Trafficking – a justification for increased deportations and a moralistic crusade against prostitution

1. The public’s understandable concern for victims of trafficking including young people is being used to promote a moralistic and dangerous crusade against prostitution. The anti-trafficking campaign allied with law enforcement and the religious right claims that all prostitution is rape/sexual exploitation. It has led to proposals to increase arrests of sex workers on the street, advertising on the web, close premises where women are working more safely and independently and criminalize clients. Such measures push sex workers further underground and into greater danger. Sex workers are also less able to report rape and violence for fear of arrest and for those of us who are immigrant, deportation.

2. Yet, little is said about the financial crisis that is propelling more women, children, young people and men into prostitution. Prostitution is on the increase among women and young people in particular because of lack of viable economic alternatives to prostitution.  An estimated 70% of sex workers are mothers, mostly the sole supporters of families; many are young. Twenty-nine percent of single female headed households live in poverty. Of the 19% of all children who live in poverty, 34% are Black, 31% are Latino. Cuts in child and other welfare programs in California mean that more single mothers are being impoverished.  Girls and young women are selling sex to survive due to poverty, homelessness, low wages or no wages, debt from school loans, escaping emotional abuse, rape or other violence, in the home or in institutions; to have some financial independence and therefore some control over their lives.

A case in point is a young Black mother in our network who has been struggling to support herself and her two children. Her welfare check was $307 a month.  She had no housing and was told her income was too low to qualify for low-income housing.  She was forced to supplement her income with prostitution. She had tried other jobs, but couldn’t make ends meet and cover childcare costs on the low wages. She got arrested for prostitution-related charges and then owed $446 for community service fees to the criminal justice system.  Legal Action for Women made extensive efforts to find low cost housing and other help for her but nothing was available.  Soon after she was rearrested for advertising on the web and now faces three years in prison. What will happen to her children while she is in jail?

3. Prostitution is the consensual exchange of sexual services for money.  Those who want to increase the criminalization of sex workers, and clients claim that prostitution is forced labor, “uniquely degrading” and mix it up with rape and trafficking. Sex workers, like other people, distinguish between the sex they consent to (for money or not), and that which violates their bodies and their will.  Although some people prefer sex work to other employment, many would prefer another job but point to the fact that sex work is often better paid than most low-waged jobs women do.  Criminalization diverts police time and resources from the investigation and prosecution of rapists and other violent men (including white collar criminals) into policing consenting sex.  Criminal records are a major obstacle to finding other employment and therefore institutionalize sex workers in prostitution.

4.  Anti-trafficking legislation is primarily being used to target immigrant sex workers, in particular women of color, for raids and deportations.

Just as the “War on Drugs”  criminalized low-income communities of color instead of providing healthcare to tackle drug abuse, these same communities are also getting the brunt of anti-trafficking enforcement.  Massive police  operations with the FBI and ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) target immigrant women, Black and other women of color, young people and transgender women and men. Many are deported as a result. The effects of increased law enforcement against sex workers, under the pretext of reducing trafficking, has been condemned as “damaging”.  A prestigious Stanford University report found that it “undermines the rights of sex workers” and “detrimentally impacts the rights of trafficked persons”.[1]

There are many casualties. A young transgender woman sex worker in our network was arrested in a Craigslist sting, was set up by police in SF and had to move away. She had previously been thrown into a men’s prison and brutalized. She was recently arrested again (for an unrelated matter) and once back in prison, killed herself.

5. Criminalization makes sex workers and all women more vulnerable. The climate of increased harassment and criminalization makes all sex workers more vulnerable to violence and undermines safety – violent attackers know that women and children working as prostitutes are less likely to report violence and less likely to get police protection when they do.[2] Brutal attacks on sex workers are common including women being killed by serial murderers. The court case of Joseph Naso in Marin who killed four known women is coming up. The murders in Long Island and the South Side Slayer in LA are the tip of the iceberg. When sex workers aren’t safe, no woman is safe – any of us can be labeled a prostitute and our lives devalued.

