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I Was a Virgin Anti-Prostitution Fanatic

How I learned my religious infatuation with “saving” sex workers was harmful and stupid.

by James Wilt
19 February 2017, 1:18am

The first tit I ever saw in real life, besides my own mother's, belonged to a 50-some-year-old sex worker in a back alley of Vancouver's Downtown Eastside.

It wasn't a sexualized reveal. The woman just all of a sudden pulled up her shirt to point out a birthmark or scar to help augment a specific story she was telling about her life (which on the whole was a fairly tragic narrative that included becoming a classically trained pianist, her husband dying and an eventual spiral into vicious drug addiction).

But for an 18-year-old extremely virgin and sexually anxious evangelical Christian like myself, the act was just fucking traumatizing.

Look, I hadn't come to Vancouver for the 2010 Winter Olympics to be unceremoniously exposed to an older lady's boob in a back alley littered with used needles! No, I was there to use my mediocre photography and writing skills to expose the allegedly Olympics-inspired rise of "sex trafficking."

It might sound peculiar. But evangelical Christians are simply obsessed with the spectre of "sex trafficking." It's a top justice issue for young hip believers, with recent efforts elevating the issue to the status of serious moral panic and spawning hundreds of NGOs and books and documentaries.

Unfortunately, this religious infatuation has arguably caused far more damage than a teenage evangelical getting flashed.

Let's be clear just so I don't get doxxed by some rabid evangelical teens: trafficking for all sorts of labour — sex, agriculture, construction, service — obviously happens and should absolutely be stopped. Just last week, a flight attendant for Alaska Airlines reportedly identified a teenage girl who was being trafficked on a plane to San Francisco. Nine traffickers were arrested at the Super Bowl in a single sting operation.

Assault and kidnapping and manipulation is bad.

The problem is that anti-trafficking activists like my younger dweeb self don't stop there. Instead, they conduct some absolutely mind-bending logical leapfrogging and conclude that all sex work is a form of exploitation and violence and non-consensual and should thus be banned. And that's not like a reasonable Marxist critique of alienation, but a specific War on Drugs-style moral condemnation of the act of selling sex: all brothels should be raided by SWAT teams, johns incarcerated and every form of solicitation prohibited (including ads in alt-weeklies and Backpage).

Such proposals might sound a tad over-the-top. But the spectre of prostitute-as-slave has now permeated much of the public discourse on the subject, which has historically made it extremely difficult to talk about decriminalization, or harm reduction, or anything that doesn't result in sex work being driven underground and made more dangerous for workers (and far harder to identify actual exploitation and violence when it happens).

There's an argument to be made that the needle is slowly shifting on the issue. But sex work is still illegal in Canada and most of the U.S., and sex workers are regularly excluded from events like the Women's March on Washington, which quietly changed the wording of its support for sex workers to standing "in solidarity with all those exploited for sex and labor" before being pressured to change it back.

Generally, it's still considered pretty A-OK to neglect, insult and craft dangerous policies for sex workers.

You can thank me for helping with that.

While in Vancouver for that strange, strange week back in 2010, I participated in a silent protest outside a strip club alongside dozens of other people wearing shirts with the slogan "Buying Sex Is Not A Sport" emblazoned on them. Workers yelled at us from the windows above because we were deterring clients and just being overall assholes. But we stood silent, utterly convinced of their false consciousness and exploitation.

Of course, we had no proof that they were there against their will (insofar as "will" can be determined in a society marked by low minimum wages, lack of affordable housing, zero access to health or dental care, the overall awfulness of many retail and service jobs, and systemic racism, colonialism, homophobia and misogyny).

But that didn't matter to us, standing there in our blue and green shirts with a tiny stick figure riding skis down the side of the text.

Clients were evil. "Prostituted women" were being exploited who had to be "rescued." That was the end of the story for us.

In the months and years following, I wrote many articles — thankfully, all now deleted — about the inherent evils of "prostitution." I rehearsed for and performed an hour-long contemporary dance about sex trafficking. With a friend, I drove from Alberta to Colorado to go on a hiking trip that was fundraising for an anti-prostitution organization in Thailand (to help pay for gas I sold off my massive collection of Star Wars toys that I'd collected as kid, which was idiotic as hell given how much I could snag for them now).

I also presented to a few community groups on the subject, including one with a cop in the audience who enthusiastically backed me up when I was challenged on my sweeping generalizations about sex workers. It felt exhilarating to be on the cutting edge of activism for this hot-button issue, presenting to and being asked questions by people two or three times by age.

At one point, I even took a deeply bizarre self-portrait for a university class which featured me standing in my parents' basement with the phrase "One of 27 Million" — referencing the unsubstantiated estimation of the number of "modern-day slaves" around the world — that I somehow scrawled on my own chest in red marker, with a bandana wrapped around my face and plastic handcuffs from Dollarama on my wrists.

I recall being annoyed after the fact that I hadn't thought to put duct tape over my mouth.

It was all meant to somehow symbolize the plight of the victim of sex trafficking but in retrospect just coming off as an intensely BDSM-inspired shoot combined with a bit of implied gender bending since most anti-prostitution activists are exclusively concerned with cis women and girls despite the fact many men and trans people engage in sex work.

Photo via Flickr user Yvette

I don't think that narrow obsession with women and girls is a coincidence. In my experience, the entire vortex of anti-prostitution activism revolves around the ol' bullshit "virgin-whore" binary in which women are either pure or impure. Especially if there's money involved.

