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What happens when people in the sex trade—the people these laws supposedly are meant to protect—push back? Anti-trafficking activists often respond by denying their existence. At the June anti-Backpage protest, I watched Norma Ramos’ staff distribute fliers to passers-by cautioning them against the very term sex work, a phrase that “completely masks the physical, psychological, and sexual violence inflicted on prostituted persons,” although they had to acknowledge “it is a term that women in prostitution themselves use and prefer.”
If this semantic debate seems a bit arcane for placards and fliers, the purpose was revealed 15 feet further down the sidewalk, where members of the Sex Workers Outreach Project New York (SWOP-NYC), a volunteer-based, grassroots group dedicated to improving the lives of sex workers, held a quiet counter-protest. SWOP members—current and former sex workers among them—greeted New Yorkers on their way through Greenwich Village with smiles and fliers, inviting them to throw their support behind the people who had real expertise on the sex industry. That day the police repeatedly instructed SWOP members to stay half a block away from Ramos’ people. They made no such demands of Ramos.
Feminists, Cops, and Conservatives
An article in the August issue of Marie Claire follows Andrea Powell, executive director of Free Aware Inspired Restored (FAIR) Girls, as she trolls Backpage for classified sex ads she suspects were placed by or for minors: “Putting in an earbud and picking up her pink-and-black Kate Spade-encased iPhone to dial a local police officer, Powell says urgently, ‘We have to report her now.’ ” But when the cops set up a sting operation against the advertiser, the story continues, “she said she was in fact an adult—and didn’t want help from the police or anyone else.”
Some activists view calling the cops to “rescue” people from the sex trade as the model of a successful human rights intervention. They don’t count their victories by the number of people they help; they count them by arrests.
These tactics are part of a rise in what Elizabeth Bernstein calls “carceral feminism”; Harvard law professor Janet Halley calls it “governance feminism.” Feminists once offered a powerful critique of the criminal justice system, but that argument has faded as they have found power within it. Not surprisingly, they have found conservative allies along the way.
In redefining sex work as an issue of bad men doing bad things to enslaved young women, anti-prostitution activists have recast themselves as liberators instead of scolds, while simultaneously making their message more attractive to the social conservatives who have at times distrusted them. The conservative Heritage Foundation has taken up the cause of “fighting sex trafficking,” though mostly as a way to beat up on the Obama administration and the United Nations for not adopting even more punitive policy. The Protect Innocence Initiative, a partnership between the anti-prostitution Shared Hope International and the American Center for Law & Justice (the right’s answer to the ACLU), gave a presentation at the Values Voters Summit in Washington last September touting the 40 bills it has persuaded state legislators to introduce since December 2011. The title: “Can You Protect Your Children From the Commercial Sex Industry?” Shared Hope International’s director, former Rep. Linda Smith (R-Wash.), explained to the Values Voters audience that they should “put this issue in its proper position” alongside the anti-abortion cause.
Donna M. Hughes, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Rhode Island, who praised George W. Bush for “put[ting] the fight against the global sex trade on par with the campaign for democracy in Iraq and the war on terrorism,” is another conservative-friendly voice in the anti−sex work chorus. Hughes banged her own curious “women’s rights” drum in support of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan in a 2004 Washington Post op-ed, co-written with second-wave feminist Phyllis Chesler, in which the duo criticized feminists for not seeing that conservatives “could be better allies on some issues than the liberal left has been.”
Sex workers bear the brunt of this coalition’s preference for using law enforcement to protect women’s rights. Increased penalties for “sex trafficking,” supported by such groups as the National Organization for Women New York (NOW-NYC) and the Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation (CAASE) have led to high-profile sting operations, such as a January 2012 bust in New York snaring a reported “200 johns” and seized many of their vehicles prior to arraignment. But demanding cops protect women by “going after the johns” doesn’t exempt sex workers from arrest. A 2012 examination of prostitution-related felonies in Chicago conducted by the Chicago Reporter revealed that of 1,266 convictions during the past four years, 97 percent of the charges were made against sex workers, with a 68 percent increase between 2008 and 2011. This is during the same years that CAASE lobbied for the Illinois Safe Children Act, meant to end the arrest of who the bill describes as “prostituted persons” and to instead target “traffickers” and buyers through wiretaps and stings. Since the Act’s passage in 2010, only three buyers have been charged with a felony. These feminist-supported, headline-grabbing stunts subject young women to the humiliation of jail, legal procedures, and tracking through various law enforcement databases, sometimes for the rest of their lives.
