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Cutting off people in the sex trade from support networks: Opportunity cost of the NYC anti-“sex trafficking” taxicab rule

Date: July 10, 2012

Last month, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law a new regulation targeting taxicab drivers who knowingly transport people who are engaging in prostitution. The new law imposes a $10,000 fine and the revocation of taxi license when the driver or owner of that taxi is convicted of such crimes as promoting prostitution (first thru third degree), compelling prostitution, or sex trafficking if the licensed vehicle was used in the crime.

Critics of the law have pointed out that the new regulation might lead cab drivers to refuse rides to any woman who are suspected of being prostitutes or sex trafficking victims (based on their appearance and other factors) out of fear that giving transportation to someone who might be involved in the sex trade could be construed as “promoting prostitution.”

When the bill was proposed, female bartenders who must frequently use cab to go home late at night held a protest against the law. The president of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers also protested the regulation, arguing that it would encourage police officers to arrest innocent cab drivers who are simply doing their job.

While members of the New York City Council assure us that the law does not require cab drivers to determine who is or is not involved in the sex trade, pointing out that the driver has to be first convicted of one of the crimes listed above before the additional penalty kicks in, drivers’ and female riders’ fears are not entirely unwarranted, considering how broadly “promoting prostitution” is defined. Under law, “promoting prostitution” could simply mean that one “knowingly causes or aids a person to commit or engage in prostitution,” which providing transportation to and from a “date” would qualify, for example.

That said, my concern with this law is not about innocent cab drivers who might be wrongly targeted because he or she transported someone who turned out to be a prostitute or trafficking victim, or even about innocent female riders who experience inconvenience and annoyance as they are refused rides. My concern is about the loss of an opportunity to actually partner with cab drivers to offer resources and support to people in the sex trade, including victims of sex trafficking (though most actual sex trafficking rings do not use regular commercial cabs, as pointed out by the Sex Workers Project at Urban Justice Center; they generally use private vehicles that are not licensed as cab).

New York City does intend to provide training to cab drivers to identify and report suspected sex trafficking victims. But that is not likely to be helpful to the actual victims of sex trafficking, as many victims would simply go back to their traffickers rather than testifying against them in the absence of legal, financial, and emotional support and services they need. It is also very annoying and inconvenient to those who are wrongly reported as potential trafficking victims, and downright harmful to those who are non-trafficked sex workers, immigrants, and others who wish to avoid interacting with the law enforcement.

Contrary to the sensationalistic rhetoric of “modern day slavery” and “sex slavery,” the actual practice of sex trafficking–where one person exercises power and control over another person to exploit that person sexually for financial gain–usually looks more like domestic violence than chattel slavery (or what most people imagine chattel slavery are like). We should not hesitate to call the police when we hear or see signs of immediate, life-threatening violence from our neighbor’s house, of course, but calling the police may not always be the best response when we are supporting a friend or neighbor who is in an abusive relationship. In an ongoing, long-term relationship that has elements that are abusive, and I include many “sex trafficking” or “pimping” relationships in this, calls made to the police, especially by a third party, might make things worse and more dangerous for the victim, not safer.

There are many initiatives within anti-domestic violence movement that attempt to build community support for people who are in ongoing, long-term abusive relationships. One example of such strategy is anti-DV organizations partnering with cosmetology schools and practitioners to educate hairstylists and others in the field to become the first line of support and information referral point for victims of domestic violence. Hair salons are ideal, because they are female-dominated space where women spend a long time chatting with each other about their lives while their hair is being done, away from their husbands and boyfriends.

The purpose of the partnership is not so that hairstylists can identify and report suspected abuse victims to the police; it is to build trust and rapport with the women, hear their stories, provide support and encouragement, and when a woman ready and willing, give her resources she needs to escape from violence. What I wish the New York City had done is to adapt a similar strategy to reach out to people in the sex trade through cab drivers, whether or not their circumstances meet the legal definition of “sex trafficking.”

The problem with the New York City law is not that innocent drivers might get caught in the crossfire; it is that it discourages them from building trust and rapport with people in the sex trade by generating the fear that any knowledge about their passengers’ involvement in the sex trade might incriminate them and expose them to persecution. The problem is not that cab drivers have no way of determining who is or is not a prostitute; it is that they are prohibited from knowing who is, or from forming relationships with people in the sex trade that might one day allow more trafficking victims and other people in the sex trade to come forward and access support and services they need.

Roundup of Local Media Reports on Operation Cross Country VI: Parsing Hidden Information

Date: June 25, 2012

Below is a roundup of local media reports regarding the Operation Cross Country VI, a three-day nationwide campaign by FBI and local law enforcement authorities aimed at “rescuing” minors in the sex trade. See my previous blog posts below for basic understanding of what it is, and what the problems are:

Local reports are interesting because they sometimes reveal information not available from FBI’s press releases, as journalists interview their respective local officials for their stories. There are of course many more articles, but I am only listing articles that includes some original reporting.


Last updated: 07/11/2012

Massachusetts: 14 arrests total, 3 of which were “pimps.” 1 juvenile “recovered.” Matches data for FBI Boston Division (all of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Delaware, and Rhode Island). (The Republican, 06/25/2012) While 1 youth (17 year old) is said to have been “caught up” during the sweep, it was determined that she was not involved in prostitution. (Boston Globe, 06/26/2012). Is this the same youth who is listed as the only “recovered juvenile” by FBI?

Sherveport-Bossier City, Louisiana: An article claims “nearly 30” pimps were arrested in Northern Louisiana, which is obviously inaccurate. FBI’s New Orleans Division (all of Louisiana) reports 10 “pimp” arrests, which is more than in most other divisions, but still not 30. The reported figure probably is for people who were arrested for prostitution, most of whom are adult women. (KLTV, 06/26/2012)

Revealing quote: “The teenagers, who are all U.S. citizens, were handcuffed and held in police custody until they could be placed with child welfare organisations.” (Daily Mail, 06/26/2012)

Toledo: An article claims “26 of 104 alleged pimps arrested between Thursday and Sunday were in the Toledo area.” FBI Cleveland Division (northern Ohio) reports 0 “rescue” and 1 “pimp” arrest, so the paper is clearly wrong. 26 must be the number of all arrests, most of which are probably adult women in sex trade. (Toledo Blade, 06/26/2012)

Detroit: 70 people arrested, including 5 “pimps” and 22 “customers”; 6 teenagers “recovered.” That leaves 43 arrests for people (mostly adult women) who trade sex. FBI’s Detroit Division (covering the entire state of Michigan) reports only 3 “pimps,” so this discrepancy is curious. (Detroit Free Press, 06/25/2012) One of the youth was a boy. (WXYZ, 06/25/2012) Other sources report that 77 out of 79 minors “rescued” were girls.

