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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.

Simone de Beauvoir was against essentialism–including neurological essentialism.

Date: April 29, 2013

In Transphobia Has No Place in Feminism, writer Lauren Rankin repeats a popular pro-trans argument that the (dominant) radical feminist stance on trans women (i.e. they are not women) is contradicted by Simone de Beauvior’s famous quote, “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” Lauren writes:

Any assumption that cisgender women are the only true women is a blatant form of bigotry. And honestly, it’s in direct violation of Feminism 101. After all, Simone De Beauvoir said more than half a century ago “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.”

Feminism is predicated on the idea that gender is a social construct, that women are not defined by their biology, and that the category of “woman” is informed and constructed by social gender norms. If women are more than what’s between their legs, why do some feminists continue to perpetuate a patriarchal notion that biology is destiny?

I agree that “any assumption that cisgender women are the only true women is a blatant form of bigotry”–not necessarily because I believe that trans women are “true women,” but because I don’t know what “true women” means in the first place–but I don’t feel that the use of de Beauvoir’s quote in this context is appropriate.

This famous quote comes from the beginning of the book two of The Second Sex, which is a chapter about the development of gendered characteristics in childhood. de Beauvoir writes:

No biological, psychological, or economic fate determines the figure that the human female presents in society […] Only the intervention of someone else can establish an individual as an Other. […] If, well before puberty and sometimes even from early infancy, she seems to us to be already sexually determined, this is not because mysterious instincts directly doom her to passivity, coquetry, maternity; it is because the influence of others upon the child is a factor almost from the start, and thus she is indoctrinated with her vocation from her earliest years.

Simone de Beauvoir does negate the “patriarchal notion that biology is destiny,” but that notion is not what (most) radical feminists actually subscribe to. Radical feminists believe, as did de Beauvoir, that one becomes a woman through and as a result of “the intervention of someone else” that indoctrinates female children into feminine gender roles.

On the other hand, trans activists and allies sometimes claim that trans women are women because of some “mysterious instincts,” as de Beauvoir calls it–a form of neuroessentialism. They might, possibly, be right about the etiology of gender identity, but they cannot use de Beauvoir’s words to support that position.

My position–following Naomi Scheman’s statement that “transsexual lives are lived, hence livable”–has always been that trans women are women because they just are; trans existence does not require any theoretical justification any more than cis existence does. But when trans activists and allies resort to a mis-interpretation of classical feminist text to argue against the anti-trans bigotry within feminism, I worry that it only bolsters radical feminists’ confidence that they are the only real feminists who understand feminism.

Declining Nomination to the Inaugural “Trans 100” List

Date: April 3, 2013

Last Sunday, trans activist groups We Happy Trans and This Is HOW launched the first-ever “Trans 100” List highlighting “100 trans activists currently working in the U.S. to improve the conditions of the community and the lives of those in it.”

During the launch ceremony, which was held in Chicago and was also live-streamed online, they announced my name as one of the 100 activists, without my consent. I only found out about it because someone congratulated me on Twitter. It was confusing, because at first I only read that I was “mentioned,” which didn’t make it clear if I was actually one of the 100 people named in “Trans 100” list, or if I was just casually mentioned–but someone watching the event told me that they definitely did read my name as part of the list.

Seeing my confused tweets, co-directors of “Trans 100” both reached out me later to apologize what happened. Here’s what they said:

This was the first attempt at creating a list of trans activists doing work in the community. We had over 500 nominations. A team of 17 curators researched, argued and voted on 360 distinct individuals. We had aimed to secure permission from each of the final 100 selected before the 31st, and a volunteer wrote to this address on the 26th, but there were a few people who we hadn’t heard from, yourself included.

I produced the launch event held in Chicago, where we were to read aloud the 100 names. In the last minute push to show time, I made a quick decision to read all 100 names, but hold off on publishing the list, which was supposed to be released immediately following the event.

It was a bad judgement call to read your name when we hadn’t secured your permission, and I apologize. It was an error that won’t be repeated with anyone else in the future, and I’m truly sorry you had to learn about this secondhand.

