Spare Us Paternalism Say Organizing Chicago Sex Workers

Spare Us Paternalism Say Organizing Chicago Sex Workers

by Martha Rosenberg

http://www.opednews.com

Nicholas Kristof was baffled.

A year after the New York Times columnist rescued teenaged Cambodian prostitute Srey Mom from a Poipet brothel by purchasing her freedom for $203, she was back in the brothel.Voluntarily.

In fact, she wouldn’t even be rescued initially without her cell phone and jewelry which Kristof had to buy back for her.

Didn’t she want to be saved?

Not necessary said organizers from Sex Worker Outreach Project-Chicago (SWOP) at a Chicago presentation in June, sponsored by the Open University of the Left and the Chicago Socialist Party

The right wing-backed human trafficking movement, part of the “anti-prostitution industrial complex,” deliberately blurs the line between sex work and sex slavery to further its moralistic agenda and line its pockets said Jasmine, a SWOP organizer at the presentation called Sex Workers, Criminalization and Human Rights.

It has duped many, including the media, into seeing “sex slavery” where labor, immigration, gender and human rights abuses exist and occluded the plight of both consensual sex workers and women trafficked into household, farm and sweatshop work which is more common, charged Jasmine.

Sorry Nick.

The flip side of the missionary imperative to save–the zeal to glorify the downtrodden– also infects sex work perspectives said SWOP spokespeople.

Regardless of Heidi Fleiss’ escapades, movies like Pretty Woman and college boys’ tales of their Cool Trip to Nevada, sex work is not noble, salt of the earth employment that just needs legalization.

As long as sex workers are morally quarantined by illegality and stigma, they risk being robbed, cheated, raped, knifed, shot, beaten up, strangled, abducted, arrested and given diseases said “out” sex worker and SWOP organizer Pussy Willow, 47.

Not only are sex workers devoid of human rights, they can’t even recruit community advocates because of the opprobrium, Willow added.

“How many of you admit to having bought the services of a sex worker,” she asked the audience to a show of two timid hands. “When you’re a sex worker, everyone wants to be your friend–until it jeopardizes their family or standing in the community.”

While SWOP-Chicago is only a year and a half old, it inherits a bloody sex worker history.

Thirty nine sex workers were killed during the 1990’s in Chicago by four different mass murderers.

Sex workers in Chicago’s marginal neighborhoods were terrorized by Gregory Clepper– alleged to have confessed to killing 40 more prostitutes– Geoffrey Griffin aka the Roseland Killer, Hubert Geralds and Andrew Crawford but often had to keep working because of pimps and addictions.

China, a cousin of Kizzy Macon,17, who was murdered by Gregory Clepper, told the Chicago Tribune in 1996, “Kizzy would get high with anybody,” and admitted she too had partied with the killer before he was arrested. “I didn’t know he would kill her,” she added. Street prostitute Pam Bolton, killed in 1995, told the Chicago Sun-Times days before her death, “This street life is more addictive than cocaine. More addictive than heroin.”

Like other johns, Clepper, Griffin, Geralds and Crawford knew they could gain access to a sex worker for a few dollars, harm her with no police intervention and dispose of her body with impunity because no one would miss her.

A 2007 study by bestselling Freakonomics author and University of Chicago economics professor Steven D. Levitt with Alladi Venkatesh, found Chicago sex workers were victims of violence from pimps or clients once a month and forced into extorted sex with law enforcement officers or gang members in one out of 20 transactions.

“Condom use is shocking low,” says Levitt in “An Empirical Analysis of Street Level Prostitution” and sex workers “absorb enormous risk for a small pecuniary reward.”

Nor are public health programs working, said SWOP members.

“They train workers to train workers to train workers to then go out and try to find ‘victims,'” said Willow. “Meanwhile who is handing out a bag of condoms to the outdoor sex workers on Belmont avenue? Who is protecting women who are getting beat up?”

