Stacey Swimme

Innovative Thinking On The Sex Industry & Social Justice

How Commercial Interests Drive Trafficking Misinformation (3 of 6)

Excerpted from a post I contributed at Sex In The Public Square on February 25th, 2008.

The Media Always Win in the End

The ‘other’ is so sexy. The media love it. Combine the ‘other’ with ‘sex’ with ‘bondage’ … if it bleeds it leads. Throw in helpless foreigners ~mostly under-aged~ who are chained to beds so that some can profit in figures of billions and, well, you’ve got yourself an on-going porno series that is seeing higher profits than even the top-rated AVN Award winners. It’s an opiate for the masses, we get off on it—then we run out to the mall to purchase clothes made by the people who actually are enslaved.

Our comfortable lives require that we are not burdened by the reality of people dying in the desert in order to make it across the border to pick our produce, build our tract homes and clean our hotel rooms. We are so transfixed on the salacious media coverage of the huge sex trafficking pornography splashed across the newspapers almost daily that we cannot see past our own demand for immediate consumerist gratification to evaluate the real issues.

Smoke and mirrors…. every consumer element of our lives from food to clothing to housing is dependent on cheap labor and the actual trafficking that does exist is driven by those markets- not by sex work. But sexual slavery sells more advertising units than farm, construction, or domestic slavery…

Consumerism and Cheap Labor (2 of 6)

Excerpted from a post I contributed at Sex In The Public Square on February 25th, 2008.

Consumer Denial

The hype and focus on sex trafficking encourages North Americans to ignore capitalist- and consumer-driven demand for cheap labor in other markets such as agriculture, textiles, automotive manufacturing and domestic labor. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) makes it easier and lucrative for corporations to export manufacturing jobs to Mexico where workers are under-paid and labor and environmental provisions to protect workers are not enforced. This, in turn, gives workers incentive to cross borders in search of better opportunities. However, workers without legal documentation to be employed in the US are far more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.

The sex trafficking obsession relieves us of guilt and accountability as consumers. We get to tell ourselves that we are ‘saving’ those poor, unfortunate foreign women- all the while pouring money into sweatshop labor and slave-wages for agricultural workers each time we make a purchase. How often do we as North American consumers actually consider where our products come from? Further, how often do we hold the corporations that profit from cheap labor accountable for the human rights abuses that they perpetuate?

The demand that drives the exploitation of human labor is not a demand for sex. It is a demand for cheap products. Look around you right now, how many of the items in view do you know the source of? Not just the store where they were purchased, but the source of the material. Where did the tiny little screws holding together these computers that we’re using come from? Are we willing to pay more for these products in order to ensure that laborers are paid fair wages and have safe working conditions? We do have responsibilities as consumers to be conscious about how we spend our money.

Check out The Story of Stuff for an in-depth look at how consumerism in North America affects labor markets, living conditions and the environment in developing countries.

If you actually care about ending human trafficking, it is critical that you look beyond the media glare on sex trafficking and understand the broader conditions that influence labor migration. Check out Laura Agustin’s book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry.

Ethicist Reports: Prostitution is Not Harmful

Aspiring philosopher and ethicist Ole Martin Moen of The University of Oslo, Norway published a paper last week entitled “Is Prostitution Harmful?” in the Journal of Medical Ethics. It seems this question has been asked repeatedly in many academic and social environments. Moen’s 8 page response to this question revisits many of the same tired arguments that academics, activists and feminists have already discussed ad nauseam, however, he has a fresh framing of a few perspectives that I find are useful to repeat over and over again until academia, feminism and society at large are able to accept them as truths, despite their moral and philosophical resistance to the facts. I’ll highlight some of them here and if you’d like to review the full article, here’s the PDF.