I can just imagine the nightmare of communicating with every one of 100 people when working with a deadline, so I understand why they did what they did–although of course it would have been better if they didn’t just jump forward. I do appreciate their work, and that they nominated me for the honor.

After much thought, however, I decided to formally decline my inclusion in this year’s “Trans 100” list. I just don’t like being packaged this way, especially when the list is being sent to the mainstream media, and also feel that it would impose an expectation on me that feels restrictive. I need to be able to write and speak honestly without worrying that I might give “Trans 100” list bad publicity.? I’m weird like that.

On a side note, this reminded me of when Campus Pride selected me as part of its 2009 “Hot List.” Campus Pride didn’t contact me at all, before or after the selection (well not for several years until I was contacted for something else), and I only found out about it when a local LGBT newspaper called me to interview me about it. I was so unprepared and uninterested in the listing that they didn’t even use any part of my interview.

The Oregonian’s “fact check” on “average age” myth: They were aware of the falsehood for almost three years

Date: March 5, 2013

Last month, while distributing a error-ridden “fact sheet” on commercial sexual exploitation of youth (CSEY/CSEC) to a roomful of audience members, Multnomah County Collaboration Specialist for CSEC Joslyn Baker said that the line that stated (inaccurately) “the average age of entry into commercial sex industry in the U.S. is 12 years old” might need to be changed because there is a “pushback from local media.” I did not know what she was referring to at the time, but surely enough, The Oregonian finally decided to fact-check the claim in its PolitiFact Oregon column last week.

While I was glad to see that The Oregonian now officially acknowledges that there is no basis for this oft-repeated yet demonstrably false claim, its investigation falls short of what I, just a local activist, wrote almost three years ago; in fact, everything PolitiFact Oregon writer Janie Har examined and wrote about in her column was already in my three-year old blog post, including the 2001 University of Pennsylvania study, and Shared Hope International’s 2009 report that shows a pie chart that does not match the claim made in the main text and does not include a citation. Har contacted Shared Hope for further clarification and received no response, which is what I had already done in July 2010.

Furthermore, Har makes this issue about the truthfulness of Multnomah County Commissioner Diane McKeel’s column published in August 2010 as well as her more recent comment to Oregonian columnist Elizabeth Hovde this past January, but somehow fails to point out that Elizabeth Hovde claimed in her Oregonian column that “the average age of entry into prostitution is 13” the month before Commissioner McKeel wrote it. More than likely, The Oregonian misled Commissioner McKeel in the first place, before it realized the mistake and decided to blame it on her.

I first read the claim about the “average age” in Hovde’s column, and was immediately suspicious. There are certainly young people 13 or even younger who are sexually exploited for commercial gain, but they are definitely outliers. If the average age was actually 13, there would have to be many more 8 or 10 year olds being forced into prostitution that is realistically possible to counter-balance all other people who are entering in their late teens or adulthood. So I started looking up the source, and it was very easy to find out that the figure was not based in any actual evidence. My investigation led to my writing the aforementioned blog post which explained how the claim was false, in more detail than Har was able to articulate three years later.

I also contacted Elizabeth Hovde on July 3, 2010 to share my findings.

From: Emi Koyama
To: Elizabeth Hovde
Date: July 3, 2010
Subject: Average age of entry

Ms. Hovde,

I’m contacting you to correct the error in your Oregonian column about sex trafficking.

You cite USDOJ as the source to state that “the average age of entry into prostitution is 13.” This is incorrect.

DOJ has not conducted any such study, but cites a report from researchers at University of Pennsylvania titled “The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children In the U. S., Canada and Mexico” (attached for your viewing). This report is NOT based on representative sampling of people who work in (or have worked in) prostitution, or even of youth who are/have been in prostitution, as the report itself states.

The “average age” is also based on the minors who were studied, which means that no adults in prostitution, including those who started working in prostitution after the age of 18, were included. This is like studying the average age of death for those who died as minors: the average age of death would be probably something around 13, but it has no bearing whatsoever on the average life expectancy of the general population. Similarly, the “average age of entry” among minors has no bearing on the actual average age of entry for all people who are or have been in prostitution.

