In detailing the story of “Jane Doe,” a 16-year-old transgender youth stuck in an adult prison in Connecticut for over six weeks without even being charged, Shane Bauer at Mother Jones steps back to describe the context in which Jane grew up. In reading this horrific (but not that uncommon) account of abuse, neglect, poverty, and dreadful state interventions, I came across this sentence:
“While in group homes, she says she was sexually assaulted by staffers, and at 15, she became a sex worker and was once locked up for weeks and forced to have sex with “customers” until she escaped.” — Mother Jones
What makes this sentence so startling is the choice of the term “sex work.” Whether the author realizes it or not, this term is extraordinarily political, especially when applied to an abused and entrapped teenager. I couldn’t help but wonder why the author didn’t identify Jane as a victim of human trafficking.
Commercial sexual exploitation of minors
Over the last few years, I’ve been working with an amazing collection of researchers in an effort to better understand technology’s relationship to human trafficking and, more specifically, the commercial sexual exploitation of children. In the process, I’ve learned a lot about the politics of sex work and the political framing of sex trafficking. What’s been infuriating is to watch the way in which journalists and the public reify a Hollywood narrative of what trafficking is supposed to look like — innocent young girl abducted from happy, healthy, not impoverished home with loving parents and then forced into sexual acts by a cruel older man. For a lot of journalists, this is the only narrative that “counts.” These are the portraits that are held up and valorized, so much so that an advocate reportedly fabricated her personal story to get attention for the cause.
The stark reality of how youth end up being commercially sexually exploited is much darker and implicates many more people in power. All too often, we’re talking about a child growing up in poverty, surrounded by drug/alcohol addiction. More often than not, the parents are part of the problem. If the child wasn’t directly pimped out by the parents, there’s a high likelihood that s/he was abused or severely neglected. The portrait of a sex trafficking victim is usually a white or Asian girl, but darker skinned youth are more likely to be commercially sexually exploited and boys (and especially queer youth) are victimized far more than people acknowledge.
Many youth who are commercially exploited are not pimped out in the sense of having a controlling adult who negotiates their sexual acts. All too often, youth begin trading sex for basic services — food, shelter, protection. This is part of what makes the conversation about sex work vs. human trafficking so difficult. The former presumes agency, even though that’s not always the case while the latter assumes that no agency is possible. When it comes to sex work, there’s a spectrum. Sex work by choice, sex work by circumstance, and sex work by coercion. The third category is clearly recognizable as human trafficking, but when it comes to minors, most anti-trafficking advocates and government actors argue that it’s all trafficking. Except when that label’s not convenient for other political efforts. And this is where I find myself scratching my head at how Jane Doe’s abuse is framed.
How should we label Jane Doe’s abuse?
By the sounds of the piece in Mother Jones, Jane Doe most likely started trading sex for services. Perhaps she was also looking for love and validation. This is not that uncommon, especially for queer and transgender youth. For this reason, perhaps it is valuable to imply that she has agency in her life, to give her a label of sex work to suggest that these choices are her choices.
Yet, her story shows that things are far more complicated than that. It looks as though those who were supposed to protect her — staff at group homes — took advantage of her. This would also not be that uncommon for youth who end up commercially sexually exploited. Too many sexually exploited youth that I’ve met have had far worse relationships with parents and state actors than any client. But the clincher for me is her account of having been locked up and forced to have sex until she escaped. This is coercion through-and-through. Regardless of why Doe entered into the sex trade or how we want to read her agency in this process, there is no way to interpret this kind of circumscribed existence and abuse as anything other than trafficking.
So why isn’t she identified as a trafficking victim? Why aren’t human trafficking advocacy organizations raising a stink about her case? Why aren’t anti-trafficking journalists telling her story?
The reality is that she’s not a good example for those who want clean narratives. Her case shows the messiness of human trafficking. The way in which commercial exploitation of minors is entwined with other dynamics of poverty and abuse. The ways in which law enforcement isn’t always helpful. (Ah, yes, our lovely history of putting victims into jail because “it’s safer there.”) Jane Doe isn’t white and her gender identity confounds heteronormative anti-trafficking conversations. She doesn’t fit people’s image of a victim of commercial sexual exploitation. So it’s safer to avoid terms like trafficking so as to not muddy the waters even though the water was muddy in the first place.