In America, our government locks up exponentially more prostitutes than sex traffickers do. Trafficked sex slaves do exist, but in the United States they constitute a microscopic percentage of sex workers. From 2000–2007, 1,362 victims of human trafficking were identified by the federal government in the United States. (4) (This number included those trafficked for non-sexual labor as well.*) In that same time period, there were over half a million prostitution arrests. (3) This means that in America for every identified sex-trafficking victim there are hundreds, if not thousands, of willing sex workers arrested by law enforcement.
Bolstered by anti-sex feminists and fundamentalist Christians, American politicians have fought the legalization of prostitution under the guise of preventing sex trafficking. The assertion that legalizing sex work promotes sex trafficking is counter-intuitive and there is “absolutely no evidence” to support it.** (8)
The false nexus between legalization and trafficking was exposed by the British. In the United Kingdom, where prostitution is legal, sensationalism about the trafficking of sex slaves led to a massive crackdown using every police force in the country. In 2007 and 2008, 822 brothels, flats, and massage parlors were raided. They did not find a single person who had forced anybody into prostitution. (2)
Sex trafficking is a heinous crime that should be combated, but sensationalizing the problem in order to persecute all sex workers is just as heinous. Imprisoning sex workers to “help” them is cruelty masquerading as morality.
Driving prostitution underground imperils the safety of all sex workers. Criminalization is what allows them to be abused by traffickers, clients, pimps, and the police. (7) Prosecuting sex workers and branding them with permanent criminal records destroys their lives. Sex trafficking is evil, but so is criminalization.
(For more Narco Polo postings and cartoons on sex work go here.)
* It is likely that sexual slavery accounted for only a small minority of this number. In a 2005 Nation article, Suzanne Tomatore, an attorney who heads the Immigrant Women and Children Project of the Association of the Bar of the City of New York was quoted as saying that the “vast majority” of her clients were trafficked into domestic work. (6)
** Studies of the “Swedish model” that make this claim have been thoroughly discredited. See Maggie McNeill’s synopsis of an Australian governmental analysis or Dr. Laura Agustín’s writings on the topic. (5, 1)
Meet Some Sex Workers
To hear the voices of some proud, intelligent, and fabulous sex workers check out the blogs The Honest Courtesan and Bound, Not Gagged. An entertaining and witty Twitter feed of an active sex worker is Nun Ya’s @Ishfery.
This post is dedicated to the sex-worker rights activist, Robyn Few, who passed away last month. She patiently answered my queries years ago. You can learn more about her life here and read a New York Times article on her activism here.
1. Laura Agustín, “Trying to Prove Swedish Law Reduces Trafficking: Garbage In, Garbage Out,” theLocal.se, 16 Aug. 2010. LINK
2. Nick Davies, “Inquiry Fails to Find Single Trafficker Who Forced Anybody Into Prostitution,” Guardian, 19 Oct. 2009. LINK
3. There were 653,500 prostitution related arrests from 2000–2007. “Easy Access to FBI Arrest Statistics 1994–2008,” OJJDP.gov, 2011, ret. 7 Apr. 2012.
4. Jerry Markon, “Human Trafficking Evokes Outrage, Little Evidence,” WashingtonPost.com, 23 Sep. 2007. LINK
5. Maggie McNeill, “Down Under,” The Honest Courtesan (blog), 9 June 2011. LINK
6. Debbie Nathan, “Oversexed,” TheNation.com, 2005 Aug. 29, p. 3. LINK
7. An Illinois study found that police accounted for 30% of all reported abuse, compared to 4% arising from pimps. Noy Thrupkaew, “A Misguided Moral Crusade,” NYTimes.com, 22 Sep. 2012. LINK
8. Ronald Weitzer, “Moral Crusade Against Prostitution,” Society, Mar./Apr. 2006, p. 37.