Apologies – this post is a bit scattered/unedited (more than most of mine are). It’s been sitting in my drafts folder for a while, and I figured I’d just post it…..
I don’t know anything about sex trafficking. The vast majority of women I’ve paid for sex, or for sexualized interactions, were born in the U.S., to middle-class families, engaged in their particular jobs no less voluntarily than your average waiters or waitresses.
I’ve had paid sexual interactions with women who came from other countries – mostly Russia and elsewhere in the former Soviet Union – but they mostly seemed to fit a similar socio-economic profile. Most credibly described themselves as students, undergrad or grad, making extra money in a way that some clearly thought was fun, that others clearly thought was awful. I never saw any in that latter category a second time.
Pause: is it possible that on occasion I was taken in, that a woman who hated her job was a good enough actress to appear to love it? Sure. I don’t mean to claim any sort of knowledge of anything. I’m reporting my experience and thoughts, for you to do with what you will.
I think I went to an Asian massage parlor in New York once. The women working there, the woman who saw me, seemed not so much miserable as dissociated, vacant, nearly absent. It struck me in that interaction that I had been in a workplace that was joyless, where the workers were at the mercy of the employers. At the time, I hadn’t thought much about sex trafficking, but I think I simply assumed that the women working in such places were prisoners, their passports held hostage, their wages horrific. I never went back. My dick barely got hard.
My assumptions about the place, about the conditions in which the women were working, may have been true. They may not have been. I have no way of knowing.
But I do know this:
That description I offered above – “a workplace that was joyless, where the workers were at the mercy of the employers” – could equally well be a description of a factory, a dentist’s office, a restaurant, a law firm, or an investment banking firm. The mere fact of working in a joyless enterprise, captive to the capricious whims of power-hungry bosses, is not actually particularly differentiating, sad to say.
There was an article in the “New Yorker” recently describing the fairly awful world of immigrant Chinese restaurant workers in the Eastern United States. Any resident of or visitor to New York knows that the ubiquitous Latin American workers in the ubiquitous Korean-owned markets (what has taken the place of what used to be called bodegas) can’t possibly enjoy professional existence characterized by choice or autonomy. Other than the binary choice of whether to show up on a given day (which presumably has a direct impact on whether that option will exist on the subsequent day). Cab drivers in New York work in a miserably competitive environment, having their lifeblood sucked out of them by the fleets for which they work. Uber, with its innovative approach both to customer and driver recruitment, has taken this worker exploitation to a new level.
I don’t mean this to be a Marxist rant against the evils of capitalism.
I mean, instead, to point out the structural similarities between sex work and “work.” People break laws, pay smugglers, take horrific risks, tear apart families, travel thousands of miles, all for the dream of making a better wage. This happens every day, from all sorts of countries, to all sorts of countries.
I have no idea about the prevalence of “human trafficking” or even its definition. Are coyotes on the U.S.’s southern border, smuggling hungry, scared Guatemalans, Mexicans, and others across the Rio Grande “human traffickers”? Does the line of work their cargo elect on the other side matter in answering this question? Does it matter if they had a sponsor before they left? Are there special “sex coyotes,” specializing in smuggling women?
Maggie McNeill, a (former?) prostitute, has written extensively on the question of human trafficking. Her position is absolute, theological even, and her writing is laden with jargon from the world of sex workers and sex workers’ right (“prohibitionists,” “the Swedish model,” etc.). If you read around in her, you’ll get a sense of what she’s talking about, but her writing – though fluent, and professional, and expressive – is not inviting, particularly to newbies, to people who aren’t familiar with the issues she’s discussing. She’s strident, opinionated. This isn’t criticism of her so much as warning to prospective new readers. There are some hurdles to get over in reading her, but she’s very rewarding to read.
The other day, she published this post, which sums up pretty neatly some of her arguments about sex trafficking, which boil down to these:
1) Surely, it happens. Because anything you can imagine happening that “doesn’t violate the laws of physics” happens in this great world of ours. But….
2) The cases we read about aren’t, in fact, instances of sex trafficking, almost invariably. Rather, they’re instances of economic migration, characterized as sex trafficking.
There’s more to her arguments, but I think this is a fair enough summary of them.
Meanwhile, my back-channel conversation with Cande on this subject has continued. She pointed me to this article, in favor of what’s been called the “Swedish model,” wherein sex work is decriminalized, but johns are prosecuted. The article’s interesting, but ultimately unsatisfying to me, as is the Swedish model, which seeks to “remedy” a problem that isn’t clearly a problem to me. (As I said in an e-mail to Cande, I’m confused by the criminalization of consensual behavior among adults.)
Anyway – some scattered, unedited thoughts. I’m eager to hear yours.