In case y’all missed it, this month’s issue of SB Magazine featured an “Anti-Trafficking” cover story (“Sex Trafficking in Northwest Louisiana,” July 2, 2015). Unfortunately, the article has created even more confusion between sex work and sex trafficking. We’d like to do our part to help straighten things out via this open letter to the folks at SB Mag.
I am writing in regard to your July 2, 2015 article, entitles “Sex Trafficking in Northwest Louisiana.” While there is no doubt that this is a topic that has generated much attention throughout Shreveport-Bossier City, the article fails to accurately represent the realities of trafficking in our community and falls prey to the same misguided rhetoric employed by “rescue” organizations and law enforcement agencies.
Indeed, many of these organizations, such as Polaris Project (cited in the article), as well as local organizations, like Purchased: Not For Sale, blur the lines between trafficking and sex work, resulting in a financial benefit to the organization but also creating an environment that is more dangerous for both sex workers and trafficking victims alike. I am co-founder of the Shreveport-Bossier City Chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project (SWOP-SBC), and am also a member of the Board of Directors for SWOP-USA. While our organization certainly opposes human trafficking in all forms, we also focus on the empowerment of sex workers through public education, awareness, advocacy, leadership development, and peer support.
On April 19th, I sent a message to your magazine when I learned that the article was being written. Unfortunately, I was not contacted by anyone prior to your date of publication. Your article raised a number of concerns, some of which I will highlight here.
My primary frustration is that when we conflate sex work with human trafficking, we are further muddying an already complex issue. This mischaracterization leads to many unintended consequences, two of which I believe your magazine would find undesirable: reducing access to resources for those who are seeking to transition out of the sex industry while also making it more difficult for trafficking victims to access services.
“It’s easy to make generalizations about prostitution, but the vast majority of sex workers are not committing these crimes out of free will” is itself an irresponsible generalization about sex work. There is, to my knowledge, no peer-reviewed study that can support this claim, and it is this type of language that further marginalizes the many individuals who choose to engage in sex work. Similarly, the assumption that engaging in sex work is inherently coercive is a fallacy. Those who have chosen sex work have done so for the same reasons that anyone chooses a job; considerations such as pay, schedule, available employment, workplace environment, and, yes, even enjoyment, among others. That is why these individuals are workers, just like anyone else who is paid to create a product or provide a service.
Sex workers have good days and bad days. Some love their jobs while some hate their jobs. Some would prefer to transition into another profession, whereas others would never dream of retiring. Some have a horrible boss, some have a great boss, and some are their own boss. We believe workers, in all industries, make choices regarding their current needs and future aspirations. Some workers have many other options, while some have very few. We do not believe that the agency exercised by sex workers is somehow any less valid than employment decisions made by auto mechanics or doctors or teachers or food service workers. Sex work is work, and sex workers are workers.
While many purport to take action against trafficking, what we seem to be talking about most frequently in this community is actually sex work, and only occasionally sex trafficking. Indeed, the aforementioned quote contextualizes the article as one addressing prostitution and sex work, despite a title related to sex trafficking. They are two very different things. Even among those discussing trafficking specifically, it is rare to hear conversations about human trafficking, particularly when some of the highest incidences of trafficking are not in the sex industry, but rather domestic and agricultural work. Your article continually blurs the lines between sex work and sex trafficking, yet gives no mention of the larger issue of human trafficking. Why?
Sex workers are not looking for “love, validation, or self-esteem.” They are looking to get paid. It is shameful to apply such condescending, exploitative language to an entire group of people with very different experiences and expectations, particularly when the only common denominator is their work. This type of language contributes to the already robust culture of shame surrounding sex work, as well as issues you highlighted in the article, such as mental illness, drug use, and poverty. Simplifying the dialogue, particularly with unfounded speculation, fuels the stigma surrounding those who work in the sex industry and, despite allegations of good intentions, often result in a further narrowing of available choices for those seeking to transition into a different field.
