Written for The Skeleton News, December 2006, and reprinted in Power of the Impotent in 2008.
The sex industry is an international crime syndicate exploiting hundreds of thousands of women and children, according to the recent proliferation of sensational reporting, popular books, and made-for-TV movies, along with governmental concern and a growing body of legislation. The Department of Health and Human Services has plastered major cities with posters urging us to “look beneath the surface” of the tearful, vacant-eyed, and seductive non-white women (and girls) pictured to see them for who they really are: victims of human trafficking. In early October 2006, the San Francisco Chronicle ran a steamy four-part “Diary of a Sex Slave,” accompanied by a feature article on Mayor Gavin Newsom’s efforts to curb trafficking by shutting down the city’s massage parlors and implementing a moratorium on new massage parlor licenses (modeled on New York City’s 1994 shutdowns). Last year, the Chicago Sun-Times published an article, “Sex and Sorrow: The Modern Slave Trade,” about Eastern European women engaging in forced prostitution, with images of an attractive woman hanging from fishhooks borrowed from a Latvian campaign. The 90’s and our current decade have also seen the formation of numerous NGOs dedicated to helping trafficked women, and the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations now maintains an Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons. These groups estimate that 50,000 women and children are brought to the U.S. for “sexual slavery” each year, a number culled together from an estimate of the total number of migrant workers who enter the country with the help of an extralegal party.
There is cause for concern: women (and men, and young people) have indeed being coerced into working off debts, through prostitution, toward those who have helped them emigrate. However, there are many more women (and men, and young people) who are working off debts in clothing factories, in the agricultural industries, as domestics in private homes. This is an abhorrent and exploitative practice, but as the severity of anti-immigration laws increases, more migrants are dependent on smugglers and paper-producers. Victims of debt slavery are hindered, not helped, by the discourse and legislation against "trafficking," and young people engaging in prostitution need to have social services and other employment options available to them rather than being told they are victimized children.
The new concern for migrant women engaging in prostitution, referred to (regardless of consent in many cases) as “trafficked women,” is not what it appears to be, nor is it new. It has not been addressed as part of the exploitation of migrant workers (which has barely been addressed at all), but has been largely mythologized and used to punish all sex workers and migrant women. While trafficking appears to be a new concern, receiving media and governmental attention in the last two decades, much of this mythology was born a century ago. To gain an understanding of the current trafficking discourse, it is necessary to look at its early 20th century predecessor, “white slavery.”
Between 1890 and 1920, American cities grew tremendously with the influx of migrant workers, many of whom were indigenous to the United States. Rural Southern blacks moved en masse to Northern cities during the Great Migration, primarily to the industrial centers of Chicago, Detroit, and New York City. Young people from agricultural regions and small towns were eager to experience the supposed grandeur of a nearby urban center, and sought work to support themselves and their families at home. The first decade of the 20th century had the highest rate of immigration in the history of the U.S.; emigration of “undesirable” Europeans and others was on the rise. Many of the new migrants were veterans of revolution and working-class uprisings; most were impoverished workers. Germans, Italians, Poles, French, Russians, and Jews of all nationalities were viewed by Americans as dangerous, non-white criminals, intent on destroying all morality through radical activity and strange sexual positions. And women, native-born and immigrant alike, were entering the workforce like never before.
With the growth of cities came the inevitable growth of prostitution, and with this came moralizing backlash and lascivious intrigue. Novels, films, and “true accounts” featuring fallen women enjoyed incredible popularity. During its opening week in New York City, over 30,000 people watched the film Traffic in Souls, and 156 books addressing prostitution were published between 1910 and 1914 alone. The producers of this popular media were the producers of the “white slave.” Often a helpless, innocent country girl entering the big city with high hopes, she found herself duped by a swarthy man and forced into prostitution (from which she would eventually be rescued by a handsome Christian man or a crusader against the sex industry). She might also be lured in her home town, with promises of marriage or work on the stage; on occasion, she was a fresh-faced, fresh-off-the-boat immigrant. Women working in department stores or the theater were at great risk for abduction, women working in factories were likely to be tempted by the life of ease and luxury presented by a procurer, and indeed any woman in a dance hall, in attendance at a variety show, or alone in an ice cream parlor might easily be drugged and kidnapped into sex slavery. Clifford G. Roe, an attorney and leader in the crusades against white slavery, claimed in his widely read book The Great War on White Slavery, or Fighting for the Protection of Our Girls that white slavery originated with the Jews, was perfected by the French, and was now an international crime syndicate primarily run by Jews, French, Negroes, and Italians (along with Chinese in San Francisco). Estimates of just how many girls were “enslaved” in the U.S. varied greatly, from 5,000 to 65,000. From women’s organizations to the Klu Klux Klan, America was desperate to save its young women from a life of suffering as sex slaves.
