Fighting trafficking without fighting sex workers

Elizabeth's picture

Last week Audacia Ray was interviewed on the Brian Lehrer show (WNYC , an NPR affiliate). Her interview was positioned as a counterpoint to an interview with Sonia Ossorio, president of NOW NYC (NYC's National Organization of Women chapter).

Chris has a great blog post about this here.

You can listen to the clip here:

NYC NOW is engaged in a campaign to stop magazines, newspapers and phone directories from accepting advertising from unlicensed massage parlors and 'body work' establishments, and from escorts. Their claim is that this will cut down trafficking by making it harder to market the sexual services that trafficking victims are forced to sell.

But the net seems a bit too big to me. It also seems like an example of a strategy that makes the problem harder to solve while making people feel good about doing something -- generally a destructive combination.

Victims of trafficking need to be located and need to be helped. This will be harder to do the farther underground the illegal sex industry is forced to go. Women who are trafficked into go-go bars in NewJersey will be easier to find while women who are trafficked into brothels in Queens will be harder to find.

A better strategy is to work at destigmatizing sex work and perhaps even decriminalizing the illegal aspects of the industry so that outreach workers and organizers can help those who land in the industry unwillingly. That, by the way, includes runaways and addicts and other US citizens who end up doing sex work because they've run out of options. They need help too!

This strategy also allows women who do the work willingly to do so more safely and to organize for better conditions if they want.

In Audacia's interview, as Chris mentions in his post, she describes one group of people who might make innovative outreach workers: Johns (clients of sex workers). She reported that in Amsterdam -- a city famoous for taking "harm reduction" rather than "punitive" approaches to things like drug use and sex work -- police are giving Johns "tip sheets" that help them recognize victims of trafficking. The assumption? That customers don't really want to participate in slavery or forced labor.

Could we ever do anything that smart in the US? What would it take to shift the way our policy makers approach the issue of sex work and its intersection with the issue of trafficking in a way that helps victims without demonizing workers?