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The Uses of Negativity: Survival and Coping Strategies for Those of Us Who Are Exasperated by the Empty Promise of “It” Getting “Better”

Date: October 26, 2013

[Speech given at Gallaudet University for the National Coming Out Day, October 11, 2013.]

Today I want to talk about negativity and its uses in our survival, which may seem like an odd topic for a presentation on the National Coming Out Day: most people perhaps associate National Coming Out Day with celebration, pride, hopefulness, and other positive emotions and activities, and not with negativity. I want to be clear that I am not here to promote negativity: if positivity works for you, that’s wonderful! What I really want to talk about is how positivity and hopefulness do not work for all of us, in fact it can exacerbate difficulties we are experiencing, and how we can cope with them and support each other better if we could build a greater tolerance and appreciation for negativity.

But before getting into my discussion, I want to give a heads up about the content of my talk. As you might imagine, I will be talking about many things that the audience might find triggering. I will not give graphic details of any violence, abuse, or self-harming behaviors in my own life as well as in many others’, but I will talk about them, in hope that some of what I say resonates with you. But if you find any part of my presentation “too much,” please do not feel obligated to stay in your seat; do take care of yourself in whatever ways you know, including leaving the room. I will be available after the presentation to talk privately if any of you wish to.

Okay, so what is negativity? It is our emotional, cognitive, and behavioral responses to difficulties we face in our lives that are uncomfortable for us and those around us, or those that are inconvenient for the society. It is expressing emotions that the society considers inappropriate, such as anger, depression, desperation, numbness. It is behaviors that the society labels “unhealthy” or “maladaptive,” such as substance use, self-injury, eating “disorders,” promiscuity.

Sometimes, we react negatively to things and it harms us further. But often, the harm is not necessarily the direct result of our reactions, but the result of the society not understanding or supporting our negative reactions. New York-based performance artist Penny Arcade wrote:

Being a bad girl is not about wearing too much makeup, too short skirts, or fishnet stockings. It’s about being cut out, and left out of the society because you can’t handle the pain in your life in a way the society thinks is appropriate.

My struggle to make sense of my propensity for negativity began when I started talking to someone at a rape crisis center in a rural college town. As a survivor of childhood sexual abuse as well as the dysfunctional child welfare system and as a queer disabled fat Asian girl in and out of sex trade, my self-esteem was predictably low. Trying to be helpful, someone loaned me self-help cassette tapes (yes, this was in the mid-90s) that were supposed to help me heal myself and build self-esteem. I listened to them on repeat, but it did not work. And not only that, it made me feel like I failed once again.

I didn’t–and still don’t–know what healing was. Our common understanding of trauma–whether it is violence or war or accident or whatever–is that it is exceptional and disruptive rather than the norm. We as the society take for granted that everyone pretty much lives a normal life, and only occasionally experiences traumatic incidents that leave us with physical and emotional injuries that require healing and restoration of the normal. But when life is a constant stream of difficulties, as it often is for children and adults in abusive long-term relationships and for people who face multiple layers of oppressions such as racism, poverty, homophobia/transphobia, and ableism, trauma becomes the norm. I could not imagine a normal norm to which I would return to after healing, or the true self that I would become once trauma ceased to define who I was. Again, it felt like a failure on my part.

The society prescribes a model of healing that is linear and short-term, as exemplified by the for-profit health insurance system that limit counseling to a certain number of sessions, if any. Even within survivor advocacy, we often hear about the linear progression from being a dreadful “victim” to empowered “survivor” as the idealized path toward healing. For example, a website for sexual abuse survivors states:

Yes, you are a victim of sexual abuse, but a victim stays in a victim role and never moves further and changes any behaviors that might change the outcome of the feelings that you are suffering from. You can’t change what happened to you… but you CAN change how you will react to it and how you want your life to be from this day forward! Once you make the decision to recover, you have the power to change your life!! Your abuser does not have to win! You can take back your power and move on and not stay stuck where you are!

D.C. Rape Crisis Center disagrees with this progression model of healing, and yet it continues to uphold the victim/survivor dichotomy:

You have made it past the assault, and you have earned the title of “survivor” rather than the depressing identifier “victim.” It takes courage, bravery, and strength to tell your story […] Being a survivor […] means that you are not letting yourself or your life be defined by your assault. […] Identifying as a survivor is a major step in the healing process.

Many people prefer the word “survivor” to “victim” because “survivor” feels strong and proactive. I understand that, as that is precisely how I felt for a long time also, but I started to think that we need to honor and embrace weakness, vulnerability, and passivity as well, or else we end up blaming and invalidating victims (including myself) who do not feel strong some or most of the times.

The society views victimhood as something that must be overcome. When we are victimized, we are (sometimes) afforded a small allowance of time, space, and resources in order to recover – limited and conditional exemptions from normal societal expectations and responsibilities – and are given a different set of expectations and responsibilities that we must live up to (mainly focused around getting help, taking care of ourselves, and recovering). “Healing” is not optional, but is a mandatory process by which a “victim” is transformed into a “survivor”; the failure to successfully complete this transformation results in victim-blaming and sanctions.

This is the function of “victim role,” an extension of sociologist Talcott Parsons’ theory of “sick role.” The society needs victims to quickly transition out of victimhood into survivorship so that we can return to our assigned positions in the heteronormative and capitalist social and economic arrangements in order to resume our productive and reproductive duties. That, I believe, is the source of this immense pressure to become survivors rather than victims, a cultural attitude that even many feminist anti-violence advocates have internalized.

On Mayo Clinic website, a physician wrote:

Everyone has setbacks, disappointments and frustrations. But the way you respond to these challenges and opportunities is what defines you. Whether you become a victim or a “seasoned survivor” depends on your attitude and the way you view the setback. […] Whatever has happened, you can choose to whine and complain about it, or to profit and learn from the experience. Whining is not only unproductive, it also pushes away your support network. Friends and colleagues will listen for just so long, but then it is time to move on. The choice is yours. Your life depends on it.

Note that this was written by an oncologist, so I assume that he was addressing to people who survived cancer rather than interpersonal violence. But there are striking similarities between societal attitudes toward sufferers and survivors of cancer and those experienced by abuse survivors, as I gather from Barbara Ehrenreich’s work on the former (she wrote an article titled “Smile! You’ve got cancer” criticizing the societal pressure people with cancer live under to be cheerful and positive).

Mayo Clinic physician’s article is a clear example of victim-blaming: victims who “whine and complain” are blamed for causing their own isolation and suffering by pushing away our support networks, as if our mentality is the only barrier for us to thrive. He pretends to offer “choices,” but he is clearly promoting the normative survivorship that whitewashes negativity over “unproductive” whining and complaining, suggesting that those of us who remain “victims” deserve what we get because of our failure to live up to the societal expectations.

