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Welcome to SWOP-NYC & SWANK

Sex Workers Outreach Project New York City (SWOP-NYC) and Sex Workers Action New yorK (SWANK) are both volunteer-based, grassroots organizations and part of a national network dedicated to improving the lives of current and former sex workers/those with experience in the sex trade in the New York metro area, on and off of the job.

Latest News:

Join us Thursday, August 21 for our monthly SWOP-NYC meeting!

This Thursday, August 21, from 7-9pm (6:30pm doors open) at the usual location is our next SWOP-NYC meeting. We have four months left in 2014 and we already have some great things to talk about. Below are a few things we’re going to discuss, and if you’d like to add things to the agenda, please shoot a note to the list! See you all Thursday!

Proposed Agenda Items:
- December 17
- Coalition Building/Meeting Speakers, Sept – Dec
- Public Advocacy Workshops, Sept – Dec
- Listserv Policy
- New logo

If you have not been screened for SWOP meetings and would like to join, please go to Join and fill out the form.

The Sex Worker`s Outreach Project NYC (SWOP-NYC) is the New York City chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project. SWOP-NYC has open meetings once a month for current/transitioning/former workers and allies to discuss on-going projects, upcoming events, and expand our advocacy work. SWOP-NYC projects include working on policy campaigns, providing direct support to SWANK, event organizing, and other initiatives.

Community Norms for Meetings:
1) One mic, one diva
2) Make room, make noise
3) Nobody knows everything, but together we know a lot
4) What’s said here stays here, what’s learned here leaves here
5) We can’t be articulate all the time/Give the benefit of the doubt
6) Speak from the “I”
7) Be curious
8) 80/20 rule

We want our voices to be heard! Seeking first-hand accounts for an upcoming United Nations Review

The Best Practices Policy Project (BPPP), Desiree Alliance, and SWOP-NYC are calling on sex workers rights advocates and allies to join us in reporting the human rights abuses experienced by sex workers, people in the sex trades, people profiled as sex workers or impacted by anti-sex work policing and policies, and related communities. The U.S. will soon be reviewed by the United Nations (U.N.) Human Rights Council on its human rights record in a process referred to as the Universal Periodic Review (UPR). We are submitting a report to the U.N. and the U.N. needs to hear from you. Through this process, we create awareness before the international community, media outlets, other government officials, U.N. Human Rights Council members, and other stakeholders on the pressing issues facing the community. This is an important tool for pressuring the government to make changes.

To write this report, we need to hear from those who have directly experienced human rights violations and we are reaching out to folks until August 20, 2014. We hope to collect testimony and data from sex workers and related communities that we can include in our report. If there are specific instances of rights violations, you wish to share with us, we will incorporate these into the report. First-hand accounts of violations people have experienced are what the UN needs to hear most. Also know that these accounts can be anonymous in the report and that we will share a draft of the report with you so you can check that no identifying details are included.

If you are interested in participating, please email SWOP-NYC at or Kate D’Adamo, the SWOP-NYC rep directly, at or directly to one of our team members including J.Kirby, Kat Thomas, Penelope Saunders, Darby Hickey and Cris Sardina. We are happy to help people and groups understand what the UPR is and how the process works, and we would value learning about your experience working to advocate for rights at the U.N. to increase our collective knowledge. We can also assist with drafting testimony and organizing data. We will draft the report and send it to you or your organization’s representative before submitting to ensure that we correctly documented your experiences.

Nordic Model Redefines “Success” as No Results, All Collateral Damage

Last week the Norwegian government released a study it had commissioned on its 2009 law that criminalized the buying of sex. Abolitionists everywhere lauded the results: “success!” The law, which had been modeled after the Swedish Model of criminalizing buyers of sexual services (known as “Ending Demand” for sexual services), was passed in 2009. Even before its impact was weighed, it was considered ripe for exporting to other countries. As Canada debates the passage of C36, another law based on the Swedish Model, the need for robust analysis on the impact of these laws is only growing. However, a review of the study’s findings show that for those touting the Swedish model, success means all collateral damages and no real results.

The most basic premise of the study’s methodology, the reduction of prostitution, is deeply flawed. While many are touting the law as a success, the findings note that “There are no national estimates of the size of the prostitution market after 2010. There is also large uncertainty with regard to previous market estimates and other estimates of the market today.” [11] The claim that overall, prostitution has been reduced, is based only on a decrease in the visibility of street-based prostitution in Oslo after the 2009 law increased in policing of the area. [12] Further undermining this data, the researchers note that the methodology of observing these locations was inconsistent in date, time, and season, and simply tried to control for these challenges during the analysis. [12]

Indoor prostitution was even more challenging for researchers to estimate, and the result is acknowledged to be an assumption, claiming “Our best estimate – with a high degree of uncertainty– is a market reduction of 10-20 percent compared to the situation before the law.” [12]

Does the law reduce trafficking? While the study has assumptions, it lacks any evidence. While the law was based on the notion of a reduction in trafficking, the findings do not point to a single piece of evidence, or even make this claim. While it notes the reasoning of why it would assume a reduction, such as an increase in penalties, the findings neither claim nor support this assumption.

