Close to Home: Complications in the Domestic Anti-Trafficking Discourse


Today is Human Trafficking Awareness Day and RH Reality Check is featuring a series in collaboration with Race Talk to pay respect to those who’ve experienced this severe human rights abuse. The series, edited by Juhu Thukral, includes a look back at the history of anti-trafficking efforts and where they have led us, and thinking about the most effective path forward to prevent others from being trafficked.

As Juhu writes in her introduction to the series:

In order to think proactively about solutions to the problem of human trafficking, it is crucial to answer the most basic question of all: What exactly is trafficking in persons? Experts will weigh in with their answers and their ideas for future efforts, including some of the leading voices, thinkers, and practitioners on the issue of trafficking in persons. They include lawyers who represent trafficked persons on a daily basis, advocates who have pushed forward innovative policies over the last decade and more, and activists who have incorporated anti-trafficking issues into their intersecting fields.

The U.S. anti-trafficking law was signed by President Clinton in October, 2000, ushering us into an era where this issue has become a hot topic around the world. After 10 years of lawmaking and public debate around the problem of human trafficking, the central conversations on the Hill this past Congressional session were focused only on the trafficking of U.S. citizens. The Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking Deterrence and Victims Support Act (Domestic Minors Act), which would fund pilot projects to address the issue, was premised on the notion that we have been helping immigrant victims and not American children who are induced into commercial sex. One petition states “While existing legislation has provided tools and resources for children trafficked into the U.S. from other countries, American kids have traditionally been overlooked.

Setting up this kind of stark dichotomy may be necessary to pass a funding bill in these tough economic times, but we should still look critically at how such messages frame the issues of trafficking and commercial sex. Throughout history, anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution campaigns have been fueled by racial and sexual anxieties, as well as good intentions. The first federal immigration restriction passed in the United States barred prostitutes and polygamists from entering the country. Historians now believe that the primary purpose of this act was to exclude female Chinese immigrants and thereby restrain the growth of the new Chinese-American community.  Chinese women were seen as having a “slavelike” mentality and as being unsuitable for American society. Many of the Chinese women who immigrated to the United States at the turn of the century did work as prostitutes, and many more were perceived as such by census takers because they lived in groups rather than in traditional marriages. Immigration law still bars all prostitutes from entry to the United States.

These stereotypes still haunt anti-trafficking efforts, when vice squads raid massage parlors or salons, assuming that if the establishment is Asian-operated, it must be a front for prostitution. Just as damaging is the assumption that all foreign-born women working in prostitution must be trafficked. At a parallel event for the Commission on the Status of Women at the United Nations in 2008, anti-prostitution crusader Melissa Farley held up a classified section and pointed out the ads featuring Asian and Russian women, claiming that police simply had to answer the ads to find human trafficking. These stereotypes make us unable to hear Asian women in the sex industry when they actually talk about their lives. In a recent example in Rhode Island, anti-prostitution advocates sought to criminalize indoor sex work, which had been decriminalized due to efforts of sex workers rights group COYOTE in the 1970s, by claiming the law had made Providence a haven for traffickers dealing in Asian women and girls. Asian sex workers spoke out in legislative hearings about their desire to work legally in the safety of a spa, to support their families and make a good income. The workers testified that no one they knew had been forced into the industry, but legislators put more stock in the words of “expert” Donna Hughes, who claimed the spas were rife with trafficking and that criminalization was the only way to protect the women.

The discourse on trafficking has propelled policy that enables the recovery of thousands of victims, and has funded services such as our program to provide legal and therapeutic help. But it has also been used to limit migration, to crack down on prostitution, and to reinforce the image of migrant women as naïve and powerless victims. As our recent Raids Report  found, even trafficked women “rescued” in anti-trafficking raids suffer human rights abuses at the hands of the police.

Efforts to ensure attention to the needs of American-born victims have collided with the racialized image of who is a “true” trafficking victim. From the movement against “white slavery” in the late 1800s, which concerned itself with the sexual purity of white women, we have now entered into a new anti-trafficking movement, which extends victimhood status to migrant women who are deemed to be acting without any agency. Some anti-trafficking advocates have begun to express concern that African American girls  have been ignored in favor of white or immigrant women.   As easy as it may be to imagine white women—and even Asian or Latin American women—as victims, there is a barrier to imagining Black women and girls as victims. As one police chief said in a recent panel where I was a co-presenter, his force used to just see this as a “hooker-pimp problem”—even when the “hooker” was underage, or clearly brutalized.

Moving from a perception of sex workers of color as less than human to a concern for their well-being requires a paradigm shift. Thus far, this shift has been largely reliant on limiting the mission to children. Such strategies were used in earlier campaigns for reform: “Only by removing all responsibility for her own condition from the prostitute could she be constructed as a victim to appeal to the sympathies of the middle-class reformers.  The ‘innocence’ of the victim was established through a variety of rhetorical devices: by stressing her youth/virginity; her whiteness; and her unwillingness to be a prostitute.”  Here, whiteness is not something that can be stressed, so race is de-emphasized in favor of age. For example, the Domestic Minors Act includes an oft-repeated inaccurate statistic about the age at which most sex workers start engaging in sex work.

It seems that stories of young girls victimized by prostitution, while true and pointing to a serious  problem, are selected to overcome an enormous barrier—that we are not disposed to believe or care for people who engage in sex work, so editing to find the “perfect victim” is necessary. The American public won’t care about a 19-year-old woman supporting her kids by working in a strip club, or a 40-year-old transgender woman who meets dates on an online site, or the 16-year-old homeless boy who turns tricks for a place to stay, especially if these are people of color.

The incredibly limiting circumstances of many people of color involved in sex work is brutally clear to us at the Sex Workers Project, as is their resilience and creative genius in negotiating racial stigma and sexual stereotypes while maintaining economic survival. But advancing necessary services like those offered by the Domestic Minors Act has meant de-emphasizing their agency and the decisions they have made, and either painting all sex workers as victims, or choosing only to care about the “innocent” ones. In the anti-trafficking movement, we are forced to make these choices because there is so much at stake.

Sex workers are criminalized, deported, brutalized by police, and ridiculed and rejected by society, instead of being embraced and offered treatment and safety. Even victims of trafficking are always teetering on the edge of being perceived as a criminal sexual deviant rather than someone whose rights have been violated. I have seen police officers become suspicious and turn on our clients who admit to engaging in prostitution after they escaped their traffickers, even though without legal work authorization they had no other way to survive. These same police hold the power to grant that work card, or to arrest them.

But these are false choices. The last thing sex workers and trafficked persons need is to be divided by rhetoric around race, age, and agency that pits the needs of one group over another. Everyone deserves safety, health, freedom from violence and sexual abuse, living wage work options, and human rights.  We are all truly in it together in the sex workers rights and anti-trafficking movements—or rather, we should be.

Like this story? Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.