Blacklist for Sex Workers

Date: December 20, 2012

This is something I thought of today: a text-based “bad date” blacklist for sex workers and people in the sex trade. I know that there are several online “blacklists” out there, along with local “bad date” lists, but this is unique because it can be offered for free, and used from cheap cell phones many street-based workers have.

HOW TO USE:

Using a cell phone, sex workers can text the license plate number, phone number, or email address to a specified number. The text could be something like “5031234567 ?” (phone number 503-123-4567) or “OR*ABC012 ?” (Oregon license plate ABC-012).

The server computer looks up the information in the central database for a match. The worker would receive a response within seconds indicating whether or not there was a match, and if so what kind.

If there is no match, the server would respond with the message “NO RECORD.” If there are matches, it will give discreet codes like “VI” for violent or abusive client, or NC for someone who refuses condom. There may be multiple reports for the same person, in which case the response would say something like “VI NC*2”.

HOW TO REPORT:

When a sex worker experiences a bad date, she or he can text the license plate number, phone number, or email address to a specified number.

When reporting, the worker can include a code to indicate what kind of “bad date” it was, such as:

VI – violent or abusive
NP – no payment
HG – persistent haggler
NS – no show
NC – refuses condom
DR – especially disrespectful
PO – police
ST – stalker
PH – keeps calling, no intent to pay

A worker would send information such as:

5031234567 VI NC = phone number 503-123-4567, violent, refuses condom

OR*ABC012 PH NS = Oregon license plate ABC-012, repeated phone calls without intent to pay and no show.

ADVANTAGES OF USING THIS SYSTEM

  • it can function via text alone, making it easier to use even on cheap prepaid phones; workers don’t have to carry an incriminating piece of paper on them.
  • it can be implemented for relatively cheaply–cheap enough that we can probably get it funded by donations, and offer as a free service to all. (We can probably get it started for $1,000 seed money.)
  • unlike “Bad Date Line,” it doesn’t have to publish the master list (it only responds to the specific number or email address that was inquired).

POSSIBLE PROBLEMS:

  • Someone could make false reports.
    • True, but if someone was led to make a false report, there must be some reason. We don’t guarantee that the information is always correct, but workers can make their own decisions about whom they interact with.
  • Someone who is blacklisted might dispute it.
    • Solution: any client who disputes the information can come to us with a proof of identity, and we would agree to replace the code(s) with “DP” for “report was made, but is disputed.”
  • The record might be used as evidence for prostitution.
    • We won’t keep the record of who is texting us.
    • Also, we could modify the system to make it available to the general public who are going on date with people they met online. That way, usage of the service does not necessarily indicate that someone is doing sex work.

This is the kind of cost that we’d be looking at. I think it’s entirely possible to fund with individual donations.

Is there any tech person who is interested in volunteering with a project like this? Do you know anyone?

State Violence, Sex Trade, and the Failure of Anti-Trafficking Policies – New Zine Released!

Date: December 17, 2012

In celebration of International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, I am announcing the release of new zine, titled “State Violence, Sex Trade, and the Failure of Anti-Trafficking Policies.” This zine is yet another compilation of short essays and articles I’ve been writing about sex work, sex trade, and the anti-trafficking movement.

In spring of 2011, I wrote “War on Terror and War on Trafficking: A Sex Worker Activist Confronts the Anti-Trafficking Movement,” which focused on debunking main claims of mainstream anti-trafficking organizations. In “Understanding Complexities of Sex Trade/Work and Trafficking” published in late 2011/early 2012, I discussed what sex trade actually looks like for people who come from complicated backgrounds, demonstrating how mainstream anti-trafficking rhetoric and politics harm the very people they are intended to “rescue.”

Essays in this new compilation extend the analysis of the previous two booklets on this important topic, with a special emphasis on the context of pervasive surveillance and criminalization of communities of color, immigrants, street youth, as well as people in the sex trade. Throughout the booklet, I am calling for a new multiracial coalition against state violence and criminalization, instead of narrowly focusing on sex workers’ rights or on sex trafficking.

I hope that this booklet stimulates conversations among feminists, sex workers, progressive activists, and all others who need to be part of this emerging coalition.

Table of Contents

The new zine is available for download (PDF) and purchase (hard copy) at http://eminism.org/store/

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