San Francisco Bay Area: 6 teenage girls “rescued,” 7 “pimps” arrested, matching the FBI figure for the San Francisco Division (all of coastal Northern California). Breakdown of teenagers: 4 in Oakland, 1 in San Francisco, 1 in San Rafael. (Huffington Post, 06/25/2012); 61 “adult prostitutes” arrested (San Francisco Bay Guardian, 07/11/2012) Another source claims 10 “pimp” arrests in the Bay Area, contradicting FBI release: 3 in Richmond, 3 in Vallejo, 2 in San Francisco, 1 each in San Jose and San Rafael (Marinscope Sausalito, 07/03/2012) In Richmond, 8 adult women are arrested for engaging in prostitution (Contra Costa Times, 06/25/2012; San Jose Mercury, 06/25/2012) Another article claims arrest of “65 adult prostitutes” in the Bay Area (Patch, 06/26/2012) SF Weekly (06/27/2012) absurdly claims “60-plus women who had been working as prostitutes” were rescued, even though they were not “rescued,” but simply arrested as criminals.

Oklahoma City: 2 girls in OKC, 44 “others” arrested. FBI’s Oklahoma City Division (entire state of Oklahoma) reports 3 “rescues” and 7 “pimp” arrests. Even if all 7 were included in the 44, that leaves 37 arrests for sellers and their clients–mostly sellers, of course. (The Associated Press, 06/25/2012) Quote: “[Police] are partnering with the FBI to pull dozens of prostitutes off the streets, including two minors here in the metro.” (News on 6, 06/25/2012

Chicago: “72 people face federal solicitation charges,” 65 other arrests (total 137). FBI Chicago Division (entire northern Illinois) reports only 3 “recovery” and 3 “pimp” arrests, so most of these arrests were for buyers and sellers. (The Times, (06/25/2012)

Portland: 3 “rescues,” 6 “pimps,” and 3 “adults with prostitution.” This figure is consistent with FBI Portland Division’s numbers, but contradicts the data I collected, which shows 7 arrests for adult women. (KOIN 6, 06/25/2012)

Atlantic City: 29 arrests, mostly adult women charged with “engaging in prostitution.” FBI Newark Division (all of New Jersey) reports 0 “rescues” and only 3 “pimp” arrests. (NBC10, 06/24/2012)

Secaucus, NJ: Part of FBI Newark Division. 4 adults arrested for “engaging in prostitution,” 1 arrested for “engaging in a massage business without a proper license.” No juvenile arrested or identified. (Hudson Reporter, 06/29/2012)

Dallas: 6 “rescues,” 36 other arrests (none of whom were pimps). FBI Dallas Division says the same thing (6 “rescues,” 0 “pimps”). (The Dallas Morning News, 06/25/2012)

Milwaukee: 63 total arrests, comprised of 53 “adult prostitutes,” 3 “pimps,” 7 “rescued” youth. FBI Milwaukee division (all of Wisconsin) reports 6 “rescues” and 0 “pimp” arrests, so there is a big discrepancy here. Also, the article makes it clear that “rescue” actually means “arrest.” (CBS 58, 06/25/2012) (Thanks Claudine O’Leary for the link.)

Operation Cross Country VI: FBI’s campaign to “rescue” youth continue to cause mass arrests of adult women

Date: June 25, 2012

I’ve been collecting data to keep track of all prostitution arrests (mostly adult women who are selling sex) in Portland area for the last several months for a project I am working on right now, and noticed an unusual spate of arrests over last week. It was quite depressing to see so many women being criminalized and imprisoned for simply trying to survive, so I wrote this comment on my facebook wall:

EmiKo Yama – Saturday at 9:34pm
There have been 14 arrests of women engaging in prostitution in Multnomah and Washington counties in the last week. At least half of them have been arrested for the same offense in the last year, and three in the last couple of months. One woman has been arrested 10 times in less than a year (and the only reason she wasn’t arrested any more than that is that she spent much of last year in jail). Why is our government wasting resources criminalizing people instead of using the same resource providing real options?

One of the reasons arrest records seemed unusual last week was that they were spread out to various parts of Portland as well as to surrounding cities of Gresham and Beaverton: ordinarily, East Precinct of Portland Police Bureau arrests vast majority of the women, followed by North and Central precincts.

On Monday (June 25th), I find the explanation: over the weekend, FBI and local law enforcement authorities around the nation have conducted yet another installment of Operation Cross Country, the coordinated nationwide three-day hunt for victims of “commercial sexual exploitation of children” (CSEC, or as I’d like to call it, CSEY with “children” replaced with “youth”). According to the FBI Innocence Lost Initiative press release, this iteration resulted in “recovery of 79 children” and arrests of “104 pimps” by the 47 FBI-local task forces over the three days (FBI does not disclose which three days, I assume they were June 20-22 based on the unusual spike in the arrest data).

Interestingly, FBI did not release the total number of arrests, which includes “pimps,” buyers, and sellers of sex, as they did in the past. During the Operation Cross Country V (November 2010), for example, FBI reported that 885 people were arrested overall, 99 of which were “pimps.” Since arrests of buyers is extremely rare, it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of arrests that were not for the “pimps” were arrests of people who trade sex, mostly women (including trans women). OCC-V claims to have “rescued” 69 minors from CSEY nationwide, while more than 10x women were arrested for basically doing the exact same things these young people were doing. We are unable to make a similar comparison of scale because FBI chose not to publish the number of all arrests.

Below is an updated chart summarizing the information released by FBI through its press releases.

Spotty Data from FBI’s Operation Cross Country sweeps
Source: FBI press releases

  Date City Rescues Arrests Rescues TD Convictions TD
0 12/16/2005 14 30 19   67
1 6/25/2008 16 21 389 433 308
2 10/27/2008 29 49 642 (73 pimps, 518 pros) 577 365
3 2/23/2009 29 48 571 670  
4 10/26/2009 36 52 700 (60 pimps) 900 510
5 11/8/2010 40 69 885 (99 pimps) 1200 625
6 6/25/2012 57 79 104 pimps; total unknown 2200+ 1017

Date = Date the operation was announced in a press release. Typically, the stings take place during the 72 hours before the announcement.
City = Number of cities in which stings took place.
Rescues = Number of minors FBI claims to have “rescued.”
Arrests = Number of arrests made. This may include adult prostitutes, clients, as well as pimps (FBI doesn’t fully disclose the breakdown).
Rescues TD = Number of minors FBI claims to have “rescued” to date since Innocence Lost Initiative began.
Convictions TD = Number of convictions FBI claims have resulted from Innocence Lost Initiative.

The number of cities participating in Operation Cross Country is based on multiple news reports.

