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Youth in the sex industry: how recognizing “push” and “pull” factors can better inform public policy

Date: October 19, 2011

Recently, there have been several articles in the media challenging the frequently cited “statistics” that claims anywhere between 100,000 to 300,000 children annually are trafficked into sexual slavery in the United States, most notably in Village Voice (06/29/2011). I have also analyzed this claim in my zine, “War on Terror & War on Trafficking,” criticizing the methodological problems in the original study as well as misinterpretation of the study by the media and anti-trafficking organizations. (Village Voice requested a phone interview with me before that article came out, but I thought they were going to twist my comments so I insisted on a written interview over email, after which they trailed off.)

But while it is not true that hundreds of thousands of children are forced into sexual slavery, Village Voice is clearly wrong to suggest, based on the number of juveniles arrested for prostitution-related crimes, that underage prostitution is extremely rare. Any social service providers serving street-based youth know that underage prostitution is fairly common among the youth they work with, even though it does not look like what the media often depict it to be.

The confusion arises from the application of the legal definition of “human trafficking” to frame our understanding of underage prostitution. Because the law defines any youth who engages in sex trade (which is a value-neutral descriptive term I use instead of “sex work” or “sexual exploitation”) as victims of human trafficking, many people equate that to mean that all youth who engage in sex trade are enslaved by traffickers.

This impression is further reinforced by certain anti-trafficking organizations such as Shared Hope International that promote the notion that any child, even white middle-class children from good homes in the suburb, can be trafficked into sexual slavery. Such campaigns fuel fear and panic among white middle-class parents that their daughters might be “taken” from their suburban schools and malls by urban (code for Black) pimps. This fear-mongering tactics is highly effective for grabbing funding, media attention, and political influence than campaigns that focus on the plight of runaway and thrownaway youth of color and youth from impoverished or broken homes–a more typical profile of a teenager involved in sex trade.

It is true that any child can be trafficked, but like everything else, poverty, racism, and other societal violence are huge risk factors: A pimp who goes to a suburban school to pick up a girl is much more likely to be noticed or caught, and the girl that went missing will be reported to the authority immediately. On the other hand, youth who is neglected or abandoned by their family and has no safe place to return to is a much easier and safer target for anyone looking for a minor to exploit.

But the misguided panic among middle-class suburban parents lead to policies that are ineffectual or even counter-productive, such as curfews and more policing at schools and malls. Curfews or youth shutouts in public spaces that are intended to protect youth from harm at night would only work if the youth had a safe place to go home to at night; if they don’t, curfews would force them to find some random adult to stay with for the night, which may not necessarily increase their safety.

Village Voice and other critics of “100,000 to 300,000” figure are correct to point out that the number of youth who are held in captivity and subjected to commercial sexual servitude–which the word “slavery” implies–is low. But when you include youth who occasionally or regularly engage in survival sex, which is trading sex for food, shelter, and other survival needs, and those who stay with a “boyfriend” or pimp not because they are unable to escape from them but because they get something out of the relationship that they are not getting elsewhere, the number would be exponential.

I believe that there are some anti-trafficking activists and organizations that distort reality about youth in the sex trade in order to advance agenda that have nothing to do with ending sexual exploitation of youth. I count Shared Hope International as well as the producers of the documentary, “Sex+Money: A National Search for Human Worth” in this group. I base this allegation on these activists’ and groups’ activities, such as Shared Hope shamelessly using its mailing list to distribute anti-abortion propaganda, and “Sex+Money” producers using its screenings to hand out “purity bands” that encourage viewers to pledge abstinence until they are married.

But I wonder if organizations that actually care about the youth are also making a conscious decision to let the public imagine there to be 100,000 to 300,000 minors who are “sold” as sex slaves, not challenging their misperceptions, precisely because they know that the public would care less about the youth if they understood the reality that most of them are not “forced,” at least not in slavery-like conditions, but are simply doing what it takes to survive. I wonder if they are intentionally hiding the fact that the youth in the sex trade are overwhelmingly youth of color, queer and trans youth, and other runaway, thrownaway, and homeless youth, and not your typical white middle-class children taken from suburban schools and malls, because they fear that the public won’t care about these children and youth. If white middle-class parents stop caring, there won’t be any funding to provide services to the youth who desperately need it. That seems like a reasonable hypothesis that explains why many social service agencies that work with this population remain complicit in upholding wildly inaccurate misperceptions about the problem at hand.

But, as I’ve pointed out above, such strategy also leads to ineffectual or counter-productive policies. I am especially alarmed that some of the social service agencies are forming and strengthening unnerving partnerships with the law enforcement, such as riding along in the police vehicle when cops conduct prostitution sweeps. The purpose of the ride-along is ostensibly to provide support and resources to any youth that might be uncovered in the sweep, but many street youth understandably view the police as their enemy, and it harms the social service agency’s credibility and trustworthiness in the eyes of the youth.

Further, the public misperception over who the youth are result in overemphasis on pull factors of underage prostitution, and almost complete lack of attention to its push factors. “Pull factors” are the presence of sex industry, johns (clients), pimps, and traffickers that lure youth into engaging in sex trade; “push factors” are factors such as family violence, poverty, prison industry, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia, and unjust immigration laws, that make youth vulnerable in the first place.

Almost all anti-trafficking organizations focus on policing and prosecution of johns, pimps, and traffickers–the pull factors of the equation. Behind such approach is a naive assumption that the youth have a safe home to go back to or remain at if it weren’t for the sex industry, johns, pimps, or traffickers. But this is not the case for the vast majority of youth who trade sex. Even if the institution of prostitution and sex industry disappeared altogether, the youth will have to find another way to survive in the hostile society, possibly by selling drugs or robbing stores.