There is no police-based evidence that violence has increased – only evidence that people are less likely to report violence to police. The second claim that abolitionists are lauding is that the law did not lead to an increase in violence – but finding no evidence of an increase in violence is not the same as there being no increase in violence. No one is touting what they did find evidence for: sex workers report more safety concerns since the passage of the law and report being less likely to report violent clients. “People in prostitution are afraid that such actions will come back to halt them at later stages.” In the same breath, the report notes that police are not reporting higher instances of violence and that sex workers said they were less likely to report. The irresponsibility of calling this “no evidence of an increase in violence” is staggering.

What does the law do effectively? It increases vulnerability and contributes to poverty. The most disturbing parts of the findings were the many noted increases in vulnerability, while acknowledging the on-going need for resources and services. The findings openly state that “there is a need for providing more options for people that want to get out of prostitution. Language classes, work training and work options are considered to have clear positive effects and there is a need for more of such initiatives.” But despite this need for more options the study points out that for those in the sex trade, life is harder.

The increase in policing and targeting of those in the sex trade has only been able to increase the vulnerability of those in the sex trade. Interviews noted that sex workers reported a “weaker bargaining position” when interacting with clients, while at the same time lower prices mean taking on more clients. “Women in prostitution use the term ‘buyer’s market’ to address this tendency.” The results of this “weaker bargaining position” have been documented in a wide variety of circumstances, but in every case, it means that everything from physical boundaries to condom use to income is compromised for those in the sex trade. “Men and women in prostitution need to work harder now in order to secure 2008 income levels.” This means less discretion over clients, less autonomy, increased economic instability and a higher reliance on third parties.

Reducing the sex trade to the same supply and demand idea of butter and guns ignores the single most important factor: that those selling sexual services have demands of housing, food, and other basic resources. Being seen as simply a “supply” to an existing demand is a less-than-human status for which no one should stand. While the findings glibly note the need for more resources, it is exactly these options which will support those who want to leave the sex trade make their exit. We cannot define success as simply making the lives of those in the sex trade harder and creating laws that increase vulnerability and dependency is a basic violation of human rights. A study from the Sex Workers Project looked at the factors which led to the trafficking of 37 individuals from Mexico to the US. Of those respondents, 75% reported experiencing poverty, and often extreme hardship, prior to trafficking. Many reported food insecurity and a having to leave school because of financial reasons. We must expect and demand better from our laws and ourselves, and consider that dire collateral damage and economic instability should never be considered a success.

-Kate D’Adamo
Community Organizer

Join us Thursday, July 17 for our next SWOP-NYC Meeting

Don’t forget to join us this Thursday, July 17 from 7-9pm for the July SWOP-NYC meeting! It’s halfway through the year, so we’ll be discussing what we’ve done and what we’d like to accomplish in the coming months.
Not a member? Visit our Join page to sign up!

The Sex Worker’s Outreach Project NYC (SWOP-NYC) is the New York City chapter of the Sex Workers Outreach Project. SWOP-NYC has open meetings once a month for current/transitioning/former workers and allies to discuss on-going projects, upcoming events, and expand our advocacy work. SWOP-NYC projects include working on policy campaigns, providing direct support to SWANK, event organizing, and other initiatives.

Community Norms for Meetings: 1) One mic, one diva 2) Make room, make noise 3) Nobody knows everything, but together we know a lot 4) What’s said here stays here, what’s learned here leaves here 5) We can’t be articulate all the time/Give the benefit of the doubt 6) Speak from the “I” 7) Be curious

Give Belle Knox A Platform for Her Experience, Not Her Expertise

Belle Knox, the young woman originally identified as, “the Duke Porn Star” was a scandalous idea in the public imagination before she was a real person to most viewers. When Knox was unceremoniously thrust into the national spotlight and expected to answer impossibly complex questions about both the pitfalls and promise of the sex industry, she did so in a way that was articulate and self-aware for a woman with a relatively short tenure in the sex industry. Belle Knox was trying to make a living, not a statement. And sex workers can and should be sympathetic to the fact that she lived something of a communal nightmare when she was outed on someone else’s terms.

But while her outing by a Duke classmate gave her little choice but to go public to defend her work in the sex industry, the insistence by editors at major publications that she provide expert or accurate commentary on the sex industry is not only irresponsible, it can cause real harm to sex workers. There is no doubt that such harm is unintentional but it matters when she has such so many eyes and ears fixed on her to report on sex work to a woefully ignorant public.

Last week Knox used the very visible platform of Jezebel in a piece titled, “Tearing Down the Whorearchy From the Inside,” to shed light on the very real stratification of sex workers based on the type of sex work they do. The example that Knox uses is a stripper making unkind remarks about Knox’ decision to perform in porn. And while anti-sex work commentators often suggest that this is just par for the course for the privileged sex workers that enter the industry willingly, such commentary is indeed an example of the pernicious respectability politics at play across the sex industry. There is a belief among both anti-sex work activists and even some sex workers themselves that any workers with privilege must forfeit any and all their claims to disadvantage or harm in the industry because they are there willingly. But privilege is not a zero-sum game and Knox should not be asked to expect this kind of treatment just because she chose to perform in porn. The industry can and should do better.

