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“Complexities of Sex Trafficking and Sex Work/Trade” handout updated for December 17

Date: December 16, 2012

Just in time for International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers, I’ve updated my half-page flier, “Understanding the Complexities of Sex Trafficking and Sex Work/Trade: Ten Observations from a Sex Worker Activist/Survivor/Feminist.”

Please feel free to download PDF and distribute copies at your local December 17 event!

Anti-Criminalization: Criminalization happens on the ground, not in the legislature

Date: November 27, 2012

I attended Harm Reduction Conference for the first time this year, and it was also the first year this conference had the “sex worker track,” a series of workshops and presentations throughout the conference dedicated to addressing harm reduction approach to meeting the needs of sex workers and people in the sex industry. Many of the presentations I’ve posted on this blog last week were part of the sex worker track, and I attended many presentations by other activists.

But there is a downside to holding a specific “track” on sex workers’ issues, as it became clearer as activists and advocates working for people in the sex industry discussed among ourselves: I felt that “sex workers’ issues” was treated like a separate set of issues, distinct from issues affecting people who use drugs–the central focus of the conference overall–despite the fact there are large overlaps between issues and concerns faced by both groups. And it is not just in the sense that many people in the sex trade also use drugs; more importantly, it is because social and economic circumstances that exacerbate risks both groups face are often the same.

For many activists participating in the “sex worker track,” it was obvious that the ascent of the mainstream “anti-trafficking” discourse that reduces the complex issue of sexual labor to evil “traffickers” forcing innocent “victims” into prostitution and prescribes further policing and prosecution as the solution is not just harmful to sex workers, but to people of color, immigrants, street youth, and all others whose lives are under pervasive surveillance and criminalization, as I’ve discussed in my presentation about “war on trafficking”.

We were also keenly aware that police encroachment of social service systems under the guise of fighting human trafficking (mainly domestic minor sex trafficking), as discussed in my presentation about youth services, is dismantling the coalition based on harm reduction principles between social and economic justice movements and public health administration that we have built over last several decades, with serious negative consequences for many other vulnerable communities in addition to people in the sex trade. But I’m afraid that the rest of harm reduction community are not recognizing this clear and present danger to the entire harm reduction movement because they compartmentalize “sex workers’ issues” as a side business, rather than one of the central themes of the entire movement.

One of the most exciting things that came about as a result of our discussions at the Harm Reduction Conference is a new framing for addressing how attacks on people in the sex trade which are perpetuated by the mainstream anti-trafficking discourse operate in relation to other ways communities are targeted and criminalized by the state.

Mainstream (white, middle-class) sex workers’ movement in the U.S. puts lots of emphasis on “decriminalizing” prostitution and sex work–i.e. eliminating laws that prohibit consensual adult commercial transactions involving sexual contact–as well as destigmatization of sex work. But to those of us who are street-based, immigrants, youth, transgender, etc. this agenda appear to be based on the naive premise that people engaging in prostitution are targeted by the state because the legislature passed laws to criminalize prostitution. Those of us who live under pervasive surveillance and criminalization know that the cause and effect run the other way around: we are just targeted and criminalized for who we are, and the laws are passed by the legislature to justify it and make it more efficient.

In other words, criminalization happens on the ground, not in the legislature. For example, even though some States have passed “safe harbor laws” that define minors who are “rescued” from prostitution as victims, not criminals, young people are still arrested and detained as juvenile delinquents, “material witnesses,” mentally incapacitated, etc., or are “charged up” with drug and other crimes that result in longer sentences than simple misdemeanor prostitution offenses. Young people, especially young women of color and transgender women, are still profiled as suspected prostitutes, and are targeted for “stop and frisk” in search of drugs and condoms–which is construed as an evidence for prostitution. They are still forcibly placed under the child welfare system that many young people had to run away from in the first place for years, instead of serving 12 days in jail as they did before. We are not targeted because we trade sex for money, food, shelter, survival; we are just targeted, period, and it is simply slightly more convenient for the state that some of us are also breaking laws against prostitution (and even if we aren’t–we are automatically suspects).

