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Three presentations in three days: Harm Reduction Conference and TransConnect

Date: November 15, 2012

I’m giving three presentations in Portland this week. The first two are at Harm Reduction Conference held at Marriott Waterfront on Thursday and Friday; the other one is at TransConnect, a “weekend of events leading up to Trans Day of Remembrance” this Saturday.

“Empowerment-Based Alternatives to the ‘War on Trafficking'” (in panel “Trafficking Wars”)
Thursday, November 15th at 4pm-5:30pm
Harm Reduction Conference
Marriott Waterfront Hotel

“Embracing Negative Survivorship and Unhealthy Coping: A Harm Reduction Approach in the Movement Against Domestic and Sexual Violence” (in panel “Addressing Violence”)
Friday, November 16th at 5:45pm-7:15pm
Harm Reduction Conference
Marriott Waterfront Hotel

“Transgender Youth in the Sex Trade”
Saturday, November 17th at 4:30pm
TransConnect
Portland Q Center

Description: Transgender youth (especially transgender youth of color) are overrepresented among young people who occasionally or regularly trade sex for money, food, shelter, and other survival needs. There are many factors that contribute to the high prevalence of transgender youth in the sex trade, including family and community rejection, violence, isolation, discrimination, lack of medical services, mismatched documentations, and social services that are sex-segregated or religiously-based. This workshop provides an overview of various factors affecting the experiences of transgender youth in the sex trade, and how the broader transgender movement must become more inclusive of transgender people in the sex trade–while they are still alive, instead of merely mispronouncing their (often non-Anglo) names at annual TDOR events year after year after their bodies are discovered decomposing in dumpsters.

I look forward to seeing my friends in harm reduction and queer/trans communities!

This is how uncomfortable I get when I ask for your help to be invited to speak at your school.

Date: September 17, 2012

A new school year has began, and I am asking for your help. If you are affiliated with a college or university, please try to get me invited to come and speak at your school.

It’s so simple to write that paragraph, but it was very difficult for me to write it, partly because of my own personal baggage (i.e. low self-esteem making me feel unworthy of help or invitation, difficulty asking for others’ help, etc.), but partly also because I don’t actually believe in this college speaker circuit. In fact, I think there is something deeply problematic about it.

Readers may not realize the extent to which the college speakers’ circuit has become an industry. I wasn’t either, until Nomy Lamm, a fellow activist, writer, artist and popular college speaker, told me about a trade show for college circuit speakers and performers. Apparently there are these industry “conventions” around the country several times a year, in which would-be speakers (self-identified motivational “gurus,” feel-good “diversity trainers,” semi-celebrities from reality shows, etc.) come to learn new buzzwords and marketing gimmicks. They also staff their booths in the exhibit hall as bored college administrators walk through, picking up brightly colored glossy brochures for their “services.” Inspirational! Energetic! Engaging! The promotional materials scream.

It’s easy to recognize that these college circuit speakers use buzzwords, exaggerated enthusiasm, and flashy colors because they have no substance. But these gimmicks work, in part because that is what college administrators are looking for: administrators often do not treat students like grownups. They often act as if students need to be constantly “inspired” and “energized” with oversimplified sloganeering, whether it is for personal growth or for revolution. (Oh, and by the way, if any administrator is reading this, I’m obviously not talking about you. I’m talking about some other administrator!)

I’m not one of these speakers. I don’t have a brochure or even press photo for myself; I just have a website and lots and lots of writings that tend to promote better understanding of complex realities in which we live, rather than offering simple solutions or positions that readers can click “like” in facebook and forget about. I know that I don’t inspire or energize majority of average American college students, because to do so I would have to betray those students who find the constant celebration of positivity and optimism (common theme among speakers who are considered “inspirational”) rather depressing.

I speak, primarily, to a narrow constituencies of students and others who find the ordinary campus life unbearable: queers and genderqueers who aren’t “getting better,” crips and gimps who are invisible, kids from immigrant or poor families who somehow went astray into weird academic departments like Women’s Studies and Ethnic Studies against their communities’ good sense, survivors who have trouble distinguishing campus from a war zone, students who do sex work to pay for the salary of professors who categorically deny their experiences. I was all of the above myself (and more), after all.

I do believe that my voice has something to contribute to the campus life, not just in the sense of validation and support for the students who fit the descriptions above, but also for others who need to be challenged and pushed further: that seems like an important part of college education for any student. But it is difficult for me to promote myself as a college speaker (outside of the formal structures of academia) when I know that the market is saturated with speakers who are better at promoting themselves, and especially when I feel so inadequate at doing what college administrators (again, not you–the other administrators!) expect speakers to do.

Another reason I resent the college speakers’ circuit is that it is hard to feel that my voice is worth the price I am charging. When I began speaking on college campuses years ago, I only asked for $200 because that seemed like a fair price for a gig involving travel. But I was treated very poorly by the administrators (and by some student organizers, when I was visiting elite schools) during my visit, which they did little to promote. Over time, I realized that people not only respect me and what I have to say more, but also pay more attention to my visit when I get paid more.

But is my presentation really worth that much? I once went to a lecture by world-famous evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, which I had been really excited about prior to the event. But his lecture, for which he was paid in the tens of thousands of dollars I assume, was disappointing: because he was speaking to the general public, his audience included enough people who did not believe in evolution in the first place, forcing Dawkins to explain very basic justifications for the theory of evolution. Much of his lecture could have been given by any high school biology teacher, or by me for that matter: I did not feel that I learned anything new from the highly anticipated lecture of one of the world’s leading biologists and atheists.

Even though I am paid far less than Dawkins, I still worry that I am not offering enough value for the buck. After all, most of my writings are available for free on my website, where you could probably find online 90% of what I say in my presentations. It might be more worthwhile if students would read my writings prior to my visit, and are prepared to ask hard questions about them when I get there, but that hardly happens: most students have not even heard of me until I show up.

It took me time to feel somewhat comfortable with asking for more money, and I used several arguments to rationalize it to myself: First, the money for the speakers (often student fee funds) is already there, and I certainly feel that I offer something more valuable than many “motivational speakers” or “diversity trainers.” Second, speaking honoraria allow me to use my time and energy on doing more activist projects instead of using all of my energy on merely surviving, and it promotes social changes that I am advocating for. And third, we need a model of supporting independent activists and artists who work outside of existing structures of 501(c)(3) non-profit organizations, political lobby groups, and academic institutions.

