On August 30, a 19-year-old woman in Ann Arbor, Michigan, was arrested after a prospective client called 911 on her. He claimed she raised her fee for services after their initial online contact. The cops took her away in handcuffs.
There’s nothing particularly unusual about this story, which initially appeared on AnnArbor.com. It’s one of dozens you can find every day in police blotters and local newspapers around the country, often accompanied by mug shots. No women’s rights organization compiles comprehensive data on how many people are arrested, tried, convicted, and incarcerated for prostitution-related charges. But their names and photos are lodged in search engines in perpetuity, no matter the outcome of their cases.
The consequences of such arrests can be life shattering. In Louisiana some women arrested for prostitution have been charged under a 200-year-old statute prohibiting “crimes against nature.” Those charged—disproportionately black women and transgender women—end up on the state sex-offender registry. In Texas a third prostitution arrest counts as an automatic felony. Women’s prisons are so overloaded that the state is rethinking the law to cut costs. In Chicago police post mug shots of all those arrested for solicitation online, a shaming campaign intended to target men who buy sex. But researchers at DePaul University found that 10 percent of the photos are of trans women who were wrongly gendered as men by cops and arrested as “johns.” A prostitution charge will haunt these women throughout the interlocking bureaucracies of their lives: filling out job applications, signing kids up for day care, renting apartments, qualifying for loans, requesting passports or visas.
Not all people who do sex work are women, but women disproportionately suffer the stigma, discrimination, and violence against sex workers. The result is a war on women that is nearly imperceptible, unless you are involved in the sex trade yourself. This war is spearheaded and defended largely by other women: a coalition of feminists, conservatives, and even some human rights activists who subject sex workers to poverty, violence, and imprisonment—all in the name of defending women’s rights.
Off Craigslist and Onto the Streets
A woman dressed from head to toe in khaki was trying to corral the few dozen people who showed up to picket in front of the New York offices of The Village Voice. Her eyes shaded from the blazing June sun by a safari-style brimmed hat, Norma Ramos pointed toward the entrance of the venerable alternative weekly with one hand, gripping a hand-printed placard in the other. It read, in deliberately uneven letters: “The TRUTH behind backpage.com: $2 MILLION PER MONTH by hosting sex trafficking ads.”
Ramos is the executive director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW). According to promotional copy from the speaker’s bureau that represents her, Ramos is at the forefront of “one of the most ignored and tragic social justice issues that affects our world.” She takes credit (with some exaggeration) for shutting down Craigslist’s “Erotic Services” listings, where anyone with an email address used to be able to post an ad offering sexual services to anyone with an Internet connection. After the demise of Erotic Services, which followed years of lobbying by law enforcement agencies and the National Association of Attorneys General, many sex workers opted for Craigslist’s main competitor, Backpage.com, which saw a tremendous spike in new sex work ads. (The site, once owned by Village Voice Media, was recently split from the alt-weekly side of the business, partly due to the controversy over its content.)
Ramos’ Craigslist fight, like the Backpage campaign that followed, drove up the cost of doing business for some sex workers. After opponents used the media and congressional hearings to dubiously link Craigslist to violence and exploitation in the sex trade, Craigslist began charging $5 per post for its Erotic Services ads, arguing that credit card numbers would help police locate advertisers who had been victimized. For sex workers who could not afford the fees, the next best choice was to take on the additional physical and legal risks of soliciting on the streets. All the buzz threw a spotlight on both sites, giving cops an excuse to step up stings that put Craigslist and Backpage advertisers in jail. Now Ramos is agitating for an encore.
Two months before the demonstration outside the Voice, feminist icon Gloria Steinem held court in the brothels of India as part of a humanitarian junket sponsored by the NoVo Foundation, one of the largest private women’s charities in the United States. NoVo’s money is Warren Buffett’s money: $1 billion, transferred by the second wealthiest American to his son Peter, who chairs the effort along with his wife, Jennifer. Steinem accompanied Peter and Jennifer Buffett on a tour of Sonagachi, Calcutta’s biggest red light district. Steinem came away from her visit with an astounding proposal: What would really benefit the women who worked there—whom she described to the Calcutta Telegraph as “prostituted,” characterizing their condition as “slavery”—would be to end sexual health services and peer education programs in brothels, programs that have been recognized by the United States Agency for International Development as best-practices HIV/AIDS interventions. Steinem described the women leading those health and education programs as “traffickers” and those who support them “the trafficking lobby.”
How have we arrived at this point, that in the name of “protecting” women, or even ensuring their “rights,” feminists are eager to take away their jobs and health care? Ramos, Steinem, and their allies deliberately conflate sex work and what they now call “sex trafficking” for their own reasons, not to advance the rights of sex workers. The result is—or should be—an international scandal.
