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

Sienna Baskin

It seems that stories of young girls victimized by prostitution, 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.

Today is Human Trafficking Awareness Day and Rewire 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.

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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.

Commentary Race

Black Lives Matter Belongs in Canada, Despite What Responses to Its Pride Action Suggest

Katherine Cross

Privileging the voices of white LGBTQ Canadians who claim racism is not a part of Canada's history or present ignores the struggles of Canadians of color, including those who are LGBTQ.

As I walked the streets of Toronto last month, it occurred to me that Pride Week had become something of a national holiday there, where rainbow flags and the Maple Leaf banners flying in honor of Canada Day on July 1 were equally ubiquitous. For the first time in my many years visiting the city—the place where I myself came out—the juxtaposition of Pride and the anniversary of Confederation felt appropriate and natural.

For some, however, this crescendo of inclusive celebration was threatened by the Black Lives Matter Toronto (BLMTO) protest at the city’s Pride March, often nicknamed PrideTO. The group’s 30-minute, parade-stopping sit-in has since come in for predictable condemnation. The Globe and Mail’s Margaret Wente dubbed BLMTO “bullies,” sniffed that its tactics and concerns belonged to the United States, and asked why it didn’t care about Black-on-Black crime in Canada. The Toronto Sun’s Sue-Ann Levy, meanwhile, called BLMTO “Nobody Else Matters,” also saying it “bullied” Pride’s organizers and suggesting we all focus on the real object of exclusion within the LGBTQ community: gay members of the recently ousted Conservative Party.

There is a lot to learn from this Torontonian incident, particularly around managing polite liberal racism—an especially important civics lesson in light of the past month’s tragedies in the United States. Privileging the voices of white LGBTQ Canadians who claim racism is not a part of Canada’s history or present means ignoring the struggles of hundreds of thousands, many of whom are LGTBQ themselves.

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Pride has always been a thoroughly political affair. It is, thus, hardly an “inappropriate time and place” for such a protest. It began as, and remains, a public forum for the unapologetic airing of our political concerns as a community in all its diversity. We may have reached a new phase of acceptance—the presence of Prime Minister Trudeau at Pride was a beautiful milestone in both Canadian and LGBTQ history—but Pride as a civic holiday must not obscure the challenges that remain. It is not a coincidence that the majority of transgender people murdered worldwide by the hundreds every year are Black and Latina, and that many of them are sex workers. That is part of the reality that BLMTO was responding to—the fact that racism amplifies homophobia and transphobia. In so doing, it was not just speaking for Black people, as many falsely contended, but advocating for queer and trans people of many ethnicities.

Even so, one parade-goer told the Globe and Mail: “It’s not about them. It’s gay pride, not black pride.” The very fact that Black LGBTQ people are asked to “choose” validates BLMTO’s complaint about Pride’s anti-Blackness, suggesting a culture where Black people will be thinly tolerated so long as they do not actually talk about or organize around being Black.

Indeed, BLMTO’s much-criticized list of demands seems not to have been read, much less understood. While drawing attention to the Black Lives Matter collective, it also advocated for South Asian LGBTQ people and those in First Nations communities, whose sense of not-entirely-belonging at an increasingly apolitical PrideTO it shares.

In each paint-by-numbers editorial, there was lip service paid to the “concerns” BLMTO has about Canadian police forces and racial discrimination, but the inconvenience of a briefly immobilized parade generated more coverage. Throughout, there has been a sense that Black Lives Matter didn’t belong in Canada, that the nation is somehow immune to racist law enforcement and, in fact, racism in general.

Yet to listen to the accounts of Black Canadians, the reality is rather different.