Having the college speakers’ circuit subsidize independent activists and artists may not be an ideal solution: in a way, the more recent development of crowd-fundraising schemes may offer a more transparent and democratic structure. In fact, I’ve been half-joking with friends about starting a Foundation to Sustain Emi to solicit ongoing pledge donations to support my work. But it can also fall into popularity contest and celebrity worship rather than creating a sustainable structures to enable movements for social justice. On the other hand, administrators of “college speakers’ circuit” could be viewed, at best, as curators of activists and artists who do not receive mainstream recognition and support in a popularity contest, but offer something unique and valuable to the intellectual and activist dialogues.

That I have to write this lengthy apologia for my role as a college speaker shows how uncomfortable I feel about asking for your support, but I need it. For one thing, my two main sources of income have been speaking honoraria and sex work, and the latter is becoming more difficult due to my age and disabilities. But of course it should not be about just helping me out: it is also about what I can bring to the campus and to the movements for social and economic justice. If you are reading this blog, I assume that you value my work. And if you value my work, and if you are able, please help me continue to do that, while raising awareness at your campus at the same time.

(Of course, your zine purchases and donations also help, too! Also, while I’m at shameless self-promotion, do follow me on Twitter or Facebook.)

Memo: Supply-side elasticity and three distinct market segments for commercial sex

Date: August 31, 2012

In my last post, I explained that I was mainly discussing the “lower end” of the commercial sex market. There are many reasons I focus on people who trade sex at the “lower end” of the market: they have least options when it comes to viable economic alternatives; they are most vulnerable to violence, exploitation, and arrest; “end demand” policies tend to employ strategies that impact them (and their clients) the most; and they are more numerous than sex workers at the opposite end (i.e. high-class courtesans and call-girls).

In limiting my discussion to this sub-population of people in the sex trade, I am making an assumption, which I think matches casual observation, that there are at least three distinct class- and economically-based segments to the sex trade. They are distinct in the sense people who trade sex rarely switch back and forth between different segments (though they may occasionally move between them), and tend to compete for different groups of clients (johns), who do not usually cross over either.

The “lower end” segment is characterized by low (or no, or even negative) downward elasticity of supply, as I explained in my previous post. This category is not necessarily restricted to those who appear worst off under objective measurements: they are not necessarily homeless, drug-addicted, mentally troubled, unable to find other work, etc. It simply means that they do not have economic alternatives they consider viable, which may be different for each person depending on her or his circumstances and priorities.

The supply and demand chart for this group would show steep, vertical, or even reversed supply curve, as discussed in my previous post.

Low Elasticity Supply-Demand Chart No Elasticity Supply-Demand Chart Negative Elasticity Supply-Demand Chart

The second segment is the market in which supply elasticity is relatively high. People who trade sex in this segment of the commercial sex market often have other sources of income (e.g. students who are financially supported by their parents) or have other economic opportunities, but engage in the sex trade for extra income, spare time, or other perks. Because they have other viable economic options and also because they have more to lose when things go wrong, they exit the market when the price for commercial sex drops below what they expect to be compensated for in exchange of risks (legal, physical, health, social/reputational) and uncomfortableness associated with the sex trade.

Normal Supply-Demand Chart

The supply and demand curves for this segment most closely matches what proponents of “end demand” policies might imagine, but their policy proposals won’t be effective even for this particular segment. It is because “end demand” policies focus on the prosecution, which tend to target the lower end of the market rather than the middle market where artificial reduction in demand might actually make a difference (people in this market segment prioritize safety and discreteness more than those in the lower end because they have more to lose, and are therefore harder for the law enforcement to identify). Further, even if they could successfully reduce supply within this segment, they are only reducing optional, freely entered, consensual commercial sexual transactions, and not sex trafficking or sexual exploitation of vulnerable populations.

Finally, there is a much smaller luxury market of commercial sex, which is made up of high-class call-girls (and boys) and their elite/wealthy clientele. This market is characterized by the exclusivity on both supply and demand sides, which make them unresponsive to minor fluctuations in the market forces–that is, elasticity is low for both supply and demand. It is difficult to chart this segment because clients might have (and are able to insist on) more specific preferences for a particular sex worker or sex workers, making each “product” (i.e. commercial sexual service) unique. But for the sake of comparison, the supply-demand chart might look like this:

High-Class Supply-Demand Chart

I did not even attempt to draw “high demand” and “low demand” scenarios because “end demand” policies are unlikely to have any impact in this segment of the prostitution market. There are highly publicized cases of high-class prostitution rings being busted or famous politicians, business executives, or celebrities being caught in “sex scandals” involving high-class escorts, but they are exceptions: for the most part, sellers and buyers in this market are not affected by “end demand” campaigns such as the “National Day of Johns Arrests” which I mentioned in my previous post.

Some people believe that commercial sex might be a Veblen good. I can see that it might be a possibility at the highest end of the market, but I doubt that it explains anecdotes reported on Tits and Sass or in Superfreakonomics. If escorts can indeed get more business offering their service for $500 instead of $350, it probably has more to do with perception of signaling in a market that lacks clear information.

In my discussion, I focus on the first segment of the commercial sex market for the reasons I explained at the beginning of this post, but I thought it might help readers’ understanding to clarify what I am not discussing when I write about sex trade. I also believe that understanding downward supply-side elasticity is essential not just in distinguishing different segments of commercial sex market, but to craft effective policies to address problems associated with them–and avoid implementing counter-productive policies that are harmful to the very population they are intended to help, like many “end demand” initiatives.

“End demand” policies toward prostitution *increase* supply: an insight from development economics

Date: August 30, 2012

“End demand” approach to addressing human trafficking continues to gain traction, as law enforcement agencies across the country hold the third “National Day of Johns Arrests.” The 10-day simultaneous campaign against alleged buyers of sex is led by Cook County Sheriff Tom Dart, who claims that 66 johns have been arrested in Cook County alone.