How Sex Work Became “Sexual Exploitation”
Feminist fights over prostitution and pornography are old news. But anti−sex work feminism has come a long way from the magazine store picket lines of the 1970s and the campus anti-porn revivals of the 1990s. “Pornography is the theory, and rape is the practice,” wrote feminist author and activist Robin Morgan in 1980. She is still around today, hosting a radio show on D.C.’s 1580 AM for the Women’s Media Center. “Prostitution is paid rape,” claims Melissa Farley, who has been fighting against sex workers since the 1990s and now produces reports for anti-prostitution organizations such as Demand Abolition. While these women once focused on ending sexual “objectification” in magazines and red light districts, today they are waging a global war that pits one class of women against another.
One architect of this shift is attorney Jessica Neuwirth, a founder of the women’s rights organization Equality Now. In a 2008 interview with Barnard College sociologist Elizabeth Bernstein, Neuwirth described the change as a move away from “an earlier wave of consciousness about exploitation that took both pornography and prostitution almost together as a kind of commercial sexual exploitation of women.” The rewrite was necessary, Bernstein explained in the journal Theory and Society, because the outright prohibition of porn and prostitution was not popular, putting feminists at odds with liberal allies such as the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). “They got battered down by ACLU types,” Neuwirth told Bernstein. “By re-situating these issues in terms of the ‘traffic in women’ overseas and as a violation of international commitments to women’s human rights,” Bernstein explained, “they were able to wage the same sexual battles unopposed.”
These battles were now being fought in the name of combating “sexual exploitation,” “sex trafficking,” and “sex slavery.” The activism has shifted to the realm of international law. In 2000 anti−sex work feminists attempted to push their redefinition of sex work into the U.N. Protocol to Prevent, Suppress and Punish Trafficking in Persons, Especially Women and Children. Norma Ramos and her allies wanted the protocol, which is intended to formally define trafficking across U.N. programs and to promote collaboration among U.N. member states in order to protect the rights of people who are trafficked, to define all prostitution as “trafficking.” According to the Paulo Longo Research Initiative scholar Jo Doezema’s 2010 book Sex Slaves and Discourse Masters, sex workers were supported by the U.N. special rapporteur on violence against women, who rejected the prostitution/trafficking equivalence. Sex workers also opposed the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women’s substitute proposal, which described commercial sex as “sexual exploitation.”
CATW went on a media offensive, seeking to discredit their opponents, even enlisting Sen. Jesse Helms to the cause. It worked. The protocol was approved and is now signed by 117 countries, defining sex for pay as “sexual exploitation.” The protocol has given feminists legal and moral cover to target sex work under the banner of fighting trafficking.
“People have been very successful in using this term sexual exploitation in pushing legislation,” says Ann Jordan, former director of the Program on Human Trafficking and Forced Labor at American University’s Washington College of Law and an attorney who has defended the rights of trafficked persons. “Many of the people they talk to never ask them what they mean by it.” But while sex work opponents have been successful in passing laws against “sexual exploitation,” Jordan says, “they are not enforceable because no one knows what this means.”
On the domestic front, anti−sex work activists scored one of their biggest wins with the 2005 reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPRA). TVPRA earmarked $50 million for law enforcement agencies to “develop and execute programs targeted at reducing male demand and to investigate and prosecute buyers of commercial sex acts.” Although ostensibly aimed at supporting victims of forced labor, TVPRA provides money for efforts to discourage men from hiring sex workers, including quasi-legal and legal activities such as escorting, pornography, stripping, and phone sex, as well as for investigating the people they attempt to hire. Although nearly all prostitution-related law in the United States is made at the state or municipal level, redefining prostitution as trafficking provides a rationale for federal action against the sex trade.
Meanwhile, legislators in many states have responded to the demands of feminist activists by boosting penalties for prostitution-related offenses and prioritizing enforcement. “Think about it,” Jordan says. “If you are a politician on the state or national level, and someone comes to you and says, ‘There are these horrible men who are holding these innocent little virgins, and all you need to do is put money into law enforcement,’ ” you will want to act. Stepping up vice enforcement allows legislators to avoid the far more complicated steps necessary to support people who have been trafficked or to meaningfully address immigration and labor policies that drive people to migrate illegally or accept dubious work offers when few legal options are available. Tackling problems such as those, Jordan says, “doesn’t allow you to go around and say you are ‘saving sex slaves.’ ” The prohibitionist approach means “you don’t actually have to deal with the people at the edges of society.”