How Can We Best Empower Sex Trafficking Survivors? [Reader Forum]

Riffing off of Rachel Lloyd's new book Girls Like Us, our readers debate how to create real solutions for sex trade survivors.

By Channing Kennedy Apr 22, 2011

On Wednesday, our publisher Rinku Sen reviewed a new book from Girls Educational and Mentoring Services founder Rachel Lloyd, titled Girls Like Us. In the book, Lloyd speaks frankly about her early life as a sex worker, and about her fight for rights for young women in similar situations, and presents common-sense systemic solutions to give these women and girls more agency over their own lives.

As Rinku wrote, sex work is an issue that pulls in race, gender, personal power and powerlessness, and ties the political and systemic to the personal and internal. And the subject resonated with a lot of you, for a variety of reasons.

On Facebook, we heard from Alice B.:

Those of us who were sexually assaulted by relatives as little children know very well what the overwhelming power differential involved in sex trafficking is. It is crucial for women to tell the truth about sex trafficking. Power OVER others and profits versus humanity. (In my case I came from a loving family but my paternal ‘grandfather’ who had the money in the family was also an incest pedophile.)

And from Ashley S.:

I am reminded of two things by this post: (1) how many of my female friends and relatives have been abused by their family members or older acquaintances of their parents – and how many of those were persecuted by their families for speaking out against their abusers (all of them), and (2) I was reading the online journal of a girl named Sienna about the sex trafficking trade of minors in the San Francisco area, where I learned that the kidnapping and murder of Polly Klaas was likely retaliation for her father having written a book about it, which no major news outlet reported despite this being a case of national prominence. Lloyd (and [Alice B.]) are right – this "industry" is indicative of much larger, much more prurient and brutal forces who view everything and everyone as a commodity and take whatever they please – just as the hertofore most notorious fascists in history believed they had a right to do.

And at, Rinku’s writeup inspired several thoughtful comments. Devon Kearney thinks about his own work in context:

… maybe there is a false distinction here. However it should be defined, it is clear that below some age, there is no consent, and prosecution is not appropriate. But on that standard, given the level of violence and other forms of coercion in the sex industry, the prosecution of a large number of women in prostitution is no more legitimate. Coercion is probably not universal, so let’s just say that some women exercise full consent. Then, I’m inclined to think that what you do with your own body is your own business – indeed, that kind of autonomy is a fundamental right. However you look at it, I’m not sure that prosecution women, girls and boys in prostitution is ever justified.

Though I hold all those beliefs, I cannot support full decriminalization. But then, I don’t think I have to. Respect for autonomy as a fundamental human right might imply that you cannot criminalize what a person does with their own body, but that does not carry over to what a person does with the body of someone else. It’s a little counterintuitive, but I think that unilateral criminalization of purchasing and not selling sex is the only defensible position.

Gregory A. Butler voices dissent, saying that a piecemeal solution to the problem of sex trafficking is no solution. I should say here that while I find the thesis of Mr. Butler’s comments interesting, I haven’t verified his assertions about GEMS’ relationship with the criminal justice system, and I present them as such.

…GEMS as an agency is an active collaborator with the Prison Industrial Complex – the bulk of its clients are compelled to participate with the program by an order of a New York State Supreme Court justice or Family Court criminal term judge, on pain of imprisonment if they don’t.

Basically, Ms Lloyd’s program boils down to a privatized correctional halfway house for young sex workers.

I know that you are a passionate opponent of the Prison Industrial Complex – as am I.

So, when you embrace Ms Lloyd’s program, be aware that you are also giving support to the Prison Industrial Complex, of which her agency is an integral part (and a part that’s staffed by non union non civil service workers, doing jobs that would otherwise be done by unionized State of New York civil service employees hired under the merit and fitness system)

Beyond that, the reality is, GEMS is part of the same sexist system that subjects sex workers to police persecution and exposes them to the risk of abuse by customers, employers, gangsters and police officers.

That’s why sex work needs to be legalized and ALL police persecution of sex workers has to stop (even police persecution carried out by Not for Profits run by personable photogenic professional victims with conventional good looks and high status conveying English accents)

I’ll give the last word here to Rinku’s response to the above comments, but the conversation on the post is ongoing. Do check it out. Here’s Rinku:

Thanks to everyone for these thoughtful comments. I am not close enough to GEMS to speak to their approach, although I would not consider anyone who works with law enforcement as supporting the Prison Industrial Complex. I would love to see prison abolition, but for as long as we have cops, someone has to make them do the right thing. 

…Reasonable minds can disagree about whether anyone should be criminalized for sex trade. I distinguish between trade and trafficking; the latter I can’t support in any form. I certainly support whatever measures (unionization, legalization) give sex workers more control of their conditions, and more power in relation to bosses and customers. When I was younger, I supported decriminalization of all parties, but the older I get, I’ll confess, the more I see sexuality as a sacred gift for the individual, and the less willing I am to accept those who exploit someone else’s sexuality under horrible conditions. 

… We need a range of solutions that take people where they are and help them gain control of their lives, whether that control includes continued work in the industry or not. Something like Safe Harbor, which recognizes the absurdity of assigning "consent" to minors in this position so that they are not arrested seems like a good start to me. Extending it to everyone would be even better.


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