Further, because the study only surveys minors, those who entered prostitution early have much greater chance of being studied than those who started at 16 or 17. That is, someone who started at 13 has five years to be studied by the researchers (because that person can be 13, 14, 15, 16, or 17 at the time of the study), while those who started at 17 only has one year. As a result, the number of people who entered at 13 are inflated by the factor of five compared to the number of people who entered at 17.

But even without knowing this, common sense should tell you that the average age of entry cannot possibly be 13. Let’s consider two possibilities: 1) the distribution of the age of entry is normally distributed (bell curve), or 2) it isn’t normally distributed. If the age of entry is normally distributed, that would mean that there are equal number of 8 year olds entering prostitution as there are 18 year olds–which you know isn’t true (if it were, we’d see much more media coverage about 8 year olds being prostituted). If the distribution isn’t normal, it would likely mean that there are many times more 11-13 year olds entering prostitution compared to 16 and up (to compensate for the fact there are very few pre-teens entering prostitution)–which once again cannot be true.

The only conclusion that is consistent with logics and common sense is that the average age of entry isn’t 13, but is closer to 18 or older. That doesn’t diminish the fact that some 13 and 14 year olds are being recruited into prostitution, and we should do something about it. But we need to keep our conversations based on reality and reason, rather than falsehood and panic.

(Cc: to Dr. Stephanie Wahab, Regional Research Institute at Portland State University. If you need help deciphering the UPenn study, she might be able to help you better than I can.)

Emi Koyama

Here’s her reply:

From: Elizabeth Hovde
To: Emi Koyama
Date: July 5, 2010
Subject: Re: Average age of entry

I appreciate the information, Emi. I was using two sets of information. The DOJ Web site lists the Pennsylvania info. The DOJ also commissioned a study with Shared Hope INternational (The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking), which found a 12-14 age of entry in field surveys in 10 cities (I think … need to revisit to be sure).

I will contact appropriate sources about how to phrase the information better. You’re right that my column should make reference to the fact that the average age of entry for a YOUTH is 13, rather than a blanket statement. I will relook at my column and list a correction as needed. I haven’t visited the column since the edit. Does that phrasing make sense to you?
Thanks for the note and the concern.

Onward,

Elizabeth

I was not aware of the Shared Hope report, so I downloaded a copy and started analyzing it.

From: Emi Koyama
To: Elizabeth Hovde
Date: July 5, 2010
Subject: Re: Average age of entry

Hello – thank you for the reply.

I’ve looked up the report (“The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking from Shared Hope International”), but I can’t locate any original research by SHI. On page 30 of the SHI report, there are two statements: “The average age that a pimp recruits a girl into prostitution is 12 to 14” and “Research has shown that the average age of entry into prostitution and pornography is 12 to 14 years old in the United States.” They are sourced to SHI’s training material titled “Prostituted Children in the United States: Identifying and Responding to America’s Trafficked Youth.” So I searched for and found this material on SHI’s website and looked into it, but it cited the DOJ as the source for this “statistics.” In other words, SHI does not seem to have an independent source other than the same DOJ fact sheet (which misrepresents the UPenn study) for the “12 to 14 year old” figure.

There is also a chart and table titled “Average Age of Entry into Prostitution,” with the breakdown of victims’ ages (11 thru 17). I find this chart puzzling for a couple of reasons. First, it doesn’t cite any source for the data, so I don’t know which study it is supposed to represent. The sample size is n=103, while the UPenn study included 63 boys and 107 girls. Second, if you actually calculate the numbers shown in the chart, the “average” os actually almost 15 (14.89), which contradicts the claim that the average is between 12 and 14. The median age (which is probably a better indicator of general tendency) is 16.

That said, it’s still not accurate to state that the average age of entry for a youth is 13. It is accurate to say that the average age at which UPenn research participants reported to have entered is 13, but there are many problems with generalizing this figure. The biggest problem, as I’ve explained in the first email, is how the research method artificially inflates the number of participants who entered into prostitution earlier.