But Knox claims that “sex work segregates itself along perceived social and legal lines” as if it the sex workers themselves that have dreamed up this caste system rather than the oppressive systems of power under which they operate. Sex workers are as responsible for the whorearchy as short skirts and inferior female intellects are for the patriarchy. Blaming the workers rather than a suffocating system of laws and law enforcement, class and economic structures, and race and gender politics turns blame inward on a class of people that is constantly asked to be ashamed of itself already and lets the real perpetrators continue their oppression uninterrupted.

Knox also extrapolates her personal experiences to universal truths about the sex industry when she writes, “I am often asked if there is solidarity among sex workers. The answer, as I’ve come to slowly and painfully discover, is no.” Such a claim represents a stunning ignorance of the very vibrant communities of support that have been built over decades to help sex workers find common ground, community, and legal recourse for those that face violence from law enforcement on a daily basis. The fact that sex workers can write about their experiences in the industry at all without becoming pariahs or targets for law enforcement is an indication that we are writing from atop the shoulders of giants. SWOP is one of many organizations aimed at amplifying the voices of sex workers and if SWOP is not her cup of tea, I would suggest she investigate both current and historical movements that are filled with open arms that would welcome her in a way that unkind social media commentators have not.

But in the same breath that Knox claims that sex workers are unkind toward one another, she paints a large swath of the sex worker population as self-destructive:

Sex work’s stigma — the negative connotations, the misogyny, double-standards and slut-shaming — are reasons many women who have other options avoid associating with it. This leads to a vicious cycle. When sex work is dominated by people who think they have no other options, you’re going to see a lot of bad behavior and self-destruction…There is nothing intrinsically damaging about sex work. But the stigma scares away most people who aren’t self-destructive.

This position is dangerous for two reasons. The first is that it helps to destabilize the position that sex work is work. If it is the work of an especially self-destructive crowd then it becomes reactionary and emotionally motivated rather than financially motivated. And while this is the case for some sex workers, to apply that assumption broadly discredits the labor element that sex workers fight tooth and nail to get on the radar. Secondly, if sex workers are self-destructive in the public imagination, this opens them up to potential abuse by clients.

Another upsetting and inaccurate point is when Knox posits, “We’re all essentially doing the same job — selling tickets to a fantasy — so you might imagine that, like retail, food service, or any other profession, we might have some form of solidarity.” First of all, the suggestion that there is universal solidarity in retail or food service is to misunderstand labor history and politics in a way that makes it worrying that Knox has been given an opportunity to write about them. The sex industry is too diverse both in its working population and the types of sexual services offered that a massive worldwide solidarity movement is not just impossible, it is counterproductive.

A worker operating outdoors experiencing the constant threat of violence by law enforcement or clients who know a worker has no recourse against them is very different from one operating from online and indoors. Sex workers that are supporting families that face not only being ostracized but having their children removed from their custody are not necessarily going to related to ones without those responsibilities. A pro-sub and an escort might have literally never performed the same acts. A worker in New York City has a very different experience than one in Arizona. Trans people have different experiences than cis people. Racial privilege is huge in sex work.

It is possible to be in solidarity without conflating experiences. This is not to suggest that workers like Knox with a certain level of privilege must be silent, just that they should speak to their personal experience rather than as experts on an enormous and enormously complicated industry. Her personal experience is important, and the fact that it is being shared is adding value to the conversation. But when she is given a microphone with which to speak about the sex industry as a whole, she would be wise to look beyond her personal experience before she makes proclamations to the general public about it. And I’m confident that a highly visible sex worker who uses her platform to elevate unheard stories and unheard voices from the industry is a scandalous idea that more sex workers would get behind.

Alana Massey, SWOP-NYC Member
Opinions of the author do not necessarily reflect the views of SWOP-NYC as an organization.

Sex (Work) In the Classroom: How Academia Can Support the Sex Worker Rights Movement

Over the last several years, the world’s oldest profession has become academia’s latest hot topic. As events, books and other media continue to increase the visibility of the sex trade, class time, and sometimes entire curricula, have sprung up to address its various (and varied) topics. Higher education and those who work within it play a number of different roles, impacting the lives of those in the sex trade both directly and indirectly.

SWOP-NYC has been privileged to work with some incredible academics who have been powerful allies** I have been lucky to personally collaborate with many in my activist work. As this relationship grows, and as academia continues to build an understanding, and hopefully shape a host of folks who will stand in solidarity with sex workers, there are a few things that can be done to better support those in the sex trade.