Anti-trafficking activists and organizations that knowingly promote false images of “modern day sex slavery” infuriate me. So do Village Voice and others that claim that underage prostitution is not a significant problem. And most of all, I am exasperated by “the public,” the middle-American parents, television watchers, and people who click “like” in facebook as a form of activism, who don’t and won’t care about what youth have to do to survive, as long as their own children aren’t at risk.

Over the past couple of years, I have criticized anti-trafficking movement from a sex worker’s rights perspective, but I am finding it increasingly limiting to associate myself with the sex workers’ movement. Because sex workers’ movement seeks to decriminalize and destigmatize sex trade as a “transaction between consenting adults” just like any other market transactions, the movement automatically excludes minors from its consideration. I am not interested in “rescuing” youth from the sex industry, but I feel that it is our responsibility as adults to provide support and resources to the youth struggling to survive (whether or not they engage in survival sex or sex trade), while confronting social and economic violence that are “pushing” them onto the street in the first place.

I am preparing a new presentation on the topic, titled “Erasure of Transgender Youth in the Sex Trade: How Transgender Community, Sex Workers’ Movement, and Anti-Trafficking Movement Fail Transgender Youth.” I will first do a test run of this presentation for a class my friend teaches at Portland State University, and then present it at Justice in Transition: Serving the Transgender Community in Law and Practice symposium at New York University next month. This is the beginning of my new project on exploring alternative approaches to addressing the needs of youth in the sex trade. Let’s see where this project takes me next… (And please try to get me invited to your school if you are affiliated with one–speaking fees fund my activism!)

P.S.
Shannon, the youth services coordinator at Northwest Network, uses the acronym CSEY (commercial sexual exploitation of youth) in lieu of ubiquitous CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children). I like CSEY because it is not so radically different from CSEC that anti-trafficking people would resist it, and yet it brings the term closer to the reality and makes it less offensive. Everyone, let’s start replacing the term CSEC with CSEY whenever you see them in some documents! (That is, unless you are actually talking about five year olds.)

Understanding the Complexities of Sex Trafficking and Sex Work/Trade: Ten Observations from a Sex Worker Activist/Survivor/Feminist

Date: October 8, 2011

PDF version here: Download – Print back to back upside down, then cut the paper in half horizontally. Makes two copies from a letter-sized paper. Feel free to distribute, but I’d love to know where and how you are using them.

1. Start from the assumption that women’s (and other people’s) experiences in the sex trade are diverse and complicated, just like women’s experiences in the institution of marriage.

2. Sex trade is often one of the few means of survival employed by members of marginalized communities. Criminalizing or taking away means of survival without replacing it with other, more preferable options and resources (as judged by people who engage in this activity) threatens the lives of marginalized people. If, on the other hand, we could actually provide more preferable options and resources, there is no need to criminalize or take away the option of trading sex.

3. The presence of consent does not imply fairness of the transaction, because consent can exist under deeply problematic relationships of power. Consent does not imply that one is solely and individually responsible for all consequences of the act performed consensually.

4. There is nonetheless a meaningful distinction between consensual and unconsensual sexual transactions because it helps us to recognize modes of intervention that are helpful rather than counter-productive to those involved. People who engage in consensual sex trade are harmed if the transaction is stopped, while those who are part of unconsensual acts are harmed if the transaction isn’t stopped.

5. Work under neoliberalistic capitalist economy is often exploitative and degrading. Treating sex work “just like any other work” is inadequate when “other work” are often performed under unsafe or exploitative conditions. Selling and buying of sex as commodities can be exploitative and degrading, as are selling and buying of labor, health, and safety in the neoliberalistic capitalist marketplace.

6. Legalization or decriminalization of prostitution will not end State violence against people in the sex trade. There are other laws, such as those concerning drugs, immigration, and “quality of life” crimes, that are being used against them. Arguments over how the law should classify prostitution (legalizing, decriminalizing, criminalizing, Swedish model, etc.) eludes realities of communities that are targeted by State as well as societal violence.

7. It is undeniable that the mainstream pornography and sex industry reflect and perpetuate women’s lower status in relation to men. But so do mainstream media and workplaces–sometimes in more harmful ways.

8. It may seem theoretically plausible to eliminate sex trafficking by ending the demand for commercial sexual services. But in reality, any artificial reduction of demand through increased policing would be immediately followed by a decline of price, which would in turn create more demand again. “End demand” policies have a devastating impact on the women’s bargaining power to negotiate for more money and safer acts, putting their safety and health at greater risk.

9. Many “experts” and “spokespersons” for the anti-trafficking movement are social, fiscal, and religious conservative extremists who have promoted anti-welfare, anti-immigration, anti-gay agenda. These very policies break down families and make women and children vulnerable to sexual exploitation and trafficking. Feminists and human rights activists must choose our allies.

10. We cannot fight sex trafficking effectively without partnering with sex workers, people in the sex trade, and their advocates. All over the world, it was workers organizing among themselves that have challenged and transformed exploitative and abusive working conditions, not police officers or politicians. In addition, people working in the sex industry have access to insider knowledge that need to be incorporated into any successful campaign to combat sex trafficking and other human rights violations within the industry.

