Dreaming a New Anti-trafficking Movement

Dreaming a New Anti-Trafficking Movement

Read more from Chris Ash and learn about their work at ListenToAllSurvivors and on Twitter.

When I first began my work in the anti-trafficking movement, after having already worked in related anti-violence movements for years, I would occasionally come across the writings of human trafficking survivors who were also sex worker rights activists. Their work intrigued me as almost all of the writings and videos I’d found created by the anti-trafficking movement suggested that initiatives to increase safety for sex workers were at odds with efforts to end trafficking, and that all survivors of human trafficking in the sex trades opposed sex worker rights. Who were these people, and why was I only seeing their work shared in sex worker rights circles? Why was it that the anti-trafficking organizations and advocates I’d begun networking with never reshared their posts? Did they not know survivors who support harm reduction, human rights approaches to ending trafficking existed?

This perplexed me. The anti-rape movement in which I’d began my advocacy career has its flaws, but repeatedly throughout my training and and ongoing professional development, one principle had been repeated as essential to trauma-informed, survivor-centered, inclusive work: Different survivors have different beliefs, needs, and experiences. Our job as movement leaders and advocates is to always strive to build frameworks that are big enough to include all survivors, and when it’s clear that some practices that support some survivors harm others we must always be considering the needs of the most marginalized, who have less access to safety and less access to resources and support when they are victimized.

I didn’t feel like I was seeing this same dialogue in the anti-trafficking movement.

Then I started seeing posts pop up here and there from survivors of trafficking in the sex trades indicating that they’d been gaslit, invalidated, or called names by well-known human trafficking organizations or survivor leaders. One survivor who ran a major organization working to support criminalized sex workers (many of whom had experienced trafficking at some point) was regularly dismissed by anti-trafficking survivors and advocates as the “Pimp Lobby” (a derogatory and dismissive insult that relies on racist stereotypes). Another survivor of trafficking who tried sharing with the leader of a local anti-trafficking awareness initiative why they support full decriminalization had their legitimacy questioned, because “I’ve never met a real trafficking survivor who said these things.” Not long after, this dismissive leader was hired into a leadership position at a well-known national anti-trafficking nonprofit.

This seemed wild to me.

At the time, I didn’t know where I stood on full decriminalization. Any of my trafficking or sex work lived experience was years behind me. I didn’t have positive memories of my former FSSW clients (although I did have many warm memories of some of the strip club clients), and even the clients I’d seen during the time I was working consensually weighed heavily in the pit of my stomach when I thought of them in the context of everything else I’d been going through during that time in my life. My consensual sex work had not been done from a place of empowerment or privilege, much like many of the other choices I made during that time — relationships, other jobs, health and financial choices, housing, etc. — making it challenging to tease out how I felt about any one piece of the tangle that was my young adult life. If I pulled any one thread to reflect on, before long others would spill out in knots. There was no love lost in my feelings for former clients, and it seemed reasonable that people and platforms should be held responsible for trafficking, and I didn’t have a glamorized perception of what sex work was. But the longer I worked in the anti-trafficking movement, the more the inconsistencies nagged at me. Questions of who was considered a survivor, whose agency and bodily autonomy was seen and respected, and whether or not it was justified to cause harm in the name of ending harm — these things were constantly in my awareness as I tried to navigate my work with integrity and while listening to survivors but without a willingness to get off the fence about sex worker safety. I was on the fence not because it was a safe position for me, but because I genuinely was confused and unsure about what would actually end trafficking.

The more I saw this dynamic of dogpiling on survivors who spoke out in support of sex worker safety and rights, and the more I experienced it myself as I started to ask more questions publicly, the more I came to understand that this dynamic isn’t a natural or unavoidable result of efforts to end and prevent forced labor but rather an inherent quality of the initial framing and definition of human trafficking itself.