Victim-blaming of course is a common occurrence against victims and survivors of domestic and sexual violence. When activists decry that we live in a rape culture, it doesn’t just mean that rape is ubiquitous. More importantly, it means that we live in a culture that provides excuses and justifications for sexual violence under the premise that the perpetrator could not help the urge, and the victim deserved it because of how she or he conducted themselves. Unfortunately, survivor advocates end up replicating the victim-blaming pattern when they prescribe a particular way for victims to heal and deny survivors a room to whine and complain unproductively without losing support.

Blaming of people experiencing negative feelings is closely connected to the popular ideology of positive psychology. Positive psychology, or at least its popular versions, announces that we all “have the power” to change our lives through transforming our attitudes, neglecting how our power is constantly being weakened, undermined, and stolen by violence and societal injustices in our lives. If we all “have the power” to be happy simply by changing our minds rather than material reality of our everyday struggles, it reasons that those of us who are unhappy are to blame for our own misery.

The society prescribes “healthy” ways for us to cope with difficulties in our lives, and admonishes us for using “unhealthy” ones. “Healthy” coping strategies include exercise, consistent eating and sleeping schedule, accessing support (but not too much, or you will become a “whiner”), hot bath. “Unhealthy” ones involve substance use, eating “disorder,” self-injury, and other “negative” things that push away our support system. When we engage in these “unhealthy” coping strategies, we are blamed for causing more problems to ourselves.

The Icarus Project, which is a network of people living with experiences that are labeled “psychiatric illnesses” but reject the conventional medical model of “mental health” and “mental illness,” published a handbook specifically about people’s uses of self-injurious behaviors to cope with difficulties in our lives. In it, the authors provocatively provide a long list of activities that might be described as “self-injury,” but often not, which includes:

  • working very hard
  • dieting
  • exercising excessively, or not at all
  • piercing
  • walking on high heels
  • getting tattoos
  • playing football
  • mountaineering
  • skateboading
  • ballet
  • working in a job you hate
  • depilating/waxing

Each of these acts may cause pain, injury, and other undesirable consequences, but they are generally considered normal. What are the differences between socially appropriate and inappropriate self-injury? There may be many factors, but one of the tendencies I observe is that self-injurious behaviors that are compatible with capitalism and uphold societal hierarchies (sexism and classism in particular) are generally considered socially appropriate, while those that undermine our ability to be productive workers and happy consumers are considered inappropriate.

I believe that “unhealthy” or negative coping strategies that we use some or most of the time must be validated and supported. It does not necessarily mean that every coping strategy is equally valid all the time, but the validity and desirableness of coping strategies need to be evaluated by the person experiencing it, rather than externally imposed on her or him by the society or by the advocates.

This includes suicidal thoughts. I have long struggled with thoughts thoughts about suicide and self-harm, but I have since come to accept suicidal ideation as a coping strategy rather than merely a symptom or a warning sign. After all, every time I contemplated suicide, it helped me survive. The failure to recognize our resilience in suicidality makes it difficult to have honest conversations about how we truly feel.

That said, the Mayo Clinic physician does have a point about how negativity pushes away our support system. Negative survivorship often presents a challenge for our friends, family members, and other people in our lives. I feel that the blame we receive for engaging in “unhealthy” coping strategies or remaining a “victim” rather than “survivor” has more to do with how they make other people uncomfortable than with our well-being. The feeling of uncomfortableness is understandable and valid, but we need to own up our uncomfortableness and deal with it rather than blaming the victim for it.

I think I have the similar experience related to my physical disability. My body is weak (even though I am big and swim every other day) and I have bad balance, so occasionally I fall to the ground despite using crutches. People who see me fall often rush toward me and begin pulling my arms to get me up without bothering to ask me if I need any help or how they could help. I believe that they are genuinely trying to help, but at the same time I feel that they are also extremely uncomfortable seeing someone clearly in pain and distress, and can’t stop to think if what they are doing is actually helpful before rushing to make my reality of disability disappear from their sight.

Experts working with people who are dealing with major depression advise that friends, family members, and others to avoid attempting to “cheer up” their loved ones who are depressed. It almost always backfire because it leads the person to feel invalidated and misunderstood, and deepens the sense of isolation and alienation that she or he feels. It is often more helpful to simply be there for and with that person without getting too caught up about finding the solution.

I am often socially awkward, but one thing I feel I am good at socially is that I have a high tolerance for negativity of people around me who are having difficult times. I have developed the ability to tolerate negativity through my own negative survivorship, especially from finding peace in having low expectations of life and accepting insignificance of my existence. Having low expectation of life does not prevent me from being hurt, but it shields me from disappointments, at least some of the times; accepting insignificance of my existence helped me stop worrying about meaning or purpose of my life. This place of peace allows me to sit with my friends who are depressed or even suicidal and validate their feelings without judgment.

Seattle-based organization Northwest Network which advocates for LGBTQ survivors of relationship abuse started a program called Friends Are Reaching Out, or F.A.R. Out, about ten years ago. The purpose of F.A.R. Out is to “build capacity within our community to resist isolation and sustain meaningful connections” among friends in the queer/trans communities, especially queer/trans communities of color who are often left out by the mainstream anti-domestic violence programs.

The idea behind F.A.R. Out is that relationship abuse often first manifest in the isolation of the victim from her or his community outside of the intimate relationship with the abuser. This is allowed to occur because we often feel uncertain about what our friends are actually experiencing in their relationship with their intimate partner even when we see potential signs of abuse, and unsure as to how to talk about it or intervene. We feel too uncomfortable witnessing these signs and yet not knowing what to do, so we often withdraw, leaving our friends in potential danger.

F.A.R. Out is based on the idea that we might be able to prevent abusive patterns from developing if our communities and friendships were more resistant to the initial attempt to isolate the victim. To that end, it facilitates intentional dialogues about what healthy relationships would look like in our communities, how to tell when something is going wrong, and what we want each other to do if we notice something unusual, even if we are not 100% sure about what is going on. This program builds on existing friendship networks and makes them more resistant to abuse that can occur to any one of us (or that any of us might engage in without the help of our friends).

Relationships are key to our survival, and it is not just negativity itself that isolates and alienates us when we are in distress. It is the lack of resilient communities and friendship networks that have mechanisms to resist isolation; it is the inability for us to own and take care of uncomfortableness that we feel about the negativity that some of us–or many of us–employ in order to cope.

Since this is the Coming Out Day, I want to make some comments about the popular representations of what is promoted as “giving hope” to young people who are struggling with homophobia and transphobia, whether it is societal, familial, or internalized. Obviously, I welcome the fact that there are far more books, music, films, websites, resources, and organizations that are supportive of young people who are LGBTQ than I had access to when I graduated from high school in the mid-90s in rural southern Missouri, which was zero.

There is a stark contrast and contradiction in the popular discourse surrounding LGBTQ youth: the news media is filled with stories about bullying, harassment, and suicide of young people who are in fact or perceived to be queer or trans; the pop culture presents promotion and celebration of individuality, pride, and positivity, often as exemplified by successful mostly white gay men and lesbians (and straight celebrities) speaking on the behalf of all LGBTQ people.