Janaya Khan, one of the co-founders of BLMTO, recently spoke to Canadian national magazine MacLean’s about the activist’s views on structural racism in the country. As a native of Toronto, they were able to speak quite forthrightly about growing up with racism in the city—up to and including being “carded” (a Canadian version of stop-and-frisk, wherein officers have the right to demand ID from random citizens) at Pride itself. And last year in Toronto Life, journalist and writer Desmond Cole talked about his experiences being raised throughout Ontario. He told a story of a traffic stop, none too different from the sort that killed Philando Castile earlier this month, after a passenger in his father’s car, Sana, had tossed a tissue out the window onto the highway. The officer made the young man walk back onto the highway and pick it up.

Cole wrote, “After Sana returned, the officer let us go. We drove off, overcome with silence until my father finally exploded. ‘You realize everyone in this car is Black, right?’ he thundered at Sana. ‘Yes, Uncle,’ Sana whispered, his head down and shoulders slumped. That afternoon, my imposing father and cocky cousin had trembled in fear over a discarded Kleenex.”

This story, of narrowly escaping the wrath of a white officer on the side of a motorway, could have come from any state in the Union. While Canada has many things to be proud of, it cannot claim that scouring racism from within its borders is among them. Those of us who have lived and worked within the country have an obligation to believe people like Cole and Khan when they describe what life has been like for them—and to do something about it rather than wring our hands in denial.

We should hardly be surprised that the United States and Canada, with parallel histories of violent colonial usurpation of Native land, should be plagued by many of the same racist diseases. There are many that Canada has shared with its southern neighbor—Canada had a number of anti-Chinese exclusion laws in the 19th and early 20th centuries, and it too had Japanese internment camps during the Second World War—but other racisms are distinctly homegrown.

The Quebecois sovereignty movement, for instance, veered into anti-Semitic fascism in the 1930s and ’40s. In later years, despite tacking to the left, it retained something of a xenophobic character because of its implicit vision of an independent Quebec dominated by white francophones who could trace their ancestry back to France. In a blind fury after narrowly losing the 1995 referendum on Quebecois independence, Premier Jacques Parizeau, the then-leader of the independence movement, infamously blamed “money and ethnic votes” for the loss. More recently, the provincial sovereigntist party, the Parti Quebecois, tried to impose a “Values Charter” on the province aimed at criminalizing the wearing of hijab and niqab in certain public spaces and functions. Ask Black francophones if they feel welcome in the province and you’ll get mixed answers at best, often related to racist policing from Quebec’s forces.

Speaking of policing and the character of public safety institutions, matters remain stark.

A 2015 Toronto Star special investigation found hundreds of Greater Toronto Area officers internally disciplined for “serious misconduct”—including the physical abuse of homeless people and committing domestic violence—remained on the force. In 2012, the same outlet documented the excessive rate at which Black and brown Torontonians were stopped and “carded.” The data is staggering: The number of stops of Black men actually exceeded the number of young Black men who live in certain policing districts. And according to the Star, despite making up less than 10 percent of Toronto’s population, Black Torontonians comprised at least 35 percent of those individuals shot to death by police since 1990. Between 2000 and 2006, they made up two-thirds.

Meanwhile, LGBTQ and Native Ontario corrections officers have routinely complained of poisonous workplace environments; a recent survey found anti-Muslim attitudes prevail among a majority of Ontarians.

Especially poignant for me as a Latina who loves Canada is the case of former Vancouver firefighter Luis Gonzales. Gonzales, who is of Salvadoran descent, is now filing a human rights complaint against Vancouver Fire and Rescue Services for what he deemed a racist work environment that included anti-Black racism, like shining a fire engine floodlight on Black women in the street and joking about how one still couldn’t see them.

One could go on; the disparate nature of these abuses points to the intersectional character of prejudice in Canada, something that BLM Toronto was quite explicit about in its protest. While anti-Black racism is distinct, the coalition perspective envisaged by Black Lives Matter, which builds community with LGBTQ, Muslim, South Asian, and First Nations groups, reflects an understanding of Canadian racism that is quite intelligible to U.S. observers.

