For the past decade, and in numerous capacities, I’ve toiled as a sex worker. I’ve peddled my trade in bars and hotel rooms, on the sets of feminist pornos, and in shady peep shows. I also work in academia—arguably, an equally shady enterprise. If there’s one notable, cultural shift that has impacted both my occupations over the past 10 years, it’s the increased focus on—indeed, an obsession with—sex trafficking. And this isn’t the first time in recent history that cultural “do-gooders” have turned their attentions to the wiliest and most unsavory among us—The Whore.
As documented by historian Judith Walkowitz—who has researched 19th-century contestations over sexuality for the past 30 years—representations of sexual danger in late-Victorian London emerged as a projection of larger cultural and political unrest. Because of bourgeoisie anxieties over sex working women’s upward mobility at the turn of the century, narratives of sexual danger circulated as justification for the state control of poor women’s bodies and sexual behavior.
Unsurprisingly, history repeats itself. Contemporary discourses on sex trafficking have become so integral to conversations about the sex industry that crucial distinctions between coercive and agential labor have all but disappeared. Vital analyses of labor under capitalism have been abandoned in favor of sexual danger narratives. We’re all familiar with the standard advocacy facts: “the average age of forced prostitution is 13,” and “300,000 children are forced into sex slavery in the United States every year.” These so-called facts come from a study called “The Sexual Exploitation of Children” by researchers Richard Estes and Neil Alan Weiner and have been circulated and reified by the U.S. Department of Justice. This is despite the researchers’ concluding acknowledgement that, “The numbers presented in [the research project] do not … reflect the actual number of cases of the CSEC [commercially sexually exploited children] in the United States….”
More reliable data suggests that the greatest amount of human trafficking occurs in agricultural industries, domestic housework, restaurant work, and sweatshops. But with recent federal law conflating sex work and sex trafficking, it is nearly impossible to objectively research the occurrence of forced sexual slavery among youth. As Lulu*—a victim of sex trafficking as a child—explains, “if prostitution had been legal when I was being trafficked [into an illegal brothel], the other women [who were not trafficked] could have called the cops without fear of themselves receiving a felony for trafficking…. Instead, because I was “rescued,” I became trafficked by the state … social workers took my money … foster care parents hated me … [so] I lived on the street.”
The Estes and Weiner study was largely funded by the Department of Justice, and key informants for the study consisted of private human service organizations that receive federal monies. Essentially, a federally funded research project was tasked with analyzing the performance of federally funded organizations and found the federal government’s performance “adequate.” The federal government is, basically, citing itself as good reasoning for its own financial decisions.
Perhaps as a result of criticism from the academic community, the Department of Justice subsequently funded a nationwide, ethnographic study of homeless youth engaged in transactional sex. Alongside countless researchers including Ric Curtis and Meredith Dank from the John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan and Barbara Brents and Andrew Spivak from the sociology department at the University of Nevada-Las Vegas, I was hired as an ethnographer for the $500,000 project. Our most significant findings shattered the widely accepted stereotypes of a child prostitute—young people involved in transactional sex rarely reported having pimps and almost always described sex work as the surest way to support themselves. Another pattern surfaced in the 100-plus interviews I conducted: Youth routinely reported harassment and sexual misconduct at the hands of law enforcement, social service providers, and foster care parents. And yet, racialized narratives of “traffickers” and their demoralization of sexually innocent white girls continues to inform policy. An obvious question emerges: Why?
It is well documented that one of the largest and most conservative lobbies in Washington—Shared Hope International—is behind much of the so-called anti-trafficking policy in the U.S., policy with politically and socially vested interests in conflating sex work with sex trafficking. It is no secret, of course, that the religious right opposes prostitution on purely moralistic grounds. Regressive ideologies of gender and sexuality contribute to the belief that prostitution is moral bankruptcy for women and, furthermore, that Godly salvation is the only path to “restoration.” As a result, sex workers—and other so-called sexually deviant women, often poor women—are scapegoats for anxieties surrounding sex and sexuality more generally.
