Traffic Jams: Trading Dignity for Protection in Sex Work Debates

Michelle Chen

Sex workers demonstrate in Brussels

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Sex workers are used to getting the wrong kind of attention: they’re branded with stigma, victimized by sexual violence, bullied by police and deprived of many labor protections. This month, advocates for sex workers are trying to get some of the right kind of attention under the banner of combating sexual exploitation.

January is Human Trafficking Awareness Month, giving activists a chance to raise the profile of the social, cultural and criminal justice issues surrounding trafficking, as well as to clarify how to define the problem in the context of human rights.

As we’ve reported previously, a continual debate surrounding sex trafficking is how to talk about sex work as work. While some groups believe all prostitution is inherently exploitative and criminal, many advocates understand that people can and often do engage in sex work voluntarily — whether they’re escorts, strippers, or selling sex on the street. But recognizing them as full human beings is not to deny that there are victims in this sector. Still, if the idea is to reduce harm, then sex-based industries need to be scrutinized as economic and social systems, in which people face risks but also exercise agency. And the conversation needs to move away from imposing political and moral assumptions.

For both trafficking survivors and voluntary sex workers, recognition of their rights under the law often comes at the expense of their social power. Police raids to rescue” prostitutes could end up just landing them in jail and depriving them of income. Trafficking survivors who try to escape exploitative conditions may be forced to comply with a traumatizing law enforcement investigation.

Sienna Baskin of the Sex Workers Project explores this tension in an article series published by Race-Talk and RH Reality Check. Baskin (whom I recently interviewed at Asia Pacific Forum) describes historical examples of anti-prostitution laws that were designed to disenfranchise and infantilize women, especially women of color.

Today, Baskin explains, legislative proposals like the Domestic Minors Act tend to misrepresent and disempower those the law intends to help:

The incredibly limiting circumstances of many people of color involved in sex work is brutally clear to us at the Sex Workers Project, as is their resilience and creative genius in negotiating racial stigma and sexual stereotypes while maintaining economic survival. But advancing necessary services like those offered by the Domestic Minors Act has meant de-emphasizing their agency and the decisions they have made, and either painting all sex workers as victims, or choosing only to care about the innocent” ones. In the anti-trafficking movement, we are forced to make these choices because there is so much at stake.

Whatever their degree of empowerment or oppression, sex workers can’t achieve justice when society paints them either as absolute victims or unredeemed deviants. As tools of the political establishment, officials and law enforcement may be blind to race and gender privilege when dealing with the nuances of sex work. Melissa Ditmore argues that current anti-trafficking laws, such as the infamous Mann Act (best known for nuking Eliot Spitzer’s political career):

reflect not the needs of the people who have been hurt in modern-day slavery but the desires of people who claim to want to help others. The problem arises because no one has asked the people they claim to seek to help what would be truly helpful. A rights-based approach to human rights violations would prioritize the needs and desires of people who have been victimized over criminal justice, and could thereby avoid replicating and reifying racial inequities.

The media tends to overlook the fact that just as not all sex workers are trafficked, not all trafficked people are engaged in commercial sex. The prevalence of non-sexual labor trafficking, in farm work and other minimally regulated sectors, was underscored in the State Department’s recent study on modern day slavery” within the United States and internationally.

Taking a sober view of an often sensationalized scourge, Ejim Dike of the Urban Justice Center’s Human Rights Project reflects:

Many of the contributing factors to trafficking are seemingly intractable. Economic inequality appears to be growing, not decreasing. Immigration policy is becoming increasingly irrational and punitive, and has exacerbated racial bias and xenophobia. While we acknowledge that these root causes will not be addressed in the short term, they should inform and shape trafficking policy. Trafficking is so abhorrent and naturally elicits emotional responses, sometimes overriding thoughtful policy. Unfortunately, emotion does not always produce good policy. Good policy on trafficking must be consistent with human rights principles and center on respecting the inherent dignity and agency of victims.

The public discourse on human trafficking may itself be a victim – of society’s moral reductivism. The trade in human bodies and labor may strike us as an isolated evil, detached from political or economic circumstance. Or as a crime to be dealt with by police and prisons. In reality, the phenomenon of treating people as property is a lens for focusing on deeper social crises: the violence and discrimination woven into the social fabric, stretching from the bedroom, to the fields, to the Capitol. Only by seeing those critical connections can we recognize the hidden injustice behind the crime.

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Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.

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