Contempt or Critique

A recent commenter on a post wrote that he’s a pastor involved in the anti-trafficking movement:

I’m very interested to learn more about your contempt for/critiques of that movement.

I was a little stunned at the question. Contempt? Do I really have contempt for the movement? The answer to that question makes me dig a little deeper. And perhaps I should explain…

On Saturday, September 22 in the New York Times, there was an editorial by Noy Thrupkaew in which she says:

The end-demand crusade is premised on the idea that all prostitution is inherently exploitative. Some end-demand advocates came to their position from their work against pornography in the 1980s; others worked with a coalition of conservatives and evangelical Christians during George W. Bush’s presidency to abolish prostitution. Not surprisingly, these abolitionists ignore the legal distinctions between prostitution and human trafficking. Federal law states that trafficking for forced prostitution occurs only when a commercial sex act is induced through force, fraud or coercion, or when the person induced to perform it is under 18. Indeed, not all prostitution is trafficking, and not all trafficking — as those exploited and sexually assaulted in homes, fields and factories across our nation know too well — is prostitution.

It is this confusion, this conflating prostitution with trafficking and trafficking with prostitution that bugs me. There are three portals to sex work: choice, circumstance, and coercion. No one enters sex work through only one of those portals. If a woman enters sex work through choice, it is likely that her circumstances make it a viable option. If she’s entering by coercion, it’s likely that circumstance also plays a part. And if she’s entering through circumstance, she likely has some choice (she may not like the choices, but there is probably some choice). And somewhere along the way, even if she is coerced, there has been some choice along the way.

Because of this, the portal exiting sex work has to be as varied. If you go into sex work through choice, then another choice has to be available. If you enter by circumstance, then circumstances have to change in order to change your profession. And if by coercion, then, perhaps, rescue is appropriate. But again, no one enters through one portal, there’s no one-size-fits-all way out.

The solution to conflating prostitution with trafficking is to listen to other voices—people who have entered sex work differently, people who have redeemed their work in other ways, people who have chosen to get out of sex work without being rescued.

Noy Thrupkaew writes, “End-demand advocates’ prototypical victim — an abused teenage girl raised in the blight of the inner city and forced into the sex trade by an older man — does exist.” But she’s not the only person in the sex trade. Let’s listen to all the voices.

And as to whether it’s contempt or critique, I think it’s the latter. I know that there are good people in the anti-trafficking movement, who really care about people. But please, listen closer. Learn more. Quit seeing the issue as black and white.


Ending Demand: Hurt or Help?
Narrative Lectionary, Third Sunday: Joseph
Victim or Perpetrator?
December 17: International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers
About Lia Scholl
  • Dave Buerstetta

    I think you’re right that some in the anti-trafficking movements (I’m not convinced, as Thrupkaew seems to be, that it is anything close to a monolithic movement, singular) equate all prostitution with trafficking. I’m sure I have more to learn about the distinctions you make here. For instance, I don’t quite understand how coercion and choice aren’t mutually exclusive…but I want to hear more about that.

    As for Thrupkaew’s piece, she seems to me to paint with an awfully big brush. Just as you suggest more nuance is needed to understand those in sex work, I think more nuance is needed to understand the anti-trafficking and end-demand movement. For instance, while the good folks at IJM could fairly accurately be described as social conservatives who facilitate rescues, they are (surprisingly) not anti-sex. And they are also equally focused on labor slavery and prosecuting traffickers. Or, take the tremendous group of people at CAASE (Chicago Alliance Against Sexual Exploitation): as you might guess, they are focusing exclusively on sex side of trafficking. But they are not at all religiously motivated (at least on the whole. I can’t speak to any individuals internal motivation.) And they definitely work with actual victims, not some strawperson version. At least here in IL, they are doing real research and affecting real change working with those who’ve left the life and with law enforcement.

    This comment is too long already, I apologize. But if you’re interested, CAASE posted a response to the NYTimes piece: “Last year, Ms. Thrupakew spent time with us, and we shared with her End Demand Illinois’ multi-dimensional, survivor-informed approach to the issue. By omitting this information from her piece, Ms. Thrupakew has left readers with a distorted view of demand-suppression efforts.”

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