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

Date: May 30, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date: May 18, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Date: March 14, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Prostitution should not be treated like “any other job”

Date: February 25, 2012

Over the weekend, Feminist Philosophers blog revised an old hoax (from 2005) that a young German woman was told that she must start working as a prostitute or her unemployment benefit would be cut. Just so I don’t unintentionally spread the story further, IT IS NOT TRUE.

This hoax is part of the anti-prostitution campaign of lies that link all sorts of bad outcomes to the legalization of prostitution in Germany, most notably the thoroughly discredited claim that tens if not hundreds of thousands of women and girls were trafficked into the country as sex slaves during the World Cup 2006 which took place soon after the legalization.

This story does raise a legitimate concern many feminists have, though: if prostitution were to be treated “just like any other job,” as some advocates for sex workers argue, government would begin forcing prostitution as work on unemployed women seeking job or benefits. What’s missing from this analysis is the fact that women at the lower end of the socioeconomic ladder are already being forced to accept jobs that dehumanize and demoralize them.

I find it hypocritical for feminists to tolerate this ongoing dehumanization of poor and working-class women, while categorically opposing prostitution. If we find so objectionable that women may be forced to “work as prostitutes,” why do we allow women to be forced to work in other fields that the person may find equally distressing and dehumanizing?

I don’t agree that sex work should be treated “like any other job” because “any other job” that is available to women facing multiple oppressions tend to be horrible. Sex work needs to be treated like how any job should be treated, which is with respect, dignity, and self-determination. Nobody should be forced (either by force or by economic necessity) to work in jobs that she feels is deeply dehumanizing–which for many women, though not all, include prostitution, and may include many other forms of labor.

Masculinist leftie news site and rad-fem blogger? The strange bedfellows that sexualize and oversimplify the anti-trafficking discourse

Date: December 20, 2011

A couple of days ago, leftist news site AlterNet.org re-published my Bitch magazine article about the anti-trafficking movement through some sort of syndication agreement between the two outlets (I’m sure), but with a twist: AlterNet has chosen to change the title, and to include a different image to go along with the article.

Here’s the Bitch version, which was published with the title “Trade Secrets: The tough talk of the new anti-trafficking movement” (which isn’t a particularly good title, but it’s not offensive in any way):

Bitch article

The AlterNet version looks like this, with the new, salacious title, “Christian Fundamentalists and Private Military Contractors? The Strange Bedfellows of the Sex Slavery Anti-Trafficking Movement”:

AlterNet article

As the user antipropagandamachine points out,

Ironic that an article warning against sensationalizing rape slavery for partisan politicking should be renamed to front AlterNet’s #1 and #2 enemies, add the word “sex”, and toss in an unnecessarily salacious reference to “bedfellows.”

I would also add AlterNet’s decision to use a picture of a woman walking on the sidewalk taken from behind resembles just about every mainstream media outlet’s behavior when they publish stories about prostitution or sex trafficking. I’m so sick of this, as I am of the salacious expression chosen by AlterNet editors for the title. Oh well, at least the woman appears to be dressed warm.

In the meantime, the radical feminist blogger womononajourney left a comment dismissive of my work, characterizing my position as simply “in favor of decriminalizing or legalizing prostitution” and suggesting that I am working to preserve men’s access to women’s sexuality and “women’s rape-ability,” hence “women’s subordination.” She wrote:

I am not in favor of the military apparatus or racial profiling, but I have to notice that it is issues pertaining to women’s rape-ability that get this sort of attention. Could it be that since women’s sexuality is the ground zero of women’s subordination, this is the one area where men MUST keep access at all costs?

I find that most people who take this “hands off” stance on sex trafficking are really in favor of decriminalizing or legalizing prostitution, which if you check out Emi’s website, she is. It makes little sense to me to avoid taking an anti-prostitution stance just because the Christian Right also takes one. A feminist stance against prostitution is for entirely different reasons than a conservative christian one.

I posted a response to her, which goes like this:

For someone who claims to have read my blog, you seem to be conveniently neglecting that I have been publicly criticizing sex worker’s rights movement and its (feminist and non-feminist) supporters for their over-emphasis on promoting decriminalization and destigmatization of prostitution. In fact, I specifically wrote in this very article you are responding to that decriminalization/legalization of prostitution (or any other legal classification) is not the answer.