Your article discusses the use of Backpage.com for adult advertising, once again eliminating any distinction between trafficking and sex work, with the site being described as “a haven for pimps to purchase and post prostitution ads,” with “[n]inety-five percent of prostitution” allegedly being conducted via the site. Recently, Backpage was blacklisted by two major credit card companies after Chicago-area law enforcement officer Tom Dart took it upon himself to contact the companies and request their refusal of Backpage charges under the guide of “anti-trafficking” efforts. As is the trend, both Visa and MasterCard immediately blocked Backpage charges in an ill-advised attempt to appease Dart and others involved in the anti-trafficking movement.
Reducing access to tools like Backpage forces all people engaged in the sex trade further underground. This increase in secrecy correlates to an increase of very real dangers: violence, STI and HIV exposure, reduced opportunities for reporting and investigating crimes against workers, higher operating costs, elimination of basic human rights, and of course, trafficking. By isolating an already marginalized population, we risk making these individuals invisible, leading to additional stigma, discrimination and, subsequently, reduced access to services. In essence, efforts to force sexual service provision further into the background results in the very outcomes “rescue”-minded individuals and organizations claim to combat.
If the allegations made by Sheriff Dart, and mirrored in Agent Platt’s quotes in your article, were accurate, it is unlikely that the recent Backpage scandal would have seen such a tremendous groundswell of support from sex workers (#chargeisdeclined). Sex workers, managers (or, as you call them, “pimps”), and clients were forced to explore alternate payment options (including Bitcoin and Visa Vanilla, which, unlike credit cards, are designed to be untraceable, therefore resulting in a greater likelihood of trafficking and related crimes) in order to continue conducting their businesses. Ultimately, Backpage elected to suspend all advertising fees for ads related to sexual services, acting in a manner that is clearly contrary to the greedy depiction of Backpage in your article. Sex workers are not the ignorant, helpless victims you have portrayed; many are in fact savvy, business-minded entrepreneurs who understand their needs and their market, while also recognizing that openness – not secrecy – is the key to their safety and the realization of the very same human rights that are extended to those working in other industries.
I was particularly perplexed at the inclusion of statements by Agent Platts in the article, as his FBI Child Exploitation Task Force is one of the most notorious local examples of an agency failing to adhere to its mission. While the Task Force is indeed quite active and frequently collaborates with both the Shreveport and Bossier City Police Departments, one need look only as far as their blotters to see that their work is concentrated on stings directed at sex workers, managers, clients, and narcotics, rather than underage victims of human trafficking. This pattern is all too common in our area, with local law enforcement and non-profits receiving funding streams intended for “anti-trafficking” work, which are then redirected into attacks on sex workers. These agencies and organizations benefit financially when they blur the lines between trafficking and sex work, with local media serving as an unwitting platform to perpetuate the myths about these efforts. Without accurate public education, these resources will continue to be directed into efforts to offer a specific model of religious “salvation” and shaming to exotic dancers, prostitutes, Doms, erotic masseurs, cam models, and others who fail to meet any legal or practical definition of “trafficking.” Worse, these efforts also result in the accumulation of criminal records by any sex worker, including victims of trafficking, that results in a further narrowing of choices and countless barriers if and when a decision is made to leave the sex industry.
“Rescue” organizations and law enforcement continue to become wealthy on the backs of the very individuals they claim to support. If organizations like Purchased: Not for Sale were indeed adhering to the message they publicly maintain, my previous inquiries would have yielded responses on the specific service provisions available, as well as information on how the organization extends their services to men and LGBTIQA+ sex workers.
While I am well aware of the complexities of the issue and recognize that there will be varied opinions on the appropriate strategies to address human trafficking, I would again encourage you to please contact us for any subsequent coverage. There are ample resources available for further education via the SWOP-USA website, and I would be happy to meet with you to discuss these issues in greater detail. I appreciate your willingness to discuss human trafficking via such a powerful forum; I only wish that the portrayal had been more representative of the true nature of this issue in our community.
– Brittany Turner, Co-Founder, SWOP-SBC