I researched the history of the anti-trafficking movement and learned that the earliest laws restricting “unfree labor” were inherently racist. Before these laws, domestic and sexual servitude and forced labor were normalized and state-sanctioned elements of both slavery and genocide when enacted against Native and African people. Then, the 13th amendment banned slavery except as a punishment for a convicted crime which led to an immediate post-slavery wave of unjust laws and trials. The Page Act of 1875, ostensibly created to limit forced prostitution among Asian immigrants, was used to limit Asian immigration in general among free or unfree laborers and both reflected and reinforced the sexualization, objectification, and infantilization of Asian women. The White Slave Traffic Act of 1910, a law passed in response to a racist moral panic about the sexuality of white women, was unsurprisingly implemented to justify racialized state violence against men of color.

As I learned, I incorporated historical context into all my trainings on human trafficking, convinced that we cannot mitigate the mistakes of the anti-trafficking movement without acknowledging this long and sordid history. In response, I began to hear advocates and professionals (mostly without lived experience) reply with some variety of: “I mean, that’s history. It’s not like that now. The modern anti-trafficking movement is different. The TVPA is different.”

But something still felt off, so I kept digging. I began to learn more about the creation of the UN Protocol to Prevent, Suppress, and Punish Trafficking in Persons (the “Palermo Protocol”) and it’s “monster offspring” (as one old-timer put it), the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act. I learned that the creation of the Palermo Protocol was dominated by anti-prostitution conservatives and radical feminists. I learned that the TVPA was created through riding the political and social wave created by high-profile labor exploitation cases to advance an anti-prostitution agenda under the easily-marketed “modern day slavery” banner (see the chapter “Dichotomy” in Responding to Human Trafficking: Sex Gender and Culture in the Law by Alicia W. Peters). I learned that the often-confusing conflation of consensual and trafficked commercial sex is a result of the intentional obscuring of autonomy in the TVPA definition of trafficking, which includes a “non-operational” and largely symbolic reference to “sex trafficking” to mean all commercial sex (whether consensual or trafficked) while reserving it’s definition of the criminal act of “severe forms of trafficking” (the “operational” definition that clarifies what the criminal act of trafficking is) (Footnote 1) that limits this to adults cases that involve force, fraud, or coercion, or enticement of minors.

I learned that the initial TVPA almost didn’t include labor protections at all both because the focus of the initial sponsors of the TVPA was ending sex work, but also out of fear of how government agencies regulating labor and commerce might respond. Long-time advocates shared with me how when the law was passed it did not include provisions for prosecuting traffickers (outside of those who traffic people explicitly in the sex trades) who compelled labor by “fraud,” even though victims who are compelled by fraud are eligible for victim protections and legally considered survivors of human trafficking. Fraudulent recruitment is apparently a normalized degree of exploitation in all other forms of labor systems, but seen as unique when applied to those in the sex trades.

As I learned this history, I started to share that with trusted colleagues in my professional circles. For some, their response was a resounding “DUH. Yes, how did you not know that already?” For most, their response conveyed the marked sense of betrayal that typically accompanies the realization that you’ve been misled for years.

“Why are we not talking about this?”

“Why has nobody ever told me this before?”

“Are you sure? Can you send me the source?”

(Answer to the last question: “Yes. Which ones?”)

The reality is, this information is out there. Everything I’ve spoken about above is out there, written by legitimate experts. But it is not typically being written about by people working within the mainstream anti-trafficking movement. It is being written about by historians, sociologists, anthropologists, gender studies and postcolonial studies experts, lawyers, and current and former sex workers — many of whom may also be sex trafficking survivors, and many of those may also fall into one of the above areas of expertise as sex workers and trafficking survivors can also be sociologists, doctors, and experts in other fields.

One of the things that stood out to me during my own graduate studies in gender and postcolonial theory was the idea that definitions of what is “normal,” “accepted,” or “healthy” are often themselves constructed by those with power. These concepts are defined by the elite to preserve their worldview and excommunicate (through shame/othering, criminalization, withholding resources, and gaslighting spin in language and media) those who would challenge their values, beliefs, or dominance. With the issue of human trafficking, we have a racist society that created a moral panic to target immigrants and Black men while painting women as entirely without sexual agency and while doing nothing to address the colonial, capitalist, imperialist structures that reinforce and reify white supremacy and marginalization of Brown, Black, Native, immigrant, disabled, 2SLGBTQIA+ folks, and women. We have created and often uncritically embraced a narrative that claims to advance liberation while reinforcing some of the most harmful messages and systems that have damaged vulnerable communities and cultures for centuries.

