Opinion

Looking Up: Your prudishness is killing people again

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Looking Up: Your prudishness is killing people again

Sex trafficking is bad. Unbelievably, horribly bad. Combat by any means necessary bad, amirite?

This, as far as I can tell, sums up the general progressive attitude, and also level of knowledge, about sex trafficking—i.e. forcing people into sex work.

Now of course, sex trafficking is in fact, completely abhorrent. Kidnapping and trafficking is abhorrent across the many occupations in which it occurs. Rape is abhorrent, rape of children especially so. Of course they are.

But here’s the problem. A whole lot of people who are concerned about this, also find the idea of sex work at all abhorrent, or at least too uncomfortable to think about. It’s disappointing that this view is so widespread, especially among people who identify as progressive feminists.

Taking an absolutist position on sex work, and blurring the line between trafficking and consensual sex work harms trafficking victims. People taking this position have failed to listen to sex workers and trafficking victims themselves about what would make them safer and reduce sex trafficking. And therefore they have failed to oppose, and in many cases even supported, recent legislation that is going to hurt the very people it claims to help—and a lot of other people along the way.

I’m sure you’ve heard of it by now. FOSTA-SESTA was recently passed by Congress with overwhelming bipartisan majorities. It makes websites accountable for content they host that might have to do with sex trafficking. This has led places like Craigslist and Reddit to get rid of personals ads and forums for advertising and discussing consensual work. Microsoft has redone its terms of service in draconian fashion, banning nudity and even ‘offensive language’ even in Office 365 documents, Skype calls, and Bing searches. So much for long distance relationships, fiction writing, research, and any semblance of privacy . . . Of course enforcement will be spotty, but you know what that means—enforcement will be biased as hell.

This is clearly a disaster for the Internet and for free expression. It’s also deadly for people doing sex work, whether forced or by choice. As sex workers have been saying, if anyone had bothered to listen, arranging jobs with clients via the Internet allows them time to assess a client. It allows them to share information about dangerous clients. It allows them work indoors. It actually makes catching traffickers easier, since they leave digital trails to follow. It makes it easier for people to work for themselves rather than for a pimp. Being forced out onto the street, which these laws are doing, increases their risk of experience violence dramatically.

You want data? How’s this: The introduction of Craiglist’s erotic personals in Chicago generated a 17.4 percent decrease in homicides of women. Again: 17.4 percent! If anything else had that kind of direct effect on the murder rate we’d be rushing to introduce it everywhere, pouring money and training into replication and praise on whoever came up with it. Instead, we’ve made it illegal.

Decriminalization of sex work, so that all victims are safe to speak up and seek help and justice, would be a far more meaningful policy step.

Now, I’m far from the first one to be pointing these things out. What I want to add is that this is why feminism is dangerous and bogus if it leaves out (or even attacks) sex workers*, or treats them universally as victims rather than the experts on their own lives and their own trade. FESTA-SOSTA is a perfect example of how this kind of paternalistic, “respectable” feminism plays right into the hands of the worst kinds of misogynists. (*Same thing goes for any other marginalized, less respectable population of women.)

Politicians patronize sex workers. The more moralistic and judgmental and sexist they are, the more likely that is. Those guys aren’t interested in ending prostitution. But forcing the people in the trade into more legally precarious positions, making prices come down, condom use more negotiable, and information sharing and saying no to a client harder? Well, they might have some self-interest involved there. Doing all of that while getting to censor the Internet and being lauded for Saving the Children from Trafficking? What’s not to like? No wonder these bills got such broad bipartisan support.

We get really angry when a group of men get together to make laws about women’s healthcare. We should also be angry (and skeptical) when sex worker voices (which are pretty damn unanimous against these bills) are excluded from policy about their livelihood and supposed protection.

This country’s homophobia botched our reaction to AIDS, killing hundreds of thousands of people of all sexual orientations. A combination of prudishness and class privilege is doing the same thing to our reaction to sex trafficking, and for a bonus, it’s taking down free expression on the Internet too. We must do better.

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