6. The numbers of women and girls in prostitution are confused with trafficked victims. The statistics on the numbers of trafficked women and children are false. The Village Voice article “Women’s Funding Network Sex Trafficking Study Is Junk Science “exposed a study that guessed the ages of young women’s pictures posted on internet sites and presented them as the actual numbers of juveniles in prostitution and trafficked victims as if they were the same. This study has been used in the media, by law enforcement and in policy making.  A second article showed how the widely used figure of 100,000 to 300,000 child “sex slaves” was a calculation of children at risk of “sexual exploitation” not actual victims. It was taken from the book The Commercial Sexual Exploitation of Children in the US, Canada and Mexico. One of the authors Richard J. Estes, when pressed, admitted that “the number of children kidnapped and sold into slavery, that number would be very small”.  The Washington Post also showed that the figures on the number of victims of trafficking are grossly exaggerated.[3] Non-profits such as the San Francisco SAGE Project rely for their budgets on sex workers being labelled as victims in need of salvation and therefore have a vested interested in exaggerating the extent of “sex trafficking”.

7. Trafficking is not about prostitution but stems from poverty, discriminatory immigration laws and the difficulty in gaining asylum. Many women from poorer countries come to work in the US in the hope of improving their and their children’s lives. Others are fleeing war or persecution, have no means of support, and are prevented from working legally.  How can they survive except by working illegally, including in prostitution? But when it comes to the sex industry no distinction is made between immigrant women working to support themselves and their families, and women being held against their will.  The debt immigrants incur in order to get here and the destitution many face, combined with the fear of deportation, lays them open to exploitation – in the sex industry, agricultural, domestic or other service work.

8. Why do anti-trafficking crusaders only focus on prostitution? In all the outcry about women and children in prostitution, there is no mention of other non-sex work labor where they might be exploited. The Human Trafficking in California Final Report of the California Alliance to Combat Trafficking and Slavery Task Force says that the “perception that most human trafficking is sex trafficking must be dispelled, and other forms of forced labor recognized”.  They list trafficking in agricultural labor, construction, sweatshops, hotel and motel cleaning, illegal transporters, organized theft rings, restaurant services, domestic services, mail order brides.  The report also calls into question the numbers of trafficking victims and questions the reliability of estimates.

9. Whatever the true numbers of trafficked women and children may be, they are nowhere near the number of rape victims whose rapists are not convicted. But despite women pressing for justice and protection, there is no comparable increase in budgets to improve the police and DA response to rape or sexual assault, including the rape of sex workers. On the contrary, funding to anti-rape organizations and services is getting cut.  In the last 20 years the annual rate of rapes has not decreased and “the lifetime prevalence of rape has increased by more than 25%”[4], yet 94% of rapists don’t see a day in jail and only 50% of reported rapes end in arrest.  A 2010 Senate hearing found that reports of rape and violence are ignored or dumped without investigation and that “the view that sex crimes are marginal issues permeates police departments across the country and contributes to the underreporting of rape and sexual assault”.

10. Genuine victims of trafficking don’t get help.  Most victims won’t go to the SAGE Project because they work in partnership with Homeland Security, immigration authorities and the police. Others are ineligible for help because of restrictive conditions and difficult rules– a woman must be willing to co-operate with law enforcement against the people she is working for in order to get a special T visa, if she has been a victim of trafficking.  The Human Trafficking in California Final Report mentioned above highlights the high rate of denial of T visas, the fear of deportation of victims and the urgent need for immediate health, safety and housing.  If women and children’s safety and welfare were really the priority, why shouldn’t a woman who has escaped from a situation where she faced threats, violence and/or rape and fears reprisals have the right to stay in the US and access to resources?

11. A new sex-worker rights movement is growing. While the anti-trafficking debate continues to rage in the US, New Zealand successfully decriminalized prostitution eight years ago, Canada has moved to decriminalize sex workers for safety reasons, and a new young pro-sex work women’s movement, SlutWalk, is growing by leaps and bounds challenging the old stereotyping of good and bad girls.

Safety First Protecting Sex Workers from Violence is a community based initiative coordinated by the US PROStitutes Collective

[1] Chang, Grace and Kim, Kathleen, Reconceptualizing Approaches to Human Trafficking: New Directions and Perspectives from the Field(s). ibid

[2] “I picked prostitutes as my victims because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.” Gary Leon Ridgway who confessed to the Green River murders. “The Green River Killer: Stream of Tears” by Rachael Bell.

[3] “Human Trafficking Evokes Outrage, Little Evidence” by Jerry Markon, Washington Post,  September 23, 2007

[4] “Robbed, Raped and Jailed: Are Police Departments Underestimating Rape Cases?“  Senate Subcommittee Holds Hearing on Uninvestigated Rape Cases. ABC World News, September 14, 2010.

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