Why some sex workers mistrust anti-trafficking efforts
Today is National Human Trafficking Awareness Day. While trafficking might seem like an issue we’re all on the same side of, when it comes to how we should go about combating the problem, people don’t always agree.
For the past three years, Alameda County has been waging a campaign against child sex trafficking. The effort is led by the County’s District Attorney, Nancy O’Malley. She’s won national awards and over $15 million in federal grants for her innovations. Her office has convicted 509 people of trafficking since 2011.
“If there's someone left on the street who's going to continue to exploit women in the way that we see—beating them, branding them, gang raping them—that person needs to be removed from society,” says O’Malley.
Some say this is the attention the issue deserves. But there are critics who say it does more harm than good, by entangling more people in the criminal justice system—both alleged clients, trafficking victims and sex workers alike.
One criticism from sex worker advocates is that law enforcement treats everyone trading sex like a victim of trafficking, even people who are acting on their own will. You can hear this in the way District Attorney O’Malley talks about her efforts.
“We're trying to provide resources for adults also who may not have been trafficked in our legal sense of the word,” says O’Malley, “but were certainly exploited at a young age to help them address some of their issues for themselves.”
Since 2011, O’Malley’s office has connected 593 sexually exploited minors with anti-trafficking services, like going to counseling and reporting to shelters. These are young people that previously might have been sent to jail.
A lot of sex-worker advocates see this “victim treatment” as an improvement from “criminal treatment,” but it can still be a form of control. Minors can still be sent to jail if they fail to comply with the anti-trafficking services. District Attorney O’Malley admits that many of the people that are “rescued” for rehabilitation try their best to escape.
“I would say that there's nothing that is going to stop a youth from leaving. Some of them have run 25 times before they decide ‘I don't want to do this.’”
Mistrust of law enforcement
Former sex worker Kristen DiAngelo says this mistrust of anti-trafficking campaigns runs deep.
“The fear is still there. It only takes one story for it to spread on the street like wildfire.”
DiAngelo used to do street-level sex work, and now she advocates for young people caught in the trade. Her story begins in the 80’s, when the massage parlors where she did business were targeted.
“They began kicking us out of the massage parlors,” says DiAngelo, “You know, saving us.”
At the time, DiAngelo was 16 and on her own. She says she didn’t have enough money to go without working for more than a few days and she didn’t want to end up on the street.
“I needed someone to get me an ID that said I was of age so I could continue working safely. But the opposite happened.”
DiAngelo says that within 48 hours of losing her place of work, she found herself at a truck stop in San Jose. She was meeting a man a friend of hers told her would be able to get her an ID.
“I didn’t even understand what a pimp was back then,” says DiAngelo. “He said I can get you this ID you just have to work for the weekend to pay for it. But that’s not how it works and I didn’t know that.”
The way she sees it, the crackdown on the parlors forced her into a situation that resembled trafficking, even if she wasn’t literally kidnapped and sold.
DiAngelo worked on the street on and off for 10 years. In the mid 80’s she was beaten and raped by a client. She pressed charges, but found that the law didn’t serve people like her.
“His attorney argued it was nothing more than petty theft because of who I was. Now that pissed me off.”
It’s no longer the 80’s and attorneys probably can’t get away with saying this kind of thing any more. But, last year’s revelations of widespread sexual misconduct in multiple East Bay police departments give credence to sex workers’ continuing mistrust of the criminal justice system.
The gentrification of sex work
The paradox in the current crackdown on street-level sex work is that right alongside it, there’s a world of commercial sex that’s only gotten freer, more mainstream, and safer. It’s not on the street, though, it’s coordinated behind closed doors, on the internet.
That’s where Adrian does her work. At the time of this interview she was a UC Berkeley English major, and didn’t want to give her real name. She uses an online service to connect with men that want sex, or maybe just a date.
“The way [my friend] described it to me was, ‘Oh yeah, you get paid to go out on the town with these guys,’” remembers Adrian. Now she sees only one man at a time, for a few thousand dollars a month. For her, it’s not just a transaction, she she plays a “very Lolita” role in the men’s lives. For “these guys that have monotonous lives,” she says, “it’s about making them feel excited.”
These kinds of arrangements, called Sugar Babies and Sugar Daddies or Mommas, have grown in popularity over the last five years. One website, sugardaddyforme.com, claims that its membership in San Francisco grew 50% faster than in any other metropolitan area—possibly because of how much wealth was created here over the same period of time. Adrian is reaping the profits, without suffering the stigma
“It doesn’t feel like sex work,” says Adrian, “It feels like a modern, 21st century relationship with clearly defined lines.”
For people like her, the sex industry has become more accessible, more risk-free, more lucrative. But the industry has its own hierarchy. There’s the Sugar Babies and high-end escorts, and then there’s the marginalized street world. The two spaces are policed very differently.
“The more criminalized the sex worker is the more risks they’re gonna take on,” says Matthew Kellagrew. He’s a co-founder of Red Light Legal, a nonprofit in Oakland that provides legal support for people in the sex trade.
He and co-founder Kristina Dolgin say the crackdown on people buying sex on the street has meant that most mainstream clients have migrated to the internet.
“Which means that the clients that are available are ones that are willing to take risks,” says Dolgin. In other words, she says, they’re people with less to lose—more likely to be reckless or violent. Which is why they’re seeing an increase in instances of violence from predatory clients.
So why does anyone work on the street? A lot of times the whole reason you get into the sex trade is because you need money tonight. Meaning, you don’t have the time or resources necessary to access high-end clients.
Specifically, money to “pay for professional photos, to pay for your own website or to be on a website that hosts escort ads, to be able to afford to look like you are in the same socioeconomic class with those clients,” says Dolgin.
Up until a few years ago, you could post and screen clients on Craigslist, Redbook.com or Backpage.com. But, law enforcement has closed those channels and the others are pay to play. Some people think of it as the gentrification of the sex trade, in that the internet market comes at the expense of those who rely on the street sex trade for survival.
You could argue, however, that there’s not a big difference between what Adrian is doing over the internet, and what happens on the street.
“The only difference,” Kellagrew says, “is one kind of conduct is criminalized and the other kind of conduct is not.”
Dolgin and Kellagrew argue that the people working on the street are a lot more likely to need the money and a lot more likely to go to jail for what they do. Kellagrew says we can’t eliminate sex trafficking by law enforcement alone. We have to confront what he says is the core problem.
“Which is just poverty. It’s the same problem as drug trafficking, same as gun violence. It’s not like it has some independent root cause that we didn’t already know about.”
Of course, sex trafficking is a problem that we need to respond to. But, for some sex worker advocates, the blunt force of the criminal justice system may be making it harder to solve.