Film “Sex+Money”: Evidence #7290 that the Mainstream Anti-Trafficking Movement is a Conservative Christian Movement

Date: October 7, 2011

Last night I went to a Portland screening of the feature-length documentary, “Sex+Moey: A National Search for Human Worth.” It was a brilliantly produced and well-structured film, but unfortunately it did not go beyond what I had expected from seeing the trailer which repeated the myth of extremely low the “Average Age of Entry” into prostitution. It also quoted people claiming that there are 100,000 to 300,000 trafficked children in the U.S., which is demonstrably false.

The film lost me from the beginning when the young white producers pushed their professional-quality cameras into massage parlors with Chinese signs, grilling the older Asian business owners and managers (who did not seem to be very fluent in English) about services they provide. They tried to trick the managers into offering illegal sexual services, but were unable to do so; later, the producers discussed among themselves that they should plan better. Well perhaps they should have partnered with Asian immigrants’ and workers’ advocates if they were serious about addressing the safety and rights of women who work there.

The producers claimed that they interviewed 70+ people around the country including sex workers. But the few sex workers and allies they “interviewed” were ambushed at the adult industry expo or while counter-protesting anti-prostitution demonstration. All other interviewees were treated more formally in their office, home, or other setting. A porn actor’s statement that she enjoys her job is followed by some “expert” explaining, without evidence, that vast majority of sex workers have been abused as children and learned to treat sexual violation as the norm.

The film kept going back to policymakers like Sen. Sam Brownback (now Governor of Kansas) and former Rep. Linda Smith (now the director of Shared Hope International, which has not responded to my questions about the discrepancy between its own study and its public statements) as experts. But they fail to mention that Sen. Brownback was one of the leading religious conservatives in the Senate that want to cut social services to fund tax breaks for rich people and corporations, and create harsher conditions for undocumented immigrants–both of which will exacerbate the problem of human trafficking. Former Rep. Smith also had her day as the anti-abortion, family values conservative, whose policies have devastated women and children (and also, people who signed up to receive updates about Shared Hope also receive anti-abortion materials). And yet, the film treats them like heroes. Oh yea, they also interviewed anti-prostitution activist Melissa Farley so that she can make all those outlandish generalizations that we are already familiar with.

Trafficking survivors’ stories describing the violence they experienced from pimps and johns were chilling, and yet I kept feeling how similar they were to the stories of women abused by their husbands and boyfriends. In fact, if I were to make a film that depict all marriages or even heterosexual relationships as inherently abusive, I could interview some survivors of domestic violence and edit the footage to show exactly that. It would not be persuasive only because many viewers know from their experiences that not all husbands and boyfriends are violent, and there are many loving, caring heterosexual men out there. But most (white middle-class) people are not familiar with pimps, and most johns do not admit to being johns, so people get very limited ideas about pimps and johns from films like this. Anti-prostitution activists decry the glorification of pimp culture in the media, which I tend to agree with (hey I don’t think it’s so hard out here for a pimp), but their depiction of pimps as sadistic monsters is also overly simplistic.

There was an interesting segment during the film in which producers grapple with whether it is appropriate to classify all prostitution as slavery. Several “experts” argued either that it was appropriate to do so, or that it was merely a matter of degrees. The representative of Polaris Project actually made sense for once–he pointed out that, while there are cases of severe human rights violation that appear indistinguishable from slavery, we must be careful about the use of the term “slavery” because the word has a specific historical context in the United States. I agree: slavery in the U.S. was a complex institution supported by the Constitution, the law enforcement, the commerce, and the rest of the fabric of the mainstream society, and should not be applied lightly to individual cases of rights violation or even to the underground, illegal activities as a whole. But then, the use of the word “Polaris” in the organization–the north star that guided escaped slaves through the Underground Railroad–does seem to contradict his careful positioning in the matter.

After the film, they brought up local “experts” fighting domestic minor sex trafficking for a panel discussion. The panel consisted of an attorney working for children in foster care, a supervisor at Oregon Department of Health and Human Services, and an assistant US Attorney who heads the Oregon Human Trafficking Task Force. The emphasis on the State and police power was evident, despite the fact that the very youth they are trying to “rescue” experience police harassment and abuse all the time.

I also found a handout created by Multnomah County at the resources table set up outside the auditorium which posits the logo of Janus Youth (social service provider for youth on the street) next to the logo of Portland Police Bureau. This is a bad idea. I know Janus struggles to maintain a cooperative relationship with the police when they need it while shielding youth from bad interactions with the police, but over the last few years I’ve seen Janus become closer and closer to the police in its public presentation as more of their revenues began to come from anti-trafficking grants while traditional funding streams have narrowed due to the economy, cutting street outreach and other programs, and I am alarmed.

I support the Tantric practitioners charged with prostitution, but not on the first amendment ground.

Date: September 19, 2011

Earlier this month, Arizona authorities (which usually focus on harassing immigrants and brown-skinned people) raided Phoenix Goddess Temple and charged 30 people associated with the group for prostitution. Prosecutors allege that the Temple was a de facto brothel in which prostitutes were referred to as “sacred healers” and johns “seekers.” The Temple insists that its members practice “Tantra and Goddess worship as a religion,” calling the raid “a modern day witch hunt.”

I know what it feels like to be the target of the witch hunt (see my zine, Surviving the Witch-Hunt: Battle Notes from Portland’s 82nd Avenue, 2007-2010), and I sympathize with those who have been arrested or had close ones arrested. I do not think that they deserve to be persecuted, and believe that the charges against them should be dropped.