While the FBI press release does not provide some information that previous press releases did, it details division-by-division breakdown of all “recoveries” and “pimp arrests,” which is fascinating. Here are the numbers:

“Juvenile Recovery” and “Pimp Arrest” by FBI Division
Source: FBI press release, 06/25/2012

Div J# P# Div J# P# Div J# P# Div J# P#
Albuquerque 0 0 Atlanta 3 5 Baltimore 0 1 Birmingham 0 0
Boston 1 3 Chicago 3 3 Cleveland 0 1 Dallas 6 0
Denver 2 3 Detroit 6 3 El Paso 1 1 Houston 0 1
Indianapolis 0 0 Knoxville 0 0 Las Vegas 4 4 Los Angeles 5 3
Miami 2 4 Milwaukee 6 0 Minneapolis 0 4 Newark 0 3
New Orleans 3 10 New York City 1 1 Oklahoma City 3 7 Omaha 0 2
Philadelphia 2 2 Phoenix 2 1 Portland 3 6 Richmond 0 2
Sacramento 6 6 St. Louis 2 2 San Antonio 0 2 San Diego 2 7
San Francisco 6 7 Seattle 6 7 Tampa 3 3 Washington 1 0
Totals 79 104                  

Note: Divisions are different from city limits. For example, FBI’s “Portland” field office covers the entire state of Oregon, not just Portland and its surrounding area, and excludes its northern suburb of Vancouver, Washington (which is included in “Seattle” office).

According to this breakdown, “Portland” division of FBI working with local authorities “recovered” three young people in the sex trade, while arresting six “pimps.” However, the data I have collected from Multnomah County only shows only two arrests for “promoting prostitution.” In the meantime, there were nine arrests of adult women for selling sex.

Because FBI’s “Portland” division covers the entire state of Oregon, rather than just Multnomah County, it is possible that four other “pimp” arrests took place in the rest of the state. But this is unlikely not just because Portland is the largest population center for the state, but also because Portland is the only city in Oregon with an FBI Innocence Lost Task Force agreement (as far as I know).

One plausible explanation for the discrepancy is that the four unidentified “pimps” were minors themselves. That would explain why I can only identify arrest data for two “pimps” in public information even though there were supposedly six of them. The two people whose information is made public were also young, at ages 21 and 25. I’m going to see if I could find out if this is the case.

In the next post, I’m going to provide a roundup of local media reports about the Operation Cross Country VI. Local media often interview local police for further information, resulting in more detailed data not available in FBI press release.

New Zine Release – “Understanding the Complexities of Sex Work/Trade and Trafficking”

Date: June 16, 2012

Hey people! My new zine, “Understanding the Complexities of Sex Work/Trade and Trafficking” is available for download and purchase. Okay, it’s basically a compilation of some of my blog posts on the topic with a few twists and edits, but I think it can be a great resource.

This follow-up to last year’s “War on Terror & War on Trafficking” contains many of my essays complicating and problematizing the mainstream discourse on sex trafficking, addressing such topics as “push and pull” analysis of youth in the sex trade, failure of “rescue” model, lessons from domestic violence movement, transgender youth, and many others.

Cover

Table of Contents:

My zines are available directly from me at my zine store, or in person at Portland Zine Symposium and other places.

Special offer! If you purchase “Undersanding the Complexities…” and “War on Terror & War on Trafficking” together from this link ($10 for both), you will also receive a special insert of my article, “Trade Secrets: The tough talk of the new anti-trafficking movement” published in Bitch magazine last year, and a sticker that says “Real Feminists and Human Rights Activists Don’t Buy Ashton.”

Sticker image

Dear Oakland Occupy Patriarchy: You are scaring me.

Date: June 14, 2012

Sex worker activists and others are protesting H.E.A.T. Watch anti-trafficking conference this week, because it is a conference of law enforcement agencies and its allied “anti-trafficking” groups to promote further criminalization as a solution to the complex issue of commercial sex trafficking of young people.

Among the activist groups protesting the conference was Oakland Ocupy Patriarchy, whose “disruption” of the said conference has resulted in at least one arrest. But in the statement announcing their protest/disruption, they prominently use a quote from my article in Bitch magazine, identifying me as a “sex worker and activist” (they also have another quote later in the post):

OOP screen capture

However, in Bitch article I do not identify myself as a sex worker. While I do not make secret of my history in the sex trade, I use discretion as to when and where I refer to myself as a sex worker for my safety–not just safety from violence, but from prejudice, discrimination, and police surveillance.

People involved in Occupy movement more than anyone else know that the law enforcement is closely observing what they are doing, and they will certainly read statements they post on their official website. They should also know that identifying individuals as “sex worker” publicly, even if the information is already available elsewhere, would pose extra threats to their safety and livelihood. It is especially threatening when the sex worker is associated with a quote that is critical of the law enforcement on a website that discusses occupation, disruptions and direct actions.

This is the kind of incident that makes me distrust the Occupy movement, with its white boy sensibilities and priorities, despite the participation of wonderful women and queer/trans people of color, and even as they intend to actively fight the patriarchy. I would also add that it reminded of me how I was grabbed, physically restrained, and sexually harassed by two white men at Occupy Oakland last November, and nobody stepped in to do anything (after pestering me about having sex with them, they finally let me go and told me “I was just joking”–haha, funny).

I appreciate the fact that Oakland Occupy Patriarchy recognizes that the law enforcement is exploiting the serious problem of commercial sexual exploitation of youth (CSEY) to further the militarization of our society and profits of the prison industrial complex. I appreciate that they are protesting the conference in support of sex workers’ rights groups. I’m just frustrated that many of Occupy activists do not seem to “get” the amount of fear people in the sex trade are in every day, and do not seem to get that they don’t get it.


Update 06/15/2012: It appears that Oakland Occupy Patriarchy has removed my quote from its website. I appreciate that, although I wish they had thought about it beforehand. For the record, I do not object to having my work quoted; the Bitch article is a published work and I have no problem with it being used by other people. I object to being identified as a “sex worker” when I did not label myself as such in the context, and especially so when people are quoting me to justify their potentially illegal activities like direct action and disruption.

Chicago Police misclassifying trans women of color in the sex trade as “johns” in its “end demand” initiative

Date: June 6, 2012

In “Mug Shots: Transgender ‘Johns’,” research methodologist Rachel Lovell reveals that a large number of people whose mug shots have been posted by the Chicago Police Department as individuals arrested for soliciting for prostitution (i.e. buying sex) appear to be transgender women of color.

According to Lovell, Chicago Police Department has been posting mug shots and personal information of people who were arrested as “buyers” of sex online in 2005. Public posting of the mug shots of people arrested as “buyers” of sexual services has been a cornerstone of many “end demand” campaigns targeting the “johns” throughout the country.

Her research center, Social Science Research Center at DePaul University, began collecting the published information since 2010, and she almost immediately noticed a curious trend: a significant portion of mug shots seem to show individuals wearing clothes, hair, makeup, and accessories that are clearly feminine in presentation, despite the fact they are categorized by the police as male “buyers” of sex. In fact, over 10% of the mug shots published in the two-year period from March 2010 to March 2012 show faces of trans women.

Those who consider trans women as “men in disguise” might jump on such finding as an evidence supporting their prejudice, while the rest of us instinctively get the feeling that there is something wrong with the notion that over 10% of individuals who have been arrested as “johns” are trans women. Further analysis by Lovell and her team indicate that there is, indeed, something unusual going on.