There's also the presence of sexual anxiety and inexperience that I'm fairly convinced drives much of the evangelical interest in the subject matter, combining the sense of Doing Something Good while exploring the subject of sex in a way nearly impossible within the evangelical lifestyle. For me, years into that bizarre game, I'd still never had sex.

But that fact sure didn't stop me from constantly debating the ethics of sex work with people including one coworker at a cafe who couldn't wrap his mind around my absurd logic over the course of an hour-long argument and eventually walked away when I started citing Scripture as evidence for why sex was sacred and just shouldn't be commodified.

Yvonne Zimmerman, associate professor of Christian Ethics at the Methodist Theological School in Ohio and author of Other Dreams of Freedom: Religion, Sex and Human Trafficking, notes in an interview with VICE Canada: "There's this sense for many Christians that sexual sins really get at and damage the core of a person in ways that other sins might be a little bit more external and on the surface."

She adds: "It feels good for people to condemn sex trafficking. It feels intuitively and viscerally moral and right and good."

It does indeed.

"There's no ambiguity. It's good versus evil, pure versus tainted, saved versus shackled."

Living your life as an anti-trafficking activist means constantly feeling like you're in a Tom Clancy film, filled with global political intrigue and international crime syndicates, with white people as saviours and a dangerously high dose of "orientalism."

It also allows for seemingly clear delineations between "good" and "evil" (which has a bunch of historical racist baggage associated with it, but no time to get into that now). There's an obvious goal in sight: incarcerate all pimps and johns, and liberate all sex slaves. Well, and also police people's sexual behaviours, but that's just evangelical culture at large.

"Since so few of us are engaged in anything even remotely connected to sex trafficking, it means that it's an easy social issue for everybody to get behind," says Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick, author of What Slaveholders Think: How Contemporary Perpetrators Rationalize What They Do, in an interview.

"For evangelicals, it means you don't have to engage in a much deeper and complicated conversation about historic slavery, about race and ethnicity, about globalization and inequality, about class. You can dodge an entire Bernie Sanders sounding kind of conversation. And that's important for evangelicals."

You're always on the look-out for victims. I was once wandering around a low-income area of the city I grew up in with a group on a "prayer walk" against trafficking when I spotted two girls who I was immediately convinced were sex slaves for no reason other than the fact they were hanging out by themselves and were not white.

This shit seriously wrecks your brain.

Of course, there are many sex workers' rights organizations — including the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, Maggie's and the Durbar Mahila Samanwaya Committee — that push for recognition of their members' agency and desire for their profession to be improved via decriminalization, labour rights, access to medical care and cops taking their safety seriously.

Yet anti-prostitution activists simply don't acknowledge the existence of such people and organizations. They can't. It would destroy their case. Back in the day, I'd effectively disregard any citation from such organizations as corrupt due to being funded and controlled by pimps or drug lords, or something.

It was only when I took a women's studies class on the subject of sex work and trafficking in one of my last years of university — and I was forced to, you know, read stuff by people who had performed sex work and didn't view it as more exploitative than any other form of labour under capitalism — that my mind started to change.

For instance, a key factor was that I'd relied on was evidence that had focused on the relationship between street-level sex work, childhood trauma and PTSD. And it wasn't like I came to the conclusion that there wasn't a link between the three, but rather that survival sex work is often tied up with a whole bunch of other issues like poverty, addictions and unsafe working conditions that aren't intrinsically related to sex work itself.

It was a matter of learning to deal in nuance. Which I guess is the whole point of university!

That being said, the realization wasn't an easy one. Much of my personal identity was wrapped up in anti-prostitution activism. At one point, I'd contemplated ditching university to staff an evangelical photography school in Las Vegas that focused specifically on the subject of "sex trafficking." I wanted to be a full-time Abolitionist, travelling around the world and taking down brothels and pimps and trafficking rings with my undercover photographs of red light districts and hotel rooms.

Ditching that ambition was in many ways similar to leaving a religion, which I did shortly after. There are plenty of other social issues out there with equal urgency as trafficking, but none quite had the same sense of coherence to them in the religious sense of absolute belief in what was right and wrong, and what were corresponding solutions to the moral problems.

It's not like I now believe that everyone performing sex work is a "happy free hooker."

Work fucking sucks for most people, especially when it's labour that the legal system punishes, cops view as dangerous, landlords deem as undesirable and the public largely thinks is deplorable. Some people have terrible times in sex work, others great. As with every job out there, it tends to be far worse for black, Indigenous and people of colour.

Laura Agustín, author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, suggested to me in an interview: "One of the worst things about anti-prostitution crusading is its reductionism, the over-simplification of human diversity. This is fundamentalism."

That's the crux of it. It's why evangelical culture and anti-prostitution activism meshes so well. There's no ambiguity. It's good versus evil, pure versus tainted, saved versus shackled. Unfortunately, the hard questions about liberation and freedom and all the rest of that nice-sounding shit tends to be a hell of a lot more complicated than that, involving issues of labour rights and affordable housing access and tuition rates and dental fees and undoing colonialism.

Trafficking is real. It should be stopped. But from what I've seen and experienced, evangelicals aren't remotely in the right headspace to come up with solutions outside of punishing all sex workers and calling it a day.

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