But I find it troubling that many sex worker activist friends are rushing to defend the Temple on the first amendment (religious freedom) ground. I am not criticizing the Tantric practitioners for invoking the first amendment in their legal defense–when you are persecuted, use whatever is within your reach to your advantage–but I am concerned that some of my friends in the sex workers’ rights movement are also using this angle.

To invoke first amendment to defend the Tantric practitioners implies that while they are good people who are simply following their religious and spiritual practices, the rest of us who trade sex for money not as a religious practice but to survive in this neo-liberalistic capitalist economy are bad whores that deserve to be punished. I don’t believe that this is what they are actually thinking, but it would logically follow from the “religious freedom” argument.

Media discourse on this topic seems to center around whether the Temple’s activities are legitimate religious practices or the Temple is merely a front for illegitimate operation. But it is the legitimacy of the State (or lack thereof) to persecute sexual healers and sex workers that must be at the focus (not to mention the legitimacy of the State to use violence to police the artificial borders drawn over indigenous and Mexican peoples’ land).

A friend told me that nonetheless this case could be a breakthrough for sex workers’ rights in the State that has become the epicenter of naked hate and bigotry in the recent years. But I feel resentful of the idea that Tantric healers are better than the rest of us who provide sexual services, and I am sick of religious entities claiming special exemptions (e.g. the religious freedom to discriminate against women and queers).

There of course is a difference between the dominant religious group imposing its doctrine on all others and a minority religion defending its practices deemed objectionable by the dominant group. But I feel uncomfortable with the strategy to distance the Temple and its practitioners from the rest of us who don’t have a neat constitutional clause to count on.

Additional comments on Farley’s Scottish research, 2008 vs. 2011 versions

Date: July 19, 2011

After Iamcuriousblue informed me that Melissa Farley’s 2008 “study” on men who purchase sex from prostitutes in Scotland had been accepted for publication in Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy, I spent a couple of hours comparing the 2008 report with the 2011 manuscript describing the same “study.” Below are some additional comments after reading both versions side by side.

Overall, the 2011 version removes many (but not all) unsupported editorializing and adds further statistical analysis. For example, a comment like this has been removed from the 2011 version (emphasis mine):

46% told us that going to a prostitute made a man a better lover. The opposite is likely the case. Women in prostitution train men to ejaculate quickly in order to decrease the men’s traumatic intrusion into their bodies.

The paragraph below (emphasis mine)

Another punter was a frequent prostitution tourist in Asia. He detailed the harsh conditions women were subject to in Thai and Cambodian prostitution. Exposing his narcissism and his sadism, he rationalised the commission of sexual violence against women and children. “I don’t get pleasure from other people’s suffering. I struggle with it but I can’t deny my own pleasures.”

is modified in the 2011 version as

Another study participant was a frequent prostitution tourist in Asia who spoke about the harsh conditions women were subject to in Thai and Cambodian prostitution. Rationalizing the commission of sexual violence against women and children, he told the interviewer, “I struggle with it but I can’t deny my own pleasures.”

Similarly, the following phragraph (emphasis mine)

Against common sense, the punters we interviewed insisted that the women they bought for sex were sexually satisfied by the punters’ sexual performances. Half (49%) of the men deluded themselves that the prostitutes they purchased were sexually satisfied 50%–100% of the time. In fact, nothing could be farther from the truth.

has been modified as follows:

Many of the interviewees stated that the women they bought for sex were often sexually satisfied by the men’s sexual perfor- mances. Approximately half of the men (49%) asserted that the women they purchased were sexually satisfied 50% or more of the time. On the other hand, 85% of the men also stated that prostitutes do not enter prostitution because they like sex.

There are several contradictions between the two versions. For example, the 2008 version states (emphasis mine)

They reasoned that if prostitution did not exist then some men would rape women who were not prostitutes. While none admitted that they themselves would rape, they were adamant that other men were incapable of controlling their impulse to sexual predation.

while the 2011 version claims (emphasis mine)

They reasoned that if prostitution did not exist then men would be more likely to rape women who were not prostitutes. Although few admitted that they themselves would rape, they asserted that other men were incapable of controlling an impulse to sexual aggression.

Iamcuriousblue suggests that the discrepancy can be a result of Farley’s “notorious lack of transparency in how she derives numbers from qualitative interviews.”

Another example of contradiction is the description of the newspaper ad Farley et al. used to solicit participants. In the 2008 version, participants are offered “an interview fee,” while the 2011 paper states that the ad promised an “honorarium.” While the discrepancy may appear to be inconsequential, they are both presented as the exact phrase used in the recruitment ad, and the fact that there is a contradiction between the two reports brings into question the authors’ handling of other materials such as men’s responses in the interview.

Also, there appears to be an internal contradiction in the 2011 paper when it states

Approximately one-third of the men justified prostitution simply as a means for men to satisfy their sexual desires. This was the most frequently offered justification for prostitution.

despite the fact more than one-third of the men agree with other justifications, for example:

Forty-one percent of the study participants subscribed to the belief that there is an inverse relationship between prostitution and rape. […] They reasoned that if prostitution did not exist then men would be more likely to rape women who were not prostitutes.

Finally, both versions (unsurprisingly) contain many logical fallacies such as this:

The men we interviewed often simultaneously held diametrically opposing attitudes about prostitution. Nearly all the men (96%) stated that to a significant extent (50% or greater extent of agreement) prostitution was a consenting act between two adults. Yet at the same time, 73% noted that women prostitute strictly out of economic necessity, and 85% acknowledged that women did not enjoy the sex of prostitution.