We need an anti-criminalization movement, not decriminalization movement. An anti-criminalization movement is not just about sexual freedom or “right to choose,” although it supports these ideas too. More fundamentally, it is about fighting for social and economic justice in the face of pervasive state violence against communities of color, immigrants, street youth, drug users, and others. An anti-criminalization movement is not just about changing laws, but about delegitimatizing state violence from its very foundation of colonialism and genocide to slavery and the Prison Industrial Complex.

We saw a beginning of this new alliance in California, where voters earlier this month overwhelmingly approved Prop. 35, a ballot measure enacting several “anti-trafficking” laws that focus on increasing criminalization and policing. Even though Prop. 35 was easily passed statewide, the array of organizations that publicly stood against this problematic statute was impressive: along with some sex worker and civil liberties organizations, the list of critics included Black Women for Wellness, Latinas for Reproductive Justice, and Causa Justa / Just Cause–organization led by people of color for people of color who saw through the anti-trafficking rhetoric of Prop. 35 and recognized it for the racism, sexism, and xenophobia that underlie the increased surveillance and criminalization of their communities.

It is this new, emerging alliance against criminalization of our people and communities in an increasingly multi-racial and queer/trans-friendly America that gives me hope despite of the massive overreach of policing and criminalization advanced by the mainstream anti-trafficking movement. We need to continue having conversations not just about decriminalization as a matter of legal reform, but about anti-criminalization, linking the struggles of people in the sex trade with other people and communities that are facing state surveillance and criminalization, building alliances with organization for racial, economic, gender, housing, queer/trans, and immigration justice.

(Thanks to people I spoke with at the conference, especially S. and K. for your insight that informed much of what I wrote here. This isn’t my personal manifesto, but something that came bubbling in the space among and between all of us. I love you.)

Youth vs. the Social Service Industrial Complex: How Anti-Trafficking Hysteria is Dismantling Harm Reduction Movement

Date: November 24, 2012

This is the last of the series of presentations I gave at Harm Reduction Conference last week. I would really appreciate reactions to this presentation: the explosive title is not at all an exaggeration.

Resisting the “War on Trafficking”: Two Presentations at Harm Reduction Conference

Date: November 22, 2012

Here are a couple of presentations I gave at Harm Reduction Conference last week as part of the panels critiquing the mainstream anti-trafficking movement. First has to do with debunking commonly stated myths about trafficking–more specifically, domestic minor sex trafficking–and the second addresses problematic public policies that result from these inaccurate claims, and proposes an alternative framework.

Because of weird scheduling I ended up presenting the second part first at the actual conference, but I’m posting them here in correct order.

Transgender Youth in the Sex Trade–my presentation at TransConnect: Resource and Cultural Fair

Date: November 20, 2012

Below is my presentation at this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance event, TransConnect: Resource and Cultural Fair held at Portland Q Center. This is basically a shorter version of my keynote talk at Portland State University’s TDOR event last year, so there’s not much new materials in it, but I thought some people might prefer the shorter version. The presentation was sponsored by Portland Sex Workers Outreach Project.

Portland Bad Date Line: Limitations and Challenges

Date: November 19, 2012

I announced earlier that I was going to speak on two panels at Harm Reduction Conference that took place last week, but I ended up doing five panels instead, different themes each time. Here’s one of the presentations I did about Portland Bad Date Line.

Bad Date Lines are a tool used by people trading sex to protect each other by sharing information about “bad dates”–people who use violence to hurt them. This presentation gives a brief history of Portland Bad Date Line, focusing on how its features changed when Danzine, a grass-roots sex workers’ organization that started it, closed its doors and the PBDL was taken over by social service agencies.

Three presentations in three days: Harm Reduction Conference and TransConnect

Date: November 15, 2012

I’m giving three presentations in Portland this week. The first two are at Harm Reduction Conference held at Marriott Waterfront on Thursday and Friday; the other one is at TransConnect, a “weekend of events leading up to Trans Day of Remembrance” this Saturday.

