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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