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Straddling the Line

Prostitutes don’t need to be arrested and treated like victimized children.

by Robin Hustle
21 June 2012, 4:00am

Drawing by Robin Hustle

According to the recent proliferation of sensational reporting, popular books, and made-for-TV movies, the sex industry is an international crime syndicate exploiting hundreds of thousands of women and children every year. The sex industry's nemesis, the rescue and reform industry, is experiencing considerable growth—witness Kony 2012, and columnist Nicholas Kristof's hysterical op-eds. The latest target of the rescue industry's wrath is Backpage, an affordable escort ad site that filled the void left by the Craigslist erotic services section. Village Voice Media, which owns Backpage, has responded to the rescue industry’s attacks by running a series of articles debunking the more egregious trafficking myths, an act that cannot begin to fill the void of critical perspectives on these myths in popular culture and the news. As high-profile hotel escort raids become increasingly common in the U.S. and Thai women are dragged out of their brothels and dumped into sewing classes, the rescue industry and its Hollywood representatives pump hysterical stories of horror and redemption out to politicians and the press. These well-intentioned altruists estimate that 50,000 women and children are brought to the U.S. each year for “sexual slavery.” This dubious number is culled from an estimate of the total number of migrant workers who enter the country with the help of an extralegal party.

To be fair, there is some cause for concern: women (and men, and young people) have indeed being coerced into working off debts, through prostitution, to those who have helped them emigrate. However, there are many more who have been coerced into working off debts in clothing factories, in agriculture, and as domestics in private homes. This is an abhorrent, exploitative practice, but as the severity of anti-immigration laws increases, migrants are increasingly dependent on smugglers and coyotes. Victims of debt slavery are hindered, not helped by a national discourse against "sex trafficking." The vast majority of people lumped into trafficking statistics are workers looking for work, in prostitution or in another industry, not victims that have been duped into an unsavory job against their will.

Prostitutes need to have social services and other employment options made available to them if that's what they want. They don’t need to be arrested and treated like victimized children.

This paternalistic concern for “trafficked women” is not what it appears to be, nor is it new. It has not been addressed as part of the exploitation of migrant workers (which has barely been addressed at all), but has been largely mythologized and used to punish all sex workers and migrant women. While trafficking appears to be a new concern, the mythology behind it was born over a century ago. To gain an understanding of the current trafficking discourse, it is necessary to look at its early 20th century predecessor, “white slavery.”

The first decade of the 20th century had the highest rate of immigration in the history of the U.S. Emigration of “undesirable” Europeans and others was on the rise. Many of the new migrants were veterans of revolution and working-class revolutions; most were impoverished workers. Germans, Italians, Poles, French, Russians, and Jews of all nationalities were viewed by Americans as dangerous, non-white criminals, intent on destroying all morality through radical activity and sexual perversion. Women, native-born and immigrant alike, were entering the workforce like never before. Rural black Southerners moved en masse to the industrial centers of Chicago, Detroit, and New York City. Young people from agricultural regions and small towns were eager to experience the supposed grandeur and sought work to support themselves.

A “white slave” held hostage by one of the Mario brothers.

With the growth of cities came the inevitable growth of prostitution, and with this came moralizing backlash and lascivious intrigue. Novels, films, and true accounts of fallen women enjoyed incredible popularity. During its opening week in New York City, over 30,000 people watched the film Traffic in Souls, and 156 books addressing prostitution were published between 1910 and 1914 alone. The producers of this popular media created the myth of the “white slave.” Often a helpless, innocent country girl entering the big city with high hopes, she found herself duped by a swarthy man and forced into prostitution (from which she would eventually be rescued by a handsome Christian man or a crusader against the sex industry).