Dan Savage’s “It Gets Better” campaign combines the two, suggesting that the dreadful reality young people are experiencing now is only temporary, and with time things would get better, especially if they move to a big city and become middle-class professionals like themselves. I’m sure it works for some young people (especially if they are white and middle-class and can reasonably expect things to get better once they are on their own), but I find it alienating in the same way that telling a depressed person to “cheer up” backfires.

Things do sometimes get better. But in my experience they mostly shift and move and change shape, constantly, rather than taking the linear upward trajectory. The idea that things would just get better with time is unrealistic, invalidating, and alienating for those of us who have lived through a long stream of multiple trauma and oppressions in our lives. “It Gets Better” could have been an interesting project if it were promoted as a way for middle-class, middle-aged gays and lesbians to reflect on their own lives, for themselves, because that’s what it really is. But as it is, I worry that it is taking too much space, shifting attention away from media and creative projects by young people themselves that tell their own stories to cope with whatever “it” is, and possibly changing “it” at the structural level.

I want to end by reading a poem I wrote about how I hate survivor poems. I’m not saying that I dislike poems written by survivors, but I hate the cliche that are survivor narratives that we are expected to repeat.

i don’t write survivor poems
i don’t write about the journey
from a survivor to a thriver
from a wounded child to a
bad-ass feminist revolutionary
that is not me most of the time

i don’t write about healing
about forgiveness
about grief and letting go

i don’t write about strength
i don’t write about the courage to heal
and i never want to hear again
oh you are so courageous to speak out
about your story
that i haven’t even began to tell

i don’t write to inspire

i don’t write about finding purpose
about finding jesus
about finding self-love

i don’t write about the truth
because truth is too fragile
like a particle whose location and velocity
cannot be simultaneously observed

i write instead
about the lack of counseling
that is actually competent and affordable

i write about the fake sympathy
and the lynch mob that robs me of my rage
and repurposes it to build more prisons

i write about the need for validation
even if our survival involves slashing on the wrist
not eating overeating and purging alcohol drugs
avoiding sex having too much sex

i write, in fact, about survival
through not just the abuse from the past
but survival in the society that doesn’t give a fuck

i don’t write survivor poems
because my story is not for your consumption
i don’t write a coherent and compelling narrative
and i don’t exist to demonstrate the resilience of the human spirit

i write survival poems
i survive

Happy (or not so happy—and it’s okay!) Coming Out Day!

Cis privilege and the Three Pillars of Patriarchy? (Re: “Cis” is real)

Date: September 22, 2013

In response to my post “‘Cis’ is real–even if it is carelessly articulated,” an “anti-porn, anti-queer theory, pro-choice radical feminist” asked:

Can you explain what privileges a woman receives from being born female (the class of humans oppressed on the basis of sex) and being raised as girls (the gender assigned to them to maintain the hierarchy of men > women)?

There are many “cisgender privilege” checklists out there, none of which I agree entirely with, but patterns are clear and undeniable: trans people as a group face unique sets of violence, discrimination, and marginalization, even if not all trans people experience all of them, or some cis people experience some of them as well.

I’m sure you’ve seen the lists, but if you haven’t, here are the “lists” that came up on a quick search:

Privilege “checklists” have been challenged by those who wish to deny their privilege ever since Peggy McIntosh’s original “Invisible Knapsack” article came out. Any given item in the “list” may not apply to all people who belong to the privileged group, or even apply to some people who aren’t supposed to have the privilege, but that does not diminish the concept of privilege itself, whether it is male privilege, white privilege, or, yes, cis privilege.

How do women, who are disadvantaged by their sex and gender, oppress trans people with power they don’t have? Because it isn’t like race or ability, which you draw parallels to, because white people are not discriminated against on the basis of skin color and abled people are not discriminated against on the basis of their abled-ness in the way that women are discriminated against for being “cis”–that is, being female.

Cis women can have power over trans people in the same way white women can have power over people of color. But more importantly, I think the notion of “privilege” as a totalizing, all-or-nothing experience is faulty. People with different levels (or kinds) of able-bodiedness can have different level (or kind) of access to privilege, so not all people who have disability are equally oppressed or privileged. Similarly, different people of color have different level of access to white privilege depending on their socially determined access to whiteness (which, again, is not a natural category, but a socially constructed knowledge about racial differences).

In her classic work “Heteropatriarchy and the Three Pillars of White Supremacy,” Andrea Smith analyzes three different “logics” that impact various communities of color differently and yet together uphold the white supremacy in the United States. According to her, three pillars of white supremacy are: the logic of slavery, which anchors capitalism by commodifying Black people as slaves, prison laborers, etc., and by extension commodifies all workers; the logic of genocide, which anchors colonialism by vanishing indigenous people both in social reality and in imagination in order to claim the land and culture that do not belong to the white supremacy; and the logic of Orientalism, which anchors war and anti-terror or anti-immigrant policies by treating Latinos, Asians, Arabs, and other people as foreign threat and invasion.

It is not helpful to assume that all people of color are oppressed (and not privileged) by the white supremacy in the same way, or that someone who is not targeted by a particular logic of the white supremacy in a particular way are therefore white. The system that is white supremacy requires all three to operate in concert, so in order to fight the white supremacy we need to address specific ways each community is targeted.

Would it be a stretch to think that patriarchy is also a conglomerate of various different logics? Misogyny, heterosexism, and cissexism can be understood as components of what we call patriarchy, or sometimes “gender,” but each impact different communities in unique ways (which, by the way, is not to say that they don’t also overlap, for example when someone is a gay and woman = lesbian).

I am Asian, which means that I have some access to white privilege where anti-Black racism (the logic of slavery) or settler colonialism (the logic of genocide) is in operation. That does not mean that I do not experience racism, or that I have white privilege the same way white people do. Similarly, a cis woman, or a straight woman can have some access to gender privilege, even though at the same time oppressed for being a woman.

I am not interested in “drawing the line” as to how much access is enough to categorize someone as being on the privileged “side” of the oppression, because I do not think of privilege as having just two sides. What I am attempting to do is to articulate a coherent and consistent understanding of cis privilege that is compatible with existing thinking around other forms of privilege.

(An earlier edit of this article has been posted on my Tumblr page.)

Rescue is for Kittens: Ten Things Everyone Needs to Know about “Rescues” of Youth in the Sex Trade

Date: September 20, 2013

In preparation for the International Human Trafficking, Prostitution, and Sex Work Conference at University of Toledo next week, I created a new handout! Please feel free to share this page, or download the PDF version for distribution.

Also, please take a look at my other handout on the topic, Understanding the Complexities of Sex Trafficking and Sex Work/Trade: Ten Observations from a Sex Worker Activist/Survivor/Feminist, which is also available as a PDF file.

Instruction for printing the PDF file: print both pages back to back in “calendar style.” Cut the paper horizontally to make two copies from one sheet of paper.


