When you look closely at widely publicized sex trafficking campaigns, you see less facts and more anti-sex, xenophobic mythologies. Not totally dissimilar to the Satanic panics, snuff films and gang/drug related mythologies that came before, sex trafficking, as it’s sold to us in the media, is little fact and a lot of opportunistic propaganda. Not to say that sexual exploitation doesn’t exist within the sex trade, but the campaigns are often times sensationalized (borderline pornographic images of white women in bondage), the narratives by so-called victims are often fabricated, and the feature films and documentaries based on these “realities” have little factual standing.
What does stand out is a corporate agenda, a Christian Imperialist agenda, and an anti-sex work agenda. There is a capitalistic puritanical reign that perpetuates biased, moralistic notions of sex while reinforcing the “merits” of cheap, exploitative foreign labor. There is also the erasure of trans women and men in the sex industry. The anti-trafficking narrative criminalizes and endangers consensual sex workers and through lack of any other options pushes more women (cis and trans) in places like Cambodia, India and Haiti into the harsh, dangerous and often times worse-than prostitution conditions of the garment industry. Women worldwide are kept in poverty, and the same myth remains: sex work is sex trafficking, and a woman is better off in the sweat shop than the brothel. In Anne Elizabeth Moore‘s latest comics journalism expose Threadbare, we see these myths unravelling.
Threadbare is a mutual effort between Moore and the Ladydrawers collective, drawing (literally) on Moore’s research and investigation specifically into Cambodia’s garment and sex trades, and the international garment industry generally. The book includes beautifully illustrated interviews with members of Chicago’s Sex Worker Outreach Project as well as investigative reports on fast fashion, the business of thrift, modeling and more (you can purchase Threadbare here!). This discussion will focus on the conversation regarding the exploitation of women in the garment industry which shadows the politics of the American sex industry, and how the media creates and distorts our understanding of sex work and sex trafficking.
Sex trafficking isn’t a myth or a fact. Sexual exploitation happens, but how? What are the facts and true statistics behind actual cases of children in particular being trafficked? Sex trade journalism is notoriously erroneous, opportunistically so, in how these stings and “rescues” are reported. In an article published on Tits and Sass by contributor Tara Burns, she exposes many of these toxic falsities and gives hard examples of how and why the media skews pertinent information regarding the safety of women and children at the hands of what they decide is sex trafficking. With examples like,
“In a podcast about the national epidemic of domestic minor sex trafficking, a woman told a story about being molested as a child—tragic, but her story did not include sex trafficking. Then the host talked about pimps recruiting children from the mall and feeding them drugs. Then the show’s hosts discussed statistics on ‘youth at risk for sexual exploitation’— a research term which includes teens who watch pornography, measuring a population irrelevant to domestic minor sex trafficking. The end result was that listeners were presented with misleading statistics about this huge, nebulous population as if they were statistics on children being kidnapped from malls and forced into sexual slavery. The podcast completely ignored the voices of youth in the sex trades and the overwhelming amount of research that has been done with and by them.”
“Last month the FBI issued a press release about rescuing 149 ‘underage victims of prostitution’ who were being ‘treated as a commodity in seedy hotels and on dark roadsides.’ They reported that the youngest victim they rescued was twelve years old. In subsequent reporting, we learned that the 12-year-old was a victim of child abuse and exploitation that happened far outside the commercial sex industry, with no seedy hotels or dark roadsides involved. Instead, the 12-year-old had met a 23-year-old man online and after a romantic relationship ensued, the girl’s mother accepted cash and gifts from the man, who is alleged to have had sex with the girl during a Hawaiian vacation. The case came to police by way of a report, and the arrest was timed to coincide with Operation Cross Country. However, newspapers nationwide repeated the FBI’s misleading wording: ‘More than 500 law enforcement officials took part in sting operations in hotels, casinos, truck stops, and other areas frequented by pimps, prostitutes, and their customers. The youngest recovered victim was 12 years old.’”
