Yes, trafficking is bad for sex workers. But “getting tough on traffickers” can make their lives worse.

This week in North Philly Notes, Carisa Showden and Samantha Majic, co-authors of Youth Who Trade Sex in the U.S., write about the importance of listening to sex workers, and not just passing laws and policies that aim to catch and punish traffickers.

Through newspaper stories, popular films, and Dateline exposés (to name just some sources), the term “sex trafficking” is now commonplace, bringing to mind images and stories of young girls trapped in vans and sold for sex in strange and dark places. These ideas about sex trafficking have informed public policy in the U.S. and internationally: local, regional, and national governments, as well as international governing bodies, have supported and passed laws and policies that aim to catch and punish traffickers and other parties who fuel this crime. Yet despite these laws, those they are supposed to help are also often their most vocal critics.

This disconnect between the ideas about an issue and its related policy outcomes is not unique to sex trafficking, but recent legal changes make interrogating this gap particularly urgent. The 2018 Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) and Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) (SESTA/FOSTA) provides a recent example of popular narratives trumping evidence. By making website publishers responsible for third parties who post ads for prostitution, SESTA/FOSTA effectively renders illegal the websites that sex workers use to sell services, screen clients, and warn other sex workers about dangerous clients. SESTA/FOSTA is based on the idea that persons in the sex industry are there against their will (trafficked), and that websites only enable their victimization.

Sex workers resisted this characterization, arguing mightily, but unsuccessfully, against  SESTA/FOSTA, and the effects have been immediate. For example, out of fear of violating the law, many sex workers started “preemptively closing sex work-related Facebook groups, … talking about taking down bad date lists, etc.,” all of which were essential to their safety and security. In another example, Backpage immediately shut down its dating and related ad services. With Backpage gone, some sex workers have returned to the streets and law enforcement receives fewer tips from online activity, making the tracking of actual trafficking more difficult. As Notre Dame Law Professor Alex F. Levy writes, “Backpage sets a trap for traffickers: lured by the prospect of reaching a large, centralized repository of customers, traffickers end up revealing themselves to law enforcement and victim advocates. There’s nothing to suggest that Backpage causes them to be victimized, but plenty of reason to believe that, without it, they would be much harder to find.” And outside of the U.S., including places like New Zealand where sex work is legal, the disappearance of Backpage “has, without warning, taken livelihoods away, leaving workers without the resources to operate their businesses or, in some cases, survive.”

Youth Who Trade_smNeither the failure to listen to sex workers nor a new law making it harder to fight the very thing it targets is surprising to us, given what we found when researching our book Youth Who Trade Sex in the U.S.: Intersectionality, Agency, and Vulnerability. For example, policies that target trafficking of young people take a law-and-order approach, focusing on criminal gangs, “bad men” (pimps), and very young girl victims. But as our research indicates, young people commonly enter the sex trades through a highly variable mix of “self-exploitation,” family exploitation, and peer-recruitment, most frequently to meet their basic needs for shelter and food. And youth who are poor and housing insecure because of racialized poverty and gender discrimination are particularly vulnerable. All people under the age of 18 who sell or trade sex for any reason are defined by the Trafficking Victims Protection Act as trafficking victims, yet most of them are ignored by “get tough on crime” policies. As a result, while we must protect all youth from persons who may harm and exploit them, the majority of young people who trade sex need interventions like housing support that is safe for youth of all genders. And when they are trading sex to afford food or shelter, they need to do this in the least dangerous way possible—something online services facilitated.

The more vulnerable people are, the less likely they are to be listened to, and the more likely they are to be talked about. We saw this in SESTA/ FOSTA, where sex workers and their allies lobbied hard to prevent the bill’s passage. And we see this with youth-specific bills as well. Politicians talk a lot about vulnerable youth in the abstract, but they rarely talk or listen to them directly. Yet sex workers and young people have a lot to say about what works and doesn’t work for helping them survive and improve their lives. Hopefully researchers and policy makers will start to listen to them.

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Is It McCarthyism Yet?

This week in North Philly Notes, Rachel Ida Buff, author of Against the Deportation Terrorwrites about immigrant rights in this xenophobic era.

Travel bans based on nations of origin; local law enforcement officials compelled to perform federal surveillance work; lists of suspected subversives; prohibition of solidarity or sanctuary work; massive deportation; and the disappearance of the names of the deported from mass media. These recent trends are part of a renewed xenophobic turn in U.S. politics. They also have historical precedent in the infamous era of McCarthyism.

Often filtered through middle school readings of The Crucible, memories of McCarthyism tend to feature an honest person confronting the inquisitorial voices of Joe McCarthy and his notorious House Committee on UnAmerican Activities (HUAC). But the McCarthyist Red Scare featured assaults against foreign-born activists as well as a massive and well-publicized roundup of Mexican Americans in the Southwest and California: Operation Wetback.

Buff approved 032017.inddWell before the heyday of HUAC, anti-communist legislators succeeded in passing laws aimed at curtailing the allegedly subversive activities of “foreign-born radicals.” The 1940 Smith, or Alien Registration, Act made advocating governmental overthrow, or belonging to any group believed to advance such an agenda, deportable offenses. Subsequent laws extended deportability to include guilt by association, as well as targeting particular areas of the globe as undesirable nations of origin for immigrants attempting to enter the United States.

These anti-subversive laws were frequently used against immigrant labor and community leaders accused of “UnAmerican activities,” like organizing for wages and rights.  These foreign-born Americans were vulnerable to McCarthyism, much as contemporary Muslim and Arab American leaders are subject to enhanced scrutiny and the possibility of detention and deportation.

Under the Smith Act and subsequent McCarthy era laws, local law enforcement agents often provided evidence in the trials of immigrants accused of subversive activities.  The push for 287(g) and “secure communities” policies today has clear antecedent in this use of municipal forces. As many police unions point out, however, this use of local policing for surveillance and repression alienates immigrants, making all communities more dangerous.

Billed as “cleaning up the border” of “illegal aliens” suspected of political subversion, Operation Wetback commenced in 1954. This Immigration and Naturalization Service campaign eventually resulted in the deportation of a quarter million Mexican Americans, some of them legal residents and American citizens. (Estimates vary; in 2015 then-candidate Donald Trump claimed that this program resulted in 1.5 million deportations.)

While unsuccessful in stopping the flow of migration across the U.S.-Mexico border, Operation Wetback institutionalized the kind of deportation sweeps of immigrant communities currently taking place. And it was during this campaign that the names of those in deportation proceedings vanished from popular media accounts, being replaced by the ominous science fiction of the “illegal alien.” How many people who do not interact regularly with immigrant communities can name just one of the over two hundred thousand deported in 2017?

Campaigns of repression, like McCarthyism or the wave of xenophobia prevalent today, portray foreign-born people as dangerous, subversive, and UnAmerican. Their power is to rob vulnerable non-citizens of their power and livelihoods. For example, the announcement of the cancellation of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program was timed to coincide with the first day of school, forcing thousands of young DACA recipients to experience this traditional time of excitement with dread.

Brave individuals stood before HUAC and refused to name names, eventually exposing the grim machinations of repression as the real UnAmerican activities. Similarly, immigrant rights advocates labor to defend the rights of those targeted by the forces of xenophobia and hate. Their efforts are part of the struggle to defeat McCarthyism, then and now.

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