“Empowerment-Based Alternatives to the ‘War on Trafficking'” (in panel “Trafficking Wars”)
Thursday, November 15th at 4pm-5:30pm
Harm Reduction Conference
Marriott Waterfront Hotel

“Embracing Negative Survivorship and Unhealthy Coping: A Harm Reduction Approach in the Movement Against Domestic and Sexual Violence” (in panel “Addressing Violence”)
Friday, November 16th at 5:45pm-7:15pm
Harm Reduction Conference
Marriott Waterfront Hotel

“Transgender Youth in the Sex Trade”
Saturday, November 17th at 4:30pm
TransConnect
Portland Q Center

Description: Transgender youth (especially transgender youth of color) are overrepresented among young people who occasionally or regularly trade sex for money, food, shelter, and other survival needs. There are many factors that contribute to the high prevalence of transgender youth in the sex trade, including family and community rejection, violence, isolation, discrimination, lack of medical services, mismatched documentations, and social services that are sex-segregated or religiously-based. This workshop provides an overview of various factors affecting the experiences of transgender youth in the sex trade, and how the broader transgender movement must become more inclusive of transgender people in the sex trade–while they are still alive, instead of merely mispronouncing their (often non-Anglo) names at annual TDOR events year after year after their bodies are discovered decomposing in dumpsters.

I look forward to seeing my friends in harm reduction and queer/trans communities!

Memo: Supply-side elasticity and three distinct market segments for commercial sex

Date: August 31, 2012

In my last post, I explained that I was mainly discussing the “lower end” of the commercial sex market. There are many reasons I focus on people who trade sex at the “lower end” of the market: they have least options when it comes to viable economic alternatives; they are most vulnerable to violence, exploitation, and arrest; “end demand” policies tend to employ strategies that impact them (and their clients) the most; and they are more numerous than sex workers at the opposite end (i.e. high-class courtesans and call-girls).

In limiting my discussion to this sub-population of people in the sex trade, I am making an assumption, which I think matches casual observation, that there are at least three distinct class- and economically-based segments to the sex trade. They are distinct in the sense people who trade sex rarely switch back and forth between different segments (though they may occasionally move between them), and tend to compete for different groups of clients (johns), who do not usually cross over either.

The “lower end” segment is characterized by low (or no, or even negative) downward elasticity of supply, as I explained in my previous post. This category is not necessarily restricted to those who appear worst off under objective measurements: they are not necessarily homeless, drug-addicted, mentally troubled, unable to find other work, etc. It simply means that they do not have economic alternatives they consider viable, which may be different for each person depending on her or his circumstances and priorities.

The supply and demand chart for this group would show steep, vertical, or even reversed supply curve, as discussed in my previous post.

Low Elasticity Supply-Demand Chart No Elasticity Supply-Demand Chart Negative Elasticity Supply-Demand Chart

The second segment is the market in which supply elasticity is relatively high. People who trade sex in this segment of the commercial sex market often have other sources of income (e.g. students who are financially supported by their parents) or have other economic opportunities, but engage in the sex trade for extra income, spare time, or other perks. Because they have other viable economic options and also because they have more to lose when things go wrong, they exit the market when the price for commercial sex drops below what they expect to be compensated for in exchange of risks (legal, physical, health, social/reputational) and uncomfortableness associated with the sex trade.

Normal Supply-Demand Chart

The supply and demand curves for this segment most closely matches what proponents of “end demand” policies might imagine, but their policy proposals won’t be effective even for this particular segment. It is because “end demand” policies focus on the prosecution, which tend to target the lower end of the market rather than the middle market where artificial reduction in demand might actually make a difference (people in this market segment prioritize safety and discreteness more than those in the lower end because they have more to lose, and are therefore harder for the law enforcement to identify). Further, even if they could successfully reduce supply within this segment, they are only reducing optional, freely entered, consensual commercial sexual transactions, and not sex trafficking or sexual exploitation of vulnerable populations.

