“When We Limit Anti-Trafficking Efforts To John Stings, We Fail Everyone”

Kate D’Adamo

Kate D’Adamo is a National Policy Advocate at the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center working on policy and social advocacy at the state, federal, and cross-regional level on issues impacting those engaged in the sex trade, including human trafficking and HIV.

The Establishment reached out to Kate to see what she had to say about the pervasive myth surrounding sex trafficking and the Superbowl.


Kate D’Adamo: People are hearing from a lot of organizations that claim to be experts and politicians that there is a spike, and that the answer to solving trafficking in the sex trade is to police and criminalize. A lot of local agencies get to increase policing efforts, and advocacy organizations get to call it a “win” on anti-trafficking efforts. There is a skewed assumption that increased criminalization of the sex trade, leading to more arrests and prosecutions is a good — and the Super Bowl is an excuse to do that.

Katie Tandy: What is the most damaging element of this myth in terms of the people it actually claims to be helping?

Kate: Increased criminalization of the sex trade means increased violence and vulnerability. Anytime you have more policing, people are forced to go underground either working in more isolated conditions or more physically dangerous areas. This also means that it becomes harder for service organizations to connect with folks trading sex, sometimes harming long-standing relationships between them and the community.

I think the other issue is that it obscures actual trafficking, which does happen around large events. When a hotel is operating at 70% capacity every other time of the year and suddenly goes to 100% for a few days, there is a need to hire temporary labor fast. Service industries around these events boom, and we need to look deeper into the labor conditions of these workers. Construction around the World Cup has already accounted for over one thousand deaths of migrant workers in Quatar. When we limit anti-trafficking efforts to john stings, we are failing everyone — sex workers and trafficking victims alike.

Katie: Part of the problem seem to be that many of these anti-trafficking entities — be it the FBI or anti-trafficking nonprofits — make sex work synonymous with sex trafficking by being euphemistic or sensationalist . . .

Kate: The conflation between sex work and trafficking is a huge problem for doing effective anti-trafficking work. It leads to these same misguided efforts: over-criminalization, over-policing and ignoring every other industry. It doesn’t just lead to bad laws or too many sensationalized media events — it touches every part of the system, making it harder to certify victims and get cases of trafficking in every other industry looked into. This purposeful conflation is causing very real harm, and we need to expect better.

Katie: What do you say to people who believe there’s a huge swathe of “voluntary sex workers” that in reality, may be “choosing” sex work as a career — i.e. do not identify as being trafficked — but that poverty, drug abuse, etc. has driven them to make this choice, thus it’s not a choice at all really?

Most people who are trading sex are not experiencing exploitation at the hands of a third party. Most people are making an often difficult decision to make ends meet. Plain and simple, there is a constellation of experience that people have when engaging in sex work. As a society and culture we need to understand that there are a range of experiences, and then we must respect the right of everyone to define their understanding of those experiences.

Katie: There seems to be a lot of criticism/controversy surrounding The Polaris Project . . . and they are, of course, who the FBI has chosen to partner with in their new “softer-touch” initiative for their Super Bowl crack-down. Where do you stand in all this?

Kate: Anti-trafficking efforts need to go beyond Polaris and the FBI. Conversations on the sex trade need to center on economic justice — the way that informal labor of all kinds is often the safety net that people need. Law enforcement isn’t an anti-poverty group. Sending law enforcement to arrest with a “softer touch” is not what trafficking victims need, and only ends up laying the trauma of arrest and policing on top of the trauma of a trafficking situation. Anti-trafficking organizations like Polaris need to look at comprehensive strategies and think about the collateral damage of these efforts. Arresting a few sex workers and johns in the efforts to end trafficking should be called an embarrassment, not a win.


Kate D’Adamo is a National Policy Advocate at the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center working on policy and social advocacy at the state, federal and cross-regional level on issues impacting those engaged in the sex trade, including human trafficking and HIV. Prior to joining SWP, Kate was the lead organizer with the Sex Workers Outreach Project-NYC and Sex Workers Action New York, two constituent-led organizations supporting those trading sex in the New York City area. In this role Kate developed programming to promote community building, curated peer-support spaces, supported leadership development and advanced community-directed advocacy. She has also worked on issues relating to human trafficking, labor rights, international solidarity and migration at the International Commission for Labor Rights, Global Workers Justice Alliance and the Open Society Foundation.

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