Of course, Sheriff Dart’s claim is dubious, considering the fact that Chicago (which is in Cook County) Police Department routinely misclassifies trans women (frequently young trans women of color) who have been arrested for selling sex as “buyers”: as of this writing, the Chicago PD lists 36 “sex buyers” on its website dedicated to publicly humiliating alleged “sex buyers,” of whom 7 are clearly dressing as women (and a couple more appear gender-ambiguous).

I have in the past pointed out why “end demand” policies are harmful to people who work in the sex trade, and even provided a further explanation for the economics of “end demand” policies. But recently I had an online exchange with someone who goes by the name “uncorrelated” and seems to know a lot more about development economics than I do that helped me explore a possibility that I have hinted before but did not feel confident enough to articulate, because it appeared to go against basic economic theories which I have not been formally trained in anyway.

But after my conversations with “uncorrelated,” I am now prepared to make an unconventional and counter-intuitive claim: that “end demand” approach to prostitution, which seeks to reduce demand for commercial sex through public education, prosecution, public humiliation, and other means, may increase prostitution, rather than decrease it, under certain (realistic) conditions.

There are two important assumptions for this claim to be true. First, I assume that prostitution market has extremely low (or negative) downward price elasticity of supply, particularly at the lower end of the market (it makes sense to focus on the lower end, because prostitution market is highly segmented and people at the lower end are the ones most vulnerable to abuse and exploitation), because of lack of viable economic alternatives. Second, I assume that people who trade sex face a trade-off between generating income through sex trade and spending time and energy doing other activities (child-raising, family, community, school, leisure, etc.).

Elasticity is the degree to which changes in one economic variable (such as price) can affect another (such as demand). It is calculated as the ratio of percentage change of the variable that is affected to that of the variable that is manipulated: for example, price elasticity of demand (i.e. degree to which demand is affected by the changes in the price) is calculated as (the change in demand):(the change in price). If a 20% increase in price for a particular product resulted in a 20% decrease in demand, the price elasticity of that product is 1; on the other hand, if the same price increase only caused a 10% decrease in demand, the elasticity is 0.5.

Proponents of “end demand” policies implicitly presume normal (high) elasticity in prostitution market: that is, they believe that a reduction in demand would be met with a comparable reduction in supply, arbitrated by the lower price for sex. Below is a supply and demand chart that presumes normal elasticity.

Normal Supply-Demand Chart

Dh and Dl are demand curves (although I’ve made them linear lines for the sake of simplicity) corresponding to high and low demand scenarios. Where the demand curve intersects with the supply curve (represented by the line labeled S) determines the price for which sex is traded, and the quantity of sex traded. The chart indicates that reduction of demand (shifting from Dh to Dl) lowers both price and quantity of commercial sex.

But the supply side of prostitution market (people in the sex trade) are often there in the first place because they lack other viable or comparable economic options, and the reduction of the demand (and hence the price of sex) does not change that circumstance. If many sellers of sex do not have comparable alternatives to selling sex, they will be stuck trading sex for money even if the demand (and hence the price) goes down. That is, supply in prostitution market is downwardly inelastic.

The supply and demand chart below demonstrates this inelasticity of supply. Since price elasticity of supply is defined as the ratio of change in supply to the change of price, lower elasticity can be represented by a more steep supply curve.

Low Elasticity Supply-Demand Chart

This chart shows the same high and low demand curves, but the supply curve has been modified to reflect a lower price elasticity of supply. Compared to the first chart, this chart shows a more drastic drop in the trading price of sex, and much smaller decrease in the quantity of sex traded. That would mean that prostitution would become far less profitable but not much less prevalent.

A more extreme version of this scenario is the one in which (virtually) none of the people currently in the sex trade have viable alternatives (which, many anti-prostitution activists argue is the case). If none of them could find other sources of income, the supply elasticity would equal zero, which would look like this:

No Elasticity Supply-Demand Chart

In the “zero elasticity” scenario, the level of demand (and hence the price) is irrelevant to the level of supply, because people are dependent on having income from it. Of course if the reduction in demand is more extreme–to the point they can’t find any buyers for sexual services at a price that is more profitable than, say, panhandling–there will be no supply whatsoever. But within reason, lower demand would only result in lower income and equal quantity of prostitution in the zero elasticity scenario.

Zero elasticity scenario may seem extreme and unrealistic, but it is not, especially when we are limiting our discussion to the lower end of the prostitution market. In fact, under certain circumstances elasticity can even be negative relative to what is generally expected: that is, a decrease in demand (and hence price) can lead to an increase (rather than decrease) in supply.

As counter-intuitive as it may be, this phenomenon is not unheard of in the field of development economics. For example, when the wage (price of labor) declines in a developing nation, families may try to compensate for the lower hourly wage by working longer hours, even sending children to work alongside adults rather than to school. Similarly, economists have observed that “fair trade” initiatives designed to increase payments to farmers in the developing nations for agricultural exports have sometimes resulted in these farmers working less hours–which may be a good thing if it makes them healthier or give their children opportunities to go to school. (See the chapter two of Development Microeconomics by Pranab Bardhan and Christopher Udry.)

This occurs because households face a different set of economic incentives compared to corporations. Corporations can hire more people or fire existing employees in response to the fluctuations in the market demand, but households cannot expand or contract at will. Increasing the amount of work necessarily reduces the amount of time and energy one has for other activities such as child-raising, family, community, education, and leisure. Because of this trade-off, households (and individuals) behave differently than do corporations.

Someone who works in the sex industry also faces this trade-off: the amount they work in the sex trade is negatively correlated to the amount of time and energy they have for other activities. When the market is booming, they might be able to make ends meet with minimal amount of work, which allows them to focus their time and energy for other things; however when the market bottoms out, they might be forced to work longer hours to make ends meet, sacrificing other responsibilities (e.g. children left by themselves or with untrustworthy associates) or their health (less sleep, less leisure time).

The chart below (provided by “uncorrelated”) compares “high budget/wage” and “low budget/wage” scenarios. Uh and Ul are indifference curves that show the optimal balance between the amount of labor and the level of income (i.e. household utility) under each scenario, as determined by the household. The straight lines represent the simple correlation between the amount of work one performs and the income from that work: higher wage obviously means one can earn more for the same amount of work, hence the more steep line.