You’ll be thinking twice about the next victory against the sex trade you read. Even without any hard facts or reliable statistics from anti-sex trafficking campaigns and few truthful testimonies, there is still a high success rate for shock and emotional appeal. No one wants to argue for “buying girls” or the sexual exploitation of children. With enough money and shocking subway ads it’s a palatable campaign, an attractive one for feminists and humanitarians alike, and it’s something anyone in their right mind wants to stop. But what if they aren’t stopping the right thing? Or even targeting the real problem? What if the pimps had names like H&M and Mango and Forever 21? Where are those subway ads? What about that exploitation of women? If corporations are people, those people break girl’s bodies to make millions. The garment industry is literally interchangeable with the sex trade in Cambodia (as you’ll read in Threadbare, regarding NGOs).
Sadly, the Hollywood narrative of evil men from the East who come to steal your blonde daughters from the shopping mall to live a life chained to a bed is still the prevalent American understanding. Furthermore, rich, famous non-sex workers like Meryl Streep and Lena Dunham publicly backed an Amnesty International draft proposal to crack down on what they assume is sex trafficking, which would prevent the decriminalization of sex work; putting sex workers in danger of arrest, theft, physical abuse, murder and sexual assault. Several sex workers have stepped up to speak for themselves and demystify what is seen as the dark and seedy world of the sex trade, often times to no avail against the hive mind. For mainstream media it’s more attractive and believable to hear a woman who has played a victim of sex trafficking in a movie than someone who actually works in the sex industry (and has to worry about paying her rent…and eating).
Once a woman is arrested for prostitution it’s just about impossible for her to get a job beyond the sex trade. It’s that backwards notion that fear of arrest is enough to prevent a person from committing a crime. Similarly, it seems sometimes that people want sex work to be dangerous and scary, to prevent women from getting involved. They’d rather have the women currently working in the industry at risk for abuse, rape and murder just so long as their own daughters don’t get the itch for fast cash. There are so many different ways that women can participate in sex work; some are entrepreneurs, some are desperate. There are so many shades of grey in this industry. When I lived in Chicago I heard about a teenage girl who ran away from her horrifying life as a sex slave to her own father and found a home and income at a dungeon, working as a professional dominatrix. Given the way that the trafficking of minors is seen and handled, she was “rescued” from her life as a sex worker and delivered back to her abuser, where she was enslaved once again. Grey areas. Lots of grey areas.
Teenagers running away from abusive homes and becoming sex workers is not an uncommon story, but the media will sell it to you as a trafficking story, not one of incest and familial abuse, or other reasons why young people flee. There are more effective methods of helping troubled youth, and that can be done while keeping sex workers safe as well. The Sex Workers Outreach Project (created by the incredible activist and ex-Madam Robyn Few) is a place where people who are being sexually exploited can seek help when they fear arrest or getting taken back to abusive homes.
Like other sex workers, I’m sick of people who have no experience acting as the mouthpiece for a cause. My feminism is about acting, experiencing and listening. If you don’t have an experience yourself, then listen to someone who does. If you’ve never sucked dick for cash don’t try and tell me what that scenario looks like or feels like. Not only that, but women who work in industries that are merely veiled with sex appeal but not directly selling sex are often times treated with similar expectations and are abused in similar fashions, yet those actions are less criminalized than a woman’s choice to sell sex acts. Women like, cocktail waitresses, bottle girls, servers, bartenders, hosts, babysitters, maids, masseuses, secretaries…the list goes on. Women in service are oftentimes treated like sex workers regardless of whether sex is for sale, and if you’ve ever worked in hospitality where you’ve been sexually assaulted/propositioned you’ll know that 9 times out of 10 no one is on your side. It’s just a part of the culture, they say. No one is “above” the work that we do, it’s all the same misogyny wrapped up in different packages. I’m not a victim of the sex trade, if anything I’m a victim of a misogynist society. Taking money for the things men take for free isn’t victimhood, it’s empowerment. That’s the privilege I have as a cis white woman working in America, as a voluntary sex worker. I do it to support my art and writing career. The global perspective on what I do cannot be one simple notion of right or wrong. The wrongs manifest themselves outside of the obvious “selling sex is bad,” some people don’t have a better option. Some people face exploitation regardless of industry.
