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City exempts prostitutes (and trafficking victims) from civil forfeiture–First step toward decriminalization?

Date: October 28, 2010

This Wednesday, Portland City Council passed an emergency proposal that modified civil forfeiture ordinance to dedicate funds and assets seized in prostitution-related crimes to pay for services for victims of trafficking (see OPB News). The change would allocate 75% of the funds for such services, while 25% go toward law enforcement’s anti-trafficking effort.

The move seems to be symbolic, as forfeiture from prostitution cases do not bring in that much money, although the City and the police refuse to give a specific figure. City Commissioner Dan Saltzman and the local media applaud that it would take away assets from pimps and halt their operation, even if just temporarily, but that is not likely, since pimps almost never get arrested at all (I understand that less than five such cases have been persecuted in the last several years).

But perhaps the most significant change in the ordinance is how it exempts “victims of trafficking” from having their assets forfeited. The new city code will read (with the changed portion in bold):

Conduct involving violation of solicitation to violate, attempt to violate or conspiracy to violate any provision of ORS 167 .002 to 167 .027, excluding 167.007(a) is hereby declared to be prohibited conduct, and any property that is used to commit or which is proceeds of the prohibited conduct is hereby declared to be subject to forfeiture, as limited by the provisions of 148.50.020.

What is ORS (Oregon Revised Statute) 167.007(a)? Here’s the full text of ORS 167.007:

167.007 Prostitution

(1) A person commits the crime of prostitution if:

(a) The person engages in or offers or agrees to engage in sexual conduct or sexual contact in return for a fee; or
(b) The person pays or offers or agrees to pay a fee to engage in sexual conduct or sexual contact.

(2) Prostitution is a Class A misdemeanor.

In other words, even though Commissioner Saltzman’s office explains that the change is intended to protect “trafficking victims” from civil forfeiture, the exemption applies equally to everyone who is targeted by 167.007(a)–that is, anyone charged with the crime of prostitution for engaging in or offering or agreeing to engage in sexual conduct or sexual contact in return for a fee.

I am generally concerned with the conflation of prostitution and trafficking (i.e. regarding all prostitutes as victims rather than people making difficult choices under difficult circumstances), as it leads to paternalistic interventions that diminish options for many women involved in prostitution rather than enhancing them, but this is a case in which the conflation actually benefits sex workers.

But why stop here? If the City believes that all prostitutes are victims and should not be penalised by having their assets forfeited, they certainly shouldn’t be penalised by being imprisoned, having children taken away, etc. Perhaps the new ordinance approved this week could be a first step toward decriminalizing 167.007(a) not necessarily because prostitution should be legal (we can agree to disagree there), but because it is not fair to punish women engaging in prostitution.

New zine about trauma and self-cutting available at Portland Zine Symposium

Date: August 27, 2010

Cutting: A Diary is a brand new zine about trauma and self-cutting. It is released at Portland Zine Symposium this weekend, and is only available in person (with some exceptions–contact me) unlike my other zines. I don’t want any random person to download or order it online because it is very personal.

Cutting: A Diary

Note: Reading this zine can be extremely triggering if you have a history of sexual abuse, PTSD and/or self-injury. Please take care of yourself.

Also: See Andrea Gittleman’s review of my other new zine (published a month ago), “Surviving the Witch-Hunt: Battle Notes from Portland’s 82nd Avenue, 2007-2010” in Feminist Review. In many ways, Surviving the Witch-Hunt and Cutting: A Diary go together: the former is analytical and political while the latter is personal, but they address the overlapping realities of the 82nd Avenue.

VICTORY: City of Portland funds “housing first” pilot program for women leaving prostitution

Date: July 31, 2010

While I was attending the Desiree Alliance conference in Las Vegas, there was a big news in Portland: YWCA of Greater Portland received a $900K federal grant to create a shelter for girls and women under the age of 18 who have been “trafficked” (and I put the word in quotation marks because the legal definition of “trafficking” makes no distinction between youth engaging in prostitution under force, coercion or deception, and those who do so without these factors–I think it’s a bad idea to conflate these very different cases).

