Trafficking v. sex work, again

22Dec09

Check out this post over at Feministe about the trafficking of Native American women. (Warning: it’s pretty fucking upsetting.) The original article says some pretty troubling things that make me, as a sex worker, really fucking angry, both at so-called “advocates” and at the people who are abusing and ignoring the abuse of Native women.

“If it was a bunch of white, blonde hair, blue-eyed girls, believe me, there would be an end to this,” said Vednita Carter, executive director of Breaking Free, a St. Paul-based nonprofit serving women involved in prostitution.

I think this is dead, dead on. And it’s what pisses me off the most. All women are exploited under sexism, sure, but women of color have been especially and uniquely exploited by White dominance. The shit that white men have done to women of color in the name of what? “civilizing the natives” (aka stealing their land and colonizing them) is deserving of a special hell.

Then, the article makes a point that is what really gets me. As a sex worker, it really pisses me off.

Although the legal system treats prostitution and trafficking differently, the report often uses the terms interchangeably, as many advocates believe that prostitution can never be considered fully consensual. The prostituted woman is the true victim of the crime, they argue.

“There’s a general acceptance that prostitution is a lifestyle choice, when it’s actually a federal crime against women,” Koepplinger said.

Let’s start with the idea that the law treats trafficking and prostitution differently. In theory, they do. I’ve read enough of the actual written code. In practice, I call bullshit on that statement. The law sees everyone as a criminal. If you look at some of the fall-out from Operation Cross Country, it’s pretty clear that this effort to rescue victims of trafficking was more interested in arresting workers. Underage people were arrested.

If you look at the work of the Sex Workers Project and others, it’s arrest first, ask questions later (maybe). The law in practice lumps everyone together, regardless of how they ended up selling or trading sex.

Now let’s move onto the idea that advocates want to use sex work and sex trafficking interchangeably because no one can truly consent to sex work. Oh man, no fucking way! Thanks for clearing that one up for me.

I’ve said for a long time that there are degrees of privilege and consent. I don’t think anyone ever completely truly enters sex work as a choice because one’s position of privilege (or lack thereof) shapes the experience. I suppose a cis-gendered straight wealthy white man who works for himself, then maybe, just maybe. I have a huge, huge problem with the idea that you can be a sex worker just and only because you like sex or whatever. It’s not black and white. There are not The Privileged and The Exploited. There’s a whole lot of variation.

So maybe, just maybe, instead of treating everyone like a criminal or like a victim, you could look at the degree of privilege and exploitation that shapes the experience. Painting someone like me and someone like a trafficked Native woman the same because we both sell sex is really, really insulting to the experiences of the trafficked woman.

And it’s incredibly damaging to trafficked women. Instead of going after what drives the sexual exploitation of women, they go after the simplistic “drive” for trafficking: demand. I think an educational campaign targeted at men who purchase sex might help. Might. But I think the more important question is how to we address the legacy of colonialism, as well as racism, poverty, the exoticization of women of color, addiction, and the myriad of other issues creating barriers for these women.

I just get really, really angry about the conflation of sex work and sex trafficking, and not because I don’t want to be painted as a victim. I think it distracts from the horrific problem that is the exploitation and coercion of trafficking.

It’s really just way more complicated than “oh, you poor victims of the patriarchy” or “shut up, you privileged white girls”. So can we please stop arguing about who is which of those and talk about the nuances?

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3 Responses to “Trafficking v. sex work, again”

  1. The only non-white women that ever get attention in trafficking are Asian women. Abolitionists have made them “the face” of international trafficking. I’ll read it a little later. Still processing all the latest drama in the sex worker community.

  2. Oh good point. Damn. And what drama?


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