Sex trafficking

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.


  1. Sex trafficking do exist, but not prevalent in my part of the world, most girls I came across were not forced into doing this by criminal gangs. I prefer the Dutch and New Zealand model than the Swedish model.I’m against criminalizing prostitution because this is going to force such activity underground. Sex is not evil, it’s part of normal human needs. In places where there are lots of foreign workers who are far away from their wives, paid sex is a way to satisfy their needs without more nasty happenings such as rape when needs are not met and suppressed!

  2. I have such mixed feelings on the subject it’s really hard for me to pin down what I find so horrible about it yet on the other hand I can totally see where you are coming from i.e. the whole factory worker comparison.

    I think it mostly has to do with the fact that there is an issue