Finally, there is a much smaller luxury market of commercial sex, which is made up of high-class call-girls (and boys) and their elite/wealthy clientele. This market is characterized by the exclusivity on both supply and demand sides, which make them unresponsive to minor fluctuations in the market forces–that is, elasticity is low for both supply and demand. It is difficult to chart this segment because clients might have (and are able to insist on) more specific preferences for a particular sex worker or sex workers, making each “product” (i.e. commercial sexual service) unique. But for the sake of comparison, the supply-demand chart might look like this:

High-Class Supply-Demand Chart

I did not even attempt to draw “high demand” and “low demand” scenarios because “end demand” policies are unlikely to have any impact in this segment of the prostitution market. There are highly publicized cases of high-class prostitution rings being busted or famous politicians, business executives, or celebrities being caught in “sex scandals” involving high-class escorts, but they are exceptions: for the most part, sellers and buyers in this market are not affected by “end demand” campaigns such as the “National Day of Johns Arrests” which I mentioned in my previous post.

Some people believe that commercial sex might be a Veblen good. I can see that it might be a possibility at the highest end of the market, but I doubt that it explains anecdotes reported on Tits and Sass or in Superfreakonomics. If escorts can indeed get more business offering their service for $500 instead of $350, it probably has more to do with perception of signaling in a market that lacks clear information.

In my discussion, I focus on the first segment of the commercial sex market for the reasons I explained at the beginning of this post, but I thought it might help readers’ understanding to clarify what I am not discussing when I write about sex trade. I also believe that understanding downward supply-side elasticity is essential not just in distinguishing different segments of commercial sex market, but to craft effective policies to address problems associated with them–and avoid implementing counter-productive policies that are harmful to the very population they are intended to help, like many “end demand” initiatives.

“End demand” policies toward prostitution *increase* supply: an insight from development economics

Date: August 30, 2012

“End demand” approach to addressing human trafficking continues to gain traction, as law enforcement agencies across the country hold the third “National Day of Johns Arrests.” The 10-day simultaneous campaign against alleged buyers of sex is led by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who claims that 66 johns have been arrested in Cook County alone.

Of course, Sheriff Dart’s claim is dubious, considering the fact that Chicago (which is in Cook County) Police Department routinely misclassifies trans women (frequently young trans women of color) who have been arrested for selling sex as “buyers”: as of this writing, the Chicago PD lists 36 “sex buyers” on its website dedicated to publicly humiliating alleged “sex buyers,” of whom 7 are clearly dressing as women (and a couple more appear gender-ambiguous).

I have in the past pointed out why “end demand” policies are harmful to people who work in the sex trade, and even provided a further explanation for the economics of “end demand” policies. But recently I had an online exchange with someone who goes by the name “uncorrelated” and seems to know a lot more about development economics than I do that helped me explore a possibility that I have hinted before but did not feel confident enough to articulate, because it appeared to go against basic economic theories which I have not been formally trained in anyway.

But after my conversations with “uncorrelated,” I am now prepared to make an unconventional and counter-intuitive claim: that “end demand” approach to prostitution, which seeks to reduce demand for commercial sex through public education, prosecution, public humiliation, and other means, may increase prostitution, rather than decrease it, under certain (realistic) conditions.

There are two important assumptions for this claim to be true. First, I assume that prostitution market has extremely low (or negative) downward price elasticity of supply, particularly at the lower end of the market (it makes sense to focus on the lower end, because prostitution market is highly segmented and people at the lower end are the ones most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation), because of lack of viable economic alternatives. Second, I assume that people who trade sex face a trade-off between generating income through sex trade and spending time and energy doing other activities (child-raising, family, community, school, leisure, etc.).

Elasticity is the degree to which changes in one economic variable (such as price) can affect another (such as demand). It is calculated as the ratio of percentage change of the variable that is affected to that of the variable that is manipulated: for example, price elasticity of demand (i.e. degree to which demand is affected by the changes in the price) is calculated as (the change in demand):(the change in price). If a 20% increase in price for a particular product resulted in a 20% decrease in demand, the price elasticity of that product is 1; on the other hand, if the same price increase only caused a 10% decrease in demand, the elasticity is 0.5.