Academics as Teachers
Some writers, academics, journalists, researchers and service providers have preferred to consider themselves a “voice for the voiceless.” Often, however, this mindset can silence communities who can (in reality) speak for themselves. Why? When filtered through the lens of a journalist or researcher, narratives often lose context and the population in question can be more easily viewed as helpless victims and marginalized. To avoid this, academics should take a critical look at their syllabi and book lists. Using books and media created by those from within the movement can provide the most intimate, nuanced understandings of the sex industry (ex. Sex Workers Unite, by Melinda Chateauvert. These works address community-identified issues of the sex trade as opposed to outside perspectives on what those issues may be (ex: A Kiss for Gabriela). Incorporate the personal narratives of those working in the sex trade (ex: Johns, Marks, Tricks, and Chickenhawks ed. by David Henry Sterry and RJ Martin). Finally, reach out to local sex worker groups to speak to those experiences and engage with the individuals, instead of studying the “population data” from a distance.

Furthermore, educators have a responsibility to create and foster safe spaces for students to learn, speak and exchange ideas. Though assumptions may paint a certain picture of what a sex worker looks like and it is easy to forget that many students often work in the sex trade to meet the high cost of higher education. Creating a safe space for students means understanding that there are a range of experiences in the room, and spaces that shame or stigmatize those in the sex trade only make it harder to access education in a way that is otherwise taken for granted. In describing her experience in the class room, SWANK member and dominatrix Leigh Alanna noted:

Any time a professor addressed sex work around me, they came from the assumption that there were no actual, current workers in the room (or that loudmouth me was the only one). And sadly, thinking that you’re speaking wholly in the abstract does not lead to careful, considerate, or, frankly, helpful speech… But I know that I’m far from the only one to have started working without a whole lot of understanding of the sex trades — it would have made my experience a lot less burdensome if I hadn’t had the entire responsibility for educating my teachers and peers in the idea that sex workers were all around them.

Academics as Researchers
Research and reports can simultaneously carry an air of naive inaccuracy and heavy political power. Some academic researchers unquestioningly view their ignorance of the sex worker population as “objectivity” and therefore beneficial to their research. However, when data about sex work issues are circulated, it’s clear that at no point did the researchers ask the sex worker community what it wanted to know, or how its members frame their experience. As Jo Weldon, a longtime sex worker advocate writes, “while every interviewer asks me whether I was sexually abused as a child, none of them have ever asked me a single question about the financial mindset, or even the financial motivation, involved in my decisions to work in the sex industry. No one has ever asked me if my parents argued about money in front of me, if I got an allowance, if I had a job in high school, if I was raised to value money as a form of status or simply as a means to an end, and so on.” These researchers must recognize that their studies are political, and contribute to political discourse. Imparting personal assumptions on research bias does not make one apolitical, it makes one bad at their job, and furthermore, it can support the ongoing stigmatization and othering of an entire population.

Academics as Colleagues
One of the greatest things that any ally can do is to hold other community members accountable and create a space open to, if not welcoming of, those in the sex trade. Academia is a profession with certain barriers to entry; often populated by people of greater privilege, it can be difficult for members of outsider communities to hold space or receive the same level of respect in an academic setting . Where sex workers themselves cannot participate directly or openly, from department meetings to class and curriculum development, it is the responsibility of every one of these academic allies to consciously – and conscientiously – check their own communities and hold them accountable; to question assumptions and biases; to educate colleagues and support an inclusive environment.

Academics as Advocates
Finally, sex workers (and the larger student population in general) would benefit from economic advocacy. Higher education professionals are uniquely positioned to fight for lower tuition fees, more financial support, and fewer barriers to entry. Lack of access to decent, affordable education bars many people from higher-wage jobs, and prevents many from leaving the sex trade. Meanwhile, the need to fund available education opportunities is an incredibly common reason individuals pursue sex work. Lane, a SWANK member, observed that “people make a lot of jokes about the prevalence of NYU girls on sugar daddy sites and doubling as escorts and strippers as if they’re all just thrill-seeking degenerate rich kids. But the truth is, NYU was prohibitively expensive and the cost of tuition was one of many contributing factors in my decision to do sex work.” It seems too obvious to state that we need to make education fully available to those who would like to pursue it, and yet in reality, it isn’t. Reform in this area is necessary and until it is achieved, and even after, sex and the classroom will be intimately entwined.

- Kate D’Adamo, Community Organizer

**For a great discussion on what allyship is and isn’t, check out Mia McKenzie’s blog Black Girl Dangerous as her posts “No More Allies” and “8 Ways Not to be an Ally”

Kristof Misses the Mark (Again) on the Sex Industry and Anti-Trafficking Work

Nicholas Kristof’s response in the New York Times to the Somaly Mam scandal has left something to be desired for many activists that question the ethics of his participation in Mam’s anti-trafficking work. Following a damning Newsweek report alleging that much of Mam’s story of being trafficked for sex as a young girl was fabricated, she resigned her position at an anti-trafficking foundation. Kristof, who championed her cause in previous years, responded by under-emphasizing his influence and involvement and dragging several media outlets under the bus while doing so. While many see his response as simple cowardice, it is also one that is dangerous and counter-productive to the work of protecting people in the sex industry.