According to her breakdown of arrest data, there are stark differences between non-transgender men who are arrested as “johns” and trans women who were arrested for the same offense, beyond their gender identity and presentation. Trans women who were arrested as “johns” tend to be overwhelmingly (92.7%) Black, compared to less than half of non-trans arrestees; they are much younger too.

Young trans women of color are not known to patronize prostitutes in droves. But they are known to be more likely to engage in prostitution to survive, more so than any other group I can think of. In fact, any young trans woman of color is vulnerable to be profiled and arrested as prostitutes even if one is not engaging in the sex trade. This is also the group most often targeted for hate crimes, and for police harassment and brutality. Lovell is probably right to assume that these women are far more likely to be sellers, not buyers, of sexual services.

It is not clear to me if they are actually arrested under false premise as “johns,” or the Chicago Police Department is simply publishing names and photos of any legally male individuals arrested for prostitution (since many laws do not distinguish buyers and sellers–which is another discussion). But regardless, there is no question that they know exactly what they are doing: maliciously punishing and humiliating women for their race, gender, gender identity, and class for daring to survive.

This intentional mislabeling of trans women of color as “johns” by the Chicago Police Department of course reminds me of the recent case of CeCe McDonald, a Black trans woman who has just been sentenced to serve 41 months for defending herself against violent assailants. In McDonald’s case, too, she is not just punished for doing what she had to do to survive, but on top of that she is misclassified as a male perpetrator: she will spend her sentence in a men’s prison. The message is clear: for trans women of color, survival is a crime.

There has been a huge war of words over a radical feminist conference in the U.K. that excludes trans women from attendance over the last couple of weeks, but that exclusion does not occur in a vacuum. The same radical feminists who disregard trans women’s lived realities of womanhood under the patriarchy are also behind the punitive/criminalizing approaches to prostitution including “end demand” initiatives (e.g. Sheila Jeffreys who has been banned from the venue of the radical feminist conference for hate speech against trans women before the venue canceled the conference altogether is the Australian representative of Coalition Against Trafficking in Women).

Trans women of color know that this is not just an issue about some obscure conference of close-minded folks: transphobia, racism, and the persecution of women and other people in the sex trade are inseparable, and the violence of trans exclusion and misclassification, racial and gender profiling, hate crimes against trans women of color, and State violence are all connected and constantly present in the lives of trans women of color.

Memo: Twitter exchange with Stella about her (inaccurate) article on “pimps posing as sex worker activists”

Date: June 1, 2012

Below is the Twitter exchange with the account “Manhattan Call Girl” (@StellaMarr) about her blog article, which I commented a couple of days ago. I am archiving her comments here because she seems to have deleted many of them.

emikoyama 8:18 PM – 31 May 12
are you really certain that people you name as “pimps” actually are? http://eminism.org/blog/entry/311 @StellaMarr

emikoyama 8:19 PM – 31 May 12
bcz sex workers and even trafficking victims sometimes end up with “promoting prostitution” charge even though they aren’t pimps @StellaMarr

emikoyama 8:21 PM – 31 May 12
if they are actual pimps, then, yes i agree with you. i’m weary of criminal record as source knowing how abusive legal system is @StellaMarr

Stella responds the next day:

StellaMarr 12:35 PM – 1 Jun 12
@emikoyama Between being trafficked & pimping = #bigdifference. It’s not something easily confused #sexworker #feminism

StellaMarr 12:37 PM – 1 Jun 12
@emikoyama I used primary sources — the personal sites of parties in question. http://wp.me/p2bR3Y-6Z

She does cite sources, but her sources do not indicate that people she is mentioning are “pimps” in any way, with the possible exception of the man who is said to be a partner of someone who owns a male escort service (who is also a sex worker himself).

emikoyama 1:04 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr But you seem to be confused. Don’t you understand that “promoting prostitution” doesn’t mean pimping?

emikoyama 1:05 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr Charge of “compeling prostitution” would mean pjmping. But “promoting” doesn’t. It can apply to lots of things beide pimping.

Stella seems annoyed, like I don’t know what I’m talking about.

StellaMarr (deleted and couldn’t recover time stamp)
@emikoyama you seem to have a lot of free time, read my article again http://wp.me/p2bR3Y-6Z #bullying #feminism #emperorsnewclothes

I did read the article more than once, but still wasn’t convinced.

emikoyama 1:10 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr For example, several working women sharing work space together for safety and to save expenses is “promoting.”

emikoyama 1:11 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr driving someone or providing security is “promoting” even if it’s just friend and isnt making any money.

emikoyama 1:11 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr Further, consider this: pimp asks girl to introduce other girls to recruit. She complies. Is she now just a pimp?

emikoyama 1:12 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr I don’t know of any women you mention as pmps. I know them as sex workers. If they are in fact pimps, please give me more info.

emikoyama 1:13 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr Because none of their criminal charges indicate that they are.

Now she is really getting irritated.

StellaMarr 1:15 PM – 1 Jun 12
@emikoyama everyone knows we hate m or f pimps. You are boring me with these silly posts most guys prefer you go to hotel or thr house

StellaMarr 1:15 PM – 1 Jun 12
@emikoyama ZZZZZZZZZzzzzzzzzz bored

I was shocked that she would publicly display disrespect toward me rather than responding to my concern which was quite simple.

emikoyama 1:16 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr why do you need to insult me like this? i thought you were my sister. i dont like pimps any more than you do.

When I searched for her Twitter name, I found a lot of people calling her a liar and being rude toward her, so I could understand that she thought I was just one of them. I am not. I think I’ve kept everything pretty respectful. She changes her tone a little bit.

StellaMarr 1:20 PM – 1 Jun 12
@emikoyama then quit defending pimps darling, sorry I just get bored with these ridiculous hairsplittings — wish you well xo

Great, let’s go back to the actual content of our disagreement.

emikoyama 1:22 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr not defending pimps. i just think you are wrong to determine they wre pimps based on evidence we have.

emikoyama 1:24 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr because i can just imagine how horrifying it is to be falsely accused of being pimp. it would make me wanna die if it were me.

emikoyama 1:24 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr but otherwise i totally agree: pimps arent sexworkers and dont belong in sw groups.

Stella doesn’t contradict anything I say, or provide any further evidence.

StellaMarr 1:28 PM – 1 Jun 12
@emikoyama Lets agree to disagree —

StellaMarr 1:29 PM – 1 Jun 12
@emikoyama Based on evidence we have they should not be founding &leading sex worker unions/activist orgs — conflict of interest #feminism

We can’t just “agree to disagree” about whether or not someone is a pimp. That is a serious allegation and cannot be made lightly.

emikoyama 1:54 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr seriously, don’t we need to be more careful about calling people pimps? criminal charges you site don’t equal pimping.

emikoyama 1:59 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr pimps can be convicted of pandering or promoting prost but not everyone convicted of these are pimps. it’s that simple.

emikoyama 2:00 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr i am also concenrned and speaking out about conflict of interest within sw movement. i wrote about some examples in my blog.

emikoyama 2:02 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr to me, calling someone a pimp is among the worst thing you can say about someone. i dont want anyone to be called that wrongly.