Proponents of “end demand” policies implicitly presume normal (high) elasticity in prostitution market: that is, they believe that a reduction in demand would be met with a comparable reduction in supply, arbitrated by the lower price for sex. Below is a supply and demand chart that presumes normal elasticity.

Normal Supply-Demand Chart

Dh and Dl are demand curves (although I’ve made them linear lines for the sake of simplicity) corresponding to high and low demand scenarios. Where the demand curve intersects with the supply curve (represented by the line labeled S) determines the price for which sex is traded, and the quantity of sex traded. The chart indicates that reduction of demand (shifting from Dh to Dl) lowers both price and quantity of commercial sex.

But the supply side of prostitution market (people in the sex trade) are often there in the first place because they lack other viable or comparable economic options, and the reduction of the demand (and hence the price of sex) does not change that circumstance. If many sellers of sex do not have comparable alternatives to selling sex, they will be stuck trading sex for money even if the demand (and hence the price) goes down. That is, supply in prostitution market is downwardly inelastic.

The supply and demand chart below demonstrates this inelasticity of supply. Since price elasticity of supply is defined as the ratio of change in supply to the change of price, lower elasticity can be represented by a more steep supply curve.

Low Elasticity Supply-Demand Chart

This chart shows the same high and low demand curves, but the supply curve has been modified to reflect a lower price elasticity of supply. Compared to the first chart, this chart shows a more drastic drop in the trading price of sex, and much smaller decrease in the quantity of sex traded. That would mean that prostitution would become far less profitable but not much less prevalent.

A more extreme version of this scenario is the one in which (virtually) none of the people currently in the sex trade have viable alternatives (which, many anti-prostitution activists argue is the case). If none of them could find other sources of income, the supply elasticity would equal zero, which would look like this:

No Elasticity Supply-Demand Chart

In the “zero elasticity” scenario, the level of demand (and hence the price) is irrelevant to the level of supply, because people are dependent on having income from it. Of course if the reduction in demand is more extreme–to the point they can’t find any buyers for sexual services at a price that is more profitable than, say, panhandling–there will be no supply whatsoever. But within reason, lower demand would only result in lower income and equal quantity of prostitution in the zero elasticity scenario.

Zero elasticity scenario may seem extreme and unrealistic, but it is not, especially when we are limiting our discussion to the lower end of the prostitution market. In fact, under certain circumstances elasticity can even be negative relative to what is generally expected: that is, a decrease in demand (and hence price) can lead to an increase (rather than decrease) in supply.

As counter-intuitive as it may be, this phenomenon is not unheard of in the field of development economics. For example, when the wage (price of labor) declines in a developing nation, families may try to compensate for the lower hourly wage by working longer hours, even sending children to work alongside adults rather than to school. Similarly, economists have observed that “fair trade” initiatives designed to increase payments to farmers in the developing nations for agricultural exports have sometimes resulted in these farmers working less hours–which may be a good thing if it makes them healthier or give their children opportunities to go to school. (See the chapter two of Development Microeconomics by Pranab Bardhan and Christopher Udry.)

This occurs because households face a different set of economic incentives compared to corporations. Corporations can hire more people or fire existing employees in response to the fluctuations in the market demand, but households cannot expand or contract at will. Increasing the amount of work necessarily reduces the amount of time and energy one has for other activities such as child-raising, family, community, education, and leisure. Because of this trade-off, households (and individuals) behave differently than do corporations.

Someone who works in the sex industry also faces this trade-off: the amount they work in the sex trade is negatively correlated to the amount of time and energy they have for other activities. When the market is booming, they might be able to make ends meet with minimal amount of work, which allows them to focus their time and energy for other things; however when the market bottoms out, they might be forced to work longer hours to make ends meet, sacrificing other responsibilities (e.g. children left by themselves or with untrustworthy associates) or their health (less sleep, less leisure time).

