I am a homeless sex trafficking survivor and a sex worker. I’m a throwaway. Many people wonder how I could be both a survivor of sex trafficking and also presently a sex worker, but it’s easy. I’m not a victim, I’m a survivor.
Trump recently signed FOSTA/SESTA into law ― legislation aimed at preventing sex trafficking by holding websites accountable for third-party content. But this also makes it almost impossible for independent sex workers to continue working.
The panic surrounding FOSTA/SESTA has resulted in the complete seizure of Backpage, an online forum much like Craigslist, as well as the shutdown of The Erotic Review in the United States and the closing of the Craigslist casual encounters classifieds board, where many sex workers found clients. I and all my fellow survivor friends were already homeless or barely surviving before the passage of FOSTA/SESTA. Now, this legislation further limits our options for income and puts us on the fast track to even harsher marginalization.
If you want to help me as a trafficking survivor, then government-backed paternalism is not the way to go about it. The ramifications of these policies are quite serious. I’m already seeing an increase in street-based sex work because people have nowhere to go but to the streets to find clients.
I started in the sex industry by force, working for a boyfriend-turned pimp in upper Manhattan and the Bronx. I was locked in rooms and left to be gang raped on a regular basis. Street-based sex work is no joke. It can be extremely dangerous but also extremely necessary for many people’s survival.
I went on from forced prostitution to choosing to do sex work. That’s what people don’t understand: Choice is a trajectory. Choice is always constrained; it’s just a matter of how constrained. Doing sex work by ― and for myself ― was a righteous and liberating experience.
I advertised on Backpage, where I could screen clients over the phone or via email without ever having to be around them. I didn’t have to worry about getting beat up for turning down a date. Instead, I could say “NO” with confidence that I would not be hurt. You can’t tell me that isn’t empowerment. I got to do sex work on my own terms. I got to rewrite a very traumatic experience and turn it into a story where I am a strong, empowered person with full agency over my body.
“I advertised on Backpage, where I could screen clients over the phone or via email without ever having to be around them. I didn’t have to worry about getting beat up for turning down a date.”
I’ve heard one sex worker say that just in the short time Backpage has been closed, she got contacted by three of her former pimps with promises of lots of clients. Making people desperate facilitates trafficking. When you are desperate, you don’t have the luxury of screening a client. You need to take whatever comes your way. When you are desperate, you might not want to refuse if a client is willing to pay more for sex without a condom. Desperation equals a lack of choice and agency.
If trafficking itself is rooted in systemic oppression such as poverty, racial inequity and rape culture, then it is no wonder that the more the government limits our options, the more likely we are to be subject to individual instances of oppression, such as forced prostitution or forced labor. The more you expand options for people coming from a life of poverty and oppression, the less likely they are to continue to face micro and macro oppressions.
I am currently homeless, and I have been homeless several times before now. This legislation makes homeless sex workers more desperate and less able to protect themselves. It makes sex workers who have homes more likely to lose those homes due to a devastating loss of income.
Many people ask me what the answer to trafficking is if FOSTA/SESTA isn’t. The first thing members of the public need to do is stop thinking they know everything about trafficking just because they saw “Sex Slaves” on MSNBC or because they wrote a paper about it in college. You don’t know unless you’ve been there personally.
People who aren’t survivors and who may not know a survivor in their personal life are deciding what is best for us ― without us. But we are human beings. Deciding things for us and then deciding when you will and won’t share the mic with us is diminishing. Please be willing to listen and to have your preconceived notions about what it means to be a survivor challenged.
We are neither sad nor pathetic nor in desperate need of rescue. Actually, we are probably more adept at surviving than you are.
“One of the most harmful conceptions is that sex work and sex trafficking are the same thing, or that the sex industry is inherently violent and exploitative.”
Moving toward decriminalization, which is the removal of penalties for prostitution, is another means by which trafficking could be effectively fought. This is because increasing the scope of legal sex work eliminates the need for pimps or other intermediaries by upping the choices folks have. One of the most harmful conceptions is that sex work and sex trafficking are the same thing, or that the sex industry is inherently violent and exploitative.
This contributes to lawmakers’ rapid expansion of the definition of trafficking to even include receiving money from a sex worker or living with a sex worker to be trafficking. This not only marginalizes us but also marginalizes the people who love us. Sex work comes from a place of empowered choice and is of the belief that work as an erotic service provider can, in fact, be empowering. Sex work is more than a phrase; it is a whole ideology and philosophy. This is obviously very different from trafficking.
Now, I guess if you believe that all sex industry work is inherently exploitative, then you would believe that it’s all trafficking. However, is that really your call to make about how someone else defines choice for themselves? I don’t think it is.
The closing of Backpage and other sites like it means death for sex workers and trafficking survivors. Like me, many people start out as trafficking survivors only to go on to autonomous sex work later in life. When you punish consensual adult sex work, you punish trafficking survivors. Make no mistake, Backpage has only been closed a short amount of time, but people are terrified and desperate and have no choice but to hit the streets.
If you care about trafficking survivors, you have to care about sex workers. I am both. And sex work has saved my life more than once. Please just give us a chance to survive. We’ll take care of the rest.
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