In truth, there were few such sex slaves, if any. When offered a choice between working twelve hour days in a factory for barely enough money to room in a tenement, or living and working with other women in a brothel where she could choose (in most cases) how many clients to see each day, and what acts to engage in with them, it seems some working-class women chose the latter. In one of the most amusing reports of a 1910 sex slave sting operation, Investigator George Miller of the Rockefeller Commission on White Slavery “bought” (that is, paid a finder’s fee for) two girls from a black madam named Belle Moore, claiming he was opening a brothel in Seattle. In his reports, he describes them as seeming younger than fifteen, emphasizes that “these are white girls,” and passionately writes of one of them crying because she couldn’t take her teddy bear with her. When these “girls” arrived in court they were found – to the surprise of reporters and the public – to be in their mid-twenties, one previously married, and quite seasoned as prostitutes. The New York Times, which prior to the trial ran frequent articles addressing the crisis of white slavery, noted that one of the prostitutes “throughout her testimony swung a patent-leather toe in the neighborhood of the stenographer’s left ear.” Both informed the jury that they had been given a choice to move to the Seattle brothel. The media made quite a fuss over the whole scandal, and many major newspapers, notably the New York Times, stopped running articles about white slavery after the trial, declaring it (by 1914) a moralistic hoax invented by anti-vice crusaders. Despite the exhaustive and well-financed efforts of the Rockefeller Commission, no “white slaves” had been identified or “rescued”.
Unfortunately, this could not extract white slavery from the tantalized minds of a people, nor did it stop the crusades. Aside from the brothel busts that put many a working woman out of work, the rhetoric surrounding white slavery had lasting negative effects on women’s lives. The Mann Act, or White Slave Traffic Act, was sponsored in 1909 by Congressman James R. Mann (and probably authored by Chicago crusader Ernest A. Bell). It had great support from the purity organizations of its time and many leading politicians, and remained relatively unaltered until 1986 (see postscript for its current incarnation). The act criminalized the transport of women across state lines for “immoral purposes,” and in the year it was ratified, over 2,000 people were arrested under it. Though the act was passed specifically to protect women from white slavery, the vagueness of “immoral purposes” suited it for use against non-coerced prostitutes, traveling women and their companions, and couples who might engage in non-marital sex. No proof of immorality was required, and if a man had considered having sex with his companion, he was in violation of the Act. Not surprisingly, in spite of the Act’s intention of punishing would-be traffickers, it was used to arrest and charge the women it was “protecting,” making it a moralizing arm of the state which effectively limited the ability of all women to travel for work or pleasure.
The rhetoric and legislation surrounding white slavery, however well-intentioned it might have seemed, did not represent true concern for the lives of women. It developed at a time of rapid urbanization, mass waves of immigration, and a growing number of women in the workforce as a tool to reinforce ideas about race, sex, and sexuality. Its mythmaking was effective as such, and bolstered American fears of “undesirable” immigrants, racial “mixing”, and independent women. We might turn a smug, postmodern eye on the white slavery panic, were it not for the current trafficking hysteria that is its mirror image.
Globalization in recent decades, urged along by so-called free trade agreements and World Bank loans to poor countries, has drastically widened the disparities between the first world and developing nations. Emigration is on the rise, most notably among women, who make up an unprecedented half of the world’s migrants today. As in the early 20th century, migrant laborers have been welcomed into the U.S. as workers willing to work for low wages under poor working conditions, while being told they are unwelcome, illegal, un-American. We are happy to hire Filipina nannies for less than minimum wage, but don’t want them caring for their own children (if they have been able to emigrate together) with the aid of welfare or food stamps. Likewise, Latvian and Vietnamese prostitutes are hired in scores by men who expect a cheaper service, or who think these women, because of their ethnicity, immigrant status, or finances might be easily pressured into unsafe sex. Non-white prostitutes are in demand not only because of first-world eroticization of the “exotic,” but for the same reason all migrants are desirable: their real or perceived vulnerability as workers.