Kristof begins by downplaying his relationship with Mam and with the work of her foundation by reminding readers how terribly long ago he last mentioned her. Which was 2011. Which was not actually all that terribly long ago. When doubts about Mam’s story emerged in a Cambodia Daily piece in 2012, Kristof excuses himself from having to be self-reflective about his contributions to what is now called the “Rescue Industry” by sex work expert and writer Laura María Agustín not because he was terrifically embarrassed that he might have made a mistake in supporting the raids, but because he was busy looking into the future:

As columnists we normally are focused forward rather than on five-year-old columns, but the Cambodia Daily piece troubled me enough that I reached out to various people including the doctor who was quoted as saying that Long Pross was lying; he didn’t respond. These uncertainties are one reason I haven’t mentioned Somaly Mam in my writing since 2011.

Visionaries like Kristof just can’t be bothered to reconsider their actions because they always have some greater good to contribute to in the future. The first problem with this is that it is a total cop-out. The second is that when a cause relies heavily on narratives recounted from the past, the past becomes tremendously important in shaping the movement. The past must be important to inform the future in Kristof’s work which relies more on sex trafficking narratives than on sex trafficking statistics or analyses of labor markets.

He goes on to complain that he has now committed more words to the Mam scandal than he ever did to writing about her. He manages to call out Glamour, CNN, Time, Fortune, Newsweek, The Washington Post, and The Daily Beast or their coverage of Mam all in one column. He mentions Newsweek in particular, the publication that ran the damning report on the inconsistencies in Mam’s story, for “previously celebrating Somaly Mam.” It seems that in Kristof’s journalistic ethics book, what is most important is sticking to a story rather than getting a story right.

But where things move from being simply obnoxious to being inexcusable in the column is when Kristof writes:

Some critics think that the latest episode discredits the kind of rescues Somaly Mam engaged in. I don’t buy that: I saw a seventh grade Vietnamese girl locked up in an armed Cambodian military-run brothel. Does anybody really believe that she should have remained there to die of AIDS?

When he says “some critics,” Kristof belittles and underestimates the size and scope of the movement –led mostly by sex workers and former sex workers–to stop the Rescue Industry from using harmful tactics like brothel raids. An industry that is well documented as a perpetrator of violence, stigma, and forced labor against both willing and trafficked people in the sex industry. Then he makes the audacious and insulting claim that the only alternative to this counter-productive work is for little girls to die of AIDS in Cambodian military prisons. Perhaps there are hordes of activists advocating the, “Let them die of AIDS” strategy for ending trafficking but they are exceedingly difficult to find.

What are not hard to find, however, are thoughtful and intelligent works by sex workers, allies, and well-informed anti-trafficking activists that give texture and nuance to an incredibly complicated story. But those don’t seem to interest Kristof. Melissa Gira Grant’s op-ed in the New York Times demonstrated how raids use violent coercion and threats to disrupt all forms of commercial sex work. Surely he has a Google alert about himself and saw that she wasn’t suggesting death-by-AIDS as an alternative to raids. If he won’t trust Grant, perhaps he could have read works from The Human Trafficking Council that highlight alternatives like investigations into trafficking and prevention methods rather than raids. Or perhaps he could read about Monica Jones, a woman who is fighting the American incarnation of the Rescue Industry by revealing it as a transphobic and racist profiling mechanism that empowers police to violate the US Constitution. If he’s got no time for long-winded articles full of facts, maybe he could look up the hashtag #notyourrescueproject to get additional perspectives.

Much of Kristof’s intrepid reporting seems to be based on the motto, “Ask forgiveness, not permission.” He bursts into refugee camps for stories. He tags along on a brothel raid. He wanders into poverty-stricken villages. Part of his mass appeal is his apparent willingness to go where the “real” stories are. And while that motto may be useful to fresh-faced reporters navigating through institutional barriers to uncover exclusive stories, it should not inform the work of someone whose work centers on supposedly giving a voice to vulnerable populations. From those populations, he ought to get explicit consent and a diversity of their voices before using their narratives to enrich his own. And when he fails to fully understand their stories in a way that facilitates both physical and rhetorical violence, he should actually be self-reflective about the possible harms of projecting his own ideas about the sex industry onto both willing and coerced workers to fit a neat narrative that necessitates a savior.

What is clear from Kristof’s response is that he has no interest in what sex work activists have to say about the scandal surrounding Mam and her anti-trafficking tactics unless it is elevating his savior complex. Such continued insistence on championing the Rescue Industry is gravely irresponsible for someone who has prime real estate in one of the most prestigious newspapers on the planet. The causes he champions get major attention and institutional validation. When he supports a dangerous cause, he endangers more people than when someone without a microphone the size of his does.

Nicholas Kristof does not have an exclusive claim to the truth about conditions in the sex industry nor should he be entrusted as an expert to inform Times readers how trafficking ought to be handled. Instead of using this moment to acknowledge work that activists have done to dismantle an anti-trafficking model that does harm, he digs his feet into the ground and his fingers into his ears and continues championing it. What’s worse is that he claims that any proposed alternative is what really does harm. And that is an even more vulgar fiction that the ones that made it possible for Somaly Mam to continue her dangerous crusade for as long as she did.

