The lies about sex trafficking that brought down Backpage

Powerful myths about sex work are behind the war against Backpage

By Noah Berlatsky

Published April 15, 2018 5:30PM (EDT)

 (Getty/microgen)
(Getty/microgen)

The nightmare of human sex trafficking was famously exposed in the 2012 film Eden, wherein a Korean-American high school student is kidnapped and forced into a life of sexual slavery along with dozens, or even hundreds, of other young women. The based-on-a-true-story narrative uncovered and explored a "horrible underworld" according to reviews, raising awareness about a scourge of exploitation targeting the innocent.

There was only one problem: The film was a lie.

There was not, in fact, a massive kidnapping ring dragooning New Mexico teens into sexual slavery. The person on whom the film was supposedly based, Chong Kim, did not commit multiple murders in the course of a daring escape because it never occurred. Trafficking in real life has about as much to do with Eden as a real-life infectious disease has to do with The Walking Dead. The government does not base epidemic response policy on zombie films. But, unfortunately, it does often base sex work policy on narratives like Eden.

As a result, anti-trafficking legislation and law enforcement focus on saving people who don't exist, and harms people who do in the process.

In the rush to save fictional sex trafficking victims, authorities put at risk the livelihood, and even the lives, of real consensual sex workers, and real trafficking victims. The government's attack on sex workers has ramped up ominously this year, culminating this week in President Donald Trump signing the recently passed Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), which effectively makes it possible for law enforcement to prosecute people for advertising sexual services online.

The online advertising platform Backpage was shuttered last week on charges of money laundering and aiding prostitution. The rationale for these actions is the same — to stop trafficking. As California senator and former prosecutor Kamala Harris argues, "Victims of sex trafficking should be protected and have the ability to seek justice. That’s why, from my earliest days as a prosecutor, I’ve led the fight against Backpage and other sex trafficking platforms."

In labeling Backpage a "sex trafficking platform," Harris suggests the website is abetting some sort of Eden-like conspiracy, in which innocent kidnapped victims, often underage, are being advertised online with the knowing collusion of website operators. But the reality of trafficking is very different, according to Alexandra Lutnick, a Senior Research Scientist at RTI International and the author of Domestic Minor Sex-Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains. Lutnick points out that trafficking "is far more common outside of the sex industry" than inside it. She points to the International Labor Organization's 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labor, which found that three-quarters of forced labor does not involve forced sexual labor. Instead, most trafficking involves farm workers, construction workers, or domestic workers who have wages withheld or are forced to work without pay. Yet, politicians rarely make grandstanding statements boasting about fighting labor exploitation of construction workers. And, of course, no one says that we should make farm work illegal to end exploitation in the agriculture industry.

People who are sex trafficked also don't generally fit the Eden narrative. Lutnick explained that "if you are under the age of 18 and selling sex in any capacity, you are considered a trafficking victim." Youth who are forced to leave home aren't generally kidnapped; instead, they end up trading sex for shelter or food because they have few other options. "From research I have done, and others have done, it appears that approximately half of young people selling sex do not have a third party involved (i.e., pimp or trafficker)," Lutnick says.

Even traffickers who exploit youth or adults are generally not part of a wide-ranging conspiracy. Instead, they are often significant others; labor exploitation for sex workers is frequently one aspect of domestic abuse. Sarah Fenix, a trafficking victim, pointed me to Twitter, where she explains she was trafficked after she became homeless. Her abusive boyfriend was a heroin user, and she was desperate to prevent him from going into withdrawal, so she began to do sex work to get money to pay for his habit.

Fenix was not exploited by Backpage. On the contrary, the internet allowed her to screen clients and work indoors. "Backpage helped keep me safe during one of the scariest most dangerous times of my entire life," she writes. "With Backpage, I could post my phone number, and I would actually talk to these dudes a little bit. I could weed out the worst ones." The website gave her the tools to make an exploitive, terrifying situation slightly less life-threatening.

In fact, one recent study found that opening online advertising to sex workers made sex workers so much safer, and so much less likely to be killed, that overall homicide rates for female victims fell by 17 percent. As Lutnick told me, "Legislation focused on websites results in the disappearance of sites that people in the sex industry use to stay safe, including people being trafficked."

Trafficking victims, in other words, are threatened when consensual sex workers are threatened. This makes sense because almost all sex trafficking victims are sex workers facing labor exploitation, just as trafficked farm workers are almost all farm workers who are being mistreated by employers or third parties.

Yet when politicians talk about sex trafficking, they rarely if ever acknowledge that consensual sex workers even exist. Kamala Harris' statement about SESTA doesn't mention consensual sex work at all. Even Oregon Democrat Ron Wyden, one of only two senators who opposed SESTA, doesn't mention sex workers. Instead, he says he opposes SESTA because it will hurt small tech companies, which might face legal repercussions if someone advertises sexual services on their platforms. In high-level policy debates, sex workers simply don't exist — which means that trafficking victims, who are again almost all sex workers, don't exist either. Instead, real workers facing real labor exploitation are replaced with fantasy innocents who must be protected, not from wage theft, but from sex.

"Trafficking narratives insist that no one has agency and that everyone in the sex trade is there by force or coercion of a violent nature and almost always by a third party," Alex Andrews, co-founder of the sex worker advocacy organization SWOP Behind Bars, told me. "They are horrified at the idea of monetized sexual services. It's a morality crusade where people in power try to make decisions for people who don't have power. These kinds of power dynamics are always harmful. They are unwilling to allow for folks to make decisions that meet their needs."

Those needs, Andrews says, include things like food, housing, clothing and healthcare. They also include safe workplaces and a steady source of income. Andrews says that her clients "find their way out of sex work through sex work" — they make enough money to stabilize their lives and move on to pursue other education or career goals. "Taking away someone's ability to work their own way out of sex work by removing their safety platforms is harmful," she concludes. "Taking away their safety platforms and then not providing an immediate resource for safety and security is inexcusable."

Sex workers and sex worker advocates have almost uniformly decried the shutdown of Backpage and the passage of SESTA. Sensationalist accounts of sex trafficking like Eden are regularly debunked. But the government still treats trafficking as if Eden is true, and consensual sex workers are fiction.

The problem is that the Eden trafficking narrative is just too good for politicians to abandon. "It's not sexy to fund a soup kitchen or a job fair," Andrews says. "It's not sexy to make sure folks have safe and secure housing." Raids on nefarious kidnappers are stirring; it's fun to save the innocent. Giving resources to a stigmatized minority is more controversial, and less likely to garner admiring headlines. But the real story is that trafficking victims don't need saviors — they need labor rights.


Noah Berlatsky

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Backpage Backpage.com Sex Trafficking Sex Work