It is here that we should return again to Margaret Wente’s slyly nationalistic claim that BLMTO is a foreign import, insensitive to progressive Canadian reality. In this, as in so many other areas, we must dispense with the use of Canadian civic liberalism as a shield against criticism; the nation got this far because of sometimes intemperate, often loud protest. Protests against anti-LGBTQ police brutality in the 1980s and ’90s, for example, set the stage for a Toronto where the CN Tower would be lit up in rainbow colors. And any number of Native rights actions in Canada have forced the nation to recognize both its colonial history and the racism of the present; from Idle No More and the Oka Crisis to the 2014 VIA Rail blockade, that movement is alive and well. Indeed, the blockade was part of a long movement to make the government acknowledge that thousands of missing and murdered Indigenous women constituted a crisis.

If we must wrap ourselves in the Maple Leaf flag, then let us at least acknowledge that peaceful protest is a very Canadian thing indeed, instead of redoubling racist insults by insinuating that Black Lives Matter is somehow foreign or that institutional racism is confined to the United States. Canada has achieved little of worth by merely chanting “but we’re not as bad as the United States!” like a mantra.

Far from being a movement in search of a crisis, Black Lives Matter and its intersectional analysis is just as well-suited to Canada as it is to the United States. In the end, it is not, per the national anthem, God who keeps this land “glorious and free,” but its people.


Anti-Trans Petition Fails to Make November Ballot in Washington State

Nicole Knight Shine

"Washingtonians stood up against discrimination and secured this significant victory—for our state and our nation—ensuring that transgender people and their families will continue to be protected equally under the law," Kris Hermanns, CEO of The Pride Foundation, an LGBTQ advocacy group, wrote on Friday.

LGBTQ rights advocates in Washington state were cheering the news Friday that a discriminatory proposed bathroom measure requiring individuals to use facilities corresponding to their assigned gender at birth failed to qualify for the statewide ballot.

“Washingtonians stood up against discrimination and secured this significant victory—for our state and our nation—ensuring that transgender people and their families will continue to be protected equally under the law,” Kris Hermanns, CEO of the Pride Foundation, an LGBTQ advocacy group, wrote on Friday, after hearing the news.

The measure’s backer, a group called Just Want Privacy, announced Thursday night the petition hadn’t gathered the required 246,000 signatures to go before voters in November.

Just Want Privacy launched the petition, known as I-1515, shortly after the state Human Rights Commission, in a December rule, affirmed a 2006 state law protecting the right of individuals to use the bathroom or locker room corresponding to their gender identity, among other provisions. The rule applied to private and public facilities, and included stores, schools, restaurants, and most places of employment.

Major corporations like Google, Amazon, Microsoft, and Airbnb had opposed I-1515, as the Seattle Times reported.

Organizers with Just Want Privacy said they’d intended to deliver the signatures to the Washington state Secretary of State’s office Friday morning. They said in an online announcement that they will “not give up the fight.”

In a filing with the Washington Secretary of State, the petitioners argued that the state’s transgender protections would cause “potential embarrassment, shame, and psychological injury” to those sharing a bathroom or locker room with a transgender individual. They contended that the law and recent rule “interferes with a student’s right to privacy and a parent’s right to determine when their children are exposed to sensitive issues and subjects.”

Proponents of discriminatory measures targeting transgender individuals often cite such a “need for safety,” but evidence doesn’t bear that out.

“Over 200 municipalities and 18 states have nondiscrimination laws protecting transgender people’s access to facilities consistent with the gender they live every day,” a statement from a coalition policy and advocacy group recently noted. “None of those jurisdictions have seen a rise in sexual violence or other public safety issues due to nondiscrimination laws.”

As a June article in the New England Journal of Medicine noted, “It is transgender people who have generally been the victims of verbal harassment and physical assaults when trying to use public bathrooms.”

Discriminatory bathroom bills forcing individuals to use facilities that correspond to the gender on their birth certificate have been challenged multiple times in court. This includes North Carolina’s recent HB 2, which the U.S. Department of Justice has sued to block. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch called the North Carolina measure “state-sponsored discrimination.”