The notion that prostitution is usually a consensual act between adults does not contradict the belief that “women prostitute strictly out of economic necessity” (or perform any other kind of labour for that matter), or that they do not necessarily enjoy the sex (or any other task one has to do to get paid in any occupation). And yet, Farley seems to think that these beliefs are “diametrically” opposed.

Farley apparently believes that commercial sex is unconsensual and violent unless prostitutes engage in it purely because they enjoy the sex, which is a ridiculous standard that is not applied to any other forms of labour. That is, most of us do not engage in other forms of income-earning activities (i.e. work) purely and solely because of the joy of performing them, but that alone does not make all of us victims of involuntary servitude.

But this ridiculous assumption is the foundation for Farley’s incoherent position that prostitution is inherently exploitative and violent, and I am disappointed that Psychological Trauma: Theory, Research, Practice, and Policy would extend her the academic legitimacy that she does not deserve.

Some thoughts on the Newsweek story on the new Farley “research”

Date: July 19, 2011

Leslie Bennetts who apparently drunk the prostitution-is-violence-against-women cool-aid wrote an article in Newsweek (07/18/2011) titled “The John Next Door,” which is based on anti-prostitution “researcher” Melissa Farley’s new “research” on men who purchases sexual services.

The “study” was made “exclusive to Newsweek,” so we can’t actually read the report itself. So my comments are preliminary but here are some quick (and not so quick) thoughts:

1) The report is made “exclusive to Newsweek,” so we don’t know what methodology they used beyond what is included in the story (which is very little). Melissa Farley, the author of the report, has produced multiple previous “researches” on johns in different countries and regions, none of which (as far as I know) has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The article does not refer to any other studies on the johns that have been published in peer-reviewed journals. (Edited to add: Apparently one of Farley’s articles have been accepted by a peer-reviewed journal. See comments for detail.)

2) In her previous “researches,” Farley recruited study participants (men who have purchased sexual services) via newspaper ads that read “Ever been a client of a prostitute? International research team would like to hear your views”, offering financial compensation. I don’t know how they recruited the participants this time around, but whether subjects who have been recruited this way are representative of all men who purchase sex is highly questionable. The new report seems to be different from the previous studies in that it includes the control group, but we do not know how the control was recruited either.

3) Much of the article consists of anecdotal statements that are supposedly illustrative of general tendencies among men who purchase sex and those who don’t, but there are no quantitative comparison between them. It is impossible to tell if the statements are actually representative of each group.

4) There are many unfounded editorializing and logical leaps. For example, one paragraph reads: “Many johns view their payment as giving them unfettered permission to degrade and assault women. ‘You get to treat a ho like a ho,’ one john said. ‘You can find a ho for any type of need–slapping, choking, aggressive sex beyond what your girlfriend will do.'” But the john’s statement (i.e. you can find a sex worker who would agree to participate in the enactment of violent fantasies like those described) does not indicate that he views his payment as giving him “unfettered permission to degrade and assault women.”

5) The story states “Farley’s findings suggest that the use of prostitution and pornography may cause men to become more aggressive.” She has made similar claims in her previous “researches” which have not been (and will probably not be) published in peer-reviewed journals, but has not provided the evidence that one causes another.

6) The story states that prostitutes “typically enter ‘the life’ between the ages of 12 and 14,” which is based on a demonstrably faulty interpretation of data. T.O.M.’s story is sad and infuriating, but its use as “a case in point” is questionable, as her experience (i.e. having been sold for the first time at age four) is very unusual.

7) The second half of the story slides the discussion on to sex trafficking rather than adult consensual commercial sex, as if they are the same thing. But it is the illegality of commercial sexual transaction itself that makes it more difficult to separate the two and confront the actual abuse and exploitation of children and women (and others).

8a) The article cites the 2004 study in American Journal of Epidemiology by Potterat et al. to indicate that “Prostitution has laways been risky for women; the average age of death is 34.” But this is misleading, because it does not mean that the average life expectancy for prostitutes is 34 or that the average prostitute dies at age 34. Potterat et al. are simply reporting that among the active prostitutes who died in the studied period, the average age at which they died was 34. If that is not clear, consider this analogy: average age at death for those who die while enrolling in college is probably somewhere near 20, but nobody would claim that the average college student dies at 20.

8b) The article also cites the same Potterat et al. study to say that “prostitutes suffer a ‘workplace homicide rate’ 51 times higher than that of the next most dangerous occupation, working in a liquor store.” But working in a liquor store is not “the next most dangerous occupation.” Potterat et al. state that taxicab drivers are much more likely to be murdered than liquor store clerks: the “workplace homicide rate” for prostitutes is seven times higher when compared to taxicab drivers. That is still pretty high, but why does Bennetts feel the need to exaggerate the already horrible figure?

8c) Further, “the overwhelming majority” of the “prostitutes” in this study were streetwalkers, and almost two-thirds were recruited at sexually transmitted infection clinic. Other participants were found at HIV testing sites or addiction treatment facilities, or identified by the police. Thus, the study systematically excludes prostitutes who are less visible to public health and law enforcement officers (e.g. escorts), who are likely to be much less prone to violence.

Anyway, it’s hard to say anything about the new Farley “study” until the actual report is made public and the research methodology is made transparent (and hopefully Farley would submit the paper for publication in peer-reviewed journal this time).

Also read: Melissa Farley in Scotland: Trivializing prostitution and trivializing violence against women by Elizabeth Wood

Oops. Serious typo in “War on Terror & War on Trafficking” zine

Date: July 12, 2011

Oops.