Rather than address the very real needs of migrant prostitutes, or any prostitutes for that matter, we mythologize and criminalize their existence in the service of other ends. When a prostitute is rhetorically transformed from a migrant worker to a “trafficked woman” she loses all agency in her life. This mythologizing is harmful to all women, all sex workers, including the women it purports to help.
In 2000, the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) was passed. In order to receive assistance, including a temporary ‘T-Visa’ and four-month access to public aid, a migrant worker must prove independently that they are victims of a “severe form of trafficking” and cooperate with law enforcement (an open-ended clause which could mean assisting in escort agency busts or the prosecution of their own “traffickers”). The TVPA does not provide for long-term work visas, citizenship, protection against debt collectors, the costs of repatriation, or back-wage payments. Few traffickers have been prosecuted under the Act (mainly in other industries), but many migrants have been detained, investigated, and deported.
Disturbingly, in the 2002 annual report on trafficking the House of Representatives Committee on International Relations broadened the definition of trafficking to include all forms of prostitution, not only forced or exploitative prostitution, and identified a need for total prevention of prostitution as necessary to the effort to combat trafficking. This new definition of trafficking, reminiscent of the 1920s-‘30s reification of ‘white slavery’ as any form of prostitution after its original use had fallen flat, has allowed a dangerous rhetoric to blossom. Anti-prostitution feminists have long claimed that all prostitution is coercive, that a prostitute cannot give consent, and have had a strong role in creating this legislative definition. With its use, any organization that supports the decriminalization of prostitution or advocates for the rights of sex workers is deemed to support trafficking in women, and is ineligible for U.S. funding.
Organizations led by current and former sex workers throughout the world have proven most effective in combating exploitative work environments for prostitutes, and in HIV prevention. The World Health Organization has for decades supported the decriminalization of prostitution, declaring it a necessary step in fighting AIDS. Redefining trafficking to include all prostitution allowed the 2003 passage of the President’s Plan for AIDS Relief (PEPFAR), which has stripped NGOs seen to be “promoting prostitution or the legalization of prostitution” of their funding. Many of the most promising and competent sex workers’ organizations worldwide support healthier, happier working conditions for prostitutes, making this a tragic loss for HIV/AIDS prevention and prostitutes’ rights. SIDA-3, an HIV prevention project for sex workers in Burkina-Faso, recently reported such drastic drops in condom availability since the implementation of PEPFAR that women are “washing and drying… condoms after use and hanging them on the line to dry,” a completely ineffective and desperate attempt at safe sex by women with few other options. The mythology of the trafficked women has resulted in an international crisis for prostitutes.
Rather than inventing the needs of mythic victims, and victimizing all migrant women workers and prostitutes, we must begin to confront the real needs of real women. Prostitutes can, and do, speak for themselves and fight for their rights, but their lives are in great danger when lawmakers and crusaders victimize them and strip them of their agency. If all workers, indigenous and migrant, machinists and prostitutes, are to have healthy work environments and living wages, it is imperative that we look beneath moralizing first-world rhetoric and begin to listen to workers themselves.
Postscript, January 2008:
The William Wilberforce Trafficking Protection Reauthorization Act [H.R. 3887] is making its way through the House (passed) and Senate (scheduled for debate). Anti-prostitution NGOs involved in the 2000 passage of TVPA have since derided it as ineffective, as it has supplanted more archaic legislation like the Mann Act which they consider useful for its complete lack of division between coercive and non-coercive prostitution. Following this lead, H.R. 3887 includes a modernized version of the Mann Act which will be devastating to prostitutes throughout the country.
The inclusion of the updated Mann Act makes all prostitution that affects interstate commerce a federal crime. What seems to be a minor rephrasing of the Act – from “travel in interstate or foreign commerce” to having an “affect” on this commerce – is a 21st century reflection of the internet as a world without state and national borders. This application of interstate commerce as inclusive of online commerce means that all prostitution by migrant workers or citizens that involves the internet is a federal crime. The vast majority of prostitution in the United States involves online advertising and communication. The Department of Justice is being asked to work with local vice squads to arrest prostitutes (and owners of popular sites like Craigslist) on federal prostitution charges.
With each reauthorization, the TVPA has become increasingly punitive of prostitutes themselves, feigning less its supposed intentions of protecting women from exploitation. Further criminalizing migrant and sex industry workers, forcing them further underground, will serve only those who exploit them.