My perspective is that, while yes I do support decriminalization because I don’t think my friends and I deserve to be arrested and prosecuted for surviving and supporting families through sex trade (what feminist does?), I don’t think that this is the most important issue affecting people in the sex trade. I think that the privileging of decriminalization as a core demand of the sex workers’ movement and its allies reflects the interest of white middle-class sex workers and their clients, much like the over-emphasis on same-sex marriage reflects the interest of certain kind of queers over others, or on abortion rights reflects the interest of certain kind of women.

You may also find, if you are actually paying attention, that I only mentioned the term “sex work” or “sex worker” in the context of referring to the sex worker’s movement or sex work “controversy,” or in a quote. I intentionally avoided the term (instead using a more value-neutral “sex trade”) because I wanted to move away from the simplistic “is sex work oppressive violence or liberating choice?” debate, and talk substance about forces that harm women in the sex trade and how we are fighting back.

I find it disturbing that someone who claims to be a feminist and to have actually read my blog thinks that she can distort and dismiss another woman’s point of view, mislabeling it as simply “in favor of decriminalizing or legalizing prostitution” when I am explicitly criticizing that as a false emphasis. I wrote this article precisely because the sort of over-simplification and dumbing down of our conversations about sex trafficking and sex trade that your comment exemplifies harm women and others who are engaged in the sex trade.

Indeed, I actually pointed out in the article itself that rad-fem critics of the institution of prostitution are at odds with the Christian fundamentalists in the anti-trafficking movement, and argued that feminists of all persuasions have a chance to work together. It’s one thing if womononajourney disagreed with this sentiment, but she appears to be confirming what I wrote about the differences between radical feminist and Christian fundamentalist opposition to prostitution and sex trafficking, all the while accusing me of failing to recognize the difference.


12/20/2011 update

User womononajourney responded to my comment, once again trying to paint me as a pro-porn, pro-prostitution sex libertarian. My response to her is below:

I think this is important to make readers aware of since decriminalization and trafficking are interlinked.

You have no basis for this claim. No legal jurisdiction in which prostitution was decriminalized allow trafficking of women and others for the purpose of sexual exploitation, and in fact it reduces the ability of traffickers to control their victims and increases the victims’ ability to seek help.

So I was correct in asserting that you support decriminalization.

Are you saying that my friends and I deserve to be arrested and imprisoned for surviving and supporting our families through prostitution? I am shocked. I thought that radical feminists supported decriminalizing at least the selling of sex acts…

Furthermore, I do not endorse “hands off” approach which you associate with the decriminalization/legalization camp. I just don’t believe that the capitalist, patriarchal state with its prison and military industrial complexes has women’s best interest at heart. That does not mean that there isn’t a need for feminist intervention.

You point out correctly, as I also explained in the article, that feminist and fundamentalist Christian opposition to prostitution are not the same. Why is it so difficult for you to recognize also that feminist and libertarian support for decriminalization are different?

Have you not also started the Portland State University’s Porn Club? Let’s get real about your position in this debate, emi.

Indeed, I along with a couple of friends at Portland State University started Porn Club, whose goal was to appreciate and make feminist alternatives to the misogynistic and racist mainstream porn. What’s so scandalous about it?

How did you find out about Porn Club? We only met once or twice at a cafe to discuss what we wanted to do, and it fizzled away. As someone who had to deal with a stalker who followed me across the continent and showed up in front of my apartment, I find it creepy that you went back so far in my past to uncover something I had long forgotten about.

Why do you continue to rely on ad hominem attack on me (which aren’t even accurate–I don’t fit the description of the prototypical pro-porn, pro-prostitution feminist that you are trying to paint me as), rather than engaging in the content of what I actually wrote? It’s very disappointing and depressing that someone who claims to be a feminist does nothing but attacking women.

I Heart Google Ngram Viewer.

Date: December 14, 2011

I just discovered Google books Ngram Viewer, which lets users find out historical changes in usage frequencies of particular words or phrases in its vast catalogue of scanned books. It’s not perfect, but a very good tool to analyze how our vocabularies have changed over time. Just as an example, here’s the comparison of terms “transgender,” “transsexual,” and “transvestite” (click for larger graph).

Google Ngram: transgender, transsexual, transvestite

As you can see, both “transsexual” and “transvestite” were used commonly in the literature until the 1990s, when “transgender” started to become more popular. Just to give you the perspective: Kate Bornstein’s “Gender Outlaw” was published in 1994; Leslie Feinberg’s “Transgender Warriors” came out in 1996.

In my zine, “War on Terror & War on Trafficking,” I pointed out that the term “human trafficking” came into popular usage since around 2000. The chart below, which compares frequencies of “human trafficking,” “involuntary migration,” and “forced prostitution” confirms this.