Let’s say, for the sake of argument, that an equal number of youth enter prostitution at age 13 and at age 17. Members of the first group might be interviewed when they are 13, 14, 15, 16, or 17, while the latter can only be interviewed when they are 17, because those who become older aren’t included in the study. In any given year when the research takes place, we could encounter 13, 14, 15, 16, and 17 year olds who each entered when they were 13, while we will only interview 17 year olds form the latter group, because those who entered at 17 and are now 18, 19, 20, or 21 are not part of the study. When the study is compiled, you would find that there were five participants aged 13-17 who all say that they entered at 13, while there was only one person who reports having entered at 17. It is still wrong to conclude that youth is five times as likely to enter into prostitution at 13 compared to entering at 17, since we started from the scenario that the number of 13 year olds and 17 years olds entering prostitution is equal.

Thus, since we are only studying youth 17 and under, we can’t simply add numbers (age at which the participant has entered into prostitution) and divide by the number of participants to calculate the “average age of entry”; we need to compensate for how the study excludes those who entered into prostitution toward the end of the cutting-off point (18), and make adjustments. Using the data from the chart/table on page 30 of the SHI report, I calculated the adjusted “average age of entry,” which turns out to be almost 16 (15.96). This number (age 16) still isn’t entirely satisfactory, since the research subjects aren’t randomly selected and there are other ways errors can happen (for example, some participants were interviewed in groups with their peers, which is known to distort the data). My calculation is also rudimentary and at best an approximation, since I don’t have access to the complete data. But I suspect that it is much closer to reality than the 12-13 figure.

And details like this matter. Social policies we must enact to prevent and stop sexual exploitation of minors would differ greatly if the average age of entry is 13 or 16. I feel that many people use the lower figure for shock value, to arouse strong emotional reaction toward the issue, but the distortion of reality is irresponsible. We need to understand reality as they are and craft rational and sensible responses to the problem, rather than indulging ourselves in panicked frenzy.

Emi Koyama

I did not hear back from Elizabeth Hovde again.

In conclusion:

  • Yeay! The Oregonian acknowledges that the claim is baseless! (But why is it rated “half-truth” if there is no basis for it? And why did they not mention any other study that contradict 12-14 claim?)
  • I have a feeling that Janie Har read my blog post. How can she not, if she actually did any research? The fact that she mentions the same Shared Hope report and points out the same problems strengthens my suspicion. If she did read my blog, why did she not speak with me or give me credit?
  • Janie Har writes as if the problem comes from Commissioner McKeel, and Oregonian columnist Elizabeth Hovde simply wrote down McKeel’s comment. But the truth is that Hovde herself perpetuated the false claim before McKeel did.
  • Elizabeth Hovde has been aware of the problems Har points out about the University of Pennsylvania figure as well as the Shared Hope report, because I pointed out the exact same problems almost three years ago.
  • Elizabeth Hovde and The Oregonian had the opportunity to stop perpetuating the myth for almost three years, and yet failed to do so as recently as this January. While Janie Har’s column is to be commended, The Oregonian and Hovde need to take responsibility for their part in the falsehood, rather than simply blaming McKeel for it.

Memo: Exploring an Anti-Utopian Feminism

Date: February 20, 2013

I was recently approached by someone for a contribution toward a collection of essays exploring radical imagination for a feminist utopia. She was particularly interested in my idea of “whore revolution,” and what the world would look like after the revolution. I seem to suffer from a lack of radical imagination, or perhaps from too much radical skepticism, so it didn’t seem like a good match for my style. Here’s how I responded:

Thank you for writing me.

I am interested in exploring further the idea of whore revolution, but I actually had an immediate suspicion of utopian conception of feminism as I read your email for the first time. I think as sex workers and people in the sex trade we suffer from the imposition of utopian feminism that says sex industry should not exist and does not respond to the lived experiences and conditions of the actual people involved.

Over time, my thinking around feminist utopia has evolved to reject it ultimately. My feminism is built around hearing and responding to specific claims of experiencing violence, injury, and injustice, and not based on some abstract theorizing about utopia. In fact, that is my response to the question, “why do you call yourself a feminist instead of just a humanist or egalitarian?” Humanism and egalitarianism are (male) philosophies based on abstract conceptions of justice, whereas feminism is informed by and built bottom-up from lived realities of women.