But the more interesting news, reported by Portland Tribune, is that the City of Portland is now planning to fund a pilot program in which several women (of any age, it appears) leaving prostitution will receive financial and other support that will enable them to live independently in the community, rather than in a centralized transitional facility. Tribune reports:

The third effort under way is led by City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, who is working on a pilot program that would begin this fall. The program would place women seeking to escape their life on the street into private-market units around the city, rather than in one central “safe house.”

The nonprofit Join, which already works with the city’s housing efforts, uses a “housing-first” model that places people in housing and then gives them the social, financial and other support they need to maintain that housing. Join will provide the up-front rent and moving costs, work with the landlord and supply other help as needed.

[…]

If the woman relapses and returns to the street for a short time, she will not lose their housing, since that’s one of the philosophies of the housing-first model, says Amy Trieu, a policy coordinator for Saltzman: “The purpose is to build that trust.”

This is exactly the approach I along with others affiliated with Sex Workers Outreach Coalition (SWOC), a network of activists, sex workers, and social service providers, advocated for back in December 2009, when the 82nd Avenue Prostitution Advisory Committee (PAC) made its report to the City Council. The PAC had been set up by the Council a year earlier, and it largely represented the perspectives of the law enforcement, anti-prostitution activists, and area business owners, rather than the women and social service providers who outreach to them. Among other things, PAC recommended:

Allocate funds for in-patient rehabilitative services and addition of supportive housing directed to prostituted persons, both adult and minor ; PAC asks that City Council commits to help fund a housing program (includes external evaluation) in fiscal year 2011

The PAC wanted to create a “10 bed in-patient rehabilitative housing” with the FY2011 budget of $657-913K. In contrast, SWOC recommended “housing first” approach precisely as described by Tribune–and the City apparently agreed with us. Here’s that section from SWOC’s December 2009 recommendations:

Housing is often considered a primary need for women working in prostitution, and it is essential if we are to assist women who wish to leave the sex industry (or abusive pimp, partner, etc.). We support the use of housing first approach in collaboration with existing housing advocacy organizations.

Housing first, also known as rapid re-housing, is an innovation within homeless advocacy that seeks to quickly place recently or chronically homeless persons and families in their own permanent housing in the community instead of keeping them in centralized “transitional” housing that they must vacate after the program period. This eliminates the stigma of living in a shelter or transitional housing, provides the stability necessary to address personal issues, and builds sense of autonomy and independence.

Many homeless people experience multiple problems, such as mental illness, addiction, psychological trauma from abuse, and HIV/AIDS. Traditional service providers try to address these issues while they are in shelters or transitional housing, but their effectiveness is limited by the hardship of their living circumstances. Housing first model seeks to establish stability to people’s lives through housing, so that other issues can receive adequate attention once individuals are secure in their own place. Women in the process of leaving prostitution can also be supported by a combination of a housing first program and a series of other services arranged with the help of the caseworker.

Some people may find the idea of residential treatment centers, in which women can access support groups, case management, addiction treatment, etc. at the place they live, appealing. One advantage of such plan is that it offers built-in opportunities where women who have a history of prostitution can meet and support each other. But forcing them to live together and share living quarters at some centralized location in order to receive that support is likely to be a mistake. Without a private housing to go home to, participants would not feel inclined to take the risk and disclose personal stories and feelings among their peers.

In addition, women who drop out from the program for any number of reasons at a residential treatment facility would also lose their housing. Housing first approach gives women greater protection from this problem. If we believe that housing is a basic human right, we should not be threatening to withdraw it in order to coerce compliance with the treatment program. Nor should we need to, if the programs actually offer something that women benefit from.

Locally, homeless advocacy organizations such as Transition Projects Inc. as well as Volunteers of America’s domestic violence program (Home Free) incorporate some forms of housing first model as part of their respective programs. We should make use of their experiences and expertise in providing assistance with housing, as we develop specific services and resources for women who are in the process of leaving prostitution.

Over the last several years, we (at SWOC) have made numerous attempts to communicate with City Council members and explain why we must be included in the discussion about the City’s response to the issue of prostitution on our streets and in our neighborhoods, but we have been mostly ignored. But it appears that now the City is choosing the recommendation we made at the City Council over that of the City’s officially sanctioned (albeit misinformed) “advisory committee,” and it says a lot about the power of democratic deliberation even when things appear hopeless.