She might also be lured in away in her hometown, with promises of marriage or work on the stage; on occasion, she was a fresh-faced, off-the-boat immigrant. Women working in department stores or the theater were at great risk for abduction, women working in factories were likely to be tempted by the life of ease and luxury presented by a procurer, and indeed any woman in a dance hall, in attendance at a variety show, or alone in an ice cream parlor might be drugged and kidnapped into sex slavery. Clifford G. Roe, an attorney and leader in the crusades against white slavery, claimed in his widely read book The Great War on White Slavery that white slavery originated with the Jews, was perfected by the French, and was now an international crime syndicate primarily run by Jews, French, Negroes and Italians (along with Chinese in San Francisco). Estimates of just how many girls were “enslaved” varied greatly, from 5,000 to 65,000. From women’s organizations to the Klu Klux Klan, America was desperate to save its young women from sex slavery.

In truth, there were few such sex slaves, if any. When offered a choice between working 12 hour days in a factory or living with other women in a brothel where she could choose (in most cases) how many clients to see each day, and what acts to engage in with them, it seems many working-class women chose the latter. In one of the most amusing reports of a 1910 sex slave sting operation, Investigator George Miller of the Rockefeller Commission on White Slavery “bought” (that is, paid a finder’s fee for) two girls from a black madam named Belle Moore, claiming that he was opening a brothel in Seattle. In his reports, he describes them as seeming younger than 15, emphasizing “these are white girls,” and passionately writes of one of them crying because she couldn’t take her teddy bear with her.

When these “girls” arrived in court they were found—to the surprise of reporters and the public—to be in their mid-20s and seasoned as prostitutes. Both informed the jury that they had been given a choice to move to the Seattle brothel. The media made quite a fuss over the whole scandal, and many major newspapers, notably the New York Times, stopped running articles about the subject after the trial, declaring “white slavery” a moralistic hoax concocted by anti-vice crusaders. Despite the exhaustive and well-financed efforts of the Rockefeller Commission, no “white slaves” were identified or “rescued.”

Unfortunately, this did not stop the crusade. Aside from the brothel busts that put many a working woman out of work, the rhetoric surrounding white slavery had lasting negative effects on women’s lives. The Mann Act, or White Slave Traffic Act, was sponsored in 1909 by Congressman James R. Mann (and probably authored by Chicago crusader Ernest A. Bell). The act criminalized the transport of women across state lines for “immoral purposes,” and in the year it was ratified, over 2,000 people were arrested under it. Though the act was passed specifically to protect women from white slavery, the vagueness of “immoral purposes” suited it for use against non-coerced prostitutes, traveling women and their companions, and couples who might engage in non-marital sex. No proof of immorality was required, and if a man had considered having sex with his companion, he was in violation of the Act. Not surprisingly, in spite of the Act’s intention of punishing would-be traffickers, it was used to arrest and charge the women it was “protecting,” making it a moralizing arm of the state which effectively limited the ability of all women to travel for work or pleasure.

The rhetoric and legislation surrounding white slavery developed at a time of rapid urbanization, mass waves of immigration, and a growing number of women in the workforce as a tool to reinforce stalwart ideas about race, sex, and sexuality. Its mythmaking was effective as such, and bolstered American fears of “undesirable” immigrants, racial “mixing”, and independent women. We might turn a smug, postmodern eye on the white slavery panic, were it not for the current trafficking hysteria that has been made in its mirror image.

Globalization in recent decades, urged along by free trade agreements and World Bank loans to poor countries, has drastically widened the disparities between the first world and developing nations. Emigration is on the rise, most notably among women, who make up an unprecedented half of the world’s migrants today. We are happy to hire Filipina nannies for less than minimum wage to care for our children, but don’t want them caring for their own children with the aid of welfare or food stamps. Likewise, Latvian and Vietnamese prostitutes are hired in scores by men who expect cheaper service, or who think these women, because of their ethnicity or immigration status might be easily pressured into unsafe sex. Non-white prostitutes are in demand not only because of first-world eroticization of the “exotic,” but for the same reason all migrants are desirable: their real or perceived vulnerability as workers.

Rather than address the very real needs of migrant prostitutes, or any prostitutes for that matter, we mythologize and criminalize their existence in the service of other ends. When a prostitute is transformed from a migrant worker into a “trafficked woman” she loses all agency in her life. This mythologizing is harmful to all women, all sex workers, including the women it purports to help.

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