Rescue is for Kittens: Ten Things Everyone Needs to Know about “Rescues” of Youth in the Sex Trade

written by emi koyama (emi@eminism.org)
version 1.0 (last updated 09/20/2013)

1. Most “rescued” youth are 16-17 year old. While media and politicians often sensationalize very young victims who are 13 year old or younger, they are outliers. The misperception of unrealistically low average age is harmful because it misdirects necessary policy responses.

2. “Rescue” actually means arrest and involuntary detainment of minor “victims” by the police in many cases. Some jurisdictions have passed “safe harbor” laws that abolished prostitution charges against minors, but young people are still being arrested under some other criminal charge, and are then sent to detention, child welfare system, or back to home.

3. Many “rescued” youth have experienced child welfare system before starting to trade sex. Many have ran away from foster family or group home, and do not feel that going back to the system that have failed them already is a solution to problems in their lives. When they are forcibly returned to these institutions, many run away again as soon as they can.

4. There are “push” and “pull” factors that contribute to the presence of youth sex trade. “Push” factors are things that make young people vulnerable, such as poverty, racism, sexism, homophobia/transphobia, family violence, failure of child welfare system, and the breakdown of families due to incarceration and deportation; “pull” factors are things that lure youth into the sex trade, such as the existence of the commercial sex market itself and its facilitators (buyers, online classified sites, etc.). Anti-trafficking policies such as “rescues” place exclusive focus on the “pull” side of the equation while neglecting to address the vulnerabilities created by the “push” side.

5. Without policies that truly address the “push” factors, any reduction in the “pull” side, such as lower demand for commercial sex due to more policing, or closure of online classified sites, only functions to impoverish youth further, making them more vulnerable overall rather than less. Street youth still need to survive, and thus still have to find different ways to do so, most likely doing things that are also criminalized.

6. Street youth are routinely harassed and mistreated by the law enforcement, and do not view the police as their protector. Social service agencies that work closely with the law enforcement’s campaign to “rescue” youth lose the trust of the people who need to access the services. Any public response to youth sex trade must start from the acknowledgment that the law enforcement is one of the primary sources of violence in the lives of street youth, and cannot be relied upon to provide the solution.

7. Youth in the sex trade eventually become adults. Because the society focuses on “rescues” instead of providing resources and opportunities that would improve their long-term well-being, many youth are left unable to pursue economic opportunities outside of the underground economy, and will be treated simply as criminals once they are 18.

8. “Rescue” operations result in the mass arrest and criminalization of adult women in the sex trade, many of whom would have been identified as underage “victims” several years earlier but are now treated as criminals. Many adult women (as well as teen girls) arrested during “rescue” operations are mothers, and their children may be taken away and placed in the child welfare system as a consequence of their arrest.

9. Individuals arrested as “pimps” during “rescue” operations are not necessarily abusers, traffickers, or exploiters; in fact, many are friends, family members, partners, etc. who happen to provide room, transportation, mentoring, security, and other assistance to people in the sex trade, or are financially supported by them, even though they are not abusing, coercing, exploiting, or otherwise hurting that person. Sometimes, women are arrested as “pimps” for working in pairs to increase their safety. Indiscriminate arrests of friends and others as “pimps” when they are not abusers, traffickers, or exploiters lead to further isolation of people who trade sex, putting them at greater risks.

10. Street youth need housing, jobs, education, healthcare, and other resources and opportunities. Being thrown in jail or detention does not provide them, nor does being sent back to families or institutions that they had run away from in the first place. Youth in the sex trade deserve our support, and must be given a voice in determining how the society can best support them!

Please send your feedback to emi@eminism.org!

h/t Claudine O’Leary, founder of Young Women’s Empowerment Project, for the phrase “rescue is for kittens.”

Rescue is for Kittens cover

“Cis” is real—even if it is carelessly articulated.

Date: September 9, 2013

The term “cis” (usually denoting people and things that are not transgender or transsexual) has gained popularity among queer subcultures since the publication of “Whipping Girl: A Transsexual Woman on Sexism and the Scapegoating of Femininity” by Julia Serano in 2007. In the book, Serano cites my old post to WMST-L (Women’s Studies mailing list) as the place she encountered the word, so I feel I played some part in popularizing the term.

In casual conversations, it is suffice to say that “cis” means the opposite of “trans,” replacing “normal,” “natural,” “biological,” “genetic,” “real,” and many other words that are often used in the mainstream society to describe someone who is not trans. As I explained back in 2002, the reason “cis” is preferable to all the others is that it treats “cis” and “trans” as linguistic equivalents, rather than treating one as more normal or natural or otherwise standard and the other abnormal, artificial or exceptional. I wrote:

I learned the words “cissexual,” “cissexist,” and “cisgender,” from trans activists who wanted to turn the table and define the words that describe non-transsexuals and non-transgenders rather than always being defined and described by them. By using the term “cissexual” and “cisgender,” they de-centralize the dominant group, exposing it as merely one possible alternative rather than the “norm” against which trans people are defined.

As the term became popular, I started seeing it being included and defined in many “terminology” sheets and other documents. Personally, I feel perfectly comfortable defining “trans” as “not cis,” and “cis” as “not trans,” but other people often try to offer a more helpful sets of definitions–and this is where the problem begins. For example, Wikipedia states:

Cisgender and cissexual (often abbreviated to simply cis) describe related types of gender identity where an individual’s self-perception of their gender matches the sex they were assigned at birth. Kristen Schilt and Laurel Westbrook define cisgender as a label for “individuals who have a match between the gender they were assigned at birth, their bodies, and their personal identity,” complementing transgender.

Some anti-trans radical feminists have rejected the term “cis,” along with pretty much everything else trans movement has produced so far, but in this particular case they have a good point. That is, gender in a patriarchal society is an oppressive institution created and imposed (at least in part) to subjugate women, and as such no woman (or probably other people) can be described as having a natural “match” between her gender and the assigned sex. Many “cis” women are indeed not comfortable with the gendered expectations and treatment that are imposed on them because of their assigned sex: indeed, that is one of the reasons many women become feminists, especially radical feminists. Women do not need to suffer from “Gender Dysphoria” (formerly Gender Identity Disorder) to feel dysphoric about gender.

I am sympathetic to this argument, to a point, but I feel that the problem is not the concept of “cis” itself, but how badly it is defined. I agree that many “cis” women (and others) don’t feel that the socially imposed gender “matches” their assigned sex–or understand what “match” even means in this context–and yet, cis people (and cis women) exist. Cis privileges exist.

The problem is how the word “cis” is often defined as if it is a natural category, definable outside the context of cissexist power relations, rather than a socially constructed one. Like whiteness or able-bodiedness, “cis” needs to be understood as a historical and political category of power and privilege, with boundaries that are blurry and constantly shifting.