The true needs of the sex worker community are subverted by asinine “studies” full of social scientist babble said Willow, citing a recent, highly publicized report which “didn’t even interview sex workers, just occasional johns called ‘hobbyists.’ Hello?”

Especially ridiculous said Willow is a $1000 “john school” where arrested clients of sex workers are remanded in California to “learn how to not buy sex.”

“I’ll teach them that for $250.”

Martha Rosenberg is staff cartoonist for the Evanston Roundtable.

Sex Work vs. Trafficking: Understanding the Difference

 

Sex Work vs. Trafficking: Understanding the Difference

By Melissa Ditmore, RH Reality Check
http://www.alternet.org/story/84987/

Originally posted at RH Reality Check.

Even those who mean well sometimes confuse the human rights abuse of trafficking in persons with the human occupation of prostitution, or sex work. It’s understandable because of the history of the two fields, but it creates rather than solves problems. Let me try to sort it out here.

The tendency to treat trafficking and prostitution as if they were the same thing has a long and problematic history. Legislation and social discussion have often blurred or denied any difference, but that has always made things worse rather than better for those involved.

The trafficking of women and children into sexual slavery is undeniably a gross abuse of human rights. Like all trafficking, it involves coercion or trickery or both. Sex trafficking is an odious forms of trafficking, but it is far from the only one. Men, women and children are also — and more commonly — trafficked routinely for purposes of household and farm labor as well as sweatshop manufacturing. Their lives may be less media-genic than those of sex trafficking victims, but they are no less brutal, dangerous and degraded.

A narrow focus on the single aspect of sex trafficking is often fueled by sensationalist and sometimes salacious accounts of sexual abuse. It leads us to ignore these other forms of trafficking, and so denies help and protection to all the men, women and children forced into and trapped in abusive working situations in other industries.

By the same token, treating sex work as if it is the same as sex trafficking both ignores the realities of sex work and endangers those engaged in it. Sex workers include men and women and transgender persons who offer sexual services in exchange for money. The services may include prostitution (sexual intercourse) and other services such as phone sex. Sex workers engage in this for many reasons, but the key distinction here is that they do it voluntarily. They are not coerced or tricked into staying in the business but have chosen this from among the options available to them.

A key goal of sex worker activists is to improve sex-working conditions, but self-organization is impossible when sex work is regarded as merely another form of slavery. Then authorities and laws trying to stop true slavery — trafficking — get misapplied to sex workers, clients and others involved in the sex industry. Law enforcement raids in the U.S. and abroad, for example, have led to little success identifying trafficked persons but instead have driven sex work underground. This exposes sex workers to an increased risk of violence and denies them any protection of laws against assault or access to medical, legal and educational services. It denies them their human rights.

A national anti-trafficking law enacted in 2000 recognizes “severe forms of trafficking” as a modern form of slavery that involves a broad spectrum of workers and industries. In this interpretation, trafficking is clearly distinguished from voluntary sex work and thus avoids the absurdity of equating the fear and suffering of a trafficked person with the typical working conditions of voluntary sex workers. These conditions are often far from ideal, but nevertheless they are far removed from debt bondage or enslavement.

It is regrettable that despite the obvious reality of this perspective, the popular imagination of sex work tends to return to images of young girls forced into sexual slavery. Perhaps people would rather read such stories than hear about more prosaic struggles for workers’ rights — to organize, to be free from harassment, to get decent health care. But their preferences should not be allowed to dictate policy about either human trafficking or sex work.

Traditional standards of morality have been a major influence on legislation aimed at trafficking, and on the ways that trafficking legislation changes the legal treatment of prostitution. But the ‘moral’ position opposing sex work is actually a specific political and ideological position, and its net effect is typically to limit women’s autonomy.

Sex law is often a front for ideology that constrains rather than liberates women. What most appalls me about the recent conflation of trafficking and sex work in law and policy is that some feminists support the confusion. These women would normally never dream of telling other women how to behave, because they have fought against imposed constraints in their own lives. Yet they seem to think it is acceptable to tell sex workers what is best for them, and they are prepared to use dubious political alliances to advance their moral agenda.