Even as a sex worker I’m not even totally sure what American sex trafficking is in the flesh. When I lived in Arizona I heard stories about undocumented workers from Mexico who were kept by the hundreds in homes and forced into slavery, or Asian massage parlors getting busted as fronts for prostitution and I’ve also heard stories about women getting tricked into coming to America from Moscow for “waitress” positions but instead getting trafficked through New York strip clubs in the 90s. I also have friends who are women, men and trans women who traded sex acts with older men for money when they were teenagers. The ways in which people can be exploited for money is so nuanced that it can’t be contained to one narrative, and those people aren’t always self-proclaimed victims in the exchange of cash for sexual services. How can we be helpful to people who truly are victims of sexual exploitation if we don’t get our stories straight?
In a recent TED talk, sex worker and spokesperson Toni Mac explains how the sex trafficking mythology as well as the different levels and approaches to criminalizing sex work have done harm, and are proven to be ineffective and ultimately more dangerous to marginalized people working in the sex industry in particular.
“Why else might people support prohibition? Well, lots of people have understandable fears about trafficking. Folks think that foreign women kidnapped and sold into sexual slavery can be saved by shutting a whole industry down. So let’s talk about trafficking. Forced labor does occur in many industries, especially those where the workers are migrants or otherwise vulnerable, and this needs to be addressed. But it’s best addressed with legislation targeting those specific abuses, not an entire industry. When 23 undocumented Chinese migrants drowned while picking cockles in Morecambe Bay in 2004, there were no calls to outlaw the entire seafood industry to save trafficking victims. The solution is clearly to give workers more legal protections, allowing them to resist abuse and report it to authorities without fear of arrest.
The way the term trafficking is thrown around implies that all undocumented migration into prostitution is forced. In fact, many migrants have made a decision, out of economic need, to place themselves into the hands of people smugglers. Many do this with the full knowledge that they’ll be selling sex when they reach their destination. And yes, it can often be the case that these people smugglers demand exorbitant fees, coerce migrants into work they don’t want to do and abuse them when they’re vulnerable. That’s true of prostitution, but it’s also true of agricultural work, hospitality work and domestic work. Ultimately, nobody wants to be forced to do any kind of work, but that’s a risk many migrants are willing to take, because of what they’re leaving behind. If people were allowed to migrate legally they wouldn’t have to place their lives into the hands of people smugglers. The problems arise from the criminalization of migration, just as they do from the criminalization of sex work itself.”
The real issues here are the exploitation of foreign and migrant labor, lack of opportunities for women (cis and trans) worldwide, systematic misogyny, and an American society that retains outdated and sexist views of a woman’s sexual agency (infantilism). For sex workers, if the only better option is the same oppressive force that lead them to the sex trade in the first place then we can’t say selling sex is the problem. All women (cis and trans) deserve better opportunities, all people deserve the right to a living wage, all people deserve the right to earn that living wage in an environment that is safe, without the threat of sexual assault and exploitation. This isn’t about sex work. This is about WORK.
So yes, women and minors are being sexually exploited, in your hometown and in the rest of the world. Why wouldn’t they be? We see examples of how young girl’s bodies are exploited in pop culture and fashion, we all know women and others who have been raped, sexually abused as children, victims of incest. It would logically follow that these crimes exist in the sex trade as well, but isn’t the focus on sex trafficking missing the big picture? Why is it that when money is involved suddenly sex slavery and rape are taken seriously as humanitarian issues? It’s not okay to get raped by way of trafficking but it is okay for a sex worker to get raped because of the choices she’s made? How can we create a society in which women (trans and cis) and girls are regarded as fully human? What steps can we take to prevent the exploitation of children *with or without financial gain* from occurring? How can we help people who are exploited in other countries? By broadening our notions of what gender based discrimination is, how women are kept in poverty and how bodies are used for the financial gain by individuals and corporations alike we are more capable of making changes in policies and attitudes. And, listen to sex workers.