Today’s column is the second part of a guest blog by veteran sex worker rights activist Norma Jean Almodovar which addresses the ethical and flaws inherent in the authoritarian campaign against Backpage.com.
Says Jamie Fellner, senior counsel for the US Program at Human Rights Watch, “The widespread sexual abuse of children in juvenile facilities shows that public officials either aren’t paying attention or can’t be bothered to do the right thing. The high rates of victimization are powerful testimony to the failure of governments to safeguard the boys and girls in their care.” In none of the cases of more than 17,000 raped juveniles in 2008, did Backpage.com or any other adult classified ads website play any part in their abuse. The government that claims to want to save them, however, did. “More than 50 cases of trafficking or attempted trafficking of minors on Backpage.com have been filed in 22 states in the past three years…” according to the letter released by 45 state Attorneys General, but these numbers pale in comparison to the number of juveniles who are either raped while they are “placed under the protective custody of law enforcement,” or by their local cop, boy scout leader, priest, preacher, or parent.
Are these State Attorneys General all completely ignorant of the findings and statistics from reports that our own government compiles and issues? If they are ignorant of the facts, they are dangerous people and they really ought not be overseeing the prosecution of anyone for anything. If they are aware of the facts and are ignoring them, what exactly is the motive for that? As I stated earlier, this isn’t about the children and never was. As one of the letter’s signatories, Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna would like nothing more than to see Backpage shut down its “escorts” section, just as Craigslist did last year. He commented, “Legal wranglings aside, it will take a cultural shift to change attitudes about prostitution…People look at prostitution and think it’s a choice, but there are very few, if any, volunteers”. What has that to do with “protecting children”? It is already against the law for adults to have sex with minors regardless of payment. It’s called statutory rape. If it is wrong for adults to have sex with minors because it is sexual exploitation, why on earth are we arresting them and subjecting them to worse horrors in jail? Would we arrest underage persons who are raped by priests? Or teachers? Would we arrest the teenage Explorer Scout victims of police officers who can’t keep their hands off the underage females in the scouting program? “Volunteers”? These State Attorneys General want to shut down adult ads to “protect” women because they may or may not “volunteer” to engage in prostitution? Why are we arresting them and putting them in harms’ way in jail where they are all too often forced to engage in sex with the corrections officers and jail guards? I don’t think they ‘volunteer’ to be the sex slaves of their captors!
What kind of precedent are we setting that our government officials would attempt to ban any labor that, in someone else’s opinion, is not done “voluntarily”? Are we now defining “forced labor” as any work that someone would not “choose” to do? How many women “volunteer” to be housekeepers in low end hotels where they must clean up the vomit, feces and urine on the floor left by untidy guests? Even maids at high end hotels have to deal with unruly guests who may rape them – high powered guests like Dominique Strauss-Kahn. How many women “volunteer” to work as domestic servants, cleaning up after households in which the adult males may force their unwanted sexual attentions on them when the wives are not home? Are these States Attorneys General not aware of how many victims of human trafficking are forced into domestic service – in the US and around the world? According to some international reports on human trafficking, the number of women and girls who are forced into domestic service far outnumber those who are “trafficked” into prostitution. Most child domestic workers are between 12 and 17 but some are as young as five or six. Does anyone believe that these children “choose” to become domestic servants? Or the adults who also find themselves trafficked for the purpose of being a domestic slave? Why don’t these politicians care as much about the “forced labor” of those who are so desperate for money that they must work long hours in factories, sewing garments (sweat shops), picking fruits or vegetables or flipping burgers at McDonalds - as they “care” about supposed victims of “sex trafficking”? We arrest women whose only “crime” is that they may not have “volunteered” to work as escorts making $200 an hour or more but we don’t arrest their poor sisters who do not “volunteer” to do menial labor earning minimum wage or less?
If these politicians were to be consistent in their crusade to save victims of human trafficking, they would demand that all classified sites, newspapers, magazines and other media outlets discontinue advertising help wanted for any type of labor (such as domestic service, garment manufacturing, agriculture) into which someone, somewhere in the world is trafficked. Truth be told, many if not most of those who champion for the arrest of prostitutes or their clients on the grounds that all sex work is modern day slavery, hire domestic help so that they can spend their time saving the poor exploited women and children trafficked into the sex trade. Do you think that Demi Moore and her boy toy spouse Ashton Kutcher scrub their own toilets and clean their own home? Are they not aware that in many countries around the world, domestic servitude is the primary destination for victims of human trafficking? Or do they just not care?
Unfortunately for sex workers, the US Government is only concerned about the humans trafficked into prostitution. It is the US Government’s official position that all prostitution must be eliminated, at whatever the cost to those who, for whatever reason and in whatever manner that people make choices, are prostitutes. Regardless of the absurdity of their methods and the harm to those whom they say they want to protect, the US Government has decided that the next multi-billion dollar war against its own citizens is the war against commercial sex. It will not be a pretty war, and just as in the other “wars” against its “immoral” citizens, it will come at the cost of more of our liberties. In their view, what is the value of the first amendment when “women are selling their bodies”? Better that we let cops have laws which allow them to rape and extort the hussies! So let’s chuck the first amendment. Force newspapers and websites to kowtow to “our way of thinking” or be put out of business. That amendment is a nuisance and in the way of all the other government programs to protect us from ourselves anyway.