Perhaps less well known is the link between lobbyists, anti-trafficking non-profits, allocations of federal grant money for academic research, and the subsequent propagation of sexual danger narratives.
In 2009, Shared Hope International received a grant from the Department of Justice to research child sex trafficking in the U.S. The resulting report, “The National Report on Domestic Minor Sex Trafficking: America’s Prostituted Children,” like the 2001 Estes and Weiner study that preceded it, employs the moralistic language of “rescue and [restoration]” without distinguishing between women and children or sex workers and victims of sex trafficking.
Then, in 2013, Shared Hope International supported the Justice for Victims Act(H.R. 3530; 113th Congress), which authorized the Department of Justice to appropriate $25 million annually to research grants over the 2015-19 period for scholars and state organizations claiming to fight human trafficking. Because federally funded “research” has so masterfully conflated sex work with sex trafficking—through the lens of religious, right-wing propaganda—“mitigating sex trafficking” is now synonymous with state control of poor women’s bodies and sexual behavior.
What this means for researchers like Spivak is the “polarization of … scholarship into factions … which see their mission as advancing evidence for policy goals rather than making true social scientific discoveries.”
Researchers like Brents, whose extensive research on the sex industry spans almost two decades, are approached with a degree of caution. “When practitioners and social workers discover that my research doesn’t necessarily promote the criminalization of prostitution,” Brents says, “they refuse to collaborate with me … because they’re afraid of losing grant money.” Recalling how a collaborative project—designed to assist street-based sex workers and trafficking victims—was stalled after she expressed her stance on criminalization, Brents says, “They risked losing funding if I so much as joined them for a cup of coffee.”
A recent Supreme Court hearing—Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International—ruled it constitutional to deny federal funding for research that “promote[s], support[s], or advocate[s] … prostitution.” Ron Weitzer, a sociologist specializing in criminology and a professor at George Washington University, explains the speech-chilling effect of these provisions:
A few years ago … a request for proposal [was] sent out by The National Institute of Justice. [It] had the requirement that the applicant certify that he/she did not support prostitution or the legalization of prostitution. When I emailed the contact person at NIJ and asked if this was not an infringement on free speech, she did not respond to me.
Paternalistic narratives of sexual danger have a two-pronged effect on sex working academics like me—either we “restore” our natural, womanly innocence by claiming the identity of a “former” sex worker or we invite the perusal of critics who view our sex work as incompatible with intellectual rigor. As Jenna*, a sex working academic who recently completed a master’s at a state university in the Southwest, explains, “Many of my peers act like I got here [academia] by accident … in fact, one of my advisors implied that I could ‘overcome’ my sex working past by expressing shame and remorse over it.”
Similarly, Vivian Salt*, a sex worker who recently obtained a master’s of social work from a prestigious university in New York, explains that, “because of the criminalization of sex work … and the need for a singular narrative by which to categorize people … sex workers are reduced to their experiences with sex.” In a political and social environment where sex is perceived as “unprofessional,” immature (consider, for example, the paternalistic backlash against sex working educators), and even inherently harmful, sex working academics are “handled with kid gloves,” Salt says. “There’s something very interesting about ‘passing’ in academia as an advocate for—as opposed to a laborer in—the sex industry in order to avoid being infantilized by peers.”
Infantilizing narratives of sexual danger, when juxtaposed with the criminalization and demonization of sex workers, deeply impact women on the margins of society. Piercing deeper than any academic or political setback are the strained intimate and emotional relationships produced by the social stigma of sex work. Indeed, the harshest words my mother ever uttered, upon discovering my sex work, were “get out of my house and don’t ever come back.” The belief in The Whore’s impenetrable malfeasance—as well as the burdensome insistence that she restore social purity through penance—have been skillfully perpetuated by contemporary moral crusaders, who have anxieties similar to their late-Victorian peers. Clearly, more research is needed on the intricate workings of these moral discourses. But I’m not holding my breath for funding.
*All names of sex workers, including the author’s, are pseudonyms.