Household Budget Chart

The amount of work each household decides to perform is determined at the intersection of the indifference curve and the wage line. When the price of sex decreases and the wage line shifts to the lower one, the amount of labor performed by the household goes up, from Lh to Ll, rather than going down, as predicted in a simpler economic model. If my analysis is correct, prostitution market is more like labor market in these developing nations than simpler commodity markets for things like corn and wheat.

The next chart takes into account this analysis to show what actually happens when “end demand” policies are implemented with the aim to reduce demand for commercial sex.

Negative Elasticity Supply-Demand Chart

When the demand decreases from Dh to Dl, lowering the price from Ph to Pl, the supply actually increases, from F(Lh) (supply level in the high wage scenario) to F(Ll). This is the exact opposite from what proponents of “end demand” policies have implicitly presumed would happen, and yet it is the logical, economically-sound conclusion if you add to the mix two simple, entirely reasonable assumptions about the lack of alternatives and the trade-off faced by people in the sex trade.

One might challenge the first assumption on the basis that many people in the sex trade actually do have other viable economic opportunities and will flee the sex industry if the price starts to decline. That may be true for some segments of the prostitution market, but unlikely for many who are in the lower end of the market, whom I am focusing here. I also do not expect any “end demand” proponents to make this argument, since they tend not to believe that prostitution can be freely chosen work for vast majority of people who are in the sex trade.

Proponents of “end demand” policies are more likely to challenge the second premise, arguing that people in the sex trade are frequently (physically for psychologically) forced to engage in prostitution, and are not in the position to make rational, utility-maximizing decisions for themselves. But if pimps are making decisions, they would certainly not accept a lower income simply because the market has bottomed out: they would likely use greater coercion to extract even more labor and thus income from the person they are controlling. So the end result would be the same: less demand leads to more supply.

“End demand” policies should be rejected because they harm the very people they are intended to help, and does not even succeed at reducing the supply of commercial sex in the long term (and may in fact increase it). Any reduction of demand will be temporary, because as long as there are no other viable economic opportunities, the price will decrease until it reaches a level that can attract enough demand to return. And on top of that, “end demand” policies push away clients (johns) who are relatively safer to work with and draw in those who are most dangerous, as I’ve argued before. The solution to economic desperation and vulnerabilities is to address that economic injustice, not to (make failed attempts to) mask its symptoms.

Note: I am seeking economists or economics students who are interested in collaborating on pushing this analysis further. For example, I want to figure out a systematic way to test the hypothesis through creative use of public information such as online sex ads and arrest records (indicating major sweeps) city by city. This may be a publication opportunity. Please email me at emi AT eminism DOT org if you are interested… and please share this post with people you know who might be interested.

Gender-critical feminism is trans-positive feminism.

Date: August 22, 2012

In response to a discussion I’ve been reading recently:

Radical feminists are correct to criticize the equation/conflation of gender roles with gender identity. But that is not a position many transgender people I know hold. That orthodoxy comes from psychologist John Money’s 1972 book, Man and Woman, Boy and Girl: The Differentiation and Dimorphism of Gender Identity from Conception to Maturity. This is the same John Money from the notorious John/Joan experiment and coverup John Colapinto wrote about in As Nature Made Him: The Boy Who was Raised as a Girl.

Money wrote, succinctly:

gender identity is the private experience of gender role, and gender role is the public expression of gender identity

I know many transgender people who do not desire to fit into either of the standard sets of gender roles, and whose gender identities are not based on their desired roles in the society in relation to their gender. For many transgender people, gender identity and gender roles are not internal/external sides of the same thing, but are clearly separated.

Unfortunately, we do not have a better way to explain gender identity, which explains why this antiquated conception of gender identity remains in circulation within medical community, among some transgender people, and in the society.

But I do not believe that transgender people should have to explain their gender identity: it just is. Or as feminist philosopher Naomi Scheman once wrote, “Transsexual lives are lived, hence livable.”

Once the society and its medical “gatekeepers” stop requiring transgender people to explain their gender identity, we can eliminate the need for transgender individuals to (either uncritically or strategically) go along with the lies John Money told, simply to receive medical care, win social acceptance, and survive.

News flash! Emi writes straightforwardly “feminist”–even radical feminist–commentaries on Reddit!

Date: August 7, 2012

I just added many of my recent contributions on Reddit discussion forum in Interchange, the depository of my online commentaries from various fora all over the internet. Most of these comments come from /r/AskFeminists: while it is not the only “subreddit” that I frequent, it is where I tend to write more than just a brief sentence.

My comments from Reddit are very different from my other commentaries elsewhere because I am in conversation with many (mostly white, straight, cisgender) men. Feminist subreddits on Reddit are swarming with “men’s rights activists” and other, more pro-feminist men who are not very familiar with feminism.

I’m not used to this: I surround myself with queer people, feminists, radical activists and thinkers of all kinds, even online. As a result, much of what I write in various online forums end up addressing complexities of multiple oppressions. I tend to criticize feminists and queer activists more than I praise them, not because I dislike feminists or queer activists, but because I am a feminist and queer activist and I experience things within my movements that trouble me on a daily basis.

But on Reddit, I am not talking to feminists or queer activists (for the most part), and as a result I have opportunities to put forth more straightforwardly “feminist” arguments. I kind of found it refreshing to write this way, though it can easily get tiring. That said, they are not mere “feminism 101” materials: I think I bring the kind of sensibility and my own thinking that I always carry around with even though I am discussing seemingly simple topics (well simpler compared to all the super complicated social issues that I usually write about).

The five entries I’ve added to Interchange today represent these more “straightforwardly feminist” articulations of my politics, which I thought you might enjoy, especially if you are familiar with my usual writings.

Enjoy!

