The problem with “The Other Problem with Sex Trafficking”

Kudos to nearly anyone who wishes to raise an issue like commercial sex among liberal changemakers.

In a talk at Personal Democracy Forum this week, Julie Ruvolo laid out the problems with online crusades against “sex trafficking” (I’m putting it in quotes, as I don’t have space to define and unpack the term here; take for a given that it has multiple meanings, emerges from a complicated framing of both commercial and criminal concerns, and appears so often in glossed-over media accounts of its “reality” as to be almost meaningless).

Ruvolo isn’t a researcher, sex worker (that I know of), or a Kristof type: she works at the Museum of Sex, and her bio points to her involvement in a few tech start-up ventures. Maybe it’s because she’s positioned somewhat outside the usual venues of the tech/trafficking debate that opened up some space for her at a conference like PDF. She doesn’t appear, whether she does or doesn’t, to have much skin in the game.

The talk opens awkwardly with Micah Sifry (probably unnecessary disclosure: I’ve written for his website, TechPresident) [corrected 06.17.2012 to:] Andrew Rasiej saying to the audience, “Let’s talk about sex!” We should probably watch the talk in full (or check out the crib) before going further:

Are you back?

To break it down, it appears (from the Twitter responses, anyway) that you can get a room of left-leaning people who want to make the world a better place to consider adopting a slightly less kneejerk response to “ending trafficking” than removing websites from the internet, if you:

  • • compare sex work to suicide;
  • • uncritically cite government data (NCMEC);
  • • use explicit language to describe sex acts (that might not often be uttered in a Microsoft-funded gathering);
  • • uncritically cite NGO data (Polaris Project) to support your claims (and then go on to attack that NGO, who honestly, does deserve attack);
  • • cite Kristof’s campaign to get Goldman Sachs to dump their Village Voice Media shares, without also acknowledging that he did that as part of his long campaign against Backpage and commercial sex (again, like Polaris, confusing and strange);
  • • and at no point include the voices and expertise of people involved in the sex trade.

There are, in there, some good points: calling out Google for their support of anti-trafficking NGO’s, for one, in a room of the tech-inclined. Also, calling out Equality Now and their executive director Taina Bien-Amie for her conflation of sex work and trafficking.

Considering this talk was presented before a room that I hope still contains a few internet history nerds and policy wonks, I’m surprised that Ruvolo didn’t include at least a nod to some of the structural factors behind why so many sex ads have moved to the internet in the first place, how this is nothing new in the nearly twenty years of the web, and how much of the fear-mongering on the part of so-called “anti-trafficking” experts has nothing to do with providing alternatives or opportunities for people who are coerced into the sex trade, but is a superficial internet clean-up campaign.

Likewise, their campaigns against commercial sex ignore any policy or social change that could benefit people in the sex trade right now, whether or not Backpage exists: like public education campaigns to reduce the stigma associated with being involved in the sex trade; or advocacy to fund legal services for people in the sex trade to ensure they don’t lose housing, their children, or work opportunities for having a criminal record; involving people in the sex trade in homeless services and youth services oversight to ensure their needs are being met; supporting training for medical providers and others in social services to offer non-judgmental health care to people in the sex trade; or removing the criminal penalties associated with prostitution that are themselves the largest barrier to identifying people coerced into the sex trade and who need outside support to get out.

It’s these laws – not the structure of the internet sex trade – that deter people who come into contact with someone forced into the sex trade from seeking help. In some states, like Illinois, laws against trafficking are written so broadly that buying a MetroCard or a meal for someone in the sex trade could make you vulnerable to arrest or prosecution yourself, as someone “involved” in trafficking. It’s in this climate of increased policing and penalties, of the mass incarceration of youth of color and low-income youth, that trafficking can go “unidentified.”

But to accept that “the problem with sex trafficking” is merely one of identifying victims is falling in line with the anti-prostitution campaigners’ frame. It also prevents us from calling their bluff: along with taking down websites like craigslist and Backpage, they want more money for more cops, even though sex workers and trafficking survivors alike report that cops are likely to be violent towards them in the course of “protecting” them.

Today’s so-called anti-trafficking activists (the anti-Backpage campaigners among them) have proven, in a decade of advocating for laws like the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, that their primary concern is putting more power in the hands of police to arrest people involved in the sex trade, to drag a wide net and just sort out who is a “victim” (in their understanding) and who is a “perpetrator” later. They aren’t interested in adopting new technologies to better identify victims; they don’t make such a distinction, and why would they, when their endgame is to abolish any evidence of the sex trade?

By their own metrics, the anti-Backpage set are winning. They can’t end prostitution, pornography, or other forms of commercial sex, but they can make the sex trade more invisible, and much more dangerous.

Which is exactly why it’s critically important to raise this issue.

But to do so without including people in the sex trade – the people who actually use Backpage – you might miss the real problem.