Stella has not made any further responses since then, and appears to have deleted most of her replies toward me.

I understand that it is difficult to be speaking out as a survivor. I also understand that everyone says things on social media that they regret later. But her blog post is spreading extremely damaging information about sex workers’ movement that isn’t true, something that are being used to discredit and marginalize a whole movement that is fighting violence and exploitation of people in the sex trade.

If she regrets making any of the comments I quote above, I ask that she become transparent about it. Further, I ask that she retract the original blog post unless she can provide actual evidence that the people she name are “pimps.” I’m sure she understands how horrible it must feel when someone “expose” you as a pimp when you actually are not.


June 2, 2012 Update

At least one person who is mentioned as a “pimp posing as a sex worker activist” has responded, stating that she has never been a pimp. I don’t personally like her rhetoric (especially about Stella’s brain being damaged), but I can empathize: I would be pretty angry too if someone called me a pimp or flat-out negated authenticity of my experiences.


June 2, 2012 Update 2

Another woman told me that Stella called her a pimp, even though she wasn’t at all. She found the allegation particularly offensive because she has had a pimp herself. I wrote the following plea:

emikoyama 9:45 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr This is a personal and emotional plea. Please, please, stop calling people “pimps” when they aren’t.

emikoyama 9:46 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr Multiple people you named as pimps have now stated they aren’t pimps. One woman says she had a pimp too. You have no evidence.

emikoyama 9:46 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr Your “source” is criminal cases that don’t equal pimping. Pandering and promoting can and do apply to people who are not pimps.

emikoyama 9:46 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr I’m sure you understand how offensive it is to call someone who was exploited by a pimp a “pimp.” If it were me I’d be suicidal.

emikoyama 9:46 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr This is beside politics. We can disagree about everything else, but this is one thing survivors don’t do to each other.

emikoyama 9:48 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr Okay, maybe I’m wrong and they are pimps, though evidences don’t seem to support that. Perhaps. I’d rather err on that side.

emikoyama 9:50 PM – 1 Jun 12
@StellaMarr …than taking the risk of erroneously labeling survivors “pimps.” It is extremely traumatic.

I don’t know what’s going on in her head now, but I really hope that she hears me.


June 9, 2012 Update

After posting above, Stella asked me to remove this page because it made her feel unsafe. I do not want to make her feel unsafe, so I agreed to unilaterally remove this page as a demonstration of good faith. But at the same time, she was making many women unsafe by falsely labeling them “pimps,” and I asked her to delete the false allegations. I told her that I would permanently remove this page altogether if she did.

Stella continue to insist that her allegations were supported by evidence, but did not provide any evidence beyond what she included in her blog post. She also asked me not to contact her again. I agree not to contact her unless she contacts or mentions me first, which unfortunately made it impossible to engage with her further. I have now reinstated all exchanges I removed once because while I do not want to make her feel unsafe, I cannot ignore how she is making many other women unsafe with her false allegations.

Below is a statement I posted to this blog while the content was temporarily removed.

June 4, 2012 Update

After posting this entry, @StellaMarr asked me to remove this page. Well that’s not entirely accurate: what happened was that she claimed that she had asked me to remove it, even though I did not receive any such request. But okay, so she wants this page taken down–and I am willing to comply with that, even though I was merely quoting the comments she posted to Twitter.

The reason I am honoring such request is because she is a survivor and that means she is my sister and I feel loyal to her. I do not want to publicly criticize or expose another survivor even when she sort of deserves it, considering the fact she is making outrageous false allegations against other women in the sex trade that they are pimps. These women she is hurting are also my sisters too, and I want to defend them as much as I want to defend Stella.

So here’s what I decided to do: I’m going to unilaterally remove all the comments she made on twitter from this page as a gesture of good faith. And as I do so, I ask that she takes down false allegations against other women, or provide evidences to support her claim. “Pandering” and “promoting prostitution” charges are not evidences of someone being a pimp for the reasons I explained before.

After removing her tweets from this page, I will wait for 24 hours. If she does not remove her false allegations against other women and stop making similar attacks against my sisters, I have no choice but to conclude that she is acting in bad faith and reinstate this page to the original state.

Stella says that it is not a personal attack to point out that someone is a pimp. Well, it is definitely a personal attack when the allegation is false. My blog post, on the other hand, is not a personal attack against her: I am simply quoting her actual words to point out why her allegations are false.

I wish I didn’t have to criticize another survivor. In fact, if she would remove the false allegations and keeps it off her blog and tweets for long enough to convince me that she won’t do the same thing again, I will remove this page altogether including this statement itself. That is how loyal I feel toward a fellow survivor.

But if she does not remove her false allegations, and continues to make similar allegations against other survivors and sex workers who are not pimps, I will have to stop letting my loyalty to her as a fellow survivor get in the way of honoring my loyalty to these women who are being hurt by her actions.

Please note that I never defended the owner of male escort service she mentions in her article. It is clear that he and his partner are owners/managers, and while some people disagree about the use of the word “pimp” to describe managers who, like employers in other industries, hire people to work for them without coercing or exploiting them, and even though they are sex workers themselves as well as managers, I think Stella has a valid point about challenging the conflict of interest. Plus, I don’t like bosses in any other industries so I have no reason to like bosses in the sex industry either. So I am not defending the two men she mentions in the beginning of her article.

Other people she attacks, however, are probably not pimps, under any definition. Pimps can be charged with pandering or promoting prostitution, but not everybody who is charged with these crimes are pimps, because people can be found guilty of these crimes even if they do not control anyone else and do not even profit from another person’s sexual labor. I don’t want Stella to feel unsafe because of what I write here, but I also can’t let her continue to threaten safety of other women who do not deserve to be hurt.

Finally: Stella wants me to stop communicating with her on Twitter, and I respect that. I am going to post a final tweet to let her know this URL to give her an opportunity to act in good faith. Her refusal to engage with me directly makes it difficult for me to defend other women who are hurt by her actions without posting it publicly, which might make her feel unsafe. I struggle with this dual loyalty, but in the end I will have to side with people who are at the receiving end of the undeserved attacks rather than the other side. Stella, I wish you would not put me in that position.

Not so quick to call sex worker activists “pimps”: criminal charges do not tell the full story

Date: May 30, 2012

Last week, sex trafficking survivor and activist Stella Marr wrote an interesting article exposing some of the leaders of sex worker’s rights groups as “pimps” who are “posing” as sex worker activists, ostensibly to silence survivors like herself and promote “policies that protect pimps.” I appreciate her effort to address the conflict of interest within sex worker organizing as it is something I’ve been speaking out about, but I am troubled by her use of criminal records to support her claim that many “sex worker activists” are actually “pimps.”