The chart below (provided by “uncorrelated”) compares “high budget/wage” and “low budget/wage” scenarios. Uh and Ul are indifference curves that show the optimal balance between the amount of labor and the level of income (i.e. household utility) under each scenario, as determined by the household. The straight lines represent the simple correlation between the amount of work one performs and the income from that work: higher wage obviously means one can earn more for the same amount of work, hence the more steep line.

Household Budget Chart

The amount of work each household decides to perform is determined at the intersection of the indifference curve and the wage line. When the price of sex decreases and the wage line shifts to the lower one, the amount of labor performed by the household goes up, from Lh to Ll, rather than going down, as predicted in a simpler economic model. If my analysis is correct, prostitution market is more like labor market in these developing nations than simpler commodity markets for things like corn and wheat.

The next chart takes into account this analysis to show what actually happens when “end demand” policies are implemented with the aim to reduce demand for commercial sex.

Negative Elasticity Supply-Demand Chart

When the demand decreases from Dh to Dl, lowering the price from Ph to Pl, the supply actually increases, from F(Lh) (supply level in the high wage scenario) to F(Ll). This is the exact opposite from what proponents of “end demand” policies have implicitly presumed would happen, and yet it is the logical, economically-sound conclusion if you add to the mix two simple, entirely reasonable assumptions about the lack of alternatives and the trade-off faced by people in the sex trade.

One might challenge the first assumption on the basis that many people in the sex trade actually do have other viable economic opportunities and will flee the sex industry if the price starts to decline. That may be true for some segments of the prostitution market, but unlikely for many who are in the lower end of the market, whom I am focusing here. I also do not expect any “end demand” proponents to make this argument, since they tend not to believe that prostitution can be freely chosen work for vast majority of people who are in the sex trade.

Proponents of “end demand” policies are more likely to challenge the second premise, arguing that people in the sex trade are frequently (physically for psychologically) forced to engage in prostitution, and are not in the position to make rational, utility-maximizing decisions for themselves. But if pimps are making decisions, they would certainly not accept a lower income simply because the market has bottomed out: they would likely use greater coercion to extract even more labor and thus income from the person they are controlling. So the end result would be the same: less demand leads to more supply.

“End demand” policies should be rejected because they harm the very people they are intended to help, and does not even succeed at reducing the supply of commercial sex in the long term (and may in fact increase it). Any reduction of demand will be temporary, because as long as there are no other viable economic opportunities, the price will decrease until it reaches a level that can attract enough demand to return. And on top of that, “end demand” policies push away clients (johns) who are relatively safer to work with and draw in those who are most dangerous, as I’ve argued before. The solution to economic desperation and vulnerabilities is to address that economic injustice, not to (make failed attempts to) mask its symptoms.

Note: I am seeking economists or economics students who are interested in collaborating on pushing this analysis further. For example, I want to figure out a systematic way to test the hypothesis through creative use of public information such as online sex ads and arrest records (indicating major sweeps) city by city. This may be a publication opportunity. Please email me at emi AT eminism DOT org if you are interested… and please share this post with people you know who might be interested.

Gangs and sex trafficking: How the movement against “modern day slavery” targets descendants of slavery as its primary perpetrators

Date: July 16, 2012

Popular discourse surrounding human trafficking in the U.S. have gone through several transformations since the dawn of this century. For example in 2000, with the passage of Trafficking Victims Protection Act in the United States. and the adoption of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons by the United Nations (as a supplement to its Convention against Transnational Organized Crime), “human trafficking” began to be understood primarily as a transnational criminal enterprise comparable to illegal trafficking of weapons and drugs. This perspective is a distinct departure from the more traditional approach which dealt with human trafficking in relation to poverty, migration, labor, and development.