New Zine Release – Surviving the Witch-Hunt: Battle Notes from Portland’s 82nd Avenue, 2007-2010

Date: July 25, 2010

Just in time for the Desiree Alliance conference this week, “Working Sex: Power, Practice, and Politics,” which I am already starting to feel depressed about already by the way, I have published a new zine, “Surviving the Witch-Hunt: Battle Notes from Portland’s 82nd Avenue, 2007-2010.”

Surviving the Witch-Hunt chronicles the resistance against the massive anti-prostitution panic in east Portland neighbourhoods between 2007 and 2010 in which women trying to survive working on 82nd Avenue were targeted by baseball bat-wielding, camera phone-snapping, vigilante “community foot patrol” and other angry neighbours worried about their property value.

The zine is available for download (PDF) for free, or it can be purchased online in hard copy. I will have some copies at the conference this week as well.

Zine Cover

City and County commissioners continue to broadcast smooth lies that comfort citizens

Date: July 23, 2010

This past Wednesday, I attended the afternoon session of Portland City Council to hear its report on human trafficking—or rather, domestic minor trafficking (only one speaker, someone from Catholic Charities, spoke about a different form of human trafficking, that is the exploitation of migrant workers in labour trafficking).

I knew what I was getting myself into, but it was still painful to sit through such entourage of willful ignorance disguised as genuine concern for children being forced to engage in prostitution.

As I had expected, Portland City Commissioner Dan Saltzman, Multnomah County Commissioners Diane McKeel, and others invoked the nonsensical and debunked claim that “the average age of entry into prostitution is 13,” as if they are utterly ignorant about what “average” means.

Commissioner Saltzman stressed several times throughout the session that these very young girls eventually become adult women, implying that prostitution in our society is all about child abuse and its prolonged consequences, because most adults engaging in prostitution started out at very young age when they should have been in elementary and middle schools.

Somehow, they seem to think it is much easier to believe in this nonsense rather than facing the reality that, for the most part, it is a product of poverty, homelessness, welfare reform, unjust immigration law, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, and other economic and social injustices. Once they define all prostitutes as child abuse victims who must be “rescued”—from prostitution, but not necessarily from poverty and other injustices—by arresting and jailing them.

By intentionally conflating prostitution and child abuse, they frame the issue of prostitution as a simple law enforcement problem. While it is unsettling to think that so many young children are being trafficked (nevermind the fact most child sexual abuse happens in homes, churches, and schools), it is somehow easier to digest than a more nuanced and politicised view that calls for across-the-board social and economic justice agenda.

This willful ignorance of reality closely mirrors many Americans’ support for the War on Terror in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks. Instead of untangling resentment and frustration the West has built up all over the world through centuries of violence and exploitation, many people rushed to accept the clearly nonsensical explanation that “they hate us because they hate freedom” because it was much more palatable.

It is not entirely accurate to say that Bush administration lied to the people about the weapons of mass destruction, links between Iraq and Al-Qaeda, domestic wiretapping, torture in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib. If anyone actually cared to exercise common sense and reason, the truth was always apparent. But too many Americans were invested in believing the obvious lies. In other words, people were not fooled or deceived by the Bush administration; rather, people actively sought out smooth lies that comfort them, and the Bush administration bottle-fed them to us. I feel that Commissioners’ and their supporters’ response to trafficking/prostitution is similar to that.

Commissioner McKeel also stated that “basic economic theory” holds that reducing demand (for sexual services, some of which may involve trafficking) lead to lower supply. But she is neglecting the fact that a sudden reduction of demand diminishes bargaining power of the seller, forcing many women to work under even worse conditions for less money.

County is planning to start “john school,” which “educates” johns arrested in prostitution sweeps about the harms of prostitution on women and girls in order to get their cooperation to reduce the demand. But this, too, will put women and girls at more danger than they currently are.

Let’s imagine that there are two types of johns. The first group consists of men who are generally respectful of women but don’t realise that prostitution is so harmful. “John school” will likely make them stop going to prostitutes. The second group consists of men who are selfish and thrill-seeking, and do not care about how their actions affect women. “John school” probably has no effect on them.