Google Ngram: human trafficking, involuntary migration, forced prostitution

Here’s another interesting graph, comparing the usages of “homosexual,” “heterosexual,” “bisexual,” and “queer.”

Google Ngram: homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, queer

You can see that the word “queer” was commonly used before the 1970s, but probably for different meaning: in the 1970s and 1980s when the word was increasingly recognized as a slur against LGBT+ people, its usage dropped. However in the 1990s the word “queer” makes a comeback as a self-identified label for LGBT+ people, surpassing clinically-sounding “homosexual.”

Chart below shows how current Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s middle name was dropped from popular usage after she went from the First Lady to a politician on her own light. I know that during the 2008 primary election pollsters were showing different polling results depending on whether or not “Rodham” was mentioned, so it makes sense that she strategically dropped the middle name and became Hillary Clinton.

Google Ngram graph

Finally, here’s a fun comparison between “womyn,” “womon,” and “wimmin” as to which one is the most popular alternative spelling of “women”:

Google Ngram: womyn,womon,wimmin

Isn’t this fun?

Janus Youth’s conscious move to betray youth, and why we need to create systems to hold social service industrial complex accountable

Date: November 23, 2011

Last week, I wrote about how Janus Youth, Portland area’s largest youth service provider, assisted the City’s raid on Occupy Portland encampment under the dubious premise that the camp “endangered” youth (rather than that it simply attracted youth who are already endangered due to lack of housing, opportunities, and services). I also discussed how it reflected Janus’ increasingly pro-police stance as it became further and further dependent on “anti-trafficking” funds.

But the reality of Janus’ betrayal of youth was much worse, as I found out when I attended a presentation about Portland’s CSEC (commercial sexual exploitation of children–which should actually say “youth” instead of “children” for CSEY) programs at the national runaway and homeless youth conference.

The presentation, titled “CSEC: A Collaborative Approach to Addressing Sexual Exploitation of Children in Your Community,” was presented by three individuals representing Janus Youth, FBI, and Sexual Assault Resource Center (which has a trafficked minor program inside a big church).

The person from Janus started off his presentation with a statement that he was going to say some critical things about his agency. His complaint: Janus workers were not very friendly to the police officers in the past.

For example, he continued, when police officers detain and deliver youth to the Janus service center for curfew violation and other reasons, youth are frequently angry at the police officer. They often complain that they have been brutalized, harassed, or otherwise treated unjustly by the officer. Social workers at Janus validated their feelings and helped them file grievances, which made police officers hostile to Janus.

Janus guy felt it had to change, so he told all of his staff to treat police officers “like their best friends.” As a result, police began to like Janus a whole lot more, and now they are such great partners. In other words, Janus has made a conscious decision to side with the police when youth feel violated and abused by the police, rather than affirming and validating youth’s experiences.

Janus also helped police officers get hold of a youth who was camping at Occupy Portland. Because many Occupy protestors were hostile to police officers, it wasn’t the best idea to send police officers into the camp in order to search a youth. Instead, they asked Janus worker to go into the camp to find the youth for them.

It was in the context of this intimate relationship between Janus and the law enforcement that the former provided the justification for the City to use its police force to forcibly evict youth who had chosen Occupy camp over Janus’ services, presumably to save youth from themselves.

The director of trafficked minor program at SARC spoke next, also describing friendly relationship with the law enforcement. She, too, criticized other feminist anti-violence projects that are skeptical of law enforcement, and discussed how SARC was different from those in that they value partnering with the law enforcement.

The person from FBI who works closely with the anti-trafficking division of Portland Police Bureau also repeated her satisfaction with the law enforcement’s relationship to service providers like Janus and SARC. She explained that the law enforcement specifically chose these two organizations to work with over other anti-violence projects because of their pro-police stances.

“Collaborations with Janus and SARC are great; it makes victims better witnesses for the prosecution,” she said. SARC person echoed this sentiment when she explained the benefit of SARC’s services: Because SARC isn’t a mandated reporter, youth feel safer disclosing their experiences to them. And once they disclose their experiences to someone, they are more likely to disclose to other service providers who are mandated to report, or even to the law enforcement.

In my opinion both Janus and SARC have perverted their mission to support youth when they bought into the structure that prioritize prosecution rather than empowerment and long-term well-being of their clients. It is probably true that someone who discloses once to a non-mandated reporter are more likely to disclose to someone else who will act on that information, but is it beneficial to the youth? It feels like the premeditated manipulation of youth they are supposed to empower.