I say this as a survivor of human trafficking in the sex trades who is 100% committed to the liberation of all people and to transforming our society into one that is healed and whole and in harmony with the earth who feeds and nourishes us, and who believes in a world in which violence and deception are never anyone’s most accessible or only option for meeting their needs: We must do better. Those with power must be willing to relinquish it to others, so that all voices can share, be heard, and bring wisdom to our collective knowledge.

Sex workers have been excluded from anti-trafficking narratives and initiatives since the beginning of the anti-trafficking movement. This is not accidental — this was by design. Narratives, beliefs, and laws about commercial sex and the spectrum of agency along which all labor occurs were created by people who did not have lived experience or intimate knowledge of the issue — those who aimed to save, rehabilitate, or convert “broken women,” and those who aimed to rescue white women from the Brown and Black men who would harm them. Both of these tropes are present today in modern approaches to ending human trafficking, and both of them disregard the role of consent, bodily autonomy, the harmful impacts of sexual shame, the universality of bounded agency, the dangers of criminalization of consensual adult sexuality, the disparate impacts of criminalization and “end demand” practices on people with marginalized identities, and the ways in which sex workers, even those who have lived experience that fits the federal definition of “severe forms of sex trafficking” are perceived as antagonists rather partners in the fight to end violence.

This exclusion of sex workers from anti-trafficking spaces has deadly consequences, and those consequences especially impact QTIPOC, especially Black and Brown trans women, who are largely absent from the anti-trafficking movement with the exception of a small number of highly-visible and largely tokenized activists who have been groomed and bonded to the mostly-cis and mostly-white movement leaders who have mentored and benefitted from their activism. This isn’t to say that those survivors aren’t also acting within their own bounded agency and making the best choices available to them to enhance their overall sense of wellbeing in the face of social and economic marginalization and the normalization of exploitation in our labor supply (including in nonprofit advocacy). It’s simply to say that the spectrum of agency is not unique to the sex trades, and that sex workers themselves hold valuable insights that we lose access to when we demonize sex work as the enemy, rather than the colonialism and extreme form of capitalism that dominates US culture.

We must reimagine what empowered anti-trafficking work looks like. We must reimagine what an anti-trafficking movement could look like if it were solidly an anti-violence movement using a public health and human rights framework working in partnership with anti-violence organizations and organizers in related fields, rather than an anti-crime movement relying on racist, xenophobic, and misogynistic tropes, profiling, and the devaluing (and criminalization) of precarious labor.

And here’s the thing: This movement will never be an inclusive space where sex workers (or survivors of trafficking who support sex worker rights) feel safe enough to engage meaningfully in the creation of powerful solutions when they are regularly attacked in anti-trafficking spaces. As a movement, we have allowed the proliferation of abusive dynamics — between service providers and clients, between public advocates and survivors, and even abuse between survivor leaders (who often fail to understand the discrepancy between their power outside the movement as marginalized survivors of trauma and their power within the movement as well-connected spokespeople with a degree of micro-celebrity). For too long, those with power within the anti-trafficking movement have allowed these dynamics to proliferate as long as it served the purpose of advancing an agenda that was not co-created by survivors themselves — especially not survivors with a diversity of experiences, identities, and perspectives.