In other words, “john school,” if it is effective at all, will drastically change the composition of johns who frequent prostitutes, on top of reducing the amount of money women can make. How is this going to make women and girls safer?

Not that I am concerned about “john school,” though—studies have shown beyond reasonable doubt that it has no impact whatsoever. I just wish they don’t spend any money on it and put the money toward housing assistance for the women or something like that.

I am going to attend Desiree Alliance conference after all.

Date: July 14, 2010

This is an update to an earlier post about being awarded “merit based” “diversity” scholarship to attend Desiree Alliance conference, which actually wasn’t a scholarship at all.

Recently while I was talking to some people in the sex worker advocacy field about my recommendations about sex trafficking on Craigslist, I was asked if I was planning to attend Desiree Alliance conference. I told them that I wasn’t going to attend because I was disgusted with how the conference organizers treated me over the scholarship application I had submitted. Soon later, the word got back to the scholarship committee at the conference, and this is the email I received from them:

Dear Emi,

We had previously sent a letter offering a merit scholarship, which is a fee reduction for registration. We have offered these in previous years, but the circumstances are different this year, and we see that we made a mistake by offering people a “reduced” fee of $150, when that fee is actually the same as the ‘early bird’ registration fee.

Our approach to getting funds for scholarships is very grassroots (we’ve held fundraisers, we’ve approached the most radical foundations for some funds, we’ve donated money/resources ourselves to make up shortfalls). Yet despite these efforts not too many people have been able to give money to support sex worker rights and we had limited funds. Sometimes under all this pressure to share scarce resources we have made mistakes and the content of that merit scholarship letter was one of them.

We are sorry for the mistake and hope you excuse this misunderstanding. We really do want you to attend the conference. We want to serve as a resource for you, so please do let us know if you still plan to attend, if you have registered for the conference, and what resources you are looking for to attend the conference.

We hope you understand that we greatly value your contributions and look forward to you participation at the conference and we will make further efforts to assist you.

We then started emailing back and forth, and voila! they found some new money to help me attend the conference. So anyway, I will go :-) If anyone reading this is attending, please say hi.

Oh by the way–I just found out that former U.S. Surgeon General Joycelyn Elders is among the keynote speakers at this conference. Those of you who’s been reading this blog for a long time know that she is a pediatric endocrinologist who has advocated for intersex (cosmetic) genital surgeries (read about my encounter with Dr. Elders at Let’s Talk About Sex! conference)…

I totally think that her position on intersex contradicts everything she is famous for, which says a lot about the peer pressure and conformity within a medical field. I wonder what she thinks about the Cornell post-clitoral surgery sensitivity study or prenatal dexamethasone treatment for the purpose of preventing (gender)queerness.

The average age of entry into prostitution is NOT 13

Date: July 13, 2010

Over the last several years, I have been trying to correct the inaccurate notion that the “average age of entry into prostitution is 13” wherever I see it, but it is becoming increasingly overwhelming. This figure is in newspapers, official reports from City of Portland, and many websites and pamphlets claiming to confront sex trafficking (but often conflate prostitution with trafficking, and take anti-prostitution stances that are actually harmful to women). When I contact them to correct the errors, they either don’t understand what I am explaining or just plain don’t care. I’ve also been accused of being a pimp, pervert, pedophile, and other unpopular beings, simply because I challenge the falsehoods.

Here is the latest example, found on The Oregonian on July 3, 2010. Columnist Eliabeth Hovde writes:

Boys and girls are being lured or forced into what they call “the life” at younger and younger ages. […] The U.S. Justice Department believes that the average age of entry into prostitution is 13 and that 100,000 children are used for commercial sex each year in this land of the free.

Department of Justice does state this figure in its website:

Although comprehensive research to document the number of children engaged in prostitution in the United States is lacking, it is estimated that about 293,000 American youth are currently at risk of becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Richard J. Estes and Neil Alan Weiner, Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the U.S, Canada and Mexico, University of Pennsylvania, Executive Summary at 11-12 (2001)

This led me to find the University of Pennsylvania study titled “The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children In the U. S., Canada and Mexico,” which in fact states:

The age range of entry into prostitution for the boys, including gay and transgender boys, was somewhat younger than that of the girls, i.e., 11-13 years vs. 12-14 years, respectively.