That might not make sense, because many people tend to think of whiteness or able-bodiedness as natural categories as well, but those of us who study the history of racism or ableism understand these categories as socially constructed. In the last several centuries, for example, many groups of people from Europe–Italians, Irish, and most recently, Ashkenazi Jews–have come to be accepted as “whites” in the U.S., even though historically they were regarded as something else. There are some people who predict that Asians and Latinos will eventually join “whites” in the U.S. in the not so distant future (remember, Jews weren’t white until mid-20th century)–which is kind of a scary thought to me, considering that I might live all of my life as an Asian person, only to die as a white person.

Able-bodiedness operates similarly: disability theorists have adopted a “social model of disability, which distinguishes between “impairments” that are physical or mental differences and “disabilities” that are social meaning of these differences created by lack of universal accessibility. Historical changes such as policies promoting accessibility and uses of adaptive technologies have reduced or in some cases eliminated difficulties someone might experience due to their physical or mental differences.

Like whiteness and able-bodiedness, “cis” needs to be treated as a socially constructed category of power and privilege. In my view, a “cis” person is not (necessarily) someone whose gender matches her or his assigned sex, or someone who does not suffer from “Gender Dysphoria”; it should denote someone who does not suffer from (or must manage possibility of suffering from) transphobia on a regular basis.

Obviously, there are grey areas along the boundaries of this category. Some butch women and effeminate men might be frequently targeted by transphobia without being trans, or some trans person might pass well enough to not experience transphobia in their daily lives. Similar grey areas also exist along the boundaries of whiteness and able-bodiedness (mistaken identities and “passing” can and do happen), but that does not diminish the usefulness of these categories to discuss socially imposed structures of power and privilege. It might also be true that butch women do experience some aspects of transphobia, but in a much different way than a trans person would: for example, butch women can usually produce an identification card with an “F” printed on it and expect everybody to accept it.

Just to be clear: When I say “transphobia,” I am not merely talking about someone using a wrong pronoun. I am talking about violence, discrimination, and social abandonment that take many trans lives. If we lived in a society where these tragedies did not exist, I could care less that people are using wrong pronouns. Cis is real, and cis privileges really do exist–even if they are often not articulated properly or thoughtfully. Do not let cis people get away with denying their privilege by nitpicking specific (arguably bad) definitions of the concept as if the concept itself has no substance.

My remark for the March for Ivanice Harris

Date: August 27, 2013

Below is a recap of a brief remark I made at the march for Ivanice (Ivy) Harris, a Portland woman who was murdered while vacationing in Hawai’i earlier this year. A U.S. Marine was initially arrested for her murder, but was released after the law enforcement concluded that there was not enough evidence to convict him.

Sex Workers Outreach Coalition (SWOC) was invited to send someone to give a speech at the march because Ivy was working as an escort. I attended the march representing SWOC.

But minutes before the speech, I was asked to be “discreet” because there were children in the audience, along with Ivy’s mom. Specifically, they asked me not to mention “sex work” or anything related to that, not even the full name of Sex Workers Outreach Coalition.

What you see below is what I said under this last-minute restriction.

Thank you for allowing me to say a few words. My name is Emi and I am part of SWOC coalition, which is a group meeting at Portland Women’s Crisis Line. We are social workers, activists, and community members advocating for women like Ivy who are doing what we need to do to survive, support our family, pay for school, and such.

At SWOC and Portland Women’s Crisis Line, we hear a lot about violence targeting women like us. We are targeted by people who commit violent acts on us. We are targeted by the media that disrespect us when they report about violence against us. We are targeted by the law enforcement that refuse to investigate violence against us. And too often we are also abandoned by our family and friends.

But today, I am very surprised and encouraged to see you all here, family and friends of Ivy who have not abandoned her, who are demanding justice for her. Thank you very much for your presence, your support, your love. I’m proud to be part of this march. Thank you very much!

Here’s the news article about the march from Portland Observer. “Like” BRING Ivanice HOME page on facebook to receive updates about the case!

Send Emi to Toledo Human Trafficking, Prostitution and Sex Work Conference!

Date: August 18, 2013

Sex worker activists, allies, and friends,

Brief summary first: this is a request for donations to help me present at an anti-trafficking conference.

I have been accepted to present at the 10th annual Human Trafficking, Prostitution & Sex Work Conference at University of Toledo in September. This is not a conference I have ever attended or had been planning to attend, but I was strongly encouraged to submit a proposal to present at this conference by several people I met at Desiree Alliance conference last month.

People who have attended the conference in the past have told me that there used to be more representation of sex worker activists at this conference, but over time it has attracted more of the anti-trafficking crowd who promote “rescues” and persecution. But they also describe the conference organizer as being supportive of sex worker activists and allies, and encourages all attendees to listen to each other with an open mind.

Because of my extensive research on the harmful impact of misguided anti-trafficking policies as well as on grass-roots alternatives to the mainstream anti-trafficking discourse, and also because of my background in both sex worker’s rights movement and feminist anti-violence movements, I feel that I am best positioned to bridge the gap with well-intentioned but misguided anti-trafficking activists and social workers and get them to think differently.

The problem, of course, that it costs money. The conference waives registration fees for the speakers, but it still costs close to $1000 for airfare and lodging. I can reduce the cost by several hundred dollars by flying in to Detroit instead of Toledo, and I hope to do that if I can figure out the transportation from Detroit to Toledo, but that still costs $600-700.

I hesitated reaching out to my friends for donations, because I don’t want to use up my friends’ resources for this conference, in case I or someone close to me have a more urgent need (such as unexpected medical expenses) that we need to fundraise for. After all, this conference is not all that important to me personally, even though I feel that it is important politically for our community.

So I only ask you to donate if you also believe that it is important for me to be at the conference for the impact I will make, and not because you are my friend and want to help me with whatever I need. I might some day come to you to ask for help with urgent financial need, but this is not that.

That said: if you are still interested in helping me get to the conference, please donate! You can send money via Paypal to emi AT eminism DOT org or donate at the crowdfunding page. If I don’t raise enough money to attend the conference, I will refund your donations (minus the transaction fees). You can use donation links on my online button/zine store too (and while you are there, order my buttons and zines!).

Thanks!

Silencing and Intimidation of Women of Color at “Men Against Sexism” Conference

Date: August 15, 2013

I attended Forging Justice conference in Detroit last week, which was jointly sponsored by National Organization for Men Against Sexism and HAVEN, a domestic violence and sexual assault agency in Oakland County, Michigan. It was my first time speaking at a conference primarily for men in the movement against sexism and violence against women, and unsurprisingly, there were many issues… I wrote a report, “Silencing and Intimidation of Women of Color at ‘Men Against Sexism’ Conference” at Shakesville, a popular feminist blog. There is also a list of demands to NOMAS from women attending the conference. Please read and signal boost!

Pressuring or requiring cab drivers and hotel workers to report suspected prostitution will backfire

Date: July 30, 2013

In the previous post, I wrote about how penalizing cab drivers, hotel workers, and others for building relationship with people in the sex trade (instead of immediately reporting it to the police, as the law enforcement requests) isolates people in the sex trade (youth or adult, trafficked or not) and make them more vulnerable. But some people continue to insist that the right thing to do is to call the police, so here is further explanation.

