So You Want to Help Trafficking Victims? How Systemic Violence and “Good Intentions” Mean Life and Death

People often ask in thinly veiled disgust; “why don’t you get a REAL job?” Firstly, sex work, if done by choice is real, valid, regular work. I have been iced out of the mainstream job market because of my participation in the industry. In this past year, I have been fired from a job in social services after being found out as a former sex worker. In this job, I was working as a human trafficking case manager working with youth between the ages of 12–24 who were experiencing trafficking. I am also a sex trafficking survivor, in addition to being a sex worker. The difference between the two for adults being the presence of force, fraud or coercion adding up to sex trafficking. “Sex work” is deliberate participation in the sex industry for adults and is also based in an ideology that upholds the idea that work in the industry can be empowering. I do not subscribe to the popular belief in the anti-trafficking movement that all prostitution is inherently exploitative, because that has not been my experience at all as a sex worker and trafficking survivor. What is exploitative is the ways in which people are treated in the mainstream workplace for being a current or former sex worker who rejects the victim narrative about prostitution.

In my position as a human trafficking case manager, I had a coworker who trolled me online and found an article I had written about performative allyship and Ashton Kutcher’s senate speech from the Spring of 2017. She called the director of programming and my boss who then had a meeting with me essentially inferring that I would be sexually inappropriate with the children I work with because of my status at the time of being a former sex worker. I was fired shortly after making a discrimination complaint to HR.

FOSTA and SESTA (Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act and Stop Enabling Sex Trafficking Act) were two laws passed in April 2018 which rolled back the Communications Decency Act of 1996 and made websites responsible for third party content. Thusly, sites such as Craiglist who host online platforms for people to post content decided to close their casual encounters section of their own accord after Backpage, a similar ad hosting classified ads, was seized by the FBI. These two bills were passed with the intention of eliminating sex trafficking and making the lives of sex trafficking survivors safer, more financially secure and free from violence and exploitation. The result has been exactly the opposite of what these bills allegedly aimed for. I am clearly not welcome in the mainstream economy.

Stigma has left me on the brink of homelessness for the third time. Ironically, stigma against sex workers has left me with few viable options but to re-enter the world of sex work. FOSTA and SESTA must be repealed. It is possible to repeal it, make no mistake. Will it be easy? Obviously not. The landscape of sex work has changed immensely in the three-year hiatus that I have been out of the industry. Pre-FOSTA/SESTA I could set up an online ad and have phone calls and emails coming in like crazy within minutes of posting. I literally got at least one hundred phone calls per day and that didn’t even include email and text messages. A job that was once so important because of how low barrier it was has now become extremely high barrier, unless you’re a worker who has been around for a long time and already has numerous regular clients. You either must have regulars from pre-FOSTA/SESTA times or the only surefire way (which isn’t really sure at all) to make money right now is to do street-based sex work. Street based prostitution has been found to be more dangerous than indoor work in the frequency with which sex workers incur violence.

One thing sex workers and the anti-prostitution lot can agree on is that no one condones the exploitation of another human being, especially a child. We can create thoughtful legislation that is considerate of sex workers while also protecting trafficking survivors. In fact, that is what we should be aiming for.

I wasn’t given the opportunity to work in a “vanilla job,” because of my past as a sex worker. Now, because of that discrimination, I’m being left with little option but to return to sex work more desperate than ever. Engaging in sex work from a place of desperation means one does not have the luxury of screening clients, being selective or saying no to sex without condoms. In fact, not having the financial stability and easy online access to be able to appropriately screen clients means having to negotiate business in person: meaning, it’s potentially life threatening to say no to a clients request. Congress must repeal FOSTA/SESTA now, but firstly, the sex workers and trafficking survivors of this country must have their voices heard and respected on this issue. There can be no advocacy for trafficking survivors without also considering sex workers’ needs. I am a trafficking survivor and sex worker, so when this country hurts me as a sex worker I’m also being hurt as a trafficking survivor. Discrimination and conflation of adult consensual sex work with sex trafficking by well intentioned but uninformed people could now mean my life. Hire sex workers at your social service agency. Pay them a fair and living wage because sex workers are on the front lines and know more about the nature of the sex industry and the people involved than does the average person who has never been in the industry. Include us in critical decision making at social service agencies and put your money where your mouth is when you say you care about trafficking survivors by not promulgating discrimination and stigma about any person who had been in the sex industry, by choice or by force. This is how you can “save” trafficking survivors: stop criminalizing our diverse identities.