Imagine for a moment, that you’ve finally found a high-paying job with flexible hours. This job doesn’t mind that you’re gay, transgender, disabled, Black, Latinx, or any other reasons you may have been discriminated against in the past. The work isn’t always enjoyable, and sometimes it’s dangerous, but it’s the best way of making ends meet that you’ve found.
Now imagine that the tools you use to stay safer at work are being banned by the government, while police treat you like a criminal and activists tell you your job shouldn’t even exist. You are shamed if you speak up about your work, but no one offers you resources or a better way to survive.
This is the reality of many independent sex workers. And it’s why we should be critical of events like the University of Pittsburgh’s first “Hacking4Humanity” hackathon set to take place on Friday, March 22. This event isn’t the human rights boon it may seem at first glance; it’s actually an incubator asking students to perform free work for law enforcement, without any input or representation from people actually working in the sex industry. Its blind spots are unfortunately rather common in anti-trafficking work today.
Like many programs that say they are fighting human trafficking, Pitt’s Hacking4Humanity fails to distinguish between trafficked people and consensual sex workers. It pays lip service to “supporting survivors” but its keynote speaker is known for developing tools requested by police, not sex worker advocates. In fact the event focuses heavily on police as a solution, while police are already a major source of abuse towards sex workers. A recent meta-study from Yale reports that in some cities, as many as 25% of sex workers report being sexually harassed or assaulted by police.
Police criminalize sex workers and trafficking victims alike, even when they ask for help. Over 90% of trafficking victims report being arrested while being trafficked. By centering the perspectives of police instead of sex workers, Pitt’s event is not a safe space for actual people in the sex industry to voice their concerns.
Sex workers already face racism, sexism, health discrimination, homophobia, abusive parents and homes, and other oppressions that led to them adopting sex work as a means of survival in the first place. It doesn’t help when they are pushed out of human rights organizing as well.
By organizing with SWOP, the Sex Workers Outreach Project chapter in Pittsburgh, I’ve seen this struggle up close. Sex workers in places like strip clubs, street work, phone work and fetish work organize to look out for each other, and don’t trust police to help them. While not everyone is trafficked, even voluntary sex workers get into the industry through some combination of choice, circumstance, and financial pressure.
Sex worker consent is often a gray area. There are people who have been forced into the work initially, but do it years later because it’s the only work they can find that pays enough to live. There are workers who may perform some tasks voluntarily, but be forced into doing other acts they don’t want to just to keep their job, or forced to work with certain abusive clients that they wish they could avoid. There are even workers forced to have sex with police against their will, sometimes to avoid arrest or for reduced charges. There are sex workers who worry that a client might kidnap them, or that they would get kidnapped while working on the street, and be sold into trafficking later. Some sex workers have also been threatened with blackmail.
The stigma that says all sex workers are either victims or criminals does not make these people’s situations easier, and often forces them right back into unsafe working conditions or abuse at the hands of police. This same stigma also stops sex worker activists from using social media and print media to talk about their work directly, because they either get banned outright from these platforms or they get stalked or harassed once they’re forced to use their real names in print. Sex workers who are ‘outed’ also commonly lose custody of their children, and face hiring discrimination if they try to work outside the industry.
Policies against trafficking fail when they don’t take these perspective into account. For example, the closing of Backpage.com prompted by FOSTA/SESTA last year put an end to that website, but ads quickly moved to other websites, and the total volume of online ads for sex work went UP by the end of 2018, not down. FOSTA/SESTA did not lower the amount of people selling sex online, and TechDirt recently reported that police are having a harder time catching pimps and traffickers post-FOSTA/SESTA, because the info they used to have on Backpage is no longer available. Meanwhile, voluntary sex workers struggle to safely find clients online without Backpage, and many of them have returned to the street to find clients, making them more vulnerable. In more ways than one, FOSTA/SESTA helped sex traffickers, while hurting sex workers and trafficked people.
Why do so many activists get it wrong when they’re trying to help trafficked people? Well, their ignorance of sex worker voices might not be accidental. Look at organizations like the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, which used to be called “Morality in the Media.” Before their name change in 2015, their goal was sexual censorship, not human rights. Today, they still operate with the moral imperative that sexual content is dangerous. They push to abolish not only sex work and pornography, but to censor networks like Netflix and HBO with their “Dirty Dozen” list. They decry shows like Jessica Jones for being “too sexual,” even as this show features a heroine who is a survivor fighting back against sexual violence. For this, the NCSE says Netflix is a “contributor to sexual exploitation.”
So between moral panic and the fact that sex workers already face problems like racism, sexism, and homophobia, there are a lot of questionable intentions in the sex work and trafficking policy fight. To make policies that actually work, we should be skeptical of politicians and nonprofits who ally themselves too closely with police, since police are part of the reason sex work is so dangerous. Similarly, we should beware organizers who see all sex workers as bad actors promoting immoral standards, since this stigma encourages violence against both trafficked people and voluntary sex workers, while making it harder for people to exit the industry when they chose to do so.
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This article originally appeared on QueerPgh.com. This article is preserved as a part of the Q Archives project. Please consider donating to help preserve Pittsburgh’s Queer history.