On page 33 of my zine, “War on Terror & War on Trafficking, I made a pretty bad typo. Under “Social and Economic Justice Model” on that page, I meant to say that the model demands “voluntary services” including medical care, instead I typed “involuntary services.” I’m sure that most people understand this is a typo, as I’m contrasting it with the “anti-trafficking model” which prescribes court-mandated “services.” But nonetheless, I apologize for the confusion.

The PDF version of the zine has been modified, and all future printings will be fixed as well. If you have already purchased the zine, please get your pen and cross out “in” in “involuntary.” Sowwee.

Remembering our history: Sex workers in Portland organize against draconian City ordinance, 1999-2000

Date: May 31, 2011

Below is an excerpt from my old (2002) zine, Instigations from the Whore Revolution: A Third Wave Feminist Response to the Sex Work “Controversy”. My thinking has evolved and shifted in some ways since I made that zine, but I thought it’d be interesting to share a history of sex workers organizing against the City government.

How Sex Workers Defeated Mayor Vera Katz: Information on Portland City Ordinance 14.44

In September 1999, Portland City Council passed a new ordinance (City Code 14.44) proposed by Mayor Vera Katz and the Portland Police Bureau regarding the personal escort/modeling industry. The ordinance mandated absurd requirements for anyone who worked as a personal escort or model, making her even more vulnerable to abusive customers, police abuse, and discrimination than she already was. It violated sex workers’ right to privacy, patronized their ability to make their own decisions, and seriously compromised their safety.

Local sex workers formed Scarlet Letter, a collective of workers and their supporters, to combat the city ordinance. “Workers need affordable housing, health care with dignity, and protection from mismanagement and harassing authorities,” instead of such a repressive regulation, says its press release. Scarlet Letter later submited “Sex Workers’ Wish List,” the counter-proposal to the City describing a better way to regulate escort/modeling industry.
Sex workers and their allies also waged a legal battle, arguing the City Code 14.44 to be unconstitutional. City modified the ordinance twice to increase the odds of withstanding the legal challenge, but the judge eventually sided with sex workers on March 8. Mayor Katz subsequently abandoned the ordinance.

Even though we were able to defeat this particular ordinance, we know that it could come back in a different form any time, plus sex workers across the country are fighting daily against similar legislation. The information about this ordinance is included here in order to preserve the history of sex workers’ successful organizing.

Absurd Requirements under the Ordinance

Under the City Code 14.44, anyone who works as an escort or a lingerie model must:

  • Pay $200 to get a personal escort/model permit that has her headshot.
  • Give police their finger prints. – Submit to a criminal background check–permit is denied if she has been convicted of “prostitution-related crimes” in the past five years.
  • Keep a telephone log of each customer who calls. – Show the escort/model permit to customers.
  • Sign a contract with customer before each appointment that describe specific services provided.
  • Make the phone log and contracts available to police inspection without search warrant.
  • If she works independently, she must obtain a $500 business license and comply with additional requirements.

Penalties

If a worker is caught in violation of Code:

  • It is a Class B misdemeanor ($500 fine/ 6 months in jail) to work without a permit.
  • Civil penalties of $100 (for first offense) and $500 (the second) are assessed for each “minor” violation.
  • Permit is revoked for any “major” violation, such as failure to pay civil penalty within ten days and accumulating three offense in a single year.
    Other Consequences of the Ordinance
  • Those with the history of prostitution-related convictions will be ineligible for the permit, putting them further “underground” and at the greater risk of being abused or exploited.
  • Those with fewer opportunities to become self-reliant outside of the sex industry will be trapped in poverty and government assistance.
  • When uneligible worker is abused, assaulted or exploited on the job, they will be less likely to seek police assistance.
  • The existence of public registry of workers’ personal information will make it easier for the customer to harass or stalk her.
  • Public record of escort/model permit makes it more difficult for workers to leave sex industry in the future, effectively trapping those who may wish to leave.

Sex Workers’ Wish List

The following is excerpted from Scarlet Letter’s counter-proposal to the city council as to a better way to regulate escort/modeling industry. Of course the City ignored everything we said in this, but it felt good to have a concrete counter-proposal: we aren’t saying that escort/modeling businesses don’t need regulation, but that the regulation proposed by the City was harmful to us.

  • Change the title of the permit from “Personal Escort/ Modeling Permit” to “Worker Permit” so that workers can leave the industry without the scarlet letter.
  • Use the OLCC beverage/food server application as a model of what a work permit application should look like, including the fees.
  • Have escort/models obtain the permit from the Bureau of Licenses and Multonomah County Health Department, instead of Portland Police Bureau.
  • Require escort/modeling business management to have a working relationship with Health Department. Raise the standard of awareness of how to decrease one’s risk at the job site. Require job training that addresses disease prevention, safety issues, and current laws that pertain to sex work.
  • Hold the management accountable for proper security measures at the job site.
  • Remove any unnecessary personal information from the permit application.
  • Issue a certificate instead of a photo ID as the permit.
  • Remove the automatic rejection of a permit if individual was convicted of a misdemeanor (i.e. prostitution) so that they can engage in sex work legally.
  • Police should not be allowed to enter one’s residence without a search warrant.
  • Change the punishment of working without a permit to a fine, rather than a misdemeanor.
  • Remove unreasonable requirements that escort/models keep the customer’s phone numbers in a log for Police to inspect, and sign a written contract with the customer before each appointment.