Is this a line of thinking that you are interested in including? If so, I’d love to contribute. But I would understand if that’s not what you are looking for.

The editor was very understanding, but asked me if I could incorporate these ideas while exploring what the world would look like after the whore revolution. Below is my response.

I don’t know, maybe I don’t have the radical imagination it takes to envision a world post-revolution of any kind, or perhaps my radical imagination is hampered by radical skepticism. My conception of revolution is not a single event or even a series of events that have a beginning and an ending, but the continuous and perpetual process of everyday struggles. It is hard for me to think about the world without rape, for example, because my vision of revolution is one less person experiencing rape and one more person being liberated from fear and shame.

I’ve been wanting to write about what it means to me that I identify as a bottom-up feminist who is deeply skeptical of utopian feminism and is resentful about the societal expectation that activist explain what their ideal world would look like when we are just trying to survive and help each other. But, again, I understand if that is not what you are looking for.

I still appreciate the fact that the editor understood where I was coming from, and told me that my perspective is valuable, even though it might not fit with the theme of the book she is compiling.

What is “intersex”? A response to June42, a woman with Turner’s syndrome

Date: February 14, 2013

This week, someone named June42 contributed a guest post about how she views her place as a woman with Turner’s syndrome in (radical) feminist movement on the controversial lesbian-feminist activist and attorney Cathy Brennan’s blog.

As a long-time activist involved in the intersex movement (former staff at Intersex Society of North America, director of Intersex Initiative, and board member of Advocates for Informed Choice) I wanted to respond to June42’s post as well as to some of the questions that are coming up from readers. But Cathy probably doesn’t want me to comment on her blog, nor do I want to comment there either, so I decided to post my response here.

(In case you are wondering why: I never had any hostile interaction with Cathy before, but last June I saw her attacking a trans woman I know by intentionally using what I thought was her pre-transition (male) name. I wrote to Cathy: “I don’t know if that’s her previous name, but using it feels creepy and reminds me of stalker behavior, not to mention silencing. Say whatever you will about her politics or behavior, but can you please stop that?” She responded “Um, no. ***** [the trans woman’s previous name] is a liar. We point out MISOGYNISTS who THREATEN FEMALES. ***** is one of them. Also, fuck you.” After that, I decided not to interact with Cathy any further.)

I appreciate that June42 is sharing her story, and I agree with her feminist analysis that the medical treatment of intersex conditions (I will discuss more on that category later, so for now please think of it tentatively as a shorthand for any condition that might be considered intersex under some definition) is based on the society’s (which is to say, straight men’s) assumptions about “healthy” or “normal” sexuality and gender relations that are deeply sexist and heterosexist. I also agree that the intersex medical “management” is often experienced as traumatic and damaging by many patients, especially children (see my article, “Intersex Medical Treatment and Sexual Trauma.”)

I am particularly sad that June42 has experienced what disability activist Lisa Blumberg has called “public stripping,” or intersex activists have called “medical display”: a procedure in which children with rare medical conditions are routinely stripped naked or near-naked and exposed to a room full of doctors, interns, medical students, and others, as if it is a freak show. I have known many people with intersex and other medical conditions (like neurofibromatosis) who had to go through this experience, and many report that it was the most traumatizing and shaming aspect of their medical treatment, more so than medically unnecessary genital surgeries. I am sorry that June42 and some other women with Turner’s also had to experience it. And disability and intersex activists are certainly carrying the torch of feminist revolution, as June42 suggests, when we problematize the medical gaze that reduces our organs and bodies to objects to ogle, study, and manipulate.

Now, the difficult question: is Turner’s syndrome an intersex condition? June42 writes that Turner’s syndrome is “incorrectly described as an ‘intersex condition’ by some ‘Queer’ gender theorists,” showing their “complete misunderstanding of [Turner’s syndrome] as a condition,” but it seems to me that queer theorists are more often wrong, generally, about what intersex is, rather than whether or not Turner’s syndrome fits in there. June42 points out, correctly, that the vast majority of women with Turner’s syndrome view themselves as women, and consider the labeling of their bodies as “intersex” to be “profoundly damaging to women […] whose sense of themselves as women has already been undermined.”