I believe food and sex are related, if not directly then metaphorically. Regarding casual sex and the “cheapening” of sex if not for romantic purposes, Moen writes:

When a romantic couple dines at a lovely restaurant, their eating might well be romantically significant for both parties. What is, biologically, the mere satisfaction of a nutritional need is given deep personal meaning because of its social and psychological setting. It is not clear, however, the advocate of the ‘casual view’ might argue, that one degrades eating as such and destroys one’s capacity for appreciating romantic meals if one has earlier engaged in ‘casual eating’ or has been ‘eating around’, occasionally catching a cheap hotdog on the run. If this is right, then engaging casually in an activity that has the potential for romantic significance needs not destroy that activity ’s romantic significance on other occasions. If we accept this, then we would need a separate argument to explain why casual sex destroys sex even though casual eating does not destroy eating. (Page 2)

There’s a tendency to believe that the harm done to sex workers is from an acute, strictly defined group of men who exploit, rape and beat sex workers. It’s rarely acknowledged that entire societies are actually responsible for the outcomes sex workers are subjected to:

A client cannot rightfully beat up a prostitute any more than he can beat up a hairdresser or a plumber. (It is true that in many societies, violence against prostitutes is taken less seriously than violence against non-prostitutes. That, however, should speak against those societies, not against prostitution.) (Page 5)

And this:

…imagine that we were all brought up told that good girls are not hairdressers, that many of our common derogatory terms were synonyms for ‘hairdresser ’, and that most people, upon seeing a hairdresser, would look away. Imagine that hairdressers had to live in fear of social exclusion if friends or family found out how they struggle to make ends meet, that no one would knowingly employ ex-hairdressers, and that landlords would terminate housing contracts if they discovered that their tenant is a hairdresser. Imagine that most hairdressers had to work on the street, in cars, or in the homes of strangers, and that if their work were organised, it were organised by criminals offering no work contracts, no sick leave and no insurance. In such a society, hairdressers would very likely suffer significant harms. There would be two reasons for this. Most obviously, the social and legal maltreatment would be a heavy burden to bear for those already engaged in hairdressing. Less obviously, but statistically just as important, the maltreatment would skew the sample of who become hairdressers in the first place. If hairdressers were maltreated, then only (or almost only) people who were already in serious trouble would find it worthwhile to become hairdressers. As such, if hairdressers were treated the same way prostitutes are treated, we should not be surprised to learn that hairdressing correlated with depression, suicide attempts, drug abuse and so on—even if, as we all know, hairdressing is not a harmful occupation. (Page 8)

Elsewhere in the paper Moen acknowledges that there are some risks associated with the profession, but demonstrates that the benefits outweigh the harms, then he closes with the synthesis of his argument: that if the role of prostitutes in society is compared to the role of homosexuals in society, we can see that social harms far outweigh occupational risks and change can indeed lead to better conditions for sex workers:

In less than two centuries we have, in large parts of the world, ended slavery, given men and women equal rights, and accepted homosexuality. It is important to remember, moreover, that these changes were made possible because some people dared to be a little utopian and abstracted away from their present context. We can all too easily hear the voice of someone opposed to homosexuality half a century ago proclaiming that homosexuality is deeply interrelated with various complex social and psychological factors (such as youth uncertainly, depression, exploitation, rape, disease, drug abuse and unstable families), that these form part of what homosexuality is, and that trying to assess homosexuality apart from them is hopelessly utopian. Today, we are glad someone dared question their assumptions and look beyond their immediate social context in their assessment of homosexuality. If my arguments in this paper are sound, we should approach prostitution in a similar manner, and be open for the possibility that prostitutes are harmed, not because prostitution is harmful, but because society at present seriously wrongs prostitutes.  (Page 8)

Overall I applaud Moen’s report here and I hope it’s reigniting some more creative debates in academia around the issues of prostitution and social stigma. I’d especially like to see more academic explorations that question how societies or specific groups within societies benefit from, and therefore have a vested interest in, maintaining and propagating myths that keep sex workers at a second class status.  In particular, looking at societies’ need for a group to embody a symbolic demon to loathe and fear and make suffer. To achieve real change, we desperately need a better understanding of the motivations and incentives that drive not only the prohibition efforts, but also the apathy from those who have no moral objection to prostitution, while at the same time having no moral objection to the ostracism of sex workers.

Smoke and Mirrors (1 of 6)

Excerpted from a post I contributed at Sex In The Public Square on February 25th, 2008.

Human trafficking is happening. Let’s just get that out of the way up front. This is not a debate as to whether trafficking actually exists. I am pro-choice in that all people should have autonomy over their own bodies. I am against slavery, violence, and exploitation in any form against any gender. Forced prostitution is not sex work. It is rape. I understand that sexual violence is just one way that human oppression manifests itself.

