I have been reading your blog for quite a while now and I have found it very educational and refreshing. However, I have been trying for some time to understand your view on trafficking. I absolutely understand your disdain for people who assert that no educated person could ever choose the life of a prostitute, and I understand that most people who work for anti-human trafficking orgs assert that every single sex worker needs to be saved from herself, pimps, and the ones who buy her services. Obviously this isn’t the case; I know that there are plenty of people who enjoy sex work and indeed choose it as a career AND lead happy, healthy lives with fulfilling relationships. However, I work with underage girls who have been through terrible coercion, often from a very young age; these are the kind of people I wish to help. Law-enforcement officers do not know how to tell coercive situations from non-coercive ones, and more often than not, they end up harassing and criminalizing both the women who choose the life and those who do not. I am in a position to educate law-enforcement, firefighters and the like, and would like suggestions on doing this. I need to address the problem, who it affects, how to recognize it, and how to stop it…AND actually address that there are people who choose prostitution – and they are not the ones we are trying to “save.” Also, what organizations apart from the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) do you know to have honest, fact-based studies on numbers, ages etc…?
If every organization were like GAATW, we wouldn’t be having this discussion. Unfortunately most are not, and use “trafficking” as a disguise for attacking consensual sex. Furthermore, governments use it as an excuse to restrict the migration of people from the Global South while pretending not to be racist, which would be reason enough to refuse the narrative even if it weren’t being used as a cloak for prudes. I’m very much against coercion, but unfortunately the “trafficking” paradigm is fatally flawed; it is far too wrapped up in hysteria and applied to far too many different things to be a useful descriptor.
I think the three best columns which explain my views on the subject are “Rhinoceros”, “The Power of Myth” and “Thought Experiment”, but the one resource you most need to read is Dr. Laura Agustín’s Sex At the Margins. Dr. Agustín has worked with and studied migrants for twenty years, and her insights are extremely valuable. One thing she points out repeatedly, and which cannot possibly be stressed enough, is that those who want to help others must pay attention to what those people say about their experiences. The most damaging narrative which has crept into the “trafficking” paradigm, and which in the opinion of many has rendered it useless, is the idea that outsiders have both the ability and the right to decide for migrants what is best for them. It’s similar to the “payday loan” controversy in the US; it’s all well and fine for white middle-class people to call those who offer such loans “predatory” and “exploitative”, but unless they’re willing to provide those short-term loans to those who need them at a less-usurious rate of interest, their criticism is just noise. It’s all well and fine for people in the wealthiest nation on Earth to say, “oh, what awful conditions these migrants endure; clearly they must have been tricked because I would never agree to that.” No, maybe they wouldn’t, but they weren’t raised in a rat-infested slum with no toilet and no clean water where the best job offers $1 a day. Migrants are just as rational as educated white folk, and their decisions are just as considered. Remember all those people who drowned trying to get to Europe last month? Most of them couldn’t swim, yet they took that chance because they wanted to get the hell out of East Africa. Those in the Global North often risk their lives just for a thrill, or work grueling hours to win a coveted position; how can they fail to comprehend that others are willing to endure a great deal for a chance at the kind of life we take for granted?
The idea that migrants are somehow different from Americans who relocate for jobs, and that “debt bondage” is any different from student loans and a mortgage, is at its heart racist and xenophobic. And the idea that migrants (or anyone who sells sex) are childlike retards who must be “rescued” from their own decisions is as shockingly disrespectful to them as any racial stereotype in an old movie. It is not possible to “rescue” people from their own decisions; “authorities” who try are often confused and surprised when those they “rescue” use the first available opportunity to escape from the kennels in which their “saviors” have confined them. Being picked up, caged and done to without permission is for stray dogs and cats, not human beings, yet well-meaning “anti-trafficking” organizations do this sort of thing all the time.
The single most important advice I can give you, and which you can give those you train, is to listen to the people you wish to help. Don’t say “I will do this for you”; instead ask “What can I do for you?” And then pay attention to what they say, without talking over them or saying, “Oh, but that can’t be right” or “Here, let’s do this instead.” If the answer is “Nothing”, then all you can do is walk away and leave them with your phone number. You can’t force them to want what you want, or to do things your way; all you can do is give them whatever help they actually need enough to ask for. They are not children or stray animals; they are human beings, and experts in their own lives. Would-be helpers cannot force anyone to accept their idea of what’s right, nor use “false consciousness” doubletalk or “Stockholm syndrome” psychobabble to cover up the desire to impose their will on those they perceive as “exploited”. Just because you wouldn’t do something, doesn’t make it the wrong decision for that person, and vice-versa. For example, though I’ve supported friends’ decisions to use anti-depressants, I’ve always refused them myself even in very deep depressions; just as nobody has the right to strap me down and forcibly inject me with these drugs “for my own good”, so “anti-trafficking” people have no right to “help” people against their will, no matter how much they might believe it’s the right thing to do.
Unfortunately, there are a number of terrible laws in the US which prevent people who really are being coerced or exploited from doing anything about it; they would rather stay in the US for really bad pay than be deported to their homelands where they make absolutely nothing. Punitive American policies are another problem: Americans love blame-assigning and brutal, crushing punishment, so even when migrants get in trouble they often refuse to blame those who helped them cross the border or find work. Under current policies, these people are shut off from help if their basic human decency stops them from submitting to the ugly demands of “authorities” that they rat others out by turning them over for criminal prosecution and probable deportation. In the case of sex work, the deck is totally stacked against a reasonable response: US law insists that all whores are either villains or victims, and some states insist that it’s always the latter. So when a woman is “rescued” and the cops demand she reveal her “pimp”, there is about a 92% chance she will be unable to comply; some desperate or frightened women invent a “pimp” who doesn’t exist, while others choose a victim to turn over so they themselves are not jailed. Until these bad laws are changed, there is absolutely nothing would-be “helpers” can do except to make themselves available to those who are so badly mistreated they would rather face prison or deportation than continue in their present condition…and that’s only a minuscule fraction of those who might very well accept help if it were not tied to incarceration, deportation or subjecting others to the tender mercies of the police.
As for solid “trafficking” numbers, there aren’t any. I know that’s not what you want to hear, but it’s the truth; as long as any given activity is underground, under the radar or “off the grid”, it is absolutely impossible to produce anything more than (educated or wild) guesses. I can give you prostitution age and number estimates based on similar countries in which sex work has been decriminalized, and I can tell you that just about every survey of sex workers who are accessible to researchers shows a coercion rate of less than 2%. But obviously “authorities” cannot accurately measure people who fear them, so every figure such “authorities” produce can only be bogus. Even government numbers for people who are “rescued” or charged with “trafficking” are worthless for the reasons I’ve detailed above: they represent the opinion of the police or other government actors, not the opinion of the people classified as “victims” or “perpetrators”. The only way we will ever know how many people are involved in exploitative labor (whether border-crossing is involved or not) will be to remove all the consequences and perverse incentives for lying about it or misrepresenting it, and to take away from “authorities” the power to brand others with a label they would never apply to themselves.