But as the title suggests, this study only surveys minors (“children”), which means it does not include anyone who entered into prostitution at age 18 or over, or those who entered as a minor but has since aged out. Imagine conducting a research on those who died as minors: the average age of death would be somewhere near 10-12, but it would be ridiculous to claim that the average life expectancy for the general population is 10-12. Similarly, the “average age of entry” among youth who were studied does not tell us anything about the actual average age of entry for everyone who is in or has been in prostitution.

That’s not all. For the sake of discussion, let’s pretend that in a small town, six minors enter into prostitution each year, one individual each for ages 12-17. That means that there is one 12 year old, one 13 year old, one 14 year old, and so on. The average age of entry in this hypothetical town is the average of these six individuals, which is (12+13+14+15+16+17)/6 = 14.5.

But when researchers arrive in this town, they don’t just survey these six minors: they will also survey others who have started prostitution in the years past. So for any given year when the research is conducted, there are one 12 year old (who entered at 12), two 13 year olds (entered at 12 and 13), three 14 year olds (entered at 12, 13, and 14), and so on. The average among all of these youth will be: (12+(12+13)+(12+13+14)+(12+13+14+15)+(12+13+14+15+16)+(12+13+14+15+16+17))/21 = 13.7–which is almost one year younger than the actual average age of entry.

This discrepancy is caused by limiting the research subject to minors. Those who entered into prostitution at age 12 has six years in which he or she might be surveyed (at ages 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, or 17), while those who entered at 17 has only one year, which artificially inflates the proportion of research participants who entered early. In short, we cannot know the actual “average age of entry” by simply averaging the age of entry reported by research participants.

Case in point. Below is a chart and table found in “The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking,” produced by Shared Hope International, an anti-trafficking group.

SHI Chart

This chart is based on Shared Hope International’s 10-city study on minor sex trafficking. In the same page where this chart appears, Shared Hope founder Linda Smith states “The average age that a pimp recruits a girl into prostitution is 12 to 14 years old.” But interestingly, the chart does not support this statement: the average of all responses represented in the chart/table is 14.97, which is much higher than Smith’s “12 to 14” figure. Plus, simply averaging all the responses is not enough, for the reason I pointed out above. So when we adjust the numbers to compensate for the over-representation of those who entered early, the re-calculated “average of entry” turns out to be almost 16 (15.91).

This calculation is rudimentary and at best an approximation, since we don’t have access to the complete data or truly representative sample. But I suspect that it is much closer to reality than 13, which is what journalists, politicians, and many anti-trafficking activists claim.

There is also an element of common sense here. Assuming normal distribution (bell curve), the average of 13 implies that for every 20 year olds entering prostitution, there are equal number of 6 year olds doing the same. That, common sense should say, cannot possibly be true. The alternative is that the distribution isn’t normally distributed, but heavily clustered around 10-12 year olds to balance everyone who enters into prostitution 16 or older. This again is implausible, as we simply do not find that many 10-12 year olds in prostitution, at least in the United States. The only logical conclusion is that the average age is not anywhere near 13, but is much closer to 18.

That doesn’t diminish the fact that some very young children are victimized, and we should do something about it. But it is not trivial if the average age of entry is 13 or 16 or even 18, because it drastically changes what social policies we must enact to combat forced prostitution and trafficking. I feel that many journalists, politicians, and anti-trafficking activists use the lower figure merely for the shock value, to arouse strong emotional reaction toward the issue, but they are acting irresponsibly when they distort reality. We need to understand reality as they are and craft rational and sensible responses to the problem, rather than indulging ourselves in panicked frenzy.

(note: changed the title to make it straightforward)

Addressing Craigslist’s “trafficking problem”

Date: June 26, 2010

This past week, someone from a national organization working to end violence against women contacted me and asked for my view about addressing the problem of sex trafficking on Craigslist. The inquiry is related to the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women’s planned protest at the headquarters of Craigslist, which is calling for Craigslist to prohibit classified ads for adult services. Below is an excerpt from my response.