Timeline of Our Struggles

September 22, 1999 – City Code 14.44 is introduced by Mayor Katz and the Portland Police Bureau. No sex workers are informed of the proposal.
September 29, 1999 – City code 14.44 passes the City Council with no objections.
November 1, 1999 – First meeting of Scarlet Letter. Open only to workers.
November 8, 1999 – Second meeting of Scarlet Letter. Open to all supporters.
November 14, 1999 – Sex Workers’ Masquerade, a fundraiser for Danzine and Scarlet Letter campaign.
November 15, 1999 – Third meeting of Scarlet Letter, to which a Willamette Week reporter showed up to write an article.
November 17, 1999 – Scarlet Letter speaks out at the City Council.
November 23, 1999 – Emi hosts a panel discussion on sex work at Portland State University, which turned into a pep rally for Scarlet Letter.
December 15, 1999 – Lawsuit is filed to block enforcement of the ordinance.
January 26, 2000 – Scarlet Letter presents the “Sex Workers’ Wish List” to the City Council. Emi was almost arrested for holding up a sign in the Chamber. City Council makes a minor modification to the ordinance, but ignores us for the most part. Willamette Week runs a story that is somewhat favorable to sex workers.
February 4, 2000 – First hearing of the lawsuit against the ordinance.
February 22, 2000 – Judge declares the ordinance invalid under Oregon constitution.
March 8, 2000 – Mayor Katz abandons the ordinance. WE WON!!!!

Emi’s Final Comments

1. It is frustrating that the only thing that stopped the ordinance from being enforced was the constitution. I mean, we worked with the media, tried to educate the City Council, went to City Hall many times, called up people, and even worked with the Multnomah County Health Department to come up with an effective alternative to the ordinance so that the escort/modeling industry is regulated just like all other industries–and the only thing that actually worked was a judge’s order. I guess that’s how the system works in this lawsuit-obsessed country, but I’m really sad that City Council absolutely refused to think, even for a second, that perhaps the Vice Unit of the Portland Police Bureau may not be the expert when it comes to the sex industry.

2. I’m annoyed by the “sex radicals” who celebrate sex workers as strong independent women (or men, or whatever) while neglecting the real suffering of people who are being exploited or abused within the sex industry. And I’m also annoyed by the radical feminist I spoke with who told me how much money sex industry is costing tax payers and how many abortions are taking place as a result of the sex industry as a way to demonize it.

My goal is to empower everyone working in the sex industry, whether they are engaged in commercial or survival sex so that people who wish to leave can have other realistic options and people who wish to stay can have safer, better working environment. So all sex radicals and radical feminists–stop arguing and do something already.

3. Initially, I thought that this ordinance is about inhibited sex moralists versus us freakish folks. In fact, that’s how all the media reported it. But it was not. The reality is that this is not about morality, but is about business owners versus workers. I realized this as I was talking with the City officials.

In fact, it is not true that the City did not consider the legitimate needs of the industry while drafting this ordinance: they talked with people who run the businesses although not the people who work for them, which makes me think that the interests of the owners and managers–but not those of workers–are reflected in the ordinance.

The ordinance would have made it much more difficult for women to work independently without a pimp–which is exactly what the owners and managers want, because it would wipe out the competition for their businesses. The ordinance was never intended to hurt these businesses; the City was trying to enact a system in which workers are under the control of pimps and pimps are under the control of the Police Bureau.

4. Escorts and models still do not have the protection they deserve within the industry. Now that the ordinance is struck down, City of Portland should join Multnomah County in working with us to develop a real regulation that would protect safety and rights of workers. If they don’t–well, everyone who has ever consumed adult entertainment (which is pretty large number of people) should refuse to vote for the current City Council members when they come up for re-election!

Three new updates to “Interchange” on prostitution, intersex, and trans issues

Date: May 26, 2011

I don’t usually report site updates on this blog, but I’m making an exception because 1) there are three new documents, and 2) people who are reading this blog these days might be interested.

The additions are in the “Interchange” section, which archives my contributions to mailing lists and message boards. It should have been a blog, but I started it long before “blog” was a common word or concept (remember “weblog”?), and content management systems were primitive. Anyway:

Enjoy!

War on Terror & War on Trafficking – A New Zine Released!

Date: May 22, 2011

Just in time for my workshop at San Francisco Sex Worker Film & Arts Festival next Friday, I announce the publication of my new zine/booklet, War on Terror & War on Trafficking: A Sex Worker Activist Confronts the Anti-Trafficking Movement.

It is a product of my extensive research into the anti-trafficking movement over the last couple of years, in which I expose many premises of the U.S. domestic anti-sex trafficking movement to be false, and challenge how the movement itself has strayed away from feminist principles, and is increasingly aligning itself with the fundamentalist Christian right and contributing to the militarization of our society.

The zine is available for previewing as a PDF file and for purchase at my zine store.

Table of contents looks like this (some items are linked to a previous blog post on a related topic):

Introduction:
Why feminists must confront the anti-trafficking movement

Chapter 1 The Three Most Common Myths
1.0: Why “facts” presented by the anti-trafficking movement are wrong
1.1: Myth #1: Average age of entry into prostitution is thirteen
1.2: Myth #2: 300,000 children are at risk of being sexually exploited
1.3: Myth #3: 1/3 of 1.6 million annual runaways are sold within 48 hours

Chapter 2 Other Myths and Misinformations
2.0 “Pornland” and other problems with Operation Cross Country
2.1: World Cup, Super Bowl, and the Olympics: an international panic
2.2: The censorship of Craigslist: unintended consequences

Chapter 3 Examining Economic Arguments
3.0: “End Demand” approach harms women working in the sex trade
3.1: Does “economic coercion” equal human trafficking?