The next transformation took place around 2008-2009, when American media and politicians began focusing (sometimes exclusively) on domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) or commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC–although I believe it should be called CSEY with the word “youth”), instead of the more traditional emphasis on foreign victims who are trafficked transnationally. The frequency of media coverage of DMST/CSEY exploded, as did the number of “anti-trafficking” groups (which mostly focus on DMST/CSEY) in the U.S., and the sensationalistic rhetoric of “modern day slavery” and “sex slaves” became commonplace.

There is yet another rhetorical and substantiative transformation of the U.S. anti-trafficking discourse taking place today, even though few people outside of the law enforcement and anti-trafficking groups that partner with them are taking notice. The shift I am pointing out is the recent move by the U.S. government agencies to re-classify DMST/CSEY as a primarily “gang” issue and take actions accordingly.

This is a trend I’ve been sensing for a while, but it was not until I heard directly from a staffer at the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Oregon that it had moved the issue of DMST/CSEY to the purview of its “gang unit” (as opposed to the civil rights division, which handles transnational labor trafficking) that I began to realize that there is something to the vague suspicion I had been feeling. Further research has confirmed that there is a deliberate shift in rhetoric and strategy U.S. government agencies and its allied anti-trafficking groups employ in their campaigns against DMST/CSEY.

Media reports about DMST/CSEY involving street gangs precede official government declarations by two to three years. They first began appearing in the U.S. context in 2008, when teenage gang members were arrested for “sexual assault, engaging in organized criminal activity, prostitution, and kidnapping and trafficking of a person” in Fort Worth (Dallas Morning News, 01/16/2008). There were several other reports in Missouri, Washington State, Minnesota, and elsewhere in the next couple of years as well (New York Times, 07/23/2008; Seattle Times, 03/26/2009; Star Tribune, 09/23/2010; and others). A report by the San Diego Anti-Trafficking Task Force claimed that “street gangs are partly to blame for an increase in teenage prostitution,” describing it as the “second largest source of income for San Diego gangs” after drug dealing (KPBS, 11/09/2010).

(Note that this discussion is limited to media reports in the United States. News stories linking “gangs” to sex trafficking have been common in Europe since at least mid-2000s, but the “gangs” they are referring to are very different from what U.S. media are calling “gangs.” In the European context, “gangs” are frequently members of Russian mafia and other “grown up” criminal organizations with clandestine ties to members of the political and business establishment class, unlike U.S. street gangs that are made up primarily of young men of color.)

Former Republican presidential candidate and Texas governor Rick Perry was one of the first political leaders to call attention to the link between gangs and DMST/CSEY. According to Houston Chronicle (08/20/2010), Perry proposed “stiffer penalties” for human trafficking–25 years to life–on the premise that penalties were “directed at gang members who run the prostitution rings.”

The shift in the law enforcement’s approach to DMST/CSEY is evident in the changes from the FBI’s 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment to its 2011 revision.

In the 2009 edition of the report, there is not even a single mention of sex trafficking or DMST/CSEY except for statements that report the fact that some gangs operate “prostitution rings” or (voluntary) smuggling of “illegal aliens.” On the other hand, the 2011 edition contains a specific section about “Gangs and Alien Smuggling, Human Trafficking, and Prostitution” which describes human trafficking and forced prostitution as major sources of revenue for gangs:

Human trafficking is another source of revenue for some gangs. Victims–typically women and children–are often forced, coerced, or led with fraudulent pretense into prostitution and forced labor. […] Prostitution is also a major source of income for many gangs. Gang members often operate as pimps, luring or forcing at-risk, young females into prostitution and controlling them through violence and psychological abuse.