Someone in the audience asked whether they thought a locked facility (i.e. some place youth cannot get out of on their own will) might be a good option for victims of sex trafficking. Both Janus and SARC persons were cautious, but the Janus person said it was more preferable to build a non-locked facility in areas far removed from the City (which of course is no different from a locked facility unless one has access to a vehicle). The SARC person claimed that over half of the women they are serving want to be locked up, which I find highly questionable. She made it seem like someone engaging in non-suicidal self-cutting should be locked up for her safety, which I completely disagree with, as I believe cutting can be a very useful coping strategy for many survivors (including myself).

Another person, a youth worker from Texas, asked the presenters to comment on the most recent Village Voice article which cites a study from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Among many things, the study reports that only about 10% of the youth who trade sex in New York City have pimps, undermining the theory that youth survival sex equals “modern day slavery.”

The SARC person completely dismissed the study, claiming that most youth who trade sex have pimps, and suggested that researchers probably didn’t have enough rapport with the youth to discover the truth. But people I know from Safe Horizon/Streetwork, which reaches more street youth in New York than any other organizations there affirm that the John Jay study reflects their own understanding of reality. The youth worker from Texas also seemed to believe that the John Jay study to be valid, and seemed surprised to see SARC’s dismissive attitude.

In response, the SARC person characterized the “debate” over sex trafficking to be between those who believe sex work is an empowering choice versus those who disagree with that, clearly positioning herself in the latter camp. But this is a grotesquely unfair and dishonest characterization of the real debate here. The real debate is between youth-centered versus police-centered approaches, harm reduction versus paternalism, and reality-based versus ideological.

I also attended several other workshops on the topic, all of which turned out to be throughly dishonest and anti-youth.

For example, the workshop titled “Assisting Victims of Human Trafficking: A Collaborative Approach” was presented by two women from Rainbow House of Columbia, Missouri, which I was particularly interested in because I have engaged in sex trade as a teenager while living in Missouri and therefore I know something about the topic.

Their level of knowledge and awareness was dismal, as evidenced by their tacit acceptance of mythical “statistics” about youth in the sex trade. They also included “mail order bride” as an example of human trafficking, which doesn’t agree with the actual legal definition of trafficking, despite the fact they take advantage of the legal definition when it is convenient to do so as they characterize all sex trade by a minor as “modern day slavery.”

The presenters placed a huge emphasis on the role of Stockholm Syndrome as a way to explain why many youth defend people who are abusing and exploiting them. “Youth frequently go back to their pimps and traffickers because of brainwashing and Stockholm Syndrome,” they insist, but fail to mention the possibility that their services do not meet the youth’s needs.

Someone in the audience gave an unsolicited advice: “When a youth runs away from your services, try to locate them in the adult services section of Backpage.com!” Well, what about thinking about ways to make the services more attractive so that they don’t have to run away from you?

The Rainbow House people also gave a “story” of one of its clients, most likely without the explicit permission of the youth whose story was used, and I find such practice exploitative and offensive. They even told the audience that the youth did not admit to trading sex, but other clients told them about it; she eventually run away from Rainbow House. These details made their telling of her story even worse. I don’t understand why they can’t simply find a youth who consent to having their stories shared in this form.

The presenters demonstrated their cluelessness when they recommended that service providers learn and use street slangs in order to “make youth feel comfortable.” I can’t believe that they said this. Service providers certainly should learn and understand street slangs, but it is an extremely bad idea to use them unless they actually come from the street culture. Youth do not feel comfortable with people who are fake; in fact, they will completely distrust you when you present yourself as something that you are not. It is much better to simply own up to their status as (often white middle-class) college-educated professionals.

Further, someone in the audience asked the presenters about dealing with girls who recruit other girls in the youth services into sex trade, possibly for a pimp. The presenters replied that they have never seen that happening in their years of working at the youth shelter, which once again shows that they do not know what they are talking about.

Yet another workshop I attended was presented by Polaris Project, a prominent national anti-trafficking organization. Their presentation felt more like a cult seminar than a social service workshop, because the whole audience seemed to have “drunk the cool-aid” that dissociated them from the reality. Aside from repeating all the false “statistics” and the supposed spike in human trafficking during the Super Bowl (which there is none), their perception of sex trade was so unreal.

For example, Polaris vastly exaggerated the number of sexual acts that a typical “trafficked youth” (which is any minor who trade sex) performs, or the money pimp makes each year, giving the figure that is completely unrealistic. When the presenters began “brainstorming” for what the society associates with pimps, the audience responded that the society views pimps as benevolent protectors–which I highly doubt is what most people think about pimps. Interestingly, nobody mentioned how the word “pimp” has a racial connotation.