Chapter 4 War on Terror and War on Trafficking
4.0: Fiction, Lies, and the militarization of anti-trafficking movement

Conclusion:
How anti-trafficking movement distorts reality and harms women

Here is the full text of the introduction:

Human trafficking is “modern-day slavery,” and many of its victims are women and children. If so, why should a feminist have to “confront” the movement against human trafficking? Let me be clear that human trafficking is a serious problem in the United States, and we need to do something about it.

I first became aware of the issue in the early 2000s at a conference about domestic violence. What I learned at the time was that while Violence Against Women Act (1994) and Trafficking Victims Protection Act (2000) had been enacted, domestically trafficked victims–many of whom are working in the sex industry–could not access services and protections under these laws. I joined the effort to raise awareness about the issue and to expand relief provided through these legislations.

“Human trafficking” was a new term then. While there have been earlier uses in some publication (the earliest mainstream use being a Christian Science Monitor article in 1996), it did not attain the meaning it has now until around 2000, when TVPA passed; when the term was used prior, it frequently meant the same thing as smuggling, which is often exploitative and can lead to trafficking, but is generally consensual).

A search on news article database shows that there were 3 total references to phrases “human trafficking” and “trafficking in humans” before 2000. It was mentioned 9 times in 2000, 41 times in 2001, and entered three digits for the first time in 2005. In 2010, as many as 501 articles found on the database referred to either phrases.

EBSCO search result

I mention the origin of the term “human trafficking” because, as it became obvious after many years, the creation and proliferation of the new terminology was a deliberate rhetorical shift on the part of the U.S. government and its capitalist and imperialist interest to redefine forced migration and labor (sexual or otherwise) from a social and economic issue arising from poverty, economic disparities, globalism, and unreasonable restrictions on migration to an international criminal enterprise comparable to smuggling of drugs and weapons.

And as the U.S. fell deeper into the nightmarish “War on Terror” in the aftermath of 9/11, along with its continued failure in “War on Drugs,” the new “War on Trafficking” gained intensity while copying the simplistic “just say no” attitude of the War on Drugs and “either you are with us, or with the terrorist” mentality of the War on Terror. The anti-trafficking movement today does not resemble what I had supported in the early 2000s anymore.

The battle we as sex workers, feminists and human rights activists are facing is not a simple rehash of the “feminist sex wars” of the 1980s between radical feminists and sex radicals. With its increasingly sensationalistic focus on domestic minor sex trafficking, the anti-trafficking movement we see today in the U.S. is primarily a Christian fundamentalist movement with police, prison, immigration enforcement, counter-terrorism, and other “law and order” interests piggybacking on it. Radical feminists, with whom I have many disagreements over such issues as prostitution, transgender issues, and BDSM, are just as frustrated as we are that the current anti-trafficking movement measures the success of its own activities by the number of criminal convictions rather than the long-term health and well-being of women and children.

But many people do not realize this, either because they do not know enough about the forces behind the anti-trafficking movement or the dubious nature of many of its basic claims–which distorts our conversations about this important topic and misleads public policy. Others may not agree with everything that is happening in the name of ending human trafficking, but do not see any alternatives.

This booklet is a product of two years of research into the state of the anti-trafficking movement in the United States. I went to dozens of events, lectures, and conferences, and spoke with many wonderful but misguided people who take part in this movement. I have also had opportunities to hear many stories of surviving forced labor and prostitution, some of which were not so dissimilar to my own experiences in the sex trade in one point or another. I do not wish to negate their authority to speak about their own experiences and how they wished things were different, but I am deeply troubled by the cherry-picking of survivor stories and experiences that support the anti-trafficking trope equating all prostitution with trafficking and all trafficking with slavery, while all other voices are dismissed as “exceptions” (or “the top 2% elite,” as one anti-prostitution researcher said).

What I aim for in this booklet is to examine various questionable “facts” presented by the anti-trafficking movement, and address ways in which they distort our perceptions of sex trafficking and prostitution and mislead the public to support policies that are ineffectual or counter-productive. I will also show links between the War on Trafficking and the War on Terror, and how problematic aspects of the War on Terror permeates the War on Trafficking as well.

Chapter 1 of this booklet exposes the big three “factoids” that anti-prostitution groups use in order to influence people emotionally and to get their way with media, corporations, and the government, but are false. Chapter 2 continues on this direction, but focusing on other misinformation that influence public opinions. Chapter 3 scrutinizes “economic” arguments, including the “end demand” approach to end sex trafficking and the theory of “economic coercion.” In Chapter 4, I will use the movie Taken as a starting point to talk about the links between the War on Terror and the War on Trafficking. And finally in the conclusions, I will contrast anti-trafficking versus social and economic justice approaches, demonstrating how anti-trafficking movement is harming women and other vulnerable people.

I hope that this booklet contributes to building a more comprehensive and reality-based movement that challenges many facets of social and economic injustices. I hope that readers find the booklet informative, challenging, or affirming of their deep suspicion they have about the anti-trafficking movement. Thanks for reading, and I welcome reader feedbacks at emi@eminism.org.

War on Terror & War on Trafficking: A Sex Worker Activist Confronts the Anti-Trafficking Movement is available for preview as a PDF file and for purchase at my zine store.

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