Three weeks after the release of the 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, NPR’s “All Things Considered” aired a story titled, aptly, “Gangs enter new territory with sex trafficking” (11/14/2011), which seemed to have served as a template for many other news reports about the “new” development. NPR reported:

[A] new FBI threat assessment says MS-13 and other street gangs have been moving into some different territory: human trafficking. The bureau says gang members are leading women and children into forced prostitution. […] “You have a gang that’s taking advantage of people that are in a desperate situation, usually runaways or someone that’s looking for help from the gang,” [Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigator John] Torres says.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder echoed the message in his April 2012 speech about human trafficking at Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas:

As incomprehensible as it seems, trafficking in girls is an increasingly prevalent part of gang activity. These crimes are seen as “low risk and high reward.” […] Today, these transactions can be executed quickly, conveniently, and anonymously over the Internet–and many of them involve young children. […] Because we know these heinous crimes can arise in any criminal context–and because it is not uncommon for traffickers to be involved in a variety of other criminal enterprises, […] we are taking steps to ensure that investigators and prosecutors who work on organized crime, gang, and financial crime cases are fully trained to identify human crimes–and human trafficking victims.

Contrast this to Holder’s earlier public statements, such as the November 2009 written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee or the May 2010 speech at the National Conference on Human Trafficking, both of which strongly condemn sex trafficking and emphasizes how the Department of Justice is vigorously fighting it, but do not make any link between sex trafficking and street gangs.

Anti-trafficking groups and activists have picked up on the trend as well. For example, anti-prostitution scholar and activist Laura Lederer published an article titled “Sold for Sex: The Link Between Street Gangs and Human Trafficking” on the exact same day the FBI released its revised National Gang Threat Assessment. Lederer wrote:

The facts from hundreds of criminal cases show a clear link between dangerous street gangs and the scourge of human trafficking. […] With state and national crackdowns on drug trafficking, gangs have turned to sex trafficking for financial gain.

She further argues that strict enforcement of anti-trafficking laws could be “another prosecution weapon against the dangerous street gangs that endanger our communities and our nation. […] The vigorous prosecution of human trafficking can help bring down street gangs that also engage in murder, robbery, and drug trafficking.”

Anti-trafficking groups have frequently argued that there are two main types of pimps: “boyfriend/finesse pimps” and “gorilla pimps”: The former refers to pimps who use romantic gesture and psychological manipulation to control their victims, while the latter describes those who use physical violence and intimidation to force the victim to engage in prostitution. Below is an example of this classification, taken from a 2011 presentation by Polaris Project, a national anti-trafficking organization.

Finesse Pimp vs. Gorilla Pimp

Below, you will see a newer version of the same classification system, taken from a May 2012 presentation by YouthCare, a Seattle-based homeless youth advocacy organization (which, like Portland’s Janus Youth, seems to have bought into the police-centered approach to DMST/CSEY). Instead of two, the slide depicts three distinct categories of pimps: “boyfriend pimp,” “gorilla pimp,” and the all-new “gang pimp.”

Finesse Pimp vs. Gorilla Pimp vs. Gang Pimp

What is ignored in all of these discussions of the (racially coded) evils of “gangs” is that many young men of color (and others) become gang members and engage in its criminal activities for many of the same reasons many young women of color (and others) are lured into the sex trade: poverty, failure of social and child welfare systems and public education, lack of viable economic opportunities, psychological and historic trauma. After all, what is the moral difference between a young woman who is told to go out and sell sex, and a young man who is told to go out and sell drugs? And yet, the mainstream anti-trafficking discourse would have us believe that the young woman is an innocent victim but the young man is an evil criminal.

Anti-trafficking discourse has always carried racist and xenophobic overtones, but the recent shift in the rhetorics and strategies of U.S. government agencies is escalating it to the level indistinguishable form the racist, classist War on Drugs and its vilification of youth of color, immigrants, street youth, among others. That we have a movement that claims to be outraged by the horrors of “modern day slavery” which then targets the descendants of those who have survived slavery and colonization as its primary perpetrators while remaining completely oblivious to the legacies and consequences of these historical trauma is nothing short of perversity, a moral and logical failure.

If we are to believe, which I do not necessarily object to by the way, that gangs play some role in DMST/CSEY, our approach to solving the problem cannot and should not rest on the “vigorous prosecution” alone. We need strategies to offer more attractive alternatives to gang life that are compatible with human rights and dignity for all involved, those that empower marginalized communities to take care of their constituents and deal with problems they have in their own initiative and leadership.

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