Problems with anti-trafficking legislation

kerwynk's picture

I originally posted this in response to Audacia's interview on WNYC, but (upon request) am also posting a modified version as a new topic. To wit:

One of the main concerns I have with the anti-trafficking legislation is that it encourages policing activities that are actually counter-productive for the overwhelming majority of sex workers. But understanding why this is true requires that one have a realistic understanding as to the diversity of working conditions within the sex biz. 

In her interview on WNYC, Sonia Ossario from NYC-NOW claims that only an extreme few (those "jet set call girls") have control over with whom and where they have paid sex. She states that "the vast majority of women and girls who are in the sex industry...don't have that luxury. [They] are trafficked here [or] work in brothels."  There's a lot wrong with this picture, not the least of which is that it fails to include males (something I hope we chat about more within the forum this week). The equation of trafficking with literal "slavery" serves to further escalate both the rhetoric and the legislative proposals required to engage with what is understood to exist, and also further divorces the NYC-NOW analysis from reality.

At one time, and to some extent again today, the focus in prostitution policy was on street-based workers. Most researchers agree that street-based workers now make up only about 15% of the total of sex work. Street-based workers are themselves divided in their conditions, with many "classes" of strolls and of workers on the streets, and with only a subset facing stereotyped conditions of miserable homelessness with lots of drug use. Another group of people (mostly female, but also including some men) does not do sex "work" exactly, but trades sex for drugs rather than for cash. In terms of sex worker activism, I'd argue that people living in extreme forms of poverty and/or with intense drug involvement should in many ways be a higher priority than middle-class folks who are doing well. How Ossario thinks that increased criminalization will help the most destitute of the poor - especially when most people in this group cannot afford so-called "pimps" (and are therefore not "trafficked") - is beyond me.

 There are indeed some people who might benefit from increased criminalization, namely people who are indeed held directly against their will in actual slave-like conditions. To me, however, this is where the numbers seem to be awfully thin. What realistically happens with anti-trafficking legislation is that lots of brothels where migrants work are busted, and no one is "rescued" because so very few are victims of the sort imagined by Ossario. So while such raids might indeed get lucky and actually help someone, they harm many others along the way (by arresting them and potentially rendering them subject to deportation) - is this an effective use of the police in a fight against "slavery"?  

Even people who genuinely need the police may suffer because the anti-trafficking approach as currently constituted stigmatizes and punishes the group that would be most able to see if someone was in trouble and most able to tell the police:  clients. Even if one thought that prostitution were a negative, one could still reach out to clients in order to solicit their aid in monitoring the brothels. The approach of NYC-NOW takes the opposite tack, and instead works to make it more difficult for sex workers to work (e.g. by trying to convince newspapers to end all advertising), thus making it more difficult for people to work independently and making people more vulnerable, not less. 

One basic problem is that so many people are ready to believe that "the overwhelming majority" of sex workers live in slave-like conditions. People don't think of the approximately 20% of sex workers who have middle-class backgrounds (even if they're not exactly part of the "jet set"), and that the overwhelming majority of people who are more working-class and yet work independently or in underground brothels are not in any way "enslaved," even if the work might kind-of suck. Anti-trafficking approaches as currently constituted make conditions worse for this vast majority, not better, and only offers dubious benefits for - at a guess - 250 people in the US today.  

I guess I could go on and on here, and I've already written a lengthy thread, but I'll just end with one final point. The difficulty with the NYC-NOW position - a.k.a. the CATW position - is that they are using the issue of trafficking to fight against the entire sex industry, or rather to get the police to wage their fight. As Ossario states, "it's hard to separate" trafficking from the general sex business. Send the police against all of it, I suppose! Well, it seems to me that it is usually pretty easy to distinguish slavery from other forms of exploited wage labor. Migrant workers on farms sometimes face literal slave-like conditions (being held against their will and forced to work at gunpoint, for example), and when they do, the police should help them. The vast majority of these workers, however, face something horrid, but not slavery. Raiding every single farm with migrant workers in order to find a few who are being held at gunpoint is not only an inefficient waste of one's police force, it is a tactic that harms many other workers by putting them at risk for deportation. A truly better plan for this majority who suffer from extreme economic exploitation, but not "slavery," would be to legalize their entry into the US and enforce a good labor standard (not that this is likely right now, but one can dream......). Such an approach would additionally strengthen the position of migrant workers and make it more possible for them to rely upon the police, thereby making slavery-like scenarios less possible. This is the basic logic of decriminalization (a complex topic that might benefit from further discussion, but the basics are clear). In what world is it impossible to tell the difference between the two types of oppression? Only in a world in which sex work is already such a degraded and un-thought-through possibility that it becomes impossible to imagine that someone might rationally choose it. 

 If people are concerned that bad economics forces people into prostitution, then "anti-trafficking" is a terrible means to address that possibility. If people are concerned with direct coercion and outright slavery, then I suggest they adjust their tactics to create a policing system that does not punish hundreds and hundreds of other people in order to help a rare individual (shall we raid every home in the US in hopes of finding a kidnapping victim?). And if what we're actually talking about concerns pimping and underage prostitution, then that opens up an entirely new discussion, but again, I don't think increased penalties for pimps will help many kids, and it will harm many whose "pimps" are actually supportive (friendly madams, for example, are "pimps," legally speaking). If, on the other hand, NYC-NOW is merely interested in confusing people and pushing their own anti-sex work agenda in the muddle, then they are doing a very good job of it. As I see it, we need to figure out how to do better in challenging the misinformation that's out there, and in developing and promoting our own alternative vision. We need to see and address the emotional and social pulls that make this misinformation so appealing, and deactivate them (or something like that!). 


Thanks very much to Elizabeth and the other fab folks who helped make this happen (Chris, who else?). Thank you!