-Alana Massey, @alanamassey

Let’s Not Rescue the Rescue Industry After Somaly Mam’s Departure

Last week, long-time anti-sex trafficking activist and pseudo-celebrity Somaly Mam resigned from her position at the foundation bearing her name amid an investigation into the veracity of her own claims of being trafficked as a young girl,. It was these claims that made it possible for her to build an impressive profile in the anti-trafficking community and even contribute to the narrative around what trafficking looks like and how it ought to be combatted. Her resignation came on the heels of a damning Newsweek article by Simon Marks that shed light on several inconsistencies in Mam’s story and those of several girls with whom her organization worked. The story generated outcry from many who see sinister motivations behind the impulse to fact-check controversial and disputed stories.

Much of the conversation has already turned to dismay at how far back these revelations will take the otherwise noble movement to end sex trafficking. But this conversation misses the key factor that most of the design and execution of that movement was based on a false narrative. What Mam’s resignation should do is bring scrutiny to an organizational model that relies heavily on individual trafficking narratives rather than the institutional violence that facilitates the various forms of trafficking and the counter-productive methods used by Mam’s group and others to address them.

There is reasonable concern that Mam’s now evident lies will engender disbelief of all victims of rape, sexual abuse, and trafficking and by extension, endanger work on behalf of trafficked women and girls. But such concern belies the misguided belief that Mam’s anti-trafficking model is a useful and effective way to address sex trafficking and the sex industry as whole. In Mam’s work, brothel raids functioned as a dramatic and media-friendly way of “rescuing” women and girls from the sex trade, sometimes even featuring celebrity rescuers like Nicholas Kristof in their gallant efforts to arrest very young teens. Lindsay Lohan even made a documentary about her own week-long effort rescuing trafficking victims in India. Meanwhile, journalists like Noy Thrupkaew at The Nation have reported extensively on how brothel raids work to criminalize, silence, and force labor on those rounded up in the raids to little fanfare in the media or the discourse on sex trafficking.

Further obscuring the complexity of the issue is the heavy reliance on Mam’s harrowing personal narrative of trafficking, the nightmare of sexual slavery, and her eventual escape and subsequent activism. Seeing such narratives as paradigmatic of those in the sex trade grossly oversimplifies the diverse circumstances under which people enter it while also functioning as a silencing mechanism against those that question the estimated scope of sex trafficking internationally. As Laura María Agustín pointed out in her groundbreaking book Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets, and the Rescue Industry, statistics on the topic are almost impossible to trust, “Given the impossibility of counting not only undocumented migrants but all workers in informal economies, there can be no trustworthy numbers, so the published statistics are mostly fantasies.”

Kate D’Adamo, a community organizer here at the Sex Worker Outreach Project’s New York City chapter, explains how such stories undermine real efforts to improve conditions for those in the sex trade, “Individual stories mean that you get to divorce what’s happening from the institutional violence and disenfranchisement that leads to trafficking. It’s still viewed as a villain/victim story, and that is really conducive to the rescue model.” D’Adamo points to the structures of poverty, inequality, low-income work, and the exploitation of marginalized populations as primary factors that contribute to trafficking. And such entrenched issues around labor and poverty are significantly more difficult to eradicate than simply villainizing a grisly cast of international sex traders whose sadistic exploits can only be stopped by the likes of Ashton Kutcher and Nicholas Kristof.

Commenting on Kristof’s particular predilection for brothel raids in Playing the Whore: The Work of Sex Work, Melissa Gira Grant writes how these dramatic gestures prevent understanding of the experiences of people in the sex trade:

We might say that people like Kristof have erred in mythologizing sex work using only its worst cases, but we aren’t in a position to know what the concept of worst cases even means to those who adhere to this tradition, which casts all sex work as a worst case for merely existing. This allegedly honest storytelling cannot accommodate the range of experiences sex workers have, report on, and are adamant about having understood.

It is this assumption that sex work is the worst of all possible worlds that makes it even more difficult to assess the scope of actual sex trafficking. When there is so much stigma attached to being a willing sex worker instead of absolutely any other kind of worker, even in the face of tremendous dangers in other forms of labor, there seems to be little incentive to proclaim one’s preference for sex work against other options.

In Salon, Anne Elizabeth Moore reported on her experience in Cambodia investigating anti-trafficking efforts in the country and concluded, “What they [anti-trafficking NGOs] do is normalize existent labor opportunities for women, however low the pay, dangerous the conditions, or abusive an environment they may be. And they shame women who reject such jobs.” Moore goes on to recount the brutality of conditions in the garment industry where “rescued” workers are often forced to work against their will in literally life-threatening conditions. “Surely it is better than the brothel!” the Rescue Industry cries as it accepts another accolade. And the world nods along with it.