To end exploitation we have to consider the many factors that are contributing to this global problem including racism, sexism, poverty, nationalism and the culture of violence that is rewarded and reinforced around the world. One cannot address the full spectrum of issues associated with human trafficking in a single post. This is an analysis of the consumer-driven demand for cheap labor and a call to any human with a conscience to take personal action to end human trafficking.

Currently, public discourse about trafficking is centered on the media’s obsession with sexploitation stories rooted in both moralistic and political dogma. It is difficult to identify real allies in the fight against trafficking because of widespread embellishment of facts and bipartisan support of policies that are harmful to women in the US as well as abroad.

This approach is harmful on a multitude of levels.

Facts and Figures

Nobody actually knows how many people are trafficked, where those people are taken to and in what sort of labor trafficked people are engaged in. The conflation of commercial sex work with human trafficking and the lumping together of farm, domestic and other forms of labor with sex trafficking causes a misdirection of attention and resources, leaving trafficked people without real solutions and resources.

CatalystCon Comes to the West Coast!

I am so excited to be a presenter at CatalystCon this month! Dee Dennis, one of the organizers who brought MomentumCon to the Washington DC area for the past two years, has set her sights on Long Beach, CA for the weekend of September 14-16. From the website:

CatalystCon is a conference created to inspire exceptional conversations about sexuality. It is about reaching out and stimulating those who attend to create those important conversations in their own communities, changing how we as a society talk about and treat sexuality.  It is about stimulating the activist that is within all of us and sparking transformation in the way our friends, neighbors, children and even politicians discuss one of the most important aspects of humanity.

Whoa! That’s a tall order to fill. For any of us who’ve been doing activism and social change in the field of sexuality, we know that we’re facing an uphill battle here in the US to change how we as a society talk about and treat sexuality. Fortunately, this conference is organized by a deeply talented woman who has pulled together an all-star lineup of sex educators and gurus, marriage & family therapists, sex workers and activists who will blow your mind! In addition to sessions and socials, there’s a pre-conference party called Glory Hole hosted by the Pleasure Chest and a CE seminar led by Dr. Marty Klein.

I’m most excited about the Sex Worker-only private mixer happening prior to the opening plenary. People often wonder why it’s so important for sex workers to have private space in these conference environments. We deal with an extreme degree of alienation, isolation and discrimination. Even among a super sex positive crowd like those who attend CatalystCon. It’s not because people are jerks. It’s usually just because people don’t understand how difficult it is to live a closeted life where your professional identity invites unwanted attention. Many sex workers want to be able to discuss business or personal issues with each other in private as a means of protecting their ‘vanilla jobs’ or their families. And often, men with completely harmless intentions end up bombarding us in our “off” time with their needs and interests. So frankly, it’s just easier to not acknowledge our sex worker identity during the main conference and focus on making those important connections in a private environment. We’re fortunate that Dee and the Catalyst crew understand this need and have risen to the occasion to support us.

Of course, you won’t want to miss my session for sex workers and loved ones “When Someone You Love Is A Sex Worker” on Sunday 9/16 at 10:30am. I hope all you partiers can either get up early or just stay up all night and make it to an early Sunday morning session!

Here’s a sampling of some of the other sessions I’m excited about:

Reid Mihalko will be leading a fab session called “When To Give It Away and When To Charge For It: Knowing Your Worth, Assessing Others’, And How To Make Ends Meet As a Sex-Positive Professional” I know many of us struggle in this area. Sometimes it’s hard to reckon the value of our sex educating services in a society that so undervalues authentic sexual information.

I’m finally going to meet one of my all-time heroes, Mr. Buck Angel who is leading a session called The Buck Angel Effect

Sure to be a controversial session, Paying for It: How Client Stigma Impacts the Sex-Positive Movement will be led by the lovely Sabrina Morgan

Allison Moon brings us Creativity for Radicals in which she “explores the politics, privileges and identity issues endemic to creating art. In this interactive talk, Allison will deconstruct notions of “privilege guilt” into useful components for creativity, discuss the intersection between art and social justice, deconstruct activist skill-sets to turn them into useful tools for the creation process, and share methods for distilling passion from conflict to turn activism into relevant art.”

And there are dozens of other amazing sessions that you don’t want to miss at CatalystCon 2012! If you haven’t registered yet, please do soon before registration closes on Sept. 13. I’m looking forward to seeing you there!

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