*****

I think I already wrote my basic thoughts about this topic in the previous email, but here are some details:

1. Craigslist is not the problem. It appears to be doing whatever it can do to fight trafficking on its site, such as

– requiring confirmation by phone before an ad is posted–this ensures that whoever posted the ad can be tracked down if needed
– requiring payment by credit card, which provides further mechanism to track down
– manually reviewing every single ad that is posted for signs of trafficking or child sexual exploitation
– providing a directory of agencies to report suspected trafficking to
– cooperating with the law enforcement, providing them with tools and information needed for conducting investigations

2. There are many alternatives to Craigslist where sex workers and their pimps/managers/traffickers can advertise. Because Craigslist is a company that does business with the general public, it is in their best interest to work with non-profit organizations and law enforcement to combat trafficking in order to protect its public image. Operators of websites that specifically cater to the sex industry do not have the same incentive.

3. Adult service ads are a big part of Craigslist’s bottom line, as they are to alternative weeklies and other traditional media. But they do not necessarily depend on human trafficking. There is no evidence that human trafficking is a substantial problem at Craigslist, or any more of a problem than in any other media outlets (and Craigslist does more to address the problem of trafficking than any other classified services).

4. Many women use Craigslist to advertise their services because it is a relatively safe and cheap way to do so without a pimp, management, or large start-up cost (e.g. advertising in alternative newspapers). Cracking down on Craigslist harms many of these women by taking away opportunities for economic self-sufficiency and autonomy.

5. I did a LexisNexis research for reports about trafficking on Craigslist, and I found that vast majority of examples involved minors being recruited into prostitution. I’m trying to figure out how these pimps got caught, because that might give us an idea about how to identify sexual exploitation of minors, but there isn’t enough information in most newspaper articles.

That said, some incidences were uncovered because the ads hinted at trafficking (e.g. an ad offering “sex slave” for sale–which should never have passed Craigslist’s manual review and should have been reported immediately); while some others appear to have been intervened because the girl pictured in the ad looked too young.

I think that we should work with Craigslist to improve mechanisms to identify ads that share characteristics similar to other ads that have been identified as involving child sexual exploitation or trafficking. Craigslist is a technology company, and I’m sure that they can do better in this regard, utilising data mining technologies to distinguish between a woman posting an ad for herself or someone posting an ad on her behalf with her consent, versus someone forcing her to work. (Other industries such as banking and airlines use similar technologies to identify potentially fraudulent financial transactions or suspected terrorist activities.)

6. I also would like Craigslist to cooperate with projects such as Portland Bad Date Line, with which I am tangentially involved. Portland Bad Date Line collects reports about “bad dates,” that are johns who act violently or abusively, or announcing being HIV+ after insisting on and having unprotected sex, or pimps who chase the women in an effort to get the women to work for them, etc. and distribute this information to women (and others) working in the sex industry so that they can take further precautions.

Craigslist could post this sort of information for each region prominently in adult services section, which would provide information women can use to be safer while working, while at the same time warning potential “bad dates” that their information would be shared if they act out. Craigslist should also post information for women seeking help more prominently, although it is questionable whether or not women who are trafficked would actually see the site.

Let’s get Craigslist involved. I have other ideas that I want to bring up with Craigslist if we can get their ears.

7. I feel that what I’ve written above makes sense, and it is the rational and sensible approach to addressing the problem of trafficking. But I do not feel that many U.S.-based “anti-trafficking” groups are serious: they are simply using it as a cover to attack prostitution and the sex industry, and have little regard for how their actions might impact the people they are claiming to protect.

Case in point: the campaign to “end the demand” is absurd. Economics 101 suggests that if the demand for sexual services were to decrease, it would push the price of such services down. But supply is downwardly inelastic, since many women work in the sex industry because they do not have other viable economic opportunities, and the price has to go down quite a bit before another option–such as working as janitors and maids–become more viable compared to prostitution. That is, supply will not go down as much as demand does, and the end result is that more workers would be competing for fewer johns. It would not only mean less income for the women and their families, but it would also force women to make more risky choices–such as having unprotected sex.

