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

Date: March 14, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I feel silly, but I made a facebook author page for myself

Date: March 6, 2012

Here it is:
http://www.facebook.com/emigrl2

I’ve been getting lots of friend requests from people I don’t know, and most of them come without any message or introduction. I’m not a “purist” who wants to limit facebook connections to people I know elsewhere, but I also don’t want to add any people, so I’ve ignored these requests.

With the author page, anyone who is interested in following my work can do so without the need for me to approve them. This is not to discourage anyone who wants to make a more personal connection with me from sending friend requests, but please tell me who you are a little.

The author page will mostly have posts related to my activism, presentations, and writings. I’ve already started an album containing artifacts I’ve created in connection to my activism in the past, such as the flier I distributed as part of Sluts Against Rape contingency for Take Back the Night march in 2001, ten years prior to SlutWalk. More stuff to be added…

So anyway: if you are interested in my work and use facebook, do subscribe to the page :-)

Prostitution should not be treated like “any other job”

Date: February 25, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

New button for college instructors

Date: February 4, 2012

RTF Syllabus Button

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

Date: December 20, 2011

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

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

Bitch article

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

AlterNet article

As the user antipropagandamachine points out,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


12/20/2011 update

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

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

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

So I was correct in asserting that you support decriminalization.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I Heart Google Ngram Viewer.

Date: December 14, 2011

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

Google Ngram: transgender, transsexual, transvestite

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

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

Google Ngram: human trafficking, involuntary migration, forced prostitution

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

Google Ngram: homosexual, heterosexual, bisexual, queer

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

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

Google Ngram graph

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

Google Ngram: womyn,womon,wimmin

Isn’t this fun?

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

Date: November 23, 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Reclaiming “victim”: Exploring alternatives to the heteronormative “victim to survivor” discourse

Date: November 22, 2011

Feminists organizing against domestic and sexual violence generally use the word “survivor” instead of “victim” to refer to people who experience violence (unless, of course, the person is murdered, in which case the term “survivor” obviously does not apply). “From victim to survivor” (and even “to thriver” sometimes) is a model often invoked by people who are working to heal and empower victims/survivors of abuse as well as by the victims/survivors themselves.

I myself have used the word “survivor” for many years. But as I began questioning “survivor” narratives and exploring negative survivorship as a compelling alternative to the cult of compulsory hopefulness and optimism in the “trauma recovery industry,” I came to identify with and embracing the term “victim” more. I never felt that I survive well enough to call myself a survivor anyway.

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

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

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

This victim-to-survivor discourse is a common theme in the trauma recovery services/industry. A self-help website, for example, states:

This section is about moving from Victim-To-Survivor.

This is an action step, and a change in mentality.

Yes, you are a victim of sexual abuse, but a victim stays in a victim role and never moves further and changes any behaviors that might change the outcome of the feelings that you are suffering from.

You can’t change what happened to you… but you CAN change how you will react to it and how you want your life to be from this day forward!

Once you make the decision to recover, you have the power to change your life!!

Your abuser does not have to win! You can take back your power and move on and not stay stuck where you are!

Hence, victimhood is construed as static and uncomfortable. Being a victim means that the abuser has won, and the victim is left without any “power” and is “stuck” where she or he is. The only hope for the victim is not a revolution, or community accountability and care, but “a change in mentality.” I find this rhetoric overly apolitical, individualistic, and victim-blaming.

Such messages are not uncommon. Another examples is a recent (10/26/2011) “expert blog” article on Mayo Clinic website, which is ironically titled “Victim or survivor? It’s your choice.” When I first saw the title, I thought the article was about how we as victims and survivors get to define our own experiences. but it wasn’t. Because the author is an oncologist, I assume that it is an advice intended for cancer survivors–but the article itself does not make that explicit, and his comments feels very similar to things people say to victims/survivors of domestic and sexual violence.

Everyone has setbacks, disappointments and frustrations. But the way you respond to these challenges and opportunities is what defines you. Whether you become a victim or a “seasoned survivor” depends on your attitude and the way you view the setback.

When faced with an overwhelming crisis, whether personal, spiritual or financial, your circuits can be overloaded. You may feel paralyzed. However, once a little time has passed, you can marshal your options to creatively deal with the problem.

Whatever has happened, you can choose to whine and complain about it, or to profit and learn from the experience. Whining is not only unproductive, it also pushes away your support network. Friends and colleagues will listen for just so long, but then it is time to move on. The choice is yours. Your life depends on it.

Once again, victims who “whine and complain” are blamed for causing their own suffering by pushing away our support networks, as if our mentality is the only barrier for us victims/survivors to thrive. While the author pretends to offer “choices,” he is clearly promoting normative survivorship over “unproductive” whining and complaining, blaming those of us who remain “victims” for failing to live up to our societal expectations.

I argue that feminist anti-violence movements and communities must embrace unproductive whining and complaining as legitimate means of survival in a world that cannot be made just by simply changing our individual mentalities. We must acknowledge that weakness, vulnerability, and passivity are every bit as creative and resilient as strength and activeness. And I think we can start that by reclaiming “victim” and “victimhood” and resisting the heteronormative “victim to survivor” discourse of the trauma recovery industry that imposes compulsory hopefulness and optimism in the service of neoliberal capitalist production.

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

Date: November 20, 2011

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

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

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

Date: November 18, 2011

I have two updates to promote my stuff:

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

Bitch Winter 2011 issue

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

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

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