Sex trafficking is considered one of the most prominent modern plagues in our society. It’s on television, it’s in newspapers and blogs, it’s on the nightly news. As a sex trafficking survivor myself, I have always felt caught in the middle between two movements that don’t necessarily get along too well. At the surface, it would seem that the anti sex trafficking lot and sex workers would be natural allies. I don’t know any sex workers who are pro trafficking. But the anti-trafficking movement has had other plans.
Like many social justice issues, sex trafficking has a core set of activists and organizations in the United States that are – they think – working to fight against sex trafficking. This would be a positive thing if it wasn’t for the rhetoric that the movement is using to do so, which is often laden with suppositions on what it means to be a real trafficking survivor. The general anti-trafficking movement is very supportive of end-demand model, or as it’s sometimes known the Nordic model in which the buyers’ end is what police work hardest to go after, instead of arresting sex workers themselves. Some of the problems with this model are the inherent sexist nature therein. Prominent anti-trafficking/anti-prostitution crusaders travel the country – mostly as rich white cis men who have never been in the sex industry- and preach the “demeaning” nature of prostitution wherein a woman allegedly doesn’t and wouldn’t ever even have the agency to be able to say yes or no. So the very fundamental basis of mainstream anti trafficking activism already posits women as inferior to men, as perennial victims without any real agency or autonomy.
I began in the sex industry as a sex trafficking survivor, though I identify as a trafficking survivor and a sex worker. Not long ago at an anti- trafficking conference, I had a fellow trafficking survivor come up to me and say, “So if you were forced into prostitution and you’re still in it then aren’t you are still being sex trafficked?” This is evidence of how I’m looked at as a perpetual victim by other sex trafficking survivors and as a traitor by sex workers. The intersections of sex work and sex trafficking are often points of contention within and across each identity. Sex trafficking is defined by the United Nations as commercial sex by means of force, fraud or coercion. Sex work on the other hand, is commercial sex engaged in from a place of choice, agency and autonomy. So what happens when someone does encompass both identities? First of all, it’s important to note that there are almost no public activists who are both sex workers and sex trafficking survivors. Activism work for people who are or have been in the sex industry is highly bifurcated, which only further reinforces the notion that these two identities (sex trafficking survivor and sex worker) cannot and do not coexist within singular bodies.
I have never met a single sex worker who is pro sex trafficking. Yet the sex trafficking lobby keeps sex workers at arm’s length when it could have a great ally in the fight against sex trafficking. Why is this? The answer is not simple. The way sex trafficking advocates engage with sex workers is by not engaging with them at all, which is definitely a lost opportunity at forming connections with a powerful ally in the war on trafficking. With the anti-trafficking lobby as deeply rooted in believing that all prostitution is inherently exploitative, it is difficult for sex workers to get a seat at their table and even be allowed into discussions around human trafficking, as we are considered human trafficking victims ourselves who are just in denial about our exploitation.
The anti-trafficking movement is alienating sex workers, because according to much of the movement’s rhetoric, prostitution cannot be a choice and is inherently always exploitative. Sex workers, in turn, feel so hyper defensive against these verbal assaults that it is hard to get anyone in the sex workers rights side of things to even engage in conversations around the violence and exploitation that DOES happen in the sex industry. What happens as a result of both of these stalemate’s is that sex trafficking survivors do not get a chance to engage with sex workers and sex workers forfeit the opportunity to provide safe space for the actual sex trafficking victims that are still out there and in need of help. It’s a pissing contest in which no one actually wins. Both sides are doing a huge disservice to the community’s they represent and to themselves.
Being someone who has lived my life in this Viminal space – this no man’s land of social justice- I often find it important to remind myself that this type of changing of beliefs, values and mentalities is not an overnight job. Making the sex trafficking movement believe that not only can prostitution be a choice, but a valid choice is at best, an uphill battle. Likewise, getting sex workers rights activists comfortable talking about the violence that can exist in the sex industry might prove to be a venture met with considerable defensiveness, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. People exist at intersections and many sex workers and sex trafficking survivors live at the intersections of victimhood and empowerment. When we don’t consider complex narratives, we as activists are silencing a whole group of people. And nothing is more guaranteed to disempower than silence.
Laura LeMoon is a sex worker and writer whose essays and activism have been profiled by such publications as The Huffington Post, The Daily Beast, AP News, Rolling Stone, Vice, Broadly and others. Additionally, she has worked as Peer Advisor to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime on issues related to sex work, HIV and drug use. Laura lives in Seattle with her three-legged rescue pup, Coco Bean.