Combating sex trafficking, then, is a complicated matter. The moral imperative to rescue women from brothels is compelling when young girls are involved or there is clear evidence of duress, but “rescuing” adult women from brothels against their will can mean an end to their health care and economic survival. In countries and situations in which basic survival is a daily struggle, the distinction between free agency and oppression may be more a gray area than a bright line. Indeed, the Center for Health and Gender Equity observes that sex workers who resist rescues may not do so because they would prefer commercial sex as a lifestyle, other things being equal, but because there are no “viable economic alternatives to feed and clothe themselves and their families.” Conservative U.S. groups that have entered the larger discussion around trafficking through the issue of sex trafficking, such as the Family Research Council, Concerned Women for America (CWA) and The Salvation Army, dismiss these complexities. Prostitution, as CWA asserts, is by definition “a form of slavery” and, as such, must be abolished. According to Jennifer Block, writing in Conscience, U.S. Ambassador John Miller, director of the State Department’s Office of Monitoring and Combating Trafficking in Persons, credits conservative organizations’ activism for the political momentum that led to the enactment of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) in the final year of the Clinton administration. It is no surprise, then, that the Bush administration is interpreting and implementing the TVPA by placing a priority on combating sex trafficking and, by extension, abolishing prostitution.
Oddly though, despite the fact that many radical feminists would like to skewer and pillory the customers of prostitutes, prohibitionists with a moral agenda do not seem to care at all about punishing the men who hire prostitutes – despite their claims to the contrary. There is clearly some other motive at work when a man like Eliot Spitzer can commit a federal felony of interstate trafficking and not only NOT go to prison for decades as you or I would if charged with that crime – but not even get arrested. Or when a man like Republican Senator David Vitter can confess to bizarre fantasies of dressing in diapers, and be re-elected by his conservative constituency – and Randall Tobias, the man in charge of doling out money to international AIDS organizations so long as they signed a pledge to not support decriminalization of prostitution, gets to retire at full pension while Deborah Jeanne Palfrey, the madam who supplied him with women for his happy endings, was convicted and faced 55 years in prison. And then there is former adviser to President Clinton, Dick Morris, who, after his prostitution scandal, became a commentary on Fox News.
I’ve already covered the kid glove treatment of Federal Judge Jack Camp and the Albuquerque Judge who sentenced to probation former Albuquerque cop David Maes who raped a prostitute. Heidi Fleiss client Charlie Sheen admitted to hiring prostitutes AND using drugs – as well as committing domestic violence on his spouses – on a regular basis and continued to be the top grossing television actor on CBS (until he annoyed the writer and producer of the hit show), while Heidi went to prison. Previously unknown actor Hugh Grant had a momentary lapse of judgment and his indiscretion rocketed him to stardom, while his prostitute Divine Brown went to jail. High profile Christian ministers Ted Haggard, Jimmy Swaggart, George Rekers, Eddie Long and other members of the clergy get caught hiring prostitutes, either deny their sexual indiscretions or exhibit sufficient remorse, and go on preaching the word of the Lord and continuing to rake in the dough from their understanding and tolerant parishioners. But when teacher and former sex worker Melissa Petro outed herself in an article she wrote about her previous profession, a journalist who decided that Melissa didn’t have a right to be proud of her “shady” past and still be a teacher, took matters in her own hands and forced the school board to “reassign” the “ho”. Melissa is currently unemployed and unemployable. All the sentimental claptrap about “prostitutes having no choices” as a reason to abolish our profession apparently means that if you are a sex worker who puts yourself through college to “better yourself”, and you don’t express remorse about your sordid past when it is exposed, society is going to make certain that you lose that job and then you won’t have any choices at all. As Melissa discovered, once you are branded a prostitute, no one wants to hire you.
We are also told that prostitution should remain illegal because it is a dangerous profession and there are unhinged outcasts of society out there who murder them, but when a woman gets arrested for prostitution, the local newspaper often prints or posts online the woman’s name, photo and in many cases, home address. News sources such as Charleston, South Carolina’s WCIV, Shreveport, Louisiana’s KSLA, and Massachusetts’ Lexington Patch, Wayland Patch and Metrowest Daily News defend this practice because, they say, they print the names and photos of all persons arrested for crimes, except they do not publish the names and addresses of cops who rape prostitutes or who have sex with minors. But the prostitute is supposed to be the victim of sexual exploitation and while some prostitutes may welcome the free advertising to find new customers, it is disingenuous to say the least to assert that prostitution is dangerous on the one hand and post a photo of the home of a “suspected prostitute” for a serial killer to find her without having to troll the streets looking for victims.
How much more evidence does society need to realize that neither the Federal Government or the State Attorneys General are in the least bit concerned for the well being of prostitutes of whatever age? And tell me again why these politicians are demanding that Backpage.com close down its adult ads?
One Year Ago Today
Please don’t eat or drink anything while reading “BDSM (Part Three)”. Trust me on this.