The few who are as courageous as Agustín was to use the word “fantasies” in such close proximity to the issue of sex trafficking are often punished for it. A common accusation made by anti-sex work activists against consenting sex workers and advocates for decriminalization is that they downplay or even deny the existence of sex trafficking in order to protect their own profits in the industry. Katha Pollitt did double-duty of shaming sex workers in a review of Grant’s book for The Nation when she suggested that sex workers and their allies must have not considered male privilege in their discourse on sex workers as laborers who deserve protections as such. Pollitt also dismissed a tongue-in-cheek quiz about sex trafficking on The New Inquiry as obviously intended for a white, educated sex worker with a plethora other options. The quiz author later revealed that she had indeed been a trafficking victim. Of course, she did so with a considerably smaller microphone than the one given to Pollitt, leaving real victims of trafficking out of the conversation so that rescuers might go on writing speculative fiction about the realities of the sex trade.

This ongoing insistence that members of the already marginalized population of sex workers are complicit in the grisly trade of selling girls and women eliminates an opportunity to learn from one of the few groups that has non-violent and non-judgmental solutions for reducing harm in the sex trade and shedding light on the various experiences that lead people to enter it. Just because all of the ghastly details of Mam’s story were not true does not invalidate the terrible experiences of those who have been trafficked. But an over-reliance on compelling fictions like hers does nothing to mitigate the financial, social, and cultural circumstances that give shape to the sex industry and that might actually prevent further violence.

So yes, it might be true that untold numbers of girls and women enter the sex trade by coercion, force, or necessity. But we must understand “untold” in this context to be an ongoing deficit in reliable figures and narratives rather than as a problem of enormous scope. There is little use in knowing the size of an issue if the existing methods of addressing it are violent, counter-productive, and stigmatizing to the populations against whom they are used. And there is even less value in mythologizing victims of sex trafficking when there are plenty of perfectly honest workers in the sex industry ready to tell perhaps less enthralling but decidedly more complex and useful stories about the circumstances that brought them to the trade.

-Alana Massey, @alanamassey

Criminalization Beyond Crime: Private Institutions Policing the Sex Trade

In recent weeks, we have seen a marked uptick in the disturbing trend of financial institutions denying services to people in the sex industry. WePay hit the news lately when it shut down the account of a campaign set up by adult performer Eden Alexander to cover the medical bills she incurred from a life-threatening staph infection. Prior to WePay’s action, Chase Bank, that old icon of US morality and shining ethical business practices, shut down hundreds of accounts belonging to adult performers. While the termination letters they sent listed no official reason outside of “compliance issues,” another refusal to process payments for a company selling condoms noted that the reason was the selling of “adult-oriented material.” The results of these actions are not unknown, increasing marginalization and stigmatization, and they point to a disturbing trend of using private institutions, which face less scrutiny and transparency, for criminal justice ends.

We are used to talking about the traditional – and often obvious – forms of criminalization, but these private companies are now increasingly participating in a de-facto criminalization, often beyond the reach of public scrutiny and disclosure. The result, not surprisingly, is increased marginalization and reinforced stigmatization and shame of those involved in sex work. When basic services which allow sex workers to take money electronically are withheld, the same workers are forced to exclusively transact with cash, leaving them more vulnerable to counterfeiting, theft and assault, or non-payment. Closing the individual bank accounts of porn performers is a chilling movement towards increased disenfranchisement. Without a bank account, individuals face additional burdens when accessing the same basic things that many people take for granted: leases and housing, insurance, credit, loans, and a myriad of other institutions which many don’t think of as a privilege for participation in something which is not a crime. Whether it is the distribution of basic safety information has being formally criminalized as “promotion of prostitution” and or the denial of the basic tools of every other industry, the impact is the same: increased vulnerability and a frightening level of marginalization, and often being forced to engage in behavior which is more underground and more often criminalized in traditional ways.

In fact, there is evidence of an increasingly integrated relationship between private and public institutions, though not for the purposes we would suspect. While the Department of Justice has official legal constraints on their ability to shut down business operations en masse, Operation Choke Point, a Department of Justice program, can still apply pressure to direct money lenders, directing such shutdowns by-proxy, under the guise of anti-trafficking and anti-terrorism. Even Senators are becoming increasingly weary of the power of such programs to target businesses. As noted by Senator David Vitter (R-La.) “There is a determined effort, from [the Justice Department] to the regulators… to cut off credit and use other tactics to force [payday lenders] out of business. I find that deeply troubling because it has no statutory basis, no statutory authority.”

Finally, it is important to remind ourselves that these are not isolated blips, but the most recent step in a longer pattern. Chase shutting down the accounts of porn performers caught our attention because while porn is part of the sex industry, it is legal and regulated, and performers have a greater opportunity to be involved in the public discourse. WePay shut down the account of a porn star with a completely non-porn-related medical need. Neither instance had a hint that any of them had stepped outside the law, and no one is having formal charges filed against them. They are simply going to be discriminated against for their participation in the sex industry.