Further, not all johns are equally predatory or unsafe to the women. Campaign to “end the demand” would mostly drive away johns who are risk-averse (i.e. those who do not like to take risks), while it would not affect thrill-seeking, risk-insensitive johns. But these thrill-seeking, risk-insensitive types are the ones that present more health and physical risks to those working in the sex industry. In other words, such campaign directly and indirectly harm the women working in the sex industry.

Here, the intentional conflation of trafficking and prostitution by the U.S. “anti-trafficking” movement constitutes a real problem: trafficking involves force, deception, or threats, which should be immediately intervened and victims rescued; advocating for the women working in the sex industry requires a much more nuanced and multi-faceted approach (such as creating viable economic opportunities and promoting economic and social justice). The campaigns to “end the demand” or to shut down Craigslist’s adult services section are most likely ineffective at actually addressing the issue of trafficking, and extremely harmful to the women who are working in the sex industry. And yet, by conflating the two, the U.S. “anti-trafficking” movement hijacks the discourse surrounding the sex industry, making it difficult for those of us working to advocate for women who are working in it.

Another example of irrationality: reports after reports claim that the average age of entry into prostitution is around age 13, usually citing Department of Justice or FBI as the source. If average is 13, that would suggest that there are equal number of 6-year olds and 20-year olds entering prostitution (assuming normal distribution), and that is obviously untrue. It is shocking to encounter someone who had become involved in prostitution at age 13 or younger, but this is definitely an exception, not the norm.

The “statistics” actually comes from a survey of minors who had an encounter with social services, and as such does not include any adults. If you only study minors who are in prostitution, of course the average age of entry is below 18–but it has nothing to do with the average age of entry in general. Consider this: if you only studied people who died as a minor, the average age of death would be something like 13–but that doesn’t mean that the average life expectancy is 13.

So is 13 the typical age of entry for those who became involved in prostitution as a minor? The answer is no. Because the research cuts off at age 18, someone who started at 13 has five times more chance to be included in the study compared to someone who barely started at 17, making the early starters five times more represented in the study. I don’t have access to the original data sets to figure out the actual average, but I suspect that it is closer to 17–and this is only the average for those who were involved as a minor.

The truth is that none of us know the actual average age of entry, but I feel that the U.S. “anti-trafficking” movement is cynically publicising the demonstrably false claim (“the average age of entry is 13”) in order to equate prostitution with trafficking of minors, distorting the public perception of the issue and harming many women who are impacted by the anti-prostitution measures they promote.

I would also add a historical observation: in the past, the U.S. “anti-trafficking” movement have come and gone along with the anti-immigration sentiment in the nation, as exemplified by the “white slavery” panic that coincided with the historical period between Chinese Exclusion Act and Alien and Sedition Acts. The “white slavery” panic did not improve lives of women (including many immigrant women) who were working in the sex industry, but instead functioned as a springboard for repressive policies that target marginalized communities. I fear that the current “anti-trafficking” fervour, coinciding perfectly with the heightened anti-immigration sentiment, is moving along the similar trajectory, and I hope that we can redirect the movement so that it can actually offer safety and freedom for victims without causing harms on others.

How I am excited to receive merit-based scholarship to attend a diverse conference. Not.

Date: May 27, 2010

Several months ago, I sent in an application for “diversity scholarship” to attend this year’s Desiree Alliance conference for activists, scholars, and social workers involved in advocating for sex workers. The conference will take place in Las Vegas late July.

Since I have recently become unemployed, and my grass-roots organizing in the sex worker’s rights movement does not bring me any income, I cannot afford to attend the conference without the scholarship. I estimated that I’d need about $400 for lodging and transportation, plus there is this $150-250 registration fee that the conference expects participants to pay.

I was prepared to spend perhaps $200 of my own money, and use frequent flier miles to get me there, but needed the scholarship to pay for the rest–or at least have the registration fee waived. I told them: “If I do not receive any scholarship, I will not attend the conference. If the registration is waived, there is a small chance I might be able to attend, depending on what deals I find on travel and lodging, and also on whether or not I can use my friend’s frequent flier miles.”

The scholarship application was in depth: it asked about my race/sexuality/disability/etc., communities that I come from, my relationship to sex work and sex worker community, and references. Some of what I wrote in the application was deeply personal, because I felt that they’d had to know me to understand why I would benefit the conference with my participation.

