I was asked to speak about sex trafficking at the St. Cloud, Minnesota #WomensWave March on 1/19/19.
Here's a little background/all the things I couldn't say in the speech:
In a large audience of mostly progressive women and men, I did not want to waste a precious and extremely brief, three-minute platform, to talk about an issue as uncontroversial as sex trafficking. Everyone in that audience would agree this is a terrible injustice.
However, I wanted to challenge what I felt the audience might not agree on- commercial sexual exploitation/prostitution, or what some in this crowd would call "sex work."
Though there are some beliefs within the "sex worker's rights" platform that I do agree with, their fundamental premises I cannot. I don't believe prostitution is "work" like any other, I don't believe "stigma" is what causes additional violence to prostituted people (what causes violence are the actual agents of violence- almost always male buyers and traffickers), I don't believe paid coercion can ever be consent, I don't believe prostitution can ever be non-exploitative, and I don't believe in harm-reduction-only "solutions."
I want to make clear that these statements I've made do not stem from a distanced and detached academic analysis. My views have been carefully developed through years of direct experience working with survivors of the sex industry, prostitution, and trafficking, from facilitating a male offenders program, and from the wisdom of many survivor-activists and feminists who know this issue inside-and-out because they have lived it.
At our advocacy center, we use the empowerment model. We do not support paternalistic practices. We do not claim to "rescue" people or ever use such language. If there is any "rescuing" going on, it is our clients who rescue themselves. They are their own s/heroes. Any professional that takes credit for a survivor leaving the life has a savior complex that needs to be addressed. But as much as SWRAs claim all professionals in the field are like this, that is simply not true. (But quick PSA to faith communities: please stop doing this!)
We do employ harm-reduction approaches (e.g., safety planning and handing out condoms and lube), while also fighting for the total abolition of the sex trade. That is because we are not defeatist. We do not believe so little of men that they will forever use women's bodies as masturbation fodder. We will not enable bad behavior by men and agree that "boys will be boys." We will not respond with a shrug and say, "Oh well, sexual abuse has existed for a long time, so we just have to accept it, maybe make sexual violence a little less violent, and move on." No. That is unacceptable. We are either massively burned out or in the wrong line of work if that is our response to sexual abuse in any form.
However, sometimes grief and hopelessness in social justice work "boxes us in" and limits our capacity to creatively envision a world outside of what we see in front of us. When it comes to these issues, it does not have to be one or the other (e.g., harm-reduction or abolition, shame everyone in the sex industry or shame no one).
As an agency, we advocate and emotionally support all people in the sex trade, regardless of where they are at, regardless of if they plan to stay or plan to leave... while still critiquing and working to abolish the sex industry/trade that exploits them. Yes, you can do both. Shame and judgment have historically been reserved towards the exploited, prostituted, and trafficked- but this is victim-blaming, wrong, and 100% misplaced. Those who are prostituted should never be judged or shamed. The blame rightfully belongs on the exploiters who made the choice to exploit. The buyers (rapists) and traffickers (facilitators and profiteers of mass gang rape) have remained invisible and unaccountable for too long. Times up.
So with all that background, here's what I said...
(Intro, name, agency, etc.) Many of us here know that sexual exploitation is a serious issue and is happening in our community. CMSAC serves close to 100 victims of exploitation/trafficking each year, and the number of people we serve only scratches the surface.
No one would argue that trafficking is acceptable, and that’s why we need to talk more about prostitution and pornography, which is what traffickers make their victims do. Society often sugarcoats the reality in which a person in prostitution lives. Regardless of if she has a trafficker or not, whether she was groomed through sexual abuse or groomed by a misogynist culture, whether she is sold on the streets or sold in the nicest hotel room, whether she is paid $1 or $1000…
A fancier environment and all the money in the world does not erase the trauma of being used as a sex object. Prostitution takes place when entitled, mostly white, men bribe access to women’s bodies, especially Black, Native, and other women of color. He pays her to do what he wants, when he wants it, how he wants it. He pays to control her dress, her speech, and her body. All coerced sex, including sex coerced by inequality, survival, or financial struggle, is sexual assault- a violation of human rights. In 2019 and in the #MeToo Era, this should no longer be up for debate.
Agencies like the Central MN Sexual Assault Center and Terebinth Refuge that work with victim/survivors of the sex trade on a daily basis, we do whatever we can to support, advocate, and help strategize with them to reduce harm in whatever small way we can- because some survivors don’t see a way out, some don’t have the resources to leave even when they desperately want to, and some traffickers have convinced them that this is the only thing they are good for.
We are privileged to be able to march today. Many women can’t. They’ve been murdered, battered, violated, silenced, and terrorized.
We as feminists can honor these women by speaking up in solidarity and telling the truth even when it’s not comfortable or popular: prostitution is not a “choice” that women enthusiastically make, porn is filmed violence no matter how much people like using it, the enormity of sex trafficking is not a surprise when men feel sex is a right they are owed… and in a world where rapists and batterers almost always walk free. Prostitution is not a “job.” This is not paid “work” - it is paid rape and we need to stop adopting euphemisms to make the systematic sexual assault against women more palatable.
If you believe women’s lives are important enough to work to abolish these exploitative industries once and for all, I ask you to join CMSAC to end it. Advocate with us for survivors, take power away from the pimps, and change the systems that normalize abuse and sexism.
Womanist sister, Audre Lorde, said, “I am not free while any woman is unfree, even when her shackles are very different from my own.”