An INCITE! affiliate and collective of radical women of color, queer people of color, and Indigenous people who identify as people in the sex trades has written a compelling response to Rinku Sen’s ColorLines article “The Complexities of Sex Trafficking, and Some Simple Solutions.” I see their piece as addressing the larger media storm around “Girls Like Us,” the new book from GEMS founder Rachel Lloyd, which is the focus of Sen’s original article. In discussing any issue, especially one like the sex trade where those involved are marginalized in our culture, I think it is vital to center the voices of those most impacted. Lloyd was formerly in the sex trade, but her work is now done in conjunction with the criminal justice system. I think it’s important to not let Lloyd’s work represent the whole world of the sex trade, especially when I have heard from so many current and former sex workers, including young sex workers, that the frame of “child sex trafficking” is simplistic and dangerous.
Here’s an excerpt from the INCITE! affiliate’s piece:
The Safe Harbor Act, along with initiatives like it that Lloyd and others are promoting across the country, are NOT simple or solutions for most of us. First, they don’t stop arrests of young people for prostitution-related offenses, or the police abuses of young people in the sex trades that, including police trading sex in exchange for promises of dropping charges. They also don’t stop arrests of young people in the sex trades that involve “charging up,” i.e. charging young people with weapons or drug-related offenses which may be easier to prove. Second, while they may stop criminal prosecutions of young people for prostitution-related offenses, these laws do not eliminate detention and punishment of young people involved in the sex trades, they just shift young people from the jurisdiction of the criminal courts to family court systems, where they can remain entangled until the age of 21. And, in the end, only a very narrow group of people can benefit from these laws.
For example, in order for the Safe Harbor Act to benefit a young person, they must be under 16 and arrested for the first time and must never have been in family court before. Young people between the ages of 16-18 continue to be charged in adult court. Even those under 16 who can meet the Act’s criteria must still convince a judge that they are a “victim” of a “severe form of trafficking” – a hurdle that both Sen and Lloyd acknowledge is almost impossible for young girls of color. This is also a problem because most young people’s stories do not fit into a neat box. A National Institutes of Justice funded study by researchers at John Jay College in New York City found that only 8% of young people involved in the sex trades in New York City had been forced into prostitution by a “pimp,” and only 10% currently worked with one. The same study found that 16% of girls and 6% of boys trading sex were coerced, but the vast majority of girls (84%) engaged in the sex trades in New York City had never come into contact with a “pimp.” When young people can’t respond to police and prosecutors’ pressure to give up a “pimp” they never had they get punished by law enforcement and service providers alike, and find themselves back on the delinquency and detention track. Even when the Safe Harbor Act (and other laws like it) is found to apply to a young person, they must still follow the rules a family court judge sees fit, which can involve attending a court-mandated program…, many of which enforce Christianity on participants. Additionally, for young people for whom no such services are available, including LGBTQQ young people and young men in the sex trades, such legislation offers little or no relief whatsoever.
The response centers the work of the Young Women’s Empowerment Project (YWEP), which takes a harm reduction approach to youth in the sex trade. The organization promotes self care, empowering the young people they work with, giving them popular education tools and social justice education. They recognize that these young people are the experts on their own lives, and help create a space for them to make their own decisions instead of being pressured by police and social services to take action that might not be safe for them or what they want.
YWEP offers a much more complex picture than the frame of “child sex trafficking” which paints all young people as victims in need of saving. Reality is never that simple. Young people are making complex decisions that those of us who haven’t been faced with the same situations are not in a position to judge. As one direct service provider working with LGBT youth said to me, when a queer or trans kid is faced with the option of being raped by a family member at home or exchanging a blow job with a stranger for a warm bed how do we judge that decision? Especially when our criminal and legal system simply doesn’t work for these young people, especially LGBT youth of color.
The “child sex trafficking” frame assumes all young people in the sex trade are trafficked. It also packs the notion there’s a magical consent switch that gets flipped when someone hits the legal age of consent. Sexuality and decision making are never that simple, especially when faced with the sorts of difficult decisions that can lead to the sex trade. And it’s important to remember – there are people, including young people, who want to do sex work in a safe environment, without experiencing state violence at the hands of the police and social services – which is the greatest danger they face according to young people in the sex trade.
There’s been a lot of talk about the sex trade in feminist and social justice circles lately, and a lot of the approaches being put forward are considered dangerous and problematic by some of the folks actually engaged in the sex trade and sex work. Lloyd is in agreement with many others who say criminalizing folks in the sex trade doesn’t actually protect them. But those who hold anti-sex work or anti-trafficking views don’t leave a space for people who aren’t ready or don’t want to leave the sex trade, or for those who want to make sex work a safe option instead of erase it completely. I think it’s high time we center their voices and visions for ways to move forward.
You can read the full response “No Simple Solutions: State Violence and the Sex Trades” here.