“It’s fascinating that women who claim to be feminists” are so willing to use the law in this way, says Ann Jordan. Supporting anti-prostitution enforcement requires them to call in the muscle of “all these institutions that have oppressed women forever,” she notes. “But they are willing to use the law to coerce a particular kind of behavior from women.”
As a staff attorney at the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center, Melissa Broudo deals with the aftermath of crackdowns like the one in New York last winter. Broudo is one of the few lawyers who works to vacate the sentences of people who have been trafficked and who have been convicted of prostitution charges. “The hardest piece I’ve dealt with,” Broudo says, “is trying to represent individuals who don’t fit the model. They aren’t a 12-year-old girl, or whatever the portrayal is. Men can be trafficked. Trans women and trans men can be trafficked, and are trafficked. Older women can be trafficked. I have clients who fall within all different categories, but they [don’t match the conventional] picture of trafficking.”
Oversimplified portrayals of trafficking can have devastating consequences for those who are trafficked. “When I am vacating prior convictions for survivors,” say Broudo, “I view it as a legal hurdle if it’s someone who isn’t a cisgender [nontransgender] female minor at the time. And it shouldn’t be that way.” Broudo concedes that “you need people to understand that trafficking exists.” But she adds that “awareness isn’t enough, and awareness campaigns can have negative consequences. When somebody like [New York Times columnist] Nicholas Kristof writes an article about shutting down Backpage or applauding law enforcement efforts, it creates this picture that the answer is criminalization and punishment, and then people think we need to arrest more people, and that’s incredibly detrimental. And unfortunately, when there is more money and a mandate for arrests, that will often result in sex workers who may or may not have been forced into sex work being arrested.”
Sex-worker activists have long voiced this concern, not to protect the sex industry (as anti-prostitution campaigners claim) but to protect themselves from the violence of arrest and the violence that results from widespread social stigma and discrimination. Defenders of sex workers’ rights want to stop those arrests, while the feminists who should be their natural allies are pushing for more.
‘Sack of Bones on Gilgo Beach’
Between 2010 and 2011, the remains of 10 people, many identified as sex workers, were found on Long Island’s Gilgo Beach. New York sex workers, including SWOP members, responded by reaching out to the families of the victims, attending vigils, and providing support to one another. Networks such as these are strong among sex workers, who cannot rely on cops, courts, or other institutions most people can turn to in times of crisis.
NOW-NYC’s response to these murders, still unsolved, came in a letter from its president, Sonia Ossorio, to the New York Daily News. Against the backdrop of NOW’s campaign to increase stings and raids in the sex trade, Ossorio complained that the paper was out of bounds for running a column questioning the public good in keeping prostitution illegal. She closed her letter by invoking the murdered women who “ended up as sacks of bones on Gilgo Beach.” For Ossorio, these women’s deaths are a justification for prohibition rather than a wake-up call to the dangers that prohibition creates.
It is not sex work that exposes sex workers to violence; it is our willingness to abandon sex workers to violence in an attempt to control their behavior. Prohibition makes prostitution more dangerous than it would otherwise be by pushing it underground and stripping sex workers of legal protection. The fight over that policy is about more than just strains between generations of feminism. It is about an unholy marriage of feminism with the conservatism and police power that many feminists claim to stand against.
Advocates for sex workers are making some headway in calling that alliance to account. In 2011, for the first time, sex-worker activists participated in the U.N. Universal Periodic Review of Human Rights (UPR), a review of all member states’ human rights records conducted each four years. It was also the first year that the U.S. government’s record on human rights was up for U.N. review.
Activist Darby Hickey, a transgender woman who has been involved in the sex trade and is currently an analyst at the Best Practices Policy Project, which defends sex worker rights, participated in the U.N. evaluation. Its findings reinforced what sex workers have been reporting for decades: American sex workers are vulnerable to discrimination and violence not simply because of their work but because of the ways institutions exclude and harm them. The United States signed on to UPR recommendations that “no one should face violence or discrimination in access to public services based on sexual orientation or their status as a person in prostitution.”
“Now we’ll see what they do with that,” Hickey says, “and what steps they take to address violence from law enforcement and systemic violence.” When it comes to criminalization and the prison system, Hickey says, “there’s a general recognition that we’re going in the wrong direction, but around prostitution it’s going in the opposite direction, where people are saying, ‘Arrest more people; increase penalties.’ ” Just as the war on drugs is in many ways a war on black people, Hickey says, the war on prostitution is a war on sex workers.
If we are going to call attacks on reproductive and sexual rights a “war on women,” then let’s talk about a war on women that has actual prisoners and a body count. It’s a war on the women engaged in sex work, waged by women who will not hesitate to use their opponents’ corpses as political props but refuse to listen to them while they are still alive and still here to fight.