That said, I want to state this first: regardless of what one’s views regarding prostitution and sex trade are–whether they are pro- or anti-prostitution, feminist or moralistic, libertarian or paternalistic, secular or religious–I feel a sense of connection to and camaraderie with everyone who has lived through abuse and exploitation in the sex trade. I hesitated responding to Ms. Marr because I fear that there are people out there who are not one of us, who would quote my words to attack her, as they would use her words to attack me and others like me. But this discussion is so important that I could not avoid it.

One of my first encounters with the national sex worker’s movement was in 2001, when I attended a series of workshops for sex workers held in conjunction with the Sex Worker’s Art Show in Olympia, Washington. I was naive about the racial/class/etc. division within the sex worker’s movement at the time, so I was really excited to be surrounded by sex workers who were proud, not ashamed, of what they did. I had never thought that it was possible to validate myself as a “sex worker,” rather than feeling ashamed or damaged about my experiences. (And this honeymoon period with the sex worker’s “community” and the sex worker identity lasted for less than a year.)

But even to my naive self, it felt very weird and offensive to hear one of the presenters chastise sex workers “who don’t enjoy their job” as being “sex-negative.” It was later that I found out that she had stripped behind a protective glass while she was a graduate student “as part of a research project,” and was managing a sex toy shop at the time. No wonder: as a manager, she had a vested interest in convincing her employees (which, I don’t consider sex toy shop workers to be “sex workers,” but that’s beside the point) that their jobs are fun and liberating: it’s cheaper than offering good pay and benefits.

Similarly in 2004, I was involved in the debate at/around St. James Infirmary, a free comprehensive health clinic specifically for sex workers in San Francisco. In order to make up about $80,000 budget shortfall after a funding cut from the city, SJI organized “Erotic Health Day,” on which “much of San Francisco’s adult entertainment community, including local exotic dancers, adult entertainment club owners, and sex workers” donate 10% of their proceeds to the clinic. The fundraiser was endorsed by the owners of the clubs (Hustler Club, New Century Theatre, Market St. Cinema, and others), but many sex workers were concerned that dancers would be forced or pressured by their bosses to give up their earnings.

In addition, there was a concern about St. James Infirmary, an institution that has to stand on the side of the vulnerable workers, becoming financially dependent on the bosses who exploit dancers every day. The controversy was further exacerbated after critics discovered that one of SJI’s board members (at the time) was a club owner, and that the board had contracted with his company to provide publicity for the fundraiser. (See my comments from November 2004 in “Pimps are not our friends: sex workers’ clinic should distance itself from managers.”)

In that sense, Ms. Marr is right: for a movement that purports to promote the notion that sex work should be treated just like any other work, its failure, in many instances, to actually treat sex workers’ interests and rights violations like any other workers’ is deeply troubling, even though there are also many sex worker activists with labor rights and other social justice analyses.

Where I become concerned about Ms. Marr’s article is her reliance on criminal records to label and dismiss someone as a “pimp.” Charges she conflates with “pimping,” such as promoting/facilitating prostitution, running a brothel, etc. do not necessarily mean that someone is controlling or taking advantage of another person, or even profiting from another person’s sexual labor. Under Oregon law, for example, promoting prostitution is defined as:

A person commits the crime of promoting prostitution if, with intent to promote prostitution, the person knowingly:

  • (a) Owns, controls, manages, supervises or otherwise maintains a place of prostitution or a prostitution enterprise; or
  • (b) Induces or causes a person to engage in prostitution or to remain in a place of prostitution; or
  • (c) Receives or agrees to receive money or other property, other than as a prostitute being compensated for personally rendered prostitution services, pursuant to an agreement or understanding that the money or other property is derived from a prostitution activity; or
  • (d) Engages in any conduct that institutes, aids or facilitates an act or enterprise of prostitution.

This statute, which is similar to many other jurisdictions’, is quite broad. For example, it can apply to sex workers who share a “work space” to save money and increase safety for themselves, or people (including friends) who provide transportation and other services for sex workers to work more safely, even if they are not controlling another person or profiting from their sexual labor. I am personally guilty (although I have never been charged with promoting prostitution), for example, of helping a friend who had just left a pimp learn to use Craigslist to post ads on her own, among other things, that might fall under this broad definition.

One reason it is so broad is that real pimps (i.e. those who control other people and pocket their earnings) are notoriously difficult to prosecute for what they do, which in Oregon law is called “compelling prostitution.” Prosecutors want to have the option to charge them with something that is easier to prove in court. But the same law can be and are used to target sex workers, survivors, and our associates–sometimes even as a threat to coerce us into “cooperating” with the prosecution against those they perceive to be “pimps.” In addition, while I don’t have any hard data, I would not be surprised if racial/class/gender/etc. stereotypes and prejudices sometimes influence what specific charges are brought against sex workers and victims of sex trafficking.

The distinction between people who “engages in any conduct that institutes, aids or facilitates an act or enterprise of prostitution” and those who actually perform the sexual labor (trafficked or otherwise) is not as clear as Ms. Marr suggests. Many of us who trade sex, regardless of why or how we do it, are also vulnerable to prosecution under “promoting prostitution” laws: it can apply when we exchange health and safety tips or are on the lookout for a friend who is getting into a strange vehicle. It will definitely apply when a pimp asks (or makes) us talk to and recruit other “girls.” That should not disqualify us from speaking as a sex worker or a survivor of abuse and exploitation for that matter; in fact, it is part of what it means to be a sex worker or survivor of abuse and exploitation in the sex trade.

Pimps who control and abuse other people should never be allowed to speak as a sex worker or lead a sex worker organization. But people whose criminal histories include “promoting prostitution” and other similar charges are not necessarily guilty of controlling and abusing us, and some of them are actually not any different from us. Ms. Marr is correct to point out that sex worker’s movement often fails to address the inherent conflict of interest that exists within the sex industry as well as in the sex worker’s movement, but I don’t agree with her tactic of using people’s criminal history to reduce them to “pimps” just like her abusers.

(See “Pimping does not equal enslavement: thoughts on the resilience of youth and adults who have pimps” for more discussion about the problem with the label “pimps.”)

Constructing “domestic minor sex trafficking” as a “gang-related” issue: what I learned at a forum on “the other kind” of human trafficking

Date: May 18, 2012

On April 26th, I attended Portland Human Rights Commission’s public forum on human trafficking. Unlike many other “trafficking” events I’ve attended over the past several years, this one was specifically designed to address what the Commission called “transnational” human trafficking for labor exploitation. Speakers were mostly made up of law enforcement officers and immigration advocates, but the forum also featured a testimony from a Mexican man who had been trafficked at a small labor camp in Oregon. The only person on the panel I recognized was Detective Keith Bickford from Multnomah County Sheriff’s Office, who heads Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force.

Detective Bickford explained that there were two parts to the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force. One of the areas is the domestic minor sex trafficking, which he thinks is doing pretty good in terms of public awareness and funding. The other part is those involving “foreign born” victims of labor trafficking, according to Bickford. The community often want to hear about domestic minor sex trafficking only, Bickford said, but the trafficking of “foreign born” labor trafficking must be addressed also.