Women’s studies professor Donna Hughes even told the National Review that George W. Bush is the president who has done the most for women on the strength of his policies aimed against sex work. The fact that these policies do nothing to halt human trafficking and in fact may be counter-productive seems to be irrelevant. So does the worse fact that President Bush has presided over a deliberate reduction in access to reproductive health care for women in the United States and around the world.

Women are not the only victims when trafficking is conflated with sex work. The confusion squanders opportunities to address real victimization and to assist people in real situations of abuse. Resources, time and energy that might actually help trafficking victims are wasted in sensational “rescues” that are also ineffective and often counterproductive.

There is a clear need to formulate public policy that is less emotionally driven and better able to recognize the real causes, nature and effects of trafficking in persons. People concerned about the health and rights of migrants should choose to talk in terms of migration and mobility and workers’ rights — including sex workers’ rights — rather than confusing matters by using the term “trafficking” with all its attendant baggage. That should help clear the debating field for useful and separate discussions of both.

Melissa Ditmore, Ph.D., was the inaugural Chair of the Advisory Board of the Sex Workers Project and is a research consultant on issues of sex work, mobility and migration, HIV and sexual health. She edited the Encyclopedia of Prostitution and Sex Work (Greenwood Press, 2006) and edits Research for Sex Work, the journal of the Network of Sex Work Projects.

© 2008 RH Reality Check All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/84987/

Satisfied Sex Worker or Domestic Trafficking Victim?

 

By Kari Lydersen, AlterNet
Posted on May 8, 2008, Printed on May 18, 2008
http://www.alternet.org/story/84748/

A teenage girl from Chicago is being sexually abused by her mother’s string of boyfriends. So she flees home with a boyfriend of her own. They hit the road but run out of money, so the boyfriend shows her how to work the truck stops, and she becomes a prostitute. Several years later, she is working for a pimp who forces her to serve 10 or more customers a night, driving her to different locations in the city and suburbs, and keeps almost all the money himself. She wants to leave prostitution, but is emotionally and financially dependent on the pimp and afraid he will physically harm her if she tries to leave.

This story is a composite of very common situations, according to a groundbreaking study of 100 young prostitutes and their relationships with pimps released by DePaul University’s College of Law and the Illinois Criminal Justice Information Authority on May 7.

Public and governmental attention has been increasingly focused on victims of international sex trafficking over the past few years, with immigration visas and social services offered to victims. By current legal and social definitions, the girl described above has not been trafficked. But advocates argue the DePaul study shows U.S.-born prostitutes working in the United States should, in many cases, be defined as trafficking victims, exploited and trapped in situations beyond their control. The House version of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA, also HR 3887), passed overwhelming in December 2007, redefines trafficking to include many domestic prostitutes. If a similar bill is passed in the Senate and becomes law, it will mean that women — and some men — in this situation would be treated as crime victims deserving of resources and institutional support, rather than as criminals. And their pimps and traffickers would face increased criminal penalties.

Among other things, the legislation widens the U.S. Department of Justice’s definition of trafficking, which currently hinges on the presence of “force, fraud or coercion.” The House bill designates trafficking involving force, fraud or coercion as “aggravated trafficking” and expands simple trafficking to include other forms of deceit, manipulation and control including threats, verbal abuse and withholding of support. It also makes sexual tourism to foreign countries a crime akin to importing people to the U.S. for sexual servitude.

In coming weeks, Sen. Joe Biden is expected to introduce the Senate version of the TVPRA, which also includes provisions on slavery and child soldiers. Some advocates of HR 3887 are afraid the Senate version will be introduced without the expanded definition of trafficking, based on internal conversations with politicians. (Policy staff for Biden’s office were not available to comment for this story.)