Occasionally, when I bring up the ways in which sex workers or trafficking survivors who support sex worker rights are mistreated within the movement, I am told that “it goes both ways,” or “I know a survivor who was mistreated by sex workers too!” While it is entirely true that anti-trafficking activists (survivor or otherwise) have been mistreated by sex worker rights activists (survivor or otherwise) on social media and other settings, the “it goes both ways” narrative entirely ignores the dynamics of power and control. The mainstream anti-trafficking movement is a largely white-led, well-funded, state-sanctioned, criminal justice and direct services enterprise that has embedded anti-sex worker bias into all government funding streams in the form of the anti-prostitution pledge, which forbids anyone receiving federal funding from advocating for sex worker safety or rights as part of their anti-trafficking strategy. The sex worker rights movement is explicitly excluded from accessing federal funds to promote their harm reduction and public health strategies. They are not considered key stakeholders to be invited to local, state, or national anti-trafficking roundtables and multidisciplinary task forces, and if they are invited they are selectively ignored. Race is selectively weaponized against sex worker rights advocates while ignoring the numerous and brilliant QTPOC-led harm reduction, anti-violence, and transformative justice initiatives leading the way on ending force, fraud, coercion, and the exploitation of minors entirely outside of the anti-trafficking movement or framework. Marginalization, power, and privilege are selectively weaponized against sex worker rights activists while entirely ignoring the power and privilege within the anti-trafficking spaces that is self-perpetuated through funding criteria, microcelebrity, and access to government tables.

It makes no sense. Excluding sex worker voices (especially those who have also experienced human trafficking) from anti-trafficking research, prevention, and response is like taking it out on your local lawn-mowing guy because of Bayer Pharmaceuticals’ environmental impact, or excluding your local farmer from participation in the development of agricultural safety policy because you’re still mad at Monsanto.

This Friday is the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers (IDEVASW). Organizations will post messages and share lists of those in the sex trades who lost their lives this year, many of whom died from causes related to the ongoing stigma of sex work and criminalization of their survival. Those lists will be incomplete, because even in death sex workers face stigma and erasure — stigma and erasure that is amplified when sex workers are excluded from spaces where anti-trafficking policy is researched, crafted, and implemented. This stigma and erasure is amplified when sex workers’ agency is disregarded through the dangerous conflation of sex work and sex trafficking. This stigma and erasure is amplified when trafficking survivors who support sex worker safety are pushed out of the movement and bring their skills and gifts to sex worker safety, rights, and empowerment spaces, only then to be dismissed as “sex worker lobbyists” while their commitment to ending violence goes unacknowledged.

We can begin to repair this harm, and if we will ever end human trafficking, we must.

I am a trafficking survivor and former sex worker, whose lived experience spans commercial sex by choice, circumstance, and coercion, and who now works full-time in the anti-trafficking movement and has dedicated my life to ending forced labor of any kind. This IDEVASW, I hope you will consider the following actions to support those of us in the anti-trafficking field who also want sex workers to be safe:

  • Contact your legislators to let them know you do not support the inclusion of any provisions in this year’s Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act that harm sex workers in any way, that increase criminalization of consensual adult sexuality, or that encourage racial or economic profiling of people who trade sexual services.
  • Find out what grassroots organizations are doing sex worker harm reduction near you. Send them money. Ask them what their needs are, and leverage your privilege and connections to support them. They are not receiving government money, and do not have the well-oiled funding machine behind them that most anti-trafficking nonprofits do.
  • Be a critical consumer of narratives and media about human trafficking. Shock and awe is a marketing tactic, not an anti-violence strategy.
  • Seek out and follow anti-trafficking organizations and initiatives that are intentionally rethinking their strategies and messaging to be sex-worker inclusive, and that are divesting (as much as they’re able given the restrictions of almost all government funding for anti-trafficking work being funneled through the criminal-legal system) from criminalization. For examples, see this series from OpenDemocracy: “It’s Time to Get Off the Fence on Sex Workers’ Rights.”
  • Ask your legislators to fight to remove the anti-prostitution pledge, which coerces survivors engaged in the anti-trafficking movement into parroting anti-sex work language in order to receive funding for their work.
  • We recommit ourselves to this work in memory of the more than 41 sex workers who died in 2021, and those we lost before them.
  1. The operational definition is what our legal system uses to determine the presence of human trafficking; the non-operational definition was inserted as a token to appease anti-prostitution activists, who wanted all sex work to be criminalized as trafficking. Even today, anti-prostitution activists will often invoke the non-operational definition in order to confuse the dialogue and garner support for their initiatives.

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