I’ve been an advocate for sex workers’ rights for a long time. Unlike many people, I think it’s possible to create a world in which people have the freedom to engage in commercial sex AND the freedom from having it imposed upon them. I’ve known too many people who paid their way through college or grad school with sex work, who have appreciated the flexibility that sex work can offer (perhaps to travel or perhaps to be able to take care of their kids), or who have enjoyed the work and their clients to be willing to fall into the “all sex work is bad/rape/slavery” camp.
I certainly acknowledge that there is a huge problem when folks who are forced into sexual slavery, which happens all over the world. That is a real thing and we need to be able to look at it and address it. And I also need to point out that there’s no other labor that people say things like “since some people are forced to do it, we should ban all of it.” Can you imagine someone arguing that since sweatshops exist, we should outlaw sewing? Or because a lot of agricultural laborers are tricked, lied to, indentured, or forced into it, that all farming should cease? Or since some people are coerced into domestic slavery, nobody should be paid to clean houses? Of course not! So why should that be the case when it’s sexual labor? (It’s worth noting, btw, that the majority of slavery is non-sexual.)
To the people who claim that the voluntary sex workers who enjoy it are exceptional cases, my response is: how do you know? There isn’t any research at all that shows how many consensual sex workers there are, but we do have their stories and we need to hear them instead of pretending they don’t exist. Further, the numbers that we have for how many people are forced into sexual slavery are wildly exaggerated, so there really isn’t any way to know for sure.
What we do know is that there are many different experiences among people who perform sexual labor, ranging from “I love what I do” to “this is hell.” The problem isn’t the exchange of sex for money- the problem is that a lot of people are forced to do it. Unfortunately, there’s a quite a bit of arrogance at play in the anti-sex trafficking arguments and there’s a lot of misinformation.
The other day, the Village Voice ran an article about the anti-trafficking PSA that Ashton Kutcher & Demi Moore produced. The Voice contacted police departments in 37 cities to ask for information on juvenile prostitution arrests, and found that there are about 800 arrests per year. I’m absolutely sure that there are more minors engaged in prostitution, since lots of them won’t be arrested. But when Kutcher proclaims that 100,000 to 300,000 youth turn to prostitution, doesn’t that seem to indicate that maybe something’s wrong with those numbers?
Well, it turns out that 100,000 to 300,000 kids are “at risk”, which includes those who are “outsiders,” runaways, transgender, gang members, and anyone who lives near the Mexican or Canadian borders and has their own transportation. That’s a big distinction that Kutcher and Moore simply gloss over. Using wildly exaggerated numbers is a great way to get a moral panic going and get funds, but it takes attention away from the real issues here. That’s because it’s arrogant and arrogance tends to foster either/or thinking. When we oversimplify the issue, when we lose sight of the nuances and differences in people’s stories and (ironically) we divest people of their agency by forcing them into a narrative that suits our purposes rather than addressing their needs.
One example of this is Kutcher’s tweet in response to the Village Voice article:
Hey @villagevoice you keep collecting the check from Selling Girls on Backpage and leave helping them to people who give a F**k
— ashton kutcher (@aplusk) June 30, 2011
First off, it is certainly true that the Voice has a vested interest in the issue of the legal status of sex work since they host ads. And it is also likely that some of the women whose ads appear there are not willing sex workers- they’re folks who have been coerced into it. (Hint- that’s the difference between sex work and slavery.) Of course, that doesn’t mean that the Voice has an interest in perpetuating sexual slavery. I’m pretty sure they’d love to know that all of the people advertising on their pages were consenting sex workers.
However, as Audacia Ray points out, when Kutcher refers to adult women as “girls,” he’s feeding the “ill-informed machine” because he’s conflating adult women who choose to perform sex work, adult women who are forced into sexual slavery, and minors who (by legal definition) aren’t able to consent to do it. That’s the kind of arrogance that perpetuates the inequalities that he claims to be addressing. Not to mention that while a man calling women “girls” can be appropriate in the context of a relationship or between friends, when he calls women he doesn’t know “girls,” he belittles them. It’s sexist, as well as arrogant.
One of the current anti-sex work arguments is that we should outlaw the purchase of sex, but not the sale of sex. This is the Swedish model, which attempts to stop sex work without making harder the lives of the people they want to protect. Unfortunately, it doesn’t work:
This person, who has been a sex worker in Sweden for 21 years, points out that if a landlord finds out that a renter is a sex worker, they’ll evict her since he could be accused of being a pimp if he doesn’t (since he’s economically benefiting from her work), as can an adult child who lives with a parent who’s a sex worker. The law also makes it harder to negotiate with potential clients, which increases risk. Listen to her story and then tell me that this model does what its advocates claim it does. This is what happens when arrogance takes over instead of listening to people.
So to Kutcher and everyone else trying to end sexual slavery, if you genuinely want to help people and if you truly want to make a difference for the better, try listening to the folks you want to support. Learn to listen to all of them because there are many different stories that deserve your attention. Stop looking for an easy answer that’s based on an oversimplification of the issue. And stop being so arrogant.