Overall, the conference was a painful reminder that most of the youth services are horrible and anti-youth. I sometimes feel jealous of youth today because there seem to be more resources for them than I had 20 years ago, but Youth Services Still Suck. There were several more presentations about trafficking of youth, but I had to go home early because I could not handle it any more.

On the last day of the conference, the closing keynote presenter was (predictably) Rachel Lloyd from Girls Education and Mentoring Services. I actually agreed with many things she said, such as how we must work toward fighting poverty if we truly cared about stopping sexual exploitation of youth.

But it was painful to hear her speak knowing that GEMS takes most of its clients from criminal justice system as an involuntary, court-mandated “services,” or that they do not accept any transgender girls and young women who need services, or that they do not honor gender identities and pronouns of female-assigned transgender or genderqueer youth who get mandated to receive their “services” like a prison sentence.

It was painful knowing, as she promoted her film, Very Young Girls, and her book, Girls Like Us, that girls shown in the film (who were court-mandated to be there) were not told how their images were being used, and that girls whose stories illustrate Rachel’s narratives throughout the book did not give permission for their stories to be told. I can’t write everything I know about GEMS here, but there are many other reasons I felt sad and in pain as I heard Rachel receive a standing ovation.

There seems to be so much desire in our society to reach out to the youth experiencing rough times, but the institutions that supposedly exist to provide services are often fundamentally flawed. Especially in this time of economic downturn (and hence greater reliance on government funding), more and more organizations are assuming their role as the extension of the law enforcement and the welfare system that dehumanize and abuse youth.

I think we need to replicate “Bad Encounter Line” system that Young Women’s Empowerment Project has developed in Chicago. BEL is “a way to report bad experiences you had with institutions such as police, the health care system, public aid, DCFS, CPS, etc.” that are “set in place to help” youth. The repots are published as zines, and used to introduce systems of accountability in social service fields.

I want to start this. Is anyone in Portland or Seattle area interested also?

Erasure of Transgender Youth in the Sex Trade — My keynote at Transgender Day of Remembrance

Date: November 20, 2011

For those of you who came to my keynote presentation at Transgender Day of Remembrance at PSU (no, not that one, the one in Portland) this afternoon, thank you for coming! As I’ve promised, I am posting the slides from my presentation publicly so that people who came to the presentation can go back to read the slides again, and those who couldn’t make it can also see what I presented about. Please note that the slides are not intended to be stand-alone; they may not be self-explanatory without my talk. But regardless–enjoy!

(10/28/2012 – Link updated after Apple shut down iWork.com)

My article in Bitch magazine, and keynote at Portland State’s Transgender Day of Remembrance celebration

Date: November 18, 2011

I have two updates to promote my stuff:

First, my article on the U.S. anti- (domestic minor sex) trafficking movement has been published in the brand new issue of Bitch magazine, which should be shipped to subscribers and bookstores near you soon (official publication date is December 1st). The article has also been posted on BitchMedia website (but buy the magazine or get subscription anyway because we need to support the magazine).

Bitch Winter 2011 issue

Second, I am giving a keynote lecture at this year’s Transgender Day of Remembrance celebration at Portland State University. The celebration includes a reading from the anthology Trans/Love Saturday evening, and a day of workshops, presentations, and candlelight vigil on Sunday. My own presentation takes place at 4pm on Sunday, but there are so many other great stuff happening! Please visit Basic Rights Oregon‘s listing of all TDOR events in the state, scrolling down to Portland to view the activities.

There is also a facebook group for my talk at http://www.facebook.com/events/178569218900819/. I hope to see all local and visiting folks there!

Pimping does not equal enslavement: thoughts on the resilience of youth and adults who have pimps

Date: November 14, 2011

Language shapes our perception of reality. The term “human trafficking,” for example, shifted governments’ and NGOs’ approaches to addressing the issue of involuntary migration and labor (including sexual labor) from those that focus on economic empowerment and labor rights protections to ones that center policing and criminal prosecution. Similarly, the legal definition of “sex trafficking” that is interpreted to treat all minors who trade sex regardless of their circumstances as “trafficking victims” have distorted public perception of who these youth are and their lived experiences.