Public policies often have unintended consequences. That is, when the government takes measures to encourage certain actions and discourage others, it does not necessarily lead to the desired result, and might even cause unanticipated harms. So the question we should ask is: what will happen if the government requires or pressures cab drivers, hotel workers, and other businesses to report suspected sex trafficking cases, including any suspected minor engaging in prostitution?

Cab drivers, hotel workers, and others witnessing potential sex trafficking cases have several options to choose from. They can 1) call the police, 2) pretend that they are not seeing anything, 3) refuse services to them, or 4) approach the potential victim and build relationship so that they can offer resources if they need and want them (including calling the police if that is what they want).

Businesses might call the police in the very rare cases when they are 100% certain that the person is being trafficked, or the victim is clearly underage (someone who appears like a pre-pubescent, for example). But when it is uncertain, which things usually are, businesses are reluctant to call the police on their customers.

When the cost of acting on a suspicion that might be wrong (such as calling the police under false impression) is high, businesses recognize that it is in their best interest to remain (or feign) uninformed about the situation (option 2), or simply distancing themselves from it (option 3), rather than risking angering innocent customers (option 1), or learning too much about the situation by becoming too involved with people who might be in the sex trade (option 4), making them complicit in the crime in the eyes of the law enforcement.

As a result, policies that are intended to promote option 1 (calling the police) actually lead businesses to choose options 2 and 3, and foreclose further the possibilities for more innovative solutions that meet people in the sex trade, build rapport with them, and assist them in ways they desire.

Operation Cross Country VII Roundup and Comments

Date: July 30, 2013

Across country, yet another round of FBI’s Operation Cross Country sweep took place over three days last week, which is (supposedly) aimed at “rescuing” young people who are trafficked into prostitution and arrest those responsible for trafficking them. This is the seventh and the largest Operation Cross Country sweep to date, with 76 cities participating.

According to FBI, law enforcement agencies have “recovered” 105 youth and arrested 159 “pimps.” It is important to remember that, because of the broad definitions of “sex trafficking” and “promoting prostitution” (which is often considered “pimping”), these youth may or may not be under control of or exploited by a third party, and these “pimps” may or may not be controlling or exploiting the youth.

I have written previously about how these “rescue” operations uncover rather small number of minors who are in the sex trade (between one and two youth per city on average), while putting a large number of adult women in jail (see this and this). The pattern seems to hold true this time around: law enforcement agencies “rescued” (as in, they handcuffed and took away) 105 young people aged 13-17 in 76 cities in three days, which is about 1.38 youth per city.

Here is an updated chart summarizing the impact of Operation Cross Country I thru VII.

Spotty Data from FBI’s Operation Cross Country sweeps
Source: FBI press releases; last updated in July 2013

  Date Cities “Rescues” “Pimps” Other Arrest
1 06/25/2008 16 21 unk 389
2 10/27/2008 29 49 73 642 (518 adult sw)
3 02/23/2009 29 48 unk 571
4 10/26/2009 36 52 60 700
5 11/08/2010 40 69 99 885
6 06/25/2012 57 79 104 unk
7 07/29/2013 76 105 159 unk

As with the last time, I am also compiling information that are not on FBI’s website, but made public through local media (who probably get information from FBI).

City-by-City Roundup of Media Reports on Operation Cross Country VII
Source: FBI press release unless otherwise specified; last updated in July 2012

Division “Rescue” “Pimp” Adult SWs Notes Source(s)
Atlanta 2 17? 9 FBI Atlanta reports 10 arrests for “pimps” and 9 adult prostitution arrests; FBI in DC reports 17 “pimps.” WJBF and WRDW report 9 arrests for prostitution and 2 for sexual exploitation in Augusta area: does this mean all adult prostitution arrests in Georgia took place in Augusta? FBI Atlanta; WJBF ABC/Augusta; WTVM Columbus; WRDW Augusta
Baltimore 0 3 unk    
Birmingham 3 2 unk   Alabama Media Group; CBS Birmingham; WBRC FOX/Birmingham
Boston 3 0 unk Media report that all three youth were found in Maine, which is part of FBI Boston Division. Maine Sun Journal; WLBZ NBC/Bangor
Charlotte 1 3 unk    
Chicago 2 1 96   Daily Herald (Chicago)
Cincinnati 0 2 unk   Cincinnati.com
Cleveland 1 1 23?   Toledo Blade
Columbia 1 1 unk WLTX reports 2 were arrested for promoting prostitution, not 1. The State (Columbia); WLTX Columbia
Dallas 1 1 unk   Dallas Morning News
Denver 9 6 51 KWGN reports 11 “pimps” were identified, and 25 “johns” arrested. KWGN Denver; Denver Post
Detroit 10 18 41 Detroit Free Press has details on 8 of the 10 “rescues”: they involve seven 17-year olds and one 16-year old. FBI Detroit; WWJ/CBS Detroit; Detroit Free Press; Advisor & Source
El Paso 0 2 16? AP reports 19 arrests in El Paso including three pimps; FBI reports only two pimp arrests. Las Cruces Sun-News
Houston 3 0 unk   Associated Press
Jackson 1 10 24? Jackson Free Press reports 24 people other than the minor and the “pimps” have been arrested on “related” charges, most likely adult prostitution. WJTV Jackson; WDAM Jackson; WJTV CBS/Jackson; WJTV CBS/Jackson; Jackson Free Press
Jacksonville 0 1 unk   Florida Times-Union
Kansas City 1 1 unk   KSHB NBC/Kansas City
Knoxville 0 7 11 Media report 8 “pimps” were arrested, not 7. Knoxville News Sentinel
Las Vegas 2 1 53+ Multiple news media report 2 “pimps” were arrested together with 1 youth “recovery,” even though FBI says 2 victims and 1 pimp. I tend to believe media reports because of the detail it provides (e.g. names of each “pimps” and specific charges against them). Adult women were also met with faith-based anti-trafficking “advocate.” 12 adult women arrested in Reno, 41 in Las Vegas. KOLO Las Vegas; Celebrity Examiner (Sacramento); Las Vegas Sun; KVVU FOX/Las Vegas
Los Angeles 2 3 unk   Los Angeles Times
Louisville 0 3 unk   WHAS Louisville
Memphis 3 2 unk   Commercial Appeal (Memphis)
Miami 0 4 35   Miami Herald; Hartford Courant
Milwaukee 10 0 100   FBI Milwaukee; FOX 6 Milwaukee; Capital Newspapers; CBS Milwaukee
Minneapolis 1 4 unk   WCCO CBS/Minneapolis
Newark 0 5 65+? News-Record quotes U.S. Senator saying that at least 70 arrests took place in New Jersey; The Current reports the same. Detail unknown. News-Record; The Current (Galloway)
New Haven 5 1 4+ 4 adult women arrested in Norwich alone. The Day (New London); Connecticut Post; Norwich Bulletin
New Orleans 6 6 64 KPLC has the breakdown of all arrests. Media report that there were 76 “arrests,” which would mean that “rescued children” were also arrested instead of being treated as victims. Of minors, 2 were from Baton Rouge and 4 from New Orleans. Advocate (Baton Rouge); WWLTV New Orleans; KPLC NBC/New Orleans; KATC Lafayette
New York City 0 0 7+ No “rescues” or “pimp” arrests in New York, but Saratogian and Saratoga Wire report seven adult women were arrested in Saratoga Springs in the course of the sweep. Saratogian; Saratoga Wire
Oklahoma City 3 13 36 The Oklahoman has full listing of all 60arrests connected to OCC7: 10 “pimps,” 36 adult women selling sex, 11 buyers, and 3 minors (age 16, 17, and 17). I assume that FBI is counting three buyers who were caught with the three minors as traffickers (as some law enforcement agencies do) to arrive at the total of 13 “pimps.” KOTV Tulsa; Muskogee Phoenix; Associated Press; The Oklahoman; The Oklahoman
Omaha 0 1 32+ Lincoln Journal Star reports that 5 adult women were arrested in Lincoln. The sole “pimp” is a boyfriend of one of the adult women arrested in the sweep. KOLN reports that there were 33 arrests total in Nebraska, 7 in Lincoln alone. Des Moines Register reports that 33 were “customers,” but this is clearly untrue. Lincoln Journal Star; Des Moines Register
Philadelphia 2 0 unk   Philly.com
Phoenix 2 0 30? KTVK reports “30 people were arrested including several pimps.” However FBI does not report any arrest of “pimps.” KTVK Phoenix
Pittsburgh 0 2 unk    
Portland 3 4 13   FBI Portland; The Columbian (Vancouver, WA); KREM Spokane; The Oregonian
Sacramento 2 2 unk   Fresno Bee
St. Louis 2 0 unk FBI says 2 youth recovered, but KPLR says 3 (age 16, 17, and 17). KPLR also says a pimp was “located.” KPLR St. Louis
Salt Lake City 0 0 unk    
San Antonio 1 4 unk   San Antonio Express-News
San Diego 5 6 50 Union-Tribune reports that three of the teens were returned to home, while other two were sent to detention. NBC reports 6 “rescues,” not 5. NBC San Diego; San Diego Union-Tribune
San Francisco 12 17 65   San Jose Mercury News; KGO ABC/San Francisco; San Francisco Chronicle; Vacaville Reporter
Seattle 3 3 55? FBI Seattle reports 9 arrests for abuse of minor; DC office says 3. 55 adult women were “identified and interviewed”–it is unclear if they are arrested. Seattle Times; The Columbian; King 5 Seattle
Springfield 0 2 unk    
Tampa 3 0 64 Tampa Bay Times reports 8 pimps have been “identified” but have not been arrested. News-Press reports 18 pimps have been identified. News-Press has the breakdown of arrests by county/area, adding up to 64 adults arrested for prostitution. WTSP CBS/Tampa; Tampa Bay Times; News-Press (Fort Myers)
Washington, D.C. 0 0 unk    