But this is a practice that has been known and discussed in the sex worker community for years, and is a regular experience for other communities for which institutional disenfranchisement and abuse is regularized and normalized. It is commonly known that PayPal shuts down the accounts of people involved in the sex industry, making it more difficult for many to take deposits or to guarantee payment when setting up a session. Last year, Chase Bank (clearly a repeat offender) stopped processing credit card payments to Backpage for adult services ads and all payments to The Erotic Review. Workers who advertise online are not only denied access to funds they earn from these sites but are also prevented access to the rest of their funds and accounts. One SWOP-NYC member reported that, when she called to inquire about her transaction denial, she was told that Backpage was “fraudulent” and then was told by the customer service rep that she should not be using the site at all. For undocumented persons, youth, low-income communities, homeless and housing unstable folks, denial of access to these same institutions is the norm. And because of additional forms of criminalization and policing, staying off the grid is often a harm-reduction technique which is essential to survival. There is no outcry, no public outrage, for these acts, though, and too often it is because we do not deem these populations as deserving of these services in the first place. (If we want to see how policing of non-criminal activity impacts profiled communities, we need look no further than the No Condoms as Evidence campaign.)

We must remind ourselves that disenfranchisement is a multi-layered experience. It is this experience which curbs basic access to resources and puts people in danger. As a society, we cannot continue to claim that engaging in sexual labor is dangerous while at the same time promoting policies which create and exacerbate that same violence and harm. It is policing which pushes people into more remote areas, making them more vulnerable to violence. It is the inability to take electronic payment, forcing people to only accept and carry cash, making them more vulnerable to theft and loss. It is denial of services which force people off-the-grid and more likely to need alternative, and often criminalized, mechanisms to operate. It is stigmatization which silences and isolates individuals. The ability of private institutions to discriminate against an individual because of their work is a practice which should give us all pause. The use of private institutions by public institutions to carry out goals that the Department of Justice cannot do themselves, through mechanisms which are subject to almost no transparency or scrutiny, should give us all chills.

-Kate D’Adamo, Community Organizer

Come see SWOP-NYC at the Left Forum!

On Saturday, May 31, SWOP-NYC, with the presence of several other great organizations, will present three panels on sex work at the Left Forum this year. Come learn more, hear advocates speak, ask questions, and participate in some great conversations!

10AM: Sex Work Internationally: Three Contexts in Comparison
There is not a country, community, nor context in the world which is not touched by the sex industry. Panelists will explore the nuances and compare the different dimensions of how the sex trade is impacted by local culture, legislation, and criminalization. We will be looking at working conditions in Cambodia, and the organizing that is taking place amidst violent governmental suppression and intensified anti-trafficking efforts. This will be compared to the experiences of migrant workers who emigrated from China to Canada and are engaged in massage parlor-based sexual labor, and the complications of migration and law against the backdrop of the recent Canadian Supreme Court case which overturned prostitution law. Finally, we will look at the sex trade in Finland, which utilizes its own form of the much-touted “Swedish” or “Nordic Model.” Within these three backdrops, we will hope to shed light on the question: what does progress and revolution look like for those impacted by the sex industry?
With Dr. Heidi Hoeffinger,a fellow at the National Development and Research Institutes, Inc., Niina Vuolajar, a PhD Candidate at Rudgers University, and Kate Zen of the Red Umbrella Project.
Room: 1.114

12pm: The Work of Sex Work: The Sex Trade in a Labor Context
All too often, when we discuss sex work, we focus on the sex and forget about the work. How can we understand sex work in the context of informal labor, and feminized “care labor,” while tying together the histories of organizing by sex workers to struggles by women to gain wages for housework and recognition for domestic workers’ rights? How have sex workers succeeded at the International Labor Organization and in other countries in getting sex work recognized as work, and what are obstacles and possible pathways towards achieving this in the United States? What does anti-trafficking work look like the context of economic justice and labor rights and why are these preferable tactics to the current paradigm? In this panel, we seek to re-frame discussion of the sex trade to look at economic justice and labor rights.
With Irene Jor of the National Domestic Workers Alliance, Emma Caterine of the Red Umbrella Project, and Kate D’Adamo of SWOP-NYC.
Room: 1.114

3:10pm: Sex Workers Unite: A Collective Call for Decriminalization and Community Support
As the recent debate over Amnesty International’s new sex work policy has shown, one of the biggest roadblocks to full decriminalization of the sex industry is opposition from vocal segments of the Left. Responding to the common leftist criticism of sex work advocacy – that it originates from and benefits primarily the most privileged – the panel will cover the history of U.S. sex work activism from its origins at the Stonewall and Compton Cafeteria riots to present-day radical organizing. Panelists will discuss the effects of full and partial criminalization (as well as legalization) on different segments of the industry and on otherwise marginalized groups: queer workers, trans workers, workers of color, disabled workers, immigrant and migrant workers, street workers and youth under 18. Finally, the panel will explore what comes after decriminalization in terms of securing the safety and well-being of everyone in the sex trades.
With Mitchyll Mora of Streetwise and Safe, Lori Adorable of SWOP-NYC, and Lynly Egyes of the Sex Workers Project.
Room: 1.114

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