Gangs and sex trafficking: How the movement against “modern day slavery” targets descendants of slavery as its primary perpetrators

Date: July 16, 2012

Popular discourse surrounding human trafficking in the U.S. have gone through several transformations since the dawn of this century. For example in 2000, with the passage of Trafficking Victims Protection Act in the United States. and the adoption of the Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons by the United Nations (as a supplement to its Convention against Transnational Organized Crime), “human trafficking” began to be understood primarily as a transnational criminal enterprise comparable to illegal trafficking of weapons and drugs. This perspective is a distinct departure from the more traditional approach which dealt with human trafficking in relation to poverty, migration, labor, and development.

The next transformation took place around 2008-2009, when American media and politicians began focusing (sometimes exclusively) on domestic minor sex trafficking (DMST) or commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC–although I believe it should be called CSEY with the word “youth”), instead of the more traditional emphasis on foreign victims who are trafficked transnationally. The frequency of media coverage of DMST/CSEY exploded, as did the number of “anti-trafficking” groups (which mostly focus on DMST/CSEY) in the U.S., and the sensationalistic rhetoric of “modern day slavery” and “sex slaves” became commonplace.

There is yet another rhetorical and substantiative transformation of the U.S. anti-trafficking discourse taking place today, even though few people outside of the law enforcement and anti-trafficking groups that partner with them are taking notice. The shift I am pointing out is the recent move by the U.S. government agencies to re-classify DMST/CSEY as a primarily “gang” issue and take actions accordingly.

This is a trend I’ve been sensing for a while, but it was not until I heard directly from a staffer at the U.S. Attorney’s Office of Oregon that it had moved the issue of DMST/CSEY to the purview of its “gang unit” (as opposed to the civil rights division, which handles transnational labor trafficking) that I began to realize that there is something to the vague suspicion I had been feeling. Further research has confirmed that there is a deliberate shift in rhetoric and strategy U.S. government agencies and its allied anti-trafficking groups employ in their campaigns against DMST/CSEY.

Media reports about DMST/CSEY involving street gangs precede official government declarations by two to three years. They first began appearing in the U.S. context in 2008, when teenage gang members were arrested for “sexual assault, engaging in organized criminal activity, prostitution, and kidnapping and trafficking of a person” in Fort Worth (Dallas Morning News, 01/16/2008). There were several other reports in Missouri, Washington State, Minnesota, and elsewhere in the next couple of years as well (New York Times, 07/23/2008; Seattle Times, 03/26/2009; Star Tribune, 09/23/2010; and others). A report by the San Diego Anti-Trafficking Task Force claimed that “street gangs are partly to blame for an increase in teenage prostitution,” describing it as the “second largest source of income for San Diego gangs” after drug dealing (KPBS, 11/09/2010).

(Note that this discussion is limited to media reports in the United States. News stories linking “gangs” to sex trafficking have been common in Europe since at least mid-2000s, but the “gangs” they are referring to are very different from what U.S. media are calling “gangs.” In the European context, “gangs” are frequently members of Russian mafia and other “grown up” criminal organizations with clandestine ties to members of the political and business establishment class, unlike U.S. street gangs that are made up primarily of young men of color.)

Former Republican presidential candidate and Texas governor Rick Perry was one of the first political leaders to call attention to the link between gangs and DMST/CSEY. According to Houston Chronicle (08/20/2010), Perry proposed “stiffer penalties” for human trafficking–25 years to life–on the premise that penalties were “directed at gang members who run the prostitution rings.”

The shift in the law enforcement’s approach to DMST/CSEY is evident in the changes from the FBI’s 2009 National Gang Threat Assessment to its 2011 revision.

In the 2009 edition of the report, there is not even a single mention of sex trafficking or DMST/CSEY except for statements that report the fact that some gangs operate “prostitution rings” or (voluntary) smuggling of “illegal aliens.” On the other hand, the 2011 edition contains a specific section about “Gangs and Alien Smuggling, Human Trafficking, and Prostitution” which describes human trafficking and forced prostitution as major sources of revenue for gangs:

Human trafficking is another source of revenue for some gangs. Victims–typically women and children–are often forced, coerced, or led with fraudulent pretense into prostitution and forced labor. […] Prostitution is also a major source of income for many gangs. Gang members often operate as pimps, luring or forcing at-risk, young females into prostitution and controlling them through violence and psychological abuse.

Three weeks after the release of the 2011 National Gang Threat Assessment, NPR’s “All Things Considered” aired a story titled, aptly, “Gangs enter new territory with sex trafficking” (11/14/2011), which seemed to have served as a template for many other news reports about the “new” development. NPR reported:

[A] new FBI threat assessment says MS-13 and other street gangs have been moving into some different territory: human trafficking. The bureau says gang members are leading women and children into forced prostitution. […] “You have a gang that’s taking advantage of people that are in a desperate situation, usually runaways or someone that’s looking for help from the gang,” [Immigration and Customs Enforcement investigator John] Torres says.

U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder echoed the message in his April 2012 speech about human trafficking at Clinton School of Public Service at the University of Arkansas:

As incomprehensible as it seems, trafficking in girls is an increasingly prevalent part of gang activity. These crimes are seen as “low risk and high reward.” […] Today, these transactions can be executed quickly, conveniently, and anonymously over the Internet–and many of them involve young children. […] Because we know these heinous crimes can arise in any criminal context–and because it is not uncommon for traffickers to be involved in a variety of other criminal enterprises, […] we are taking steps to ensure that investigators and prosecutors who work on organized crime, gang, and financial crime cases are fully trained to identify human crimes–and human trafficking victims.

Contrast this to Holder’s earlier public statements, such as the November 2009 written testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee or the May 2010 speech at the National Conference on Human Trafficking, both of which strongly condemn sex trafficking and emphasizes how the Department of Justice is vigorously fighting it, but do not make any link between sex trafficking and street gangs.

Anti-trafficking groups and activists have picked up on the trend as well. For example, anti-prostitution scholar and activist Laura Lederer published an article titled “Sold for Sex: The Link Between Street Gangs and Human Trafficking” on the exact same day the FBI released its revised National Gang Threat Assessment. Lederer wrote:

The facts from hundreds of criminal cases show a clear link between dangerous street gangs and the scourge of human trafficking. […] With state and national crackdowns on drug trafficking, gangs have turned to sex trafficking for financial gain.