Even as he stresses the importance of addressing all forms of human trafficking, I can’t help but think how his (and Oregon’s) formulation of human trafficking as domestic minor sex trafficking and transnational adult labor trafficking leave out many forms of human trafficking that actually take place in Oregon, such as domestic adult sex trafficking, sex trafficking of “foreign born” people, domestic labor trafficking, labor trafficking with sexual exploitation component, and labor trafficking of minors.

Bickford adds that ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) is doing a great job assisting foreign born victims of human trafficking, even though the actual victims of trafficking and exploitation often feel fearful of immigration officers. He explains: trafficking victims fear police and ICE because governments and law enforcement officers in their home countries are often corrupt and abusive, so they associate government agents with that impression, even though such fears are unwarranted in the U.S. Yeah right, that’s why American youth who engage in sex trade totally feel comfortable and safe with the police. Not.

Throughout the forum, I notice that panelists are using phrases “trafficking of foreign born victims” and “transnational trafficking” interchangeably, but that is not accurate. Those who entered into the U.S. consensually (either legally or illegally) and then were trafficked domestically tend to have less rights and protections than those who had been trafficked from the beginning. Because trafficking often involves deception, it is often difficult to tell the difference between the two.

Immigration advocates know how difficult it is to secure protections for victims of labor trafficking and exploitation unless there is a strong indication or evidence of inculpability, as explained by immigration attorney Stephen Manning from Immigrant Law Group PC. “The distinction between (consensual) migrant smuggling and human trafficking is clear legally, but it is very subtle in reality.”

An audience member asked Bickford about the magnitude of transnational human trafficking in Oregon. He responded that he was unaware of any figure, though Oregon’s farm labor camps are known among immigrants from South and Central America as a destination.

Next, Manning introduced one of his former clients, a Mexican man who has been abused and exploited in an Oregon labor camp. He spoke about circumstances that led to his arrival in Oregon, his experiences at the labor camp, and how a Christian pastor who visited him eventually made his captors afraid of being exposed and abandon him. I elect not to publish any further details of his story, but he quickly left the room after giving his testimony.

Another immigration attorney, Anna Ciesielski from Immigration Counseling Services spoke next. She works with Bickford on cases involving human trafficking, and discussed difficulty having her clients trust him. The law enforcement wants to arrest traffickers, she explained, but they can’t do so without cooperation from victims, she said. She also spoke about how Catholic Charities’ loss of a major federal grant for assisting immigrant victims of human trafficking has left a gaping hole of services for the victims.

Ciesielski’s office has worked with about ten immigrant victims of human trafficking so far this year, she said. Because resources are limited, they are able to take only the “strongest cases” that are likely to lead to a special trafficking victim visa.

Senior assistant attorney general Diane Schwartz Sykes came up next. Prior to joining the Oregon Department of Justice to lead its Civil Rights Unit, she has worked for Oregon Law Center and Legal Aid Services of Oregon, specializing in immigration and civil rights cases, during which she has visited many labor camps throughout the State. For every registered labor camps she visited, she observed a couple of small ones that aren’t registered (in Oregon, labor camps must be registered if they hire more than a certain number of workers).

Chris Killmer from Catholic Charities explained how funding cut had forced the organization to abandon some of its services for victims of trafficking, but it keeps receiving referrals from other organizations. In the two years that the organization was funded to provide services, Catholic Charities worked with about 60 victims, 65% of which came from Latin America. Portland is also a point of entry for Asian immigrants and trafficking victims. Real numbers are difficult to uncover because this is a hidden population.

Asked about outreach to labor camps, Sykes stated how it became more difficult for her to reach out since becoming a government officer. Government agencies such as BOLI (Bureau of Labor and Industries which handles discrimination cases), OSHA (occupational safety and health), Human Rights Task Force, and ICE have interest in finding out what goes on at labor camps, but are not welcomed. Religious communities and legal advocates have easier time accessing laborers.

Sykes also mentioned that many laborers speak indigenous languages, rather than English or Spanish, which makes it even more difficult to outreach. Their children, if any, may speak English through Head Start program and such, but are also vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

At that point, an audience member who is a representative from the U.S. Attorney’s Office was invited to make a statement, which she was completely unprepared for. She admitted that she had no experiences in advocating for, investigating, or litigating human trafficking cases, though her boss (U.S. Attorney S. Amanda Marshall) considers the issue “a high priority.” Everything she said came from trainings she received for her job, not from any actual experiences addressing human trafficking.

But it is then she slipped the information that confirmed what many activists knew was the case but most government experts were smart enough to conceal: that the U.S. Attorney’s Office views domestic minor sex trafficking as “primarily gang-related,” and has moved the issue to its “gang unit”; transnational human trafficking on the other hand was moved to the civil rights unit.

The admission that the U.S. Attorney’s Office views domestic minor sex trafficking as a “gang-related” problem is significant. While right-wing anti-trafficking groups such as Shared Hope International has always insinuated racial overtones to the issue (e.g. urban Black men kidnapping suburban white schoolgirls), government officials tended to be more careful in how they communicate the issue. With the admission, however, it should now be a public knowledge that human trafficking is becoming yet another way for young men of color to be criminalized and imprisoned, while leaving behind many economic and social circumstances that lead many youth to engage in the sex trade.

The rep from the U.S. Attorney’s Office continuously praises her boss to the point I get embarrassed for her. An audience member comments how the “turf war” between State and federal officers are often obstacles, to which she responds “it depends on the individual–call my boss if you have any issues.”

Someone in the audience commented that victims of human trafficking like the man who gave his testimony should be supported so that they can become leaders and educators in the battle against human trafficking, rather than simply having their stories used. Bickford and Sykes respond, but they don’t seem to get it: Bickford says how he appreciates victims because he learns a lot from talking with them, and Sykes talks about how victims can make good outreach workers because they speak indigenous languages being spoken by other laborers. They don’t get it.

Frustrated, Jeri Williams–a Portland city employee with background in environmental and labor activism who identifies herself as a survivor of sex trafficking–speaks out: when Human Trafficking Task Force and others ask survivors of trafficking to “tell their stories” without payment, they are continuing the exploitation rather than fighting it–especially when celebrity speakers are paid thousands of dollars to be keynote speakers for anti-trafficking conferences (Williams didn’t name the conference, but I believe she is referring to the 2011 Northwest Coalition Against Trafficking conference which paid actress Daryl Hannah to keynote). I disagree with Williams on many things (after all she supports “end demand” campaigns that I think are ineffective and harmful for women), but I totally respect her for speaking out on this and supported her unsuccessful bid for the City Council this year.

Williams further spoke about how New Options for Women which provides drug treatment and other services to adult women who have prostitution records is facing budget elimination and stresses how we must salvage it. Another audience member who works for Multnomah County spoke out against Secure Communities initiative which prevents immigrant communities from cooperating with the law enforcement because of the fear that such contacts would lead to immigration detention and deportation of their family and community members. In response, Bickford stated that he was just a lowly detective in the law enforcement but he has been educating himself about the issues, carefully avoiding any statement that can be perceived as too political.