Samir Goswami, outreach and policy director of the legal advocacy firm Justice Partners Against Sexual Harm, said the DOJ is likely loathe to expand the trafficking definition because it would give them the responsibility to investigate and prosecute many more trafficking situations in the U.S. And it would bring more attention to the extent of commercial sexual exploitation in the U.S. even as the country is gaining accolades for its fight against global sex trafficking. Goswami said HR 3887 mirrors the treatment of trafficking in the United Nations’ Convention on Transnational Organized Crime, which was ratified by the United States.

“This federal bill just catches us up with the rest of the world,” he said.

The federal Mann Act of 1910, which received attention during the Eliot Spitzer scandal, does criminalize interstate trafficking. But it is rarely used; it was left out of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA); and it is associated with politically and racially motivated prosecutions such as that of boxer Jack Johnson for “transporting” his white girlfriend across state lines.

In Illinois, state legislation addressing domestic trafficking passed in 2005 but has not resulted in any prosecutions. If the language in HR 3887 becomes law, prostitutes arrested on city streets or in Internet sting operations would be questioned by law enforcement to determine whether they are trafficked or being forced to work against their will. “That’s what they do for cases of international trafficking now,” said Goswami. “Say someone goes to a Greyhound station, sees a 14-year old girl who has been abused and run away, he offers her a ride, shelter, affection and attention and she falls for him. He then sometimes uses force and the threat of rape to prostitute her, and even transports her to clients — that’s trafficking.”

The DePaul study found that, in general, the vast majority of young women in prostitution are controlled by pimps and suffer worse conditions in terms of violence, number of clients and lack of autonomy the longer they stay in the trade. Sixty-four percent of women reported wanting to leave sex work, but 43 percent reported they could not leave without physical harm. Sixty-four percent of women also have a romantic relationship (usually an abusive one) with their pimp, adding extra layers of emotional vulnerability and manipulation to the situation.

The study found that 58 percent of women were transported to different locations for prostitution (26 percent out of state), 53 percent could not keep any of the money they made, and many were watched or guarded when not working — hallmarks of trafficking situations.

“This is a highly organized sex trade,” said Jody Raphael, co-author of the DePaul study. “They take these women to where they know there is demand” — including Las Vegas or the state capitol when the legislature is in session. “To me, transportation and control equals trafficking.”

The study also confirmed that a majority (57 percent) of women were deceived as to the conditions or terms of their work when they were recruited into prostitution.

For example: “He told me I would never get hurt. I get hurt on a regular basis.” And, “He promised we would get rich, and we didn’t. He promised no violence; there is violence.”

Some sex workers and women’s rights groups do not support the expanded legal definition of trafficking. Though the new definition does decriminalize prostitution for many women, since it increases criminalization of the pimps involved, it signifies that prostitution itself is a crime, even if the woman is not treated as the criminal.

The Young Women’s Empowerment Project, a Chicago group of youth in sex work, said their experiences with police — who often demand sexual favors — and the court system give them no faith that abuses can be addressed through the justice system.

“Making more laws and hoops to jump through will not change this situation,” the group said in a collective statement. “If adults really want to support young women who trade sex for money, they will keep us away from the criminal legal system — away from cops and courts and social workers. They will ensure that we have the documentation and the skills that we need to achieve our goals, and they will offer us concrete assistance (jobs, housing, transportation — where we set the terms of the assistance) rather than roping us in to a larger system that hurts us.”

Raphael said that while she supports the expanded legislation, she doesn’t think law enforcement is the key to ending domestic trafficking.

“Communities themselves have to say this is not acceptable,” she said. “This has been normalized in many communities; that needs to change. Change has to come from the bottom up.”

Kari Lydersen is a Chicago-based journalist writing for publications including The Washington Post, In These Times and ColorLines, and is the author of two books.www.karilydersen.com.

© 2008 Independent Media Institute. All rights reserved.
View this story online at: http://www.alternet.org/story/84748/