In my previous article about street youth sex trade, I pointed out that the popular imagery of “domestic minor sex trafficking” in which very young (white, suburban, middle-class) girls are “taken” by evil men (of color from urban areas) and forced into sex slavery is a very small part of the picture, and does not depict realities of the vast majority of youth who trade sex. This understanding (which I came to based on my own experiences and observations) is echoed by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice study of street youth in New York City, which was recently featured in Village Voice (11/02/2011).

Another concept that have distorted public perception of sex trade is “pimps” and “pimping.” Even the John Jay study, which correctly points out that only about 10% of youth who trade sex have any relationship to a pimp, equate “pimp” with “exploiter,” leading readers to assume that these 10% of youth are forced or coerced to engage in sex trade. There are two distinct problems with this equation.

First, media often depict people as “pimps” when they are arrested or charged with crimes of facilitating or promoting prostitution, but most of these people are not actually what most of us think of as pimps. They are often friends, partners, mentors, family members, photographers, drivers, bodyguards, and others who do not control the person trading sex in any way. When a youth “trafficking victim” is “rescued” from a “pimp,” the person they arrest as the “trafficker/pimp” is often another youth, such as a boyfriend of the “victim.”

In the October 2008 nationwide “search” for trafficked minors (Operation Cross Country II), which is the only one in which relevant data is made public, FBI claims to have arrested one pimp for every 7.76 “trafficked minors” and adult prostitutes in the 29 cities where the sweeps were conducted. Even though FBI does not provide the breakdown of the ages, genders, or roles these people played in the lives of youth and adults in the sex trade, there is no question that the vast majority of these people are not what most people think of as “pimps.” Real pimps are notoriously difficult to prosecute. They are very rarely caught or convicted because the prosecutors cannot build a case against them without “victims” coming forward and testifying against them.

Another problem with the equation of “pimps” as “exploiters” who use force, fraud or coercion to exploit youth and adults is that this is simply not true in many people’s lives, even if we were to limit the discussion to the “real” pimps (as opposed to partners, friends, etc. who are labeled as such by the police). I do not question the assertion (backed by my own experiences as well as others I’ve seen) that many pimps are violent or abusive, but that should not be confused with sexual enslavement of people who have abusive pimps. Let me explain.

We know that many marriages and romantic relationships are violent or abusive. We also know that many victims of abuse (often girlfriends and wives) do not leave their abusers/batterers/perpetrators. There are many reasons abuse victims do not leave. Some victims might be afraid for their lives if she attempted to escape, and remain under siege–but that is not the most common explanation. Most of the times, victims receive something from the relationship, whether it is financial security for themselves and their children, affection (when the abuse is in remission), or something else. Many do not leave the abusive relationship because they love their abusers.

That many victims of relationship abuse choose to stay with their abusers should not be treated as consenting to the abuse: they consent to the relationship, not the abuse. But it would also be wrong to suggest that these victims are held captive by the violence; they are not staying because of the violence, but in spite of it.

Pimping relationship that are abusive can be understood in the same way: while some people are forced to trade sex because of the violence, many remain in the pimping relationship for the same reason many abuse victims stay with their abusers: they get something out of the relationship that they are not getting elsewhere. Or rather, they remain in the relationship because they get something that our communities are failing to provide otherwise. This includes basic necessities such as food and housing as well as emotional needs such as affection, validation, and support. In fact, some pimps consider themselves to be workers performing emotional and care labor for their “girls” similar to the sex trade.

I do not think that these relationships are unproblematic, or that violence and abuse should be tolerated just because the victims do when they can’t control it. But there is a huge policy implication to recognizing agency and resilience among people who stay with their pimps instead of treating them as passive, powerless victims or “sex slaves.” Efforts to unilaterally “rescue” these individuals take away their security and support, leaving them worse off than before (and still having to engage in sex trade to survive under less desirable circumstances).

A better approach is to ensure that our communities provide resources and support that everyone needs and deserves. They include housing, jobs, education, and healthcare, but that is not enough. We also need human connections that give us a sense of belonging, validation, support, love. The former is essential for our physical and economic survival, but the latter is just as important if we truly cared about ending relationship abuses, whether it is in romantic relationship or pimping relationship (which can also be romantic).

There is no contradiction between acknowledging resilience of abuse victims who remain with their abusers, and wanting to create caring communities that instils greater resilience to abuse in the first place. Increased policing and prosecution only helps a very small group of victims who are actually held hostage by threats and violence, and by all means we should liberate these victims from their captors, but the application of this approach is harmful for the vast majority of youth and adults who trade sex. And the racist mainstream media representations of “pimps” make it harder to promote real solutions to abuse in our lives and relationships.

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