But it is not just women with Turner’s syndrome who feel this way; most women and men with intersex conditions do not use the label “intersex” to describe themselves, and often do not consider their condition to be part of the “intersex” umbrella.

There are a couple of problems here. First, there is no single, agreed-upon definition of the term “intersex,” and doctors do not even agree with each other about it–for example, geneticists are more likely to consider Turner’s syndrome as an intersex condition, but endocrinologist or urologist might not. There are only a couple of conditions that pretty much everyone agrees are “intersex,” and the rest of dozens of conditions may or may not be included depending on the definition. That said, the “Consensus Statement on Management of Intersex Disorders” which was adopted by Lawson Wilkins Pediatric Endocrine Society and the European Society for Paediatric Endocrinology does include Turner’s syndrome as a “sex chromosome DSD (disorder of sex development–the term replacing “intersex” within the medical community).”

Second, and more significantly, there is a problem with the word “intersex” itself, which implies that it describes someone who is neither male or female but is something else in between. As June42 points out, this impression is harmful to many people with intersex conditions who do not view themselves as anything other than men or women who have particular health and reproductive concerns. In fact, this was one of the reasons many patient groups and families welcomed the introduction of the term “DSD,” even though many are not entirely happy about the stigmatizing term “disorder” in the new acronym.

The mistake queer theorists and activists often make (as Judith Butler did in her 2002 paper, “Doing Justice to Someone“) is that they do not attempt to understand or address actual lived experiences of people with a specific intersex condition, but treat “intersex” as a homogenous group, or worse, a theoretical tool to advance their own theories about social construction of gender and sex (see my old paper, “From Social Construction to Social Justice: Transforming How We Teach about Intersexuality“).

I use the term “intersex” not as a gender or an identity term, but as a political term, to address commonalities of our experiences of sexism and heterosexism as they inform the medical mistreatment of people who have “different” bodies, particularly those that affect sex development and reproduction. I do not personally identify as an “intersex person” because “intersex” is not an identity label for me, and would not call anyone that way unless they actually identify as such (that said, I sometimes use “intersex person” as a shorthand–and I apologize if I’ve done that to any of you). But I do identify as an intersex and disability activist as well as a feminist, because what I experience in medicine has a larger context that I share with those who do not necessarily share my exact condition.

In the meantime, people who do not have any of these conditions should stop arguing whether a particular condition is intersex or not. Instead, they need to listen to people with these conditions to understand their specific concerns–some of which are similar across various conditions that are considered (and sometimes not considered) intersex, while others may be more unique to people with that particular condition. And generally understand that if you keep talking about “intersex people,” you would in effect exclude many people whom you intend to include (read What Is Wrong with ‘Male, Female, Intersex'”).

Piracy and distortion of my work at University of Washington

Date: January 14, 2013

Last Thursday, I went to University of Washington in Seattle to give a presentation titled “‘War on Trafficking’? Resisting Criminalization as the Solution to the ‘Modern Day Slavery’.” It was scheduled to preempt a big conference on human trafficking that was being held on Friday and Saturday because some people at UW were afraid that the conference was going to focus on ramping up further criminalization to combat “domestic minor sex trafficking” as many anti-trafficking conferences these days seem to, even though the conference actually turned out to be mostly about labor trafficking, labor rights abuses, and fair trade. I attended the conference and plan to report about it too, but there’s something else I want to write about.

After my presentation at UW’s student union building (which was very well attended–thank you very much!), someone started distributing pirated copies of my old article, The Transfeminist Manifesto, before I noticed it. I found a copy myself, and it looked like this:

The Transfeminist Manifesto pirated zine cover

Even though I’ve never published anything that looked like this, many people thought it was my zine, because it had my name on it and did not identify who printed or distributed it.

I personally do not want this particular article to be distributed further, unless it is made explicit that Manifesto is a dated, historical piece. I wrote the article more than a decade ago, and given that transgender community has expanded and changed rapidly over the last decade, I feel that it is no longer relevant. There are also many other texts exploring the intersection of feminism and trans politics, so there is no reason to keep Manifesto around, except of course as a historical artifact.