I want to make some comments, perhaps repeating myself from before.

First, when you hear that the law enforcement “rescued” or “liberated” young people, think about this photo from FOX News:

FOX News Photo

I’m not sure if this is an actual photo from Operation Cross Country sweep, or a stock photo FOX decided to pull out from somewhere, but this is exactly what “rescue” actually looks like. In fact, if you read closely to news reports, young people are arrested as part of their “rescue.” (Also, FOX News reports that the youngest victim was 9 year old, but that case is not from this raid. It is the youngest victim FBI has ever “rescued” years ago. According to FBI, the youngest victim uncovered during OCC7 was 13 year old, and most were 16-17 year olds.)

I am not suggesting that “rescues” are never necessary. Sometimes, like when someone is forcibly held against his or her will, we have no option but to call the police. But that is not a common experience of young people (as well as adults) in the sex trade: like many victims of domestic violence, even those who are experiencing abuse and exploitation do not leave their abusive environment because that is the best they can survive, given the social and economic circumstances, not because they are held hostage and unable to leave.

Domestic violence advocates know that “rescuing” abuse victims from their homes and forcing them into shelters involuntarily is generally not a solution. They believe, instead, in building resources and voluntary support services so that victims can receive long-term, ongoing assistance in dealing with the situation and leaving the abusive environment if and when they decide to do so. The same principle applies when we are working to support victims of abuse and exploitation in the sex trade.

I wrote previously about an innovative project in the anti-domestic violence movement in which hairstylists are trained about basics of domestic violence and survivor support. Hair salons are ideal place to provide support and information because it is a female-oriented space where many women spend a lot of time talking about their lives–much lower threshold than calling a crisis line. When hairstylists are trained to be good listeners and informed community advocate, they can build a relationship with women struggling with their relationships and offer support and referrals when they want it.

Anti-trafficking advocates too often neglect decades of development within the anti-domestic violence movement that can and should inform our approach to assisting youth and adults in the sex trade. Too often, anti-trafficking policies penalize people like cab drivers and hotel staff as well as friends and family members for developing any relationship with people involved in the sex trade (especially when there are pimps involved) unless they immediately call the police or other “rescuers,” labeling them “pimps” or promoters/facilitators of prostitution/trafficking. By preventing people in the sex trade from developing relationship, these policies isolate them and make them more vulnerable to violence and abuse.

Another things I want to point out is the incoherence of the anti-trafficking hyperbole in the face of this three-day, nationwide prostitution sweep. Anti-trafficking organizations routinely claim (falsely) that there are hundreds of trafficked “children” in any given city, who are forced to have sex 10-15 times a day, every day: if that is the case, why do they only find 105 minors in a three-day police sweep mobilizing law enforcement agencies in 76 cities? And if the “average age” someone is first trafficked into prostitution is 13, as anti-trafficking groups routinely claim (falsely), why is the youngest person they could find in the three-day nationwide sweep 13? It does not make sense.

Finally, I’d like to say kudos to Los Angeles Times for the best (by comparison, that is) mainstream coverage of OCC7, in which the paper focused on the failure of the foster system that creates vulnerabilities for young people. I would add, though, that it is not just foster system that is broken; it is our welfare system, our education system, our immigration system and criminal justice system (because many young people end up in foster care after parents are deported or imprisoned), and of course everything else.

As Los Angeles Times points out, any young people are on the street after running away from the child welfare system. “Rescues” only put them back into the system that have failed them already, and chances are they will run away again. And of course when many young women are arrested for prostitution in these raids, more of their children will go into the child welfare system. We need to stop spending millions of dollars in these useless law enforcement campaigns and use that money to fix social institutions that fail youth in the first place.

P.S.
Speaking of media coverage: here’s the most bizarre photo accompanying the article about OCC7:

Bizarre News Photo

[Update] Maggie McNeill confirms that the photo in the FOX News article is a stock photo.