I wasn’t upset that Desiree Alliance did not award me the scholarship to help me with the travel and lodging expenses. But I was offended by the cheerful tone of the email that informed me that I did not make the cut.

The Desiree Alliance Diversity Scholarship Selection Committee has reviewed your application. We are awarding you a Merit Scholarship, which is a partial scholarship for registration to attend the Desiree Alliance Conference, “Working Sex: Power, Practice, and Politics.” In Las Vegas from July 25-30 2010. We appreciate your interest in this conference!

We will be providing you with a partial registration scholarship of $100 of the $250 registration fee. We hope that you will be able to secure the remaining resources to attend!

In other words: not only did they not offer me any scholarship, they didn’t even waive the registration. They are basically just giving me the early registration discount which I would have received if I had just registered several months ago instead of responding to invasive questions in hope that they would at least waive my registration.

I do realize that they probably have very limited funds, and I don’t claim to be more worthy of scholarship than those who received it (if any, that is). But why did they have to be all cheerful about “awarding” partial scholarship, which in reality is no different from early registration fee? I just wish they had simply told me that, unfortunately, they were unable to fund my expenses, and then offered the reduced registration–not as a “scholarship,” but in order to compensate for the fact that I missed the opportunity to register early because of the scholarship application process.

Stop the Scapegoating of Prostitutes on the 82nd

Date: September 16, 2008

I know I’ve been neglecting this blog, but I have a good excuse this time. I’ve been working with other women from the neighbourhood to start this group: 82ndCARES Coalition.

The story starts in September 2007, when City of Portland abolished controversial Drug Free Zone and Prostitution Free Zone. These “zones” grants police the power to issue “exclusion” order for anyone who is suspected of drug- or prostitution-related activity, long before there is any criminal conviction. Because these “zones” unfairly target people based on their race, class and gender, many people have protested DFZ/PFZ for years. So it was a great news when the City finally recognized them for what they were: violation of our civil rights and liberties.

But ever since, some neighbours in the previously PFZ areas–especially along NE/SE 82nd Avenue–have complained about the increased level of street prostitution and other crimes they associate with it. It resulted in formation of several neighbourhood groups that either seek reinstatement of PFZ and/or other strategies to contain the prostitution “problem.” Some of these groups are more reasonable than others, but the whole conversation (neighbourhoods, police, city council, media) focused on solutions that center on how police can reduce prostitution and other crimes.

Tension is running high, and hostile, even hateful rhetoric has been exchanged. For example:

“The prostitutes are soooo obvious in their manner & in their dress. I have lived in the Montavilla area in the same house most of my life & I know these women are not the normal everyday citizen. The blatent strollers or those who just hang out on the Avenue has increased to the point of being very, very obvious. I am not low-class, nor is this neighborhood, but what is allowed to occur here is ghetto behavior. What the heck is going on??” – Barbara

“I don’t feel unsafe here or anything, but I agree this blatant behavior does seem ghetto-ish.” – Laura

“We need to address this as a community, now….. What do you think this is doing to the value of your property?” – Carol

“I have noted that some other communities have successfully reduced prostitution by taking pictures of the John / Hooker hook-up and publishing them in local papers. I have taken a couple of hook-up pics with my cell phone. Some communities have made posters of these pics. I would like to see a discussion of this issue. I am immediately concerned that by taking pics, picture takers might be in some jeopardy.” – Bruce

I am tired of hearing these voices repeated in the media as the voice of our neighbourhood. That is why I and other women (and people of other genders are welcome too–but so far it’s just women) have joined together to form 82ndCARES. “CARES” stands for Community Action for Resource, Education and Support for social worker types among you, and Community Action for Respect, Empowerment and Survival for activist types :-)

The fundamental belief of 82ndCARES Coalition is that we do not view prostitution on the 82nd as a law enforcement issue. We view the situation on the 82nd as a symptom of social and economic injustices in our society. The solution therefore is not more cops on the street or jail beds, but more affordable housing, more childcare, more treatment options, more education, and more just society.

Please check out our website and join our email list if you live in Portland.

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