Overall, the forum was informative in terms of the government’s perspective of human trafficking in Oregon: that they seem to only recognize two variations of human trafficking (domestic minor sex trafficking on one hand, and transnational adult labor trafficking in the other), and that domestic minor sex trafficking is now being treated as a “gang-related” issue. It was also interesting to observe that, other than Jeri Williams, none of the people who are involved in the movement against sex trafficking were in the audience (in fact, there was a leader of an anti-prostitution group in the audience at the beginning, but she left after finding out that the forum focused on transnational labor trafficking), further demonstrating how we perceive a clear division between the two officially recognized categories of human trafficking–which, to borrow Manning’s phrase, may be more subtle in reality.

Further thoughts on the economics of “end demand” campaigns against sex trafficking

Date: March 14, 2012

In an article I posted a year ago, I explained why “end demand” approach to prostitution is harmful to women in the sex trade. But since “end demand” approach is just as popular as it was back then, I thought I’d provide a little bit more detail on the economic logic behind this argument. I’m not an economist, and besides I don’t have any actual data to back up my theory, so I’d appreciate feedback from people who know more about economics than I do.

“End demand” approach is often promoted as the application of simple economic principle of supply and demand, even though there is not a single credible economist who supports the idea. Siddharth Kara, a former Merrill Lynch investment banker turned anti-trafficking activist and author of poorly written Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery, is frequently referred to as the “economist” who is in favor of “end demand” policy, but his training is in business management, not economics.

In “supply and demand” model, we expect the market to automatically arbitrate constantly updating levels of supply and demand through price. An increase in supply in excess of demand results in price drops, which would stimulate more demand to match the supply. A decrease in supply raises the price, which in turn reduces the demand for whatever is being sold. Similarly, an increase or decrease in demand can raise or drop the price, which encourage or discourage supply.

It is unquestionably true that there would be no sex trafficking (or consensual sex trade for that matter) if there weren’t any market for commercial sex, because market transactions require both buyers and sellers (whether the sellers are people engaging in sex trade, or pimps and traffickers who are selling another person’s sexual labor). But the total elimination of the market altogether is unrealistic and probably involve some sort of totalitarian government control over people’s lives that most of us are not willing to accept. We must, therefore, think about the impact of “end demand” approach on the assumption that prostitution would remain as an underground economy, rather than that it would be completely eliminated.

Let us first think about the market for an ordinary commodity, like wheat. Imagine that the government passed some policy–whether it’s a restriction or new taxation or whatever–designed to artificially discourage the demand for wheat. The price of wheat goes down, which would simultaneously encourage 1) farmers and producers of wheat to switch to producing other crops that are more profitable, and 2) consumers to buy more wheat and wheat-based products instead of some other crops because it’s now cheaper than before. In a free, competitive market, this whole process occurs smoothly and transparently until the market adjusts to the new equilibrium at different levels of transaction amount and price point.

The question we have to consider is what that equilibrium would look like if we artificially reduced the demand for commercial sex through increased penalty and public education. The price would likely fall, as the sellers are forced to compete for the business of a smaller pool of buyers. But a modest drop in the price will not deter vast majority of the sellers, because many of them do not have other, comparable means for generating income. Even pimps and traffickers have little reason to change career (investment banker maybe?) until and unless the price of commercial sex goes down quite a bit, especially if pimping is as profitable as anti-trafficking groups claim.

In other words, a decrease in demand reduces the price, but that is not likely to lead to a comparable decline in supply: in economics, this is called inelasticity of supply. And because supply is inelastic, the market must compensate that by reducing the price further in order to reach the new equilibrium at the price point at which enough of the lost demand would return, either through more buyers entering the market or existing buyers purchasing more frequently.

From the buyers’ point of view, the cost of purchasing commercial sex is not just the money they pay to the seller (be it individuals who trade sex or their pimps/traffickers). “End demand” approach increases the overall cost of buying sex by increasing the legal, financial, and social risks of arrests and/or public humiliation as well as the transaction cost (cost of finding the seller and negotiating the transaction). Assuming that each buyer is willing to incur up to a fixed amount of cost in their pursuit of sexual exchange, they will be unwilling to hand over the same amount of cash as before if non-monetary costs (risks and transaction cost) are increased.

“End demand” policies are thus unlikely to reduce the actual amount of commercial sexual exchanges, but it shifts the distribution of cost buyers incur from the direct payment toward the non-monetary costs of risks and transaction costs. It means that while buyers are incurring an equivalent level of cost overall, sellers are receiving less of it for each transaction. To put it differently, sellers must engage in more transactions than before in order to maintain the same level of income, which pimps and traffickers are sure to insist–and even then, it becomes more and more difficult as other sellers also try to sustain their profitability, further driving down the price through competition.

In addition, “end demand” policies will have two other consequences for the sellers beyond the loss of income, both of which are harmful to the people who either consensually or unconsensually engage in the sex trade. First, they lower the seller’s bargaining power, which is the ability of each side of the transaction to “take the business elsewhere.” When the number of buyers decreases, it leaves sellers with a smaller number of potential buyers to negotiate with, and buyers with a larger number of potential sellers. In a market environment like this, buyers can easily find other potential sellers who might agree to a more beneficial (to the buyer) deal, they have a greater bargaining power that they can take advantage of. Sellers on the other hand cannot afford to lose the business by insisting on a favorable deal, and are pushed into arrangements that are less safe or comfortable, such as engaging in unprotected sex or performing acts they consider degrading.

Second, “end demand” policies change the profile of buyers in the market. Because not all potential buyers assign equal values to the increased risks of arrest and its various consequences or potential loss of reputation, “end demand” policies do not discourage all potential buyers equally: they discourage buyers who are generally more afraid of the risks (or risk-averse), while doing little to deter those who are impulsive and thrill-seeking (or risk-seeking). It seems reasonable to assume that members of the latter group are more interested in having unprotected sex and more likely to assault the person engaging in the sex trade than do those in the former group who are afraid of potential health, legal, and physical risks.

If I were an academic economist, I could not get away with hypothesizing the potential consequences of “end demand” approach, as I am doing now, without testing it against the actual data. But I am not an economist and I am concerned that proponents of “end demand” approach never even address what might happen when the demand actually begins to fall as a result of the policies they advocate: they seem to be operating under a vague sense that reducing demand means less prostitution and therefore less sex trafficking. I might not have an econometric proof of my model, but they do not even have a model that is worth testing.

It is this complete lack of concern and care for the well-being of the people they are ostensibly trying to protect that frustrates me. From where I stand, “end demand” is bad for all sex workers and others who are consensually engaging in the sex trade, and probably for most people who are forced and/or coerced into the trade as well, possibly even worse (as they are under greater pressure to maintain the same level of revenue after the market crashes). We must demand politicians, celebrities and anti-trafficking organizations that promote “end demand” approach to explain what they are hoping to accomplish and how these policies actually bring about desired changes.

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