Hack Trafficking For Good is a project that seeks to “create innovative code, visualizations, and digital platforms designed to catalyze social change.” It specifically aims to use “data science to stop sex trafficking.”
Admirable right? What could possibly go wrong?
The first sign that something is amiss comes from the project’s own marketing which indicates participants will be able to hear “experts” “explain the intersection between online sex buying and sex trafficking.” This statement already points to a potential conflation of sex work with trafficking - one that occurs frequently, yet misses the very real distinction between the two all while informing policies regarding both.
The second sign is the appearance of the logo of a prominent anti-sex work organization on the project’s website. Demand Abolition’s objective is so explicit it’s quite literally in their name; they seek to completely abolish all commercial sexual exchange, including the voluntary exchange that comprises the vast, vast majority of the industry.
Sex work prohibitionists and law enforcement alike have been targeting online venues through which sex workers advertise heavily over the past few years. Both general sites like Craigslist and Backpage that advertise adult services, as well as more niche sites such as MyRedBook and Rentboy have been affected; in the case of the latter two, the sites were completely shuttered and their assets were seized.
While these attacks are often performed under the guise of ending trafficking, trafficking charges rarely materialize. Just this month, Seattle’s TheReviewboard – a popular, local advertising and review board for erotic providers and their clients – was seized. While the investigations resulted in multiple charges of “promoting prostitution” there were none for trafficking offenses.
Still, you might find yourself unmoved – better to err on the side of caution when fighting trafficking, right?
Well, first we need to define our terms. What exactly is trafficking? Unfortunately, it’s tough to say given that legislation has become so expansive in scope that the term trafficking has become virtually meaningless. Under current trafficking guidelines, you can even be charged with trafficking yourself as happened to a woman in Fairbanks, Alaska. Trafficking charges no longer require either a trafficker or a trafficked person – what used to be a prostitution charge will now handily suffice, all while driving oft-quoted trafficking statistics through the roof.
Beyond that, all evidence indicates that the current approach to combating trafficking – an approach that equates sex work with trafficking – is not only ineffective, but harmful to trafficked persons and sex workers alike. Here’s how:
The approach is based on faulty stats, leading to poor policies
If you’ve read anything about trafficking, you may have heard some of the following claims:
· There are 100,000 children in the US involved in the sex trade – FALSE
· Girls first become victims of sex trafficking at 13 years old - FALSE
· There are 20 million (or more) victims of trafficking in the world - FALSE
The reality is precise sex trafficking numbers are impossible to generate; all we know is that the current numbers are hyperinflated and this results in the misdirection of valuable resources that could be more appropriately distributed if more accurate – and realistic – statistics were used to guide policy formulation.
Sadly, it appears much of this misinformation can be attributed to the need for NGOs and other organizations to generate funding not to fight trafficking, but to keep themselves in business. One report alone indicates that, “in all, 50 of the most prominent anti-trafficking organizations in the United States are estimated to share around $686 million - an amount that would place them approximately 184th on the UN’s ranking of nations by GDP.”
Shutting down electronic advertising venues harms sex workers, makes it harder to ID trafficked persons
Electronic review boards allow sex workers to exchange information regarding abusive clients. They also provide sex workers with a safe and effective means to screen clients, helping them avoid potential bad dates. Online advertising venues give many sex workers the ability to secure clients from the safety of their own residence rather than in outdoor spaces that are the most dangerous areas within which to work.
Further, contrary to the hype, these platforms often cooperate with law enforcement when suspected trafficking is identified on their sites. Backpage, for example, often worked with law enforcement. Without these sites, trafficked persons and sex workers alike will be forced to work outdoors and law enforcement will lose valuable visibility the boards provided them to identify potentially trafficked persons.
Law enforcement is often the biggest abuser of sex workers
Inviting more law enforcement intervention into the lives of sex workers is a recipe for disaster. Sex workers are more afraid of law enforcement abuse than abuse by their clients – and understandably so given how rampant that abuse is – “sexual misconduct is the second highest of all complaints against police officers…” Underage persons involved in commercial sex “…experience violence more often from law enforcement officials than from any other group.” The overwhelming proliferation of this abuse has led both the World Health Organization and the Global Coalition on Women and AIDS to agree that “rescue raids of sex establishments have exacerbated violence against sex workers and compromised their safety.”
Anti-Prostitution laws exacerbate trafficking, harm migrants
Traffickers often use laws against consensual commercial sexual exchange -the very same laws anti-trafficking organizations keep trying to make more punitive - to intimidate and further victimize trafficked persons. From one trafficked person’s account:
Sex traffickers tell girls like me that we will be arrested and treated like “dirty prostitutes” if we escape or go to the police – which was true in my case. The judicial system should realize that by prosecuting sex workers, potential victims become scared to come forward, even if they are unwilling victims.
Before recommending harsher laws against prostitution, anti-trafficking organizations need to evaluate the impact they will have both on sex workers and trafficked persons alike. This can only be achieved in collaboration with these populations, not by speaking over them.
Further, the current prohibitionist legislative framework in the United States harms migrants. Per the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women (GAATW):
…a preference for enforcement of both morality and borders trumps concerns for the protection of the human rights of migrants. These imperatives (morality and border protection versus protection of migrants) are identified as separate goals because prostitution is not considered a legitimate form of work. The US’ abolitionist approach to prostitution informs all elements of the government’s anti-trafficking agenda: from the role of consent in the definition of a trafficked person, to the legal and policy position that it will not fund projects or groups that promote, support or advocate the legalisation or practice of prostitution.
GAATW further cautions us to see “beyond the marketing of anti-prostitution agendas as anti-trafficking strategy” including both prohibitionist and end demand approaches. This caution is especially relevant when considering the work of Hack Trafficking for Good given that it is sponsored by a sex work abolitionist organization.
It’s important to note here that GAATW – an organization formed to combat trafficking – supports full decriminalization of sex work as the best harm reduction approach and the best means to gain the transparency necessary to effectively combat sex trafficking; the following organizations do as well:
- Amnesty International
- The World Health Organization
- The Global Network of Sex Work Projects
- The Lancet
- The Global Commission on HIV and Law
- Human Rights Watch
- The Open Society Foundation
- Anti-Slavery International
- The ACLU
- UN Women
The positions of these organizations are based on extensive research; The Lancet reviewed over 800 studies before drawing its conclusion while Amnesty International spent two years researching the subject.
If you want to end trafficking for good, I encourage you to listen to objective research over the lies of an organization such as Demand Abolition that pretends trafficking is its greatest concern even as its ultimate goal is to end consensual sex work. I encourage you to involve sex workers and a broad base of formerly trafficked persons in your discussions. And I encourage you not to equip law enforcement with more tools that will allow them to violently intervene in and destroy the lives of consenting adults.