She further argues that strict enforcement of anti-trafficking laws could be “another prosecution weapon against the dangerous street gangs that endanger our communities and our nation. […] The vigorous prosecution of human trafficking can help bring down street gangs that also engage in murder, robbery, and drug trafficking.”

Anti-trafficking groups have frequently argued that there are two main types of pimps: “boyfriend/finesse pimps” and “gorilla pimps”: The former refers to pimps who use romantic gesture and psychological manipulation to control their victims, while the latter describes those who use physical violence and intimidation to force the victim to engage in prostitution. Below is an example of this classification, taken from a 2011 presentation by Polaris Project, a national anti-trafficking organization.

Finesse Pimp vs. Gorilla Pimp

Below, you will see a newer version of the same classification system, taken from a May 2012 presentation by YouthCare, a Seattle-based homeless youth advocacy organization (which, like Portland’s Janus Youth, seems to have bought into the police-centered approach to DMST/CSEY). Instead of two, the slide depicts three distinct categories of pimps: “boyfriend pimp,” “gorilla pimp,” and the all-new “gang pimp.”

Finesse Pimp vs. Gorilla Pimp vs. Gang Pimp

What is ignored in all of these discussions of the (racially coded) evils of “gangs” is that many young men of color (and others) become gang members and engage in its criminal activities for many of the same reasons many young women of color (and others) are lured into the sex trade: poverty, failure of social and child welfare systems and public education, lack of viable economic opportunities, psychological and historic trauma. After all, what is the moral difference between a young woman who is told to go out and sell sex, and a young man who is told to go out and sell drugs? And yet, the mainstream anti-trafficking discourse would have us believe that the young woman is an innocent victim but the young man is an evil criminal.

Anti-trafficking discourse has always carried racist and xenophobic overtones, but the recent shift in the rhetorics and strategies of U.S. government agencies is escalating it to the level indistinguishable form the racist, classist War on Drugs and its vilification of youth of color, immigrants, street youth, among others. That we have a movement that claims to be outraged by the horrors of “modern day slavery” which then targets the descendants of those who have survived slavery and colonization as its primary perpetrators while remaining completely oblivious to the legacies and consequences of these historical trauma is nothing short of perversity, a moral and logical failure.

If we are to believe, which I do not necessarily object to by the way, that gangs play some role in DMST/CSEY, our approach to solving the problem cannot and should not rest on the “vigorous prosecution” alone. We need strategies to offer more attractive alternatives to gang life that are compatible with human rights and dignity for all involved, those that empower marginalized communities to take care of their constituents and deal with problems they have in their own initiative and leadership.

Cutting off people in the sex trade from support networks: Opportunity cost of the NYC anti-“sex trafficking” taxicab rule

Date: July 10, 2012

Last month, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg signed into law a new regulation targeting taxicab drivers who knowingly transport people who are engaging in prostitution. The new law imposes a $10,000 fine and the revocation of taxi license when the driver or owner of that taxi is convicted of such crimes as promoting prostitution (first thru third degree), compelling prostitution, or sex trafficking if the licensed vehicle was used in the crime.

Critics of the law have pointed out that the new regulation might lead cab drivers to refuse rides to any woman who are suspected of being prostitutes or sex trafficking victims (based on their appearance and other factors) out of fear that giving transportation to someone who might be involved in the sex trade could be construed as “promoting prostitution.”

When the bill was proposed, female bartenders who must frequently use cab to go home late at night held a protest against the law. The president of the New York State Federation of Taxi Drivers also protested the regulation, arguing that it would encourage police officers to arrest innocent cab drivers who are simply doing their job.

While members of the New York City Council assure us that the law does not require cab drivers to determine who is or is not involved in the sex trade, pointing out that the driver has to be first convicted of one of the crimes listed above before the additional penalty kicks in, drivers’ and female riders’ fears are not entirely unwarranted, considering how broadly “promoting prostitution” is defined. Under law, “promoting prostitution” could simply mean that one “knowingly causes or aids a person to commit or engage in prostitution,” which providing transportation to and from a “date” would qualify, for example.

That said, my concern with this law is not about innocent cab drivers who might be wrongly targeted because he or she transported someone who turned out to be a prostitute or trafficking victim, or even about innocent female riders who experience inconvenience and annoyance as they are refused rides. My concern is about the loss of an opportunity to actually partner with cab drivers to offer resources and support to people in the sex trade, including victims of sex trafficking (though most actual sex trafficking rings do not use regular commercial cabs, as pointed out by the Sex Workers Project at Urban Justice Center; they generally use private vehicles that are not licensed as cab).

New York City does intend to provide training to cab drivers to identify and report suspected sex trafficking victims. But that is not likely to be helpful to the actual victims of sex trafficking, as many victims would simply go back to their traffickers rather than testifying against them in the absence of legal, financial, and emotional support and services they need. It is also very annoying and inconvenient to those who are wrongly reported as potential trafficking victims, and downright harmful to those who are non-trafficked sex workers, immigrants, and others who wish to avoid interacting with the law enforcement.

Contrary to the sensationalistic rhetoric of “modern day slavery” and “sex slavery,” the actual practice of sex trafficking–where one person exercises power and control over another person to exploit that person sexually for financial gain–usually looks more like domestic violence than chattel slavery (or what most people imagine chattel slavery are like). We should not hesitate to call the police when we hear or see signs of immediate, life-threatening violence from our neighbor’s house, of course, but calling the police may not always be the best response when we are supporting a friend or neighbor who is in an abusive relationship. In an ongoing, long-term relationship that has elements that are abusive, and I include many “sex trafficking” or “pimping” relationships in this, calls made to the police, especially by a third party, might make things worse and more dangerous for the victim, not safer.

There are many initiatives within anti-domestic violence movement that attempt to build community support for people who are in ongoing, long-term abusive relationships. One example of such strategy is anti-DV organizations partnering with cosmetology schools and practitioners to educate hairstylists and others in the field to become the first line of support and information referral point for victims of domestic violence. Hair salons are ideal, because they are female-dominated space where women spend a long time chatting with each other about their lives while their hair is being done, away from their husbands and boyfriends.