Confusion and Contradiction in Law Enforcement Views on Sex Trafficking

Date: June 22, 2013

On June 18, I attended a public forum on human trafficking in Washington County (Oregon) sponsored by Respect for Life, a Catholic anti-abortion group. Main speakers were both representatives of the law enforcement, Tigard detective Yonsoo Lee and Multnomah County detective and deputy sheriff Keith Bickford.

Lee was to discuss domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) while Bickford would focus on trafficking involving “foreign-born” victims, but they both ended up addressing almost exclusively about young people trading sex. (This division between DMST and “foreign-born” trafficking reflects a larger re-organization of law enforcement units, as I have explained before.)

Detective Lee, who is also a deputized federal agent with the FBI, advised the audience that his presentation was PG-13, and surely enough he showed a series of online escort ads and other images with semi-explicit pictures of women, for no apparent reason. “We here in suburbia don’t often see human trafficking, but it is happening behind closed doors,” Lee stated.

Lee said that he was “pretty weary” of statistics, but nonetheless cited the oft-repeated (and thoroughly debunked) figure that “the average age of entry into prostitution is 12-14.” “From our experience, it holds true” he said, because he has encountered some girls who started trading sex at ages as early as 10 or 11. However, it was clear from the way he was discussing “our experiences” that these very young girls are anomalies, which makes it implausible that the “average age” can be anything close to 12.

He then admitted that the average age of girls (minors) he actually encounters (as opposed to the age at which they supposedly began trading sex) is about 16, which further makes us wonder how all these 10-14 year olds avoid encounter with the law enforcement for so many years before they finally come to his attention. The only plausible explanation is that the “average age” figure is totally wrong.

The most interesting part about Lee’s presentation was about how the law enforcement identify online sex ads that might involve trafficking. According to him, the law enforcement looks for ads for different girls that share the same contact information, user identifier, or other characteristics that indicate that they are not working alone. He also searches for older ads by the same poster, because sometimes people are less sophisticated when they begin using the internet for advertising, and there might be more identifying information in earlier ads.

Another example Lee gave is an ad found in an escort board that uses another provider (sex worker), not clients, as a reference. On boards, providers and clients both use references to avoid dealing with the law enforcement, but a new provider would not have any references, so she may ask another provider she knows to vouch for her authenticity. But, to Lee, this indicates that she is not working alone, which means it might involve trafficking.

This tactic is worrisome because the fact that someone is not working alone does not necessarily mean (and usually does not mean) that that person is being trafficked: it might be someone who is helping out the individual, or multiple individuals working together. Some sex workers choose to work with others for their safety, and may be forced to abandon this safety measure if doing so makes them more vulnerable to be targeted by the law enforcement.

“Where do victims come from?” Lee said that of 38 girls identified in connection to a brothel raid, four were former Tigard High School students. They are recruited online via social networking sites as well as outside schools and at shopping malls, Lee said.

Detective Keith Bickford followed Lee to discuss international trafficking, which is supposed to cover both labor and sex trafficking, but quickly narrowed down his talk to sex trafficking involving gangs and drug cartels (I’ve discussed the shift in the anti-trafficking discourse to treat trafficking as a primarily “gang problem” before). He told the audience that he had recently spoken with custom and border control agents in Arizona, who warned him about the “coming storm” of the emerging alliance between gangs and cartels.

“Cartels are very well funded, and very well armed,” said Bickford, pointing out that cartel members are connected even to some foreign diplomats. “A foreign consulate can be a cartel member… Mexican Consulate here in downtown Portland: Who knows?” he said. “Cartels have terrorist type of mentality,” he continued, referring to how they infiltrate educational and political systems.

An audience member raised his hand and asked if cartels also traffick “our children” to Mexico. “Yes, I’ve seen quite a bit of it,” Bickford responded. I don’t really have any prior knowledge about this, but I have a hard time understanding what profit motives Mexican cartel might have to take extra efforts and risks trafficking U.S. children to Mexico when they could easily exploit Mexican children: it just seems implausible to me.

I have seen Bickford speak several times before, and it was surprising that he spoke with so much hyperbole and fear-mongering. While I disagree with many of his stances, I had always thought he was one of the more rational, even compassionate member of the law enforcement (for example, he often stresses the need for the law enforcement to work with undocumented immigrants rather than targeting them, coming very close to publicly advocating for comprehensive immigration reform). I worry that he drunk the cool-aid during his trip to Arizona where he was exposed to the extreme elements of U.S. boarder patrol.

All these discussions raised fear among the audience, as exemplified by a father who stood up and asked the presenters if it was safe for his teenage daughter to ride public transit by herself. A law enforcement officer in the audience responded with a reality check: “Washington County is a safe place. There are bad people out there, but we aren’t talking about guys pulling girls off buses.” Yes, only cops do that around here.

Another law enforcement officer spoke out from the audience to point out that “these girls” are usually not “good students from good families.” “They are coarse, they speak back at us, they don’t want to go to school, and they run away. They like the way it is because they can stay up and party all they want, take whatever drug they want. That’s why they don’t come forward as victims.”

I felt that law enforcement agents are caught in a bind between the view they have traditionally held about young people in the sex trade (i.e. they are teenage whores, delinquents from socially undesirable backgrounds) and the politically fashionable view that dominates the “anti-trafficking” craze (they are innocent young girls victimized in modern-day slavery). These views are contradictory and confusing to those listening to these presentations, but they co-exist in the minds of law enforcement officers through a single common thread, which is the need for further criminalization of people of color, street youth, immigrants, and other targeted communities.

Regardless, many audience members seemed to connect the issue of human trafficking to the larger schema of “culture war.” Several audience members suggested that human trafficking–or rather, the presence of young people in the sex trade–was caused by the “coarsening of the culture,” represented by the “promotion of promiscuity” through sex education in schools. “What role did Planned Parenthood play in promoting promiscuity and sex trafficking?” a retired attorney asked. Another audience member pointed out that materials used in sex ed mentions Planned Parenthood website, which may lead to trafficking. “We need to stop Planned Parenthood,” she said.

In response, both Lee and Bickford failed to confront the misperception that sex trafficking was about promiscuity: Lee said that he did not know enough about sex ed curriculum to comment, while Bickford stated that parents need to be aware what websites their children are accessing (in response to the question about the harms of youth accessing Planned Parenthood’s website). I realize that this was a forum hosted by an anti-abortion group, but I think they could and should have said something along the line of: “I understand that there are different opinions about Planned Parenthood and what it does, but sex trafficking is not about promiscuity. It is about violence and exploitation.”

This association between Planned Parenthood with sex trafficking may seem ridiculous, but ultra-conservatives have successfully shut down community organizing network ACORN under the entirely made-up claims including the allegation that the organization offered assistance to a pimp to traffick Central American women and open a brothel, so it is not far-fetched to say that they are trying to do the same to Planned Parenthood. Anyone who is actually concerned about the well-being of young people in the sex trade need to challenge anti-trafficking campaigns that center religious extremism or law enforcement expansionism.

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