One of the ways I’ve tried to explain that Manifesto is a historical piece is to include “postscript” at the end of the article to criticize some aspects of the article itself. I included the postscript in the version published in Catching A Wave: Reclaiming Feminism for the 21st Century as well as in my zine, Whose Feminism Is It Anyway?. So I opened the pirated zine to see if they included my postscript along with the main article. This is what I saw:

The Transfeminist Manifesto pirated zine postface

They did include the postscript, but changed the heading to “postface.” According to a dictionary, “postscript” is “an additional remark at the end of a letter” or “an additional statement or action that provides further information on or a sequel to something,” while “postface” is “a brief explanatory comment or note at the end of a book or other piece of writing.” So technically, “postface” seems to be a more appropriate term than “postscript” in this case, but the reality remains: they changed my language and presented the edited version as my work. This worries me (though I do not have the time or energy to read the entire zine to find out what else they have changed).

Further, I found this statement on the back cover of the zine:

The Transfeminist Manifesto pirated zine quote

I have never written “SCUM! KILL KAPITAL! REVOLT!” anywhere, nor is it something I might ever say. And yet, there is no name printed on the entire zine except for my own name on the cover, so most people would think that I wrote that phrase, and I do not want to be associated with it in any way. I am not so much offended by the piracy of my work itself, but this slogan, along with the fact they have edited my words without permission and without clarifying who was responsible for it, offends me.

I don’t know who was responsible for pirating and distorting my work. I would feel a little bit better if it was done by a trans woman, but I doubt it: most trans women understand that Manifesto belongs in a different historical moment, and probably would not distribute it, other than to discuss the history of transgender activism. I imagine that it is not a trans woman, but non-trans people who are so out of touch with transgender community or politics that they found a 13-year old article curiously new and refreshing. They also must not think very much about trans women speaking for themselves if they are willing to “correct” my language without my permission and to add an inflammatory slogan like “SCUM! KILL KAPITAL! REVOLT!”

I hope that whoever was responsible for the incident would recognize how their action was harmful, and work on building true coalition with and amplifying the voices of trans women in their community.

“didn’t know at the time” – a high school romance

Date: January 6, 2013

didn’t know at the time

I finally looked up the whereabouts of my high school band teacher, Miss Jackson. After being transplanted from the streets of a West Coast city to a fundamentalist Christian household in Southern Missouri to “rescue” my soul, I managed to fake my transcripts and was allowed to take four music classes every day, three of which were with her.

I didn’t know it at the time, Miss Jackson was a classical butch woman, with very short hair, undecorative clothes, and independent, tough, dependable personality. Students adored her, especially the girls, because there weren’t any other adult women like her in the rural Missouri town.

My best friend at the time was girl named Helen, who was also taking all four music classes with me. We also went to the same Southern Baptist church, which met four times a week for different activities. I didn’t know at the time that we were practically dating, so we just styled each other’s hair and copied each other’s fashion. On one occasion, we even performed a duet during a Sunday morning service, a deeply romantic ballad about Jesus’ longing for a former believer who has strayed away from the faith.

Helen and I often went to Miss Jackson’s house after school. She lived with a big dog and a housemate, the skinny emo guy, who was probably a gay man when I think about it, but I didn’t know at the time and was puzzled what their relationship was. We watched women’s college basketball on tv (“Go Lady Bears!”) while eating Hamburger Helper, which she cooked like every day.

The year after I graduated, and a year before she was to receive tenure, the school fired Miss Jackson. After some hesitation, adults at the church told me that she was fired due to a “lifestyle problem,” but I didn’t know what it meant. I thought I knew Miss Jackson well, and could not think of any devastating personal secret that could be described as a “lifestyle problem.” Later when I realized what it meant, I felt guilty because I felt like our visiting her may have triggered the firing. But, as I found out recently, she is still teaching music to very lucky middle school students in a different State.

I didn’t know what a butch woman was or even what townfolks meant by a “lifestyle problem,” but she did save my life. And it’s not just because she fed me (and Helen) Hamburger Helpers when I was not eating breakfast or dinner at “home.”

— January 2013

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