The purpose of the partnership is not so that hairstylists can identify and report suspected abuse victims to the police; it is to build trust and rapport with the women, hear their stories, provide support and encouragement, and when a woman ready and willing, give her resources she needs to escape from violence. What I wish the New York City had done is to adapt a similar strategy to reach out to people in the sex trade through cab drivers, whether or not their circumstances meet the legal definition of “sex trafficking.”

The problem with the New York City law is not that innocent drivers might get caught in the crossfire; it is that it discourages them from building trust and rapport with people in the sex trade by generating the fear that any knowledge about their passengers’ involvement in the sex trade might incriminate them and expose them to persecution. The problem is not that cab drivers have no way of determining who is or is not a prostitute; it is that they are prohibited from knowing who is, or from forming relationships with people in the sex trade that might one day allow more trafficking victims and other people in the sex trade to come forward and access support and services they need.

Roundup of Local Media Reports on Operation Cross Country VI: Parsing Hidden Information

Date: June 25, 2012

Below is a roundup of local media reports regarding the Operation Cross Country VI, a three-day nationwide campaign by FBI and local law enforcement authorities aimed at “rescuing” minors in the sex trade. See my previous blog posts below for basic understanding of what it is, and what the problems are:

Local reports are interesting because they sometimes reveal information not available from FBI’s press releases, as journalists interview their respective local officials for their stories. There are of course many more articles, but I am only listing articles that includes some original reporting.


Last updated: 07/11/2012

Massachusetts: 14 arrests total, 3 of which were “pimps.” 1 juvenile “recovered.” Matches data for FBI Boston Division (all of Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Delaware, and Rhode Island). (The Republican, 06/25/2012) While 1 youth (17 year old) is said to have been “caught up” during the sweep, it was determined that she was not involved in prostitution. (Boston Globe, 06/26/2012). Is this the same youth who is listed as the only “recovered juvenile” by FBI?

Sherveport-Bossier City, Louisiana: An article claims “nearly 30” pimps were arrested in Northern Louisiana, which is obviously inaccurate. FBI’s New Orleans Division (all of Louisiana) reports 10 “pimp” arrests, which is more than in most other divisions, but still not 30. The reported figure probably is for people who were arrested for prostitution, most of whom are adult women. (KLTV, 06/26/2012)

Revealing quote: “The teenagers, who are all U.S. citizens, were handcuffed and held in police custody until they could be placed with child welfare organisations.” (Daily Mail, 06/26/2012)

Toledo: An article claims “26 of 104 alleged pimps arrested between Thursday and Sunday were in the Toledo area.” FBI Cleveland Division (northern Ohio) reports 0 “rescue” and 1 “pimp” arrest, so the paper is clearly wrong. 26 must be the number of all arrests, most of which are probably adult women in sex trade. (Toledo Blade, 06/26/2012)

Detroit: 70 people arrested, including 5 “pimps” and 22 “customers”; 6 teenagers “recovered.” That leaves 43 arrests for people (mostly adult women) who trade sex. FBI’s Detroit Division (covering the entire state of Michigan) reports only 3 “pimps,” so this discrepancy is curious. (Detroit Free Press, 06/25/2012) One of the youth was a boy. (WXYZ, 06/25/2012) Other sources report that 77 out of 79 minors “rescued” were girls.

San Francisco Bay Area: 6 teenage girls “rescued,” 7 “pimps” arrested, matching the FBI figure for the San Francisco Division (all of coastal Northern California). Breakdown of teenagers: 4 in Oakland, 1 in San Francisco, 1 in San Rafael. (Huffington Post, 06/25/2012); 61 “adult prostitutes” arrested (San Francisco Bay Guardian, 07/11/2012) Another source claims 10 “pimp” arrests in the Bay Area, contradicting FBI release: 3 in Richmond, 3 in Vallejo, 2 in San Francisco, 1 each in San Jose and San Rafael (Marinscope Sausalito, 07/03/2012) In Richmond, 8 adult women are arrested for engaging in prostitution (Contra Costa Times, 06/25/2012; San Jose Mercury, 06/25/2012) Another article claims arrest of “65 adult prostitutes” in the Bay Area (Patch, 06/26/2012) SF Weekly (06/27/2012) absurdly claims “60-plus women who had been working as prostitutes” were rescued, even though they were not “rescued,” but simply arrested as criminals.

Oklahoma City: 2 girls in OKC, 44 “others” arrested. FBI’s Oklahoma City Division (entire state of Oklahoma) reports 3 “rescues” and 7 “pimp” arrests. Even if all 7 were included in the 44, that leaves 37 arrests for sellers and their clients–mostly sellers, of course. (The Associated Press, 06/25/2012) Quote: “[Police] are partnering with the FBI to pull dozens of prostitutes off the streets, including two minors here in the metro.” (News on 6, 06/25/2012

Chicago: “72 people face federal solicitation charges,” 65 other arrests (total 137). FBI Chicago Division (entire northern Illinois) reports only 3 “recovery” and 3 “pimp” arrests, so most of these arrests were for buyers and sellers. (The Times, (06/25/2012)

Portland: 3 “rescues,” 6 “pimps,” and 3 “adults with prostitution.” This figure is consistent with FBI Portland Division’s numbers, but contradicts the data I collected, which shows 7 arrests for adult women. (KOIN 6, 06/25/2012)

Atlantic City: 29 arrests, mostly adult women charged with “engaging in prostitution.” FBI Newark Division (all of New Jersey) reports 0 “rescues” and only 3 “pimp” arrests. (NBC10, 06/24/2012)

Secaucus, NJ: Part of FBI Newark Division. 4 adults arrested for “engaging in prostitution,” 1 arrested for “engaging in a massage business without a proper license.” No juvenile arrested or identified. (Hudson Reporter, 06/29/2012)

Dallas: 6 “rescues,” 36 other arrests (none of whom were pimps). FBI Dallas Division says the same thing (6 “rescues,” 0 “pimps”). (The Dallas Morning News, 06/25/2012)

Milwaukee: 63 total arrests, comprised of 53 “adult prostitutes,” 3 “pimps,” 7 “rescued” youth. FBI Milwaukee division (all of Wisconsin) reports 6 “rescues” and 0 “pimp” arrests, so there is a big discrepancy here. Also, the article makes it clear that “rescue” actually means “arrest.” (CBS 58, 06/25/2012) (Thanks Claudine O’Leary for the link.)

Operation Cross Country VI: FBI’s campaign to “rescue” youth continue to cause mass arrests of adult women

Date: June 25, 2012

I’ve been collecting data to keep track of all prostitution arrests (mostly adult women who are selling sex) in Portland area for the last several months for a project I am working on right now, and noticed an unusual spate of arrests over last week. It was quite depressing to see so many women being criminalized and imprisoned for simply trying to survive, so I wrote this comment on my facebook wall:

EmiKo Yama – Saturday at 9:34pm
There have been 14 arrests of women engaging in prostitution in Multnomah and Washington counties in the last week. At least half of them have been arrested for the same offense in the last year, and three in the last couple of months. One woman has been arrested 10 times in less than a year (and the only reason she wasn’t arrested any more than that is that she spent much of last year in jail). Why is our government wasting resources criminalizing people instead of using the same resource providing real options?

One of the reasons arrest records seemed unusual last week was that they were spread out to various parts of Portland as well as to surrounding cities of Gresham and Beaverton: ordinarily, East Precinct of Portland Police Bureau arrests vast majority of the women, followed by North and Central precincts.

On Monday (June 25th), I find the explanation: over the weekend, FBI and local law enforcement authorities around the nation have conducted yet another installment of Operation Cross Country, the coordinated nationwide three-day hunt for victims of “commercial sexual exploitation of children” (CSEC, or as I’d like to call it, CSEY with “children” replaced with “youth”). According to the FBI Innocence Lost Initiative press release, this iteration resulted in “recovery of 79 children” and arrests of “104 pimps” by the 47 FBI-local task forces over the three days (FBI does not disclose which three days, I assume they were June 20-22 based on the unusual spike in the arrest data).

Interestingly, FBI did not release the total number of arrests, which includes “pimps,” buyers, and sellers of sex, as they did in the past. During the Operation Cross Country V (November 2010), for example, FBI reported that 885 people were arrested overall, 99 of which were “pimps.” Since arrests of buyers is extremely rare, it is reasonable to assume that the vast majority of arrests that were not for the “pimps” were arrests of people who trade sex, mostly women (including trans women). OCC-V claims to have “rescued” 69 minors from CSEY nationwide, while more than 10x women were arrested for basically doing the exact same things these young people were doing. We are unable to make a similar comparison of scale because FBI chose not to publish the number of all arrests.

Below is an updated chart summarizing the information released by FBI through its press releases.

Spotty Data from FBI’s Operation Cross Country sweeps
Source: FBI press releases

  Date City Rescues Arrests Rescues TD Convictions TD
0 12/16/2005 14 30 19   67
1 6/25/2008 16 21 389 433 308
2 10/27/2008 29 49 642 (73 pimps, 518 pros) 577 365
3 2/23/2009 29 48 571 670  
4 10/26/2009 36 52 700 (60 pimps) 900 510
5 11/8/2010 40 69 885 (99 pimps) 1200 625
6 6/25/2012 57 79 104 pimps; total unknown 2200+ 1017

Date = Date the operation was announced in a press release. Typically, the stings take place during the 72 hours before the announcement.
City = Number of cities in which stings took place.
Rescues = Number of minors FBI claims to have “rescued.”
Arrests = Number of arrests made. This may include adult prostitutes, clients, as well as pimps (FBI doesn’t fully disclose the breakdown).
Rescues TD = Number of minors FBI claims to have “rescued” to date since Innocence Lost Initiative began.
Convictions TD = Number of convictions FBI claims have resulted from Innocence Lost Initiative.

The number of cities participating in Operation Cross Country is based on multiple news reports.

While the FBI press release does not provide some information that previous press releases did, it details division-by-division breakdown of all “recoveries” and “pimp arrests,” which is fascinating. Here are the numbers:

“Juvenile Recovery” and “Pimp Arrest” by FBI Division
Source: FBI press release, 06/25/2012

Div J# P# Div J# P# Div J# P# Div J# P#
Albuquerque 0 0 Atlanta 3 5 Baltimore 0 1 Birmingham 0 0
Boston 1 3 Chicago 3 3 Cleveland 0 1 Dallas 6 0
Denver 2 3 Detroit 6 3 El Paso 1 1 Houston 0 1
Indianapolis 0 0 Knoxville 0 0 Las Vegas 4 4 Los Angeles 5 3
Miami 2 4 Milwaukee 6 0 Minneapolis 0 4 Newark 0 3
New Orleans 3 10 New York City 1 1 Oklahoma City 3 7 Omaha 0 2
Philadelphia 2 2 Phoenix 2 1 Portland 3 6 Richmond 0 2
Sacramento 6 6 St. Louis 2 2 San Antonio 0 2 San Diego 2 7
San Francisco 6 7 Seattle 6 7 Tampa 3 3 Washington 1 0
Totals 79 104                  

Note: Divisions are different from city limits. For example, FBI’s “Portland” field office covers the entire state of Oregon, not just Portland and its surrounding area, and excludes its northern suburb of Vancouver, Washington (which is included in “Seattle” office).

According to this breakdown, “Portland” division of FBI working with local authorities “recovered” three young people in the sex trade, while arresting six “pimps.” However, the data I have collected from Multnomah County only shows only two arrests for “promoting prostitution.” In the meantime, there were nine arrests of adult women for selling sex.

Because FBI’s “Portland” division covers the entire state of Oregon, rather than just Multnomah County, it is possible that four other “pimp” arrests took place in the rest of the state. But this is unlikely not just because Portland is the largest population center for the state, but also because Portland is the only city in Oregon with an FBI Innocence Lost Task Force agreement (as far as I know).

One plausible explanation for the discrepancy is that the four unidentified “pimps” were minors themselves. That would explain why I can only identify arrest data for two “pimps” in public information even though there were supposedly six of them. The two people whose information is made public were also young, at ages 21 and 25. I’m going to see if I could find out if this is the case.

In the next post, I’m going to provide a roundup of local media reports about the Operation Cross Country VI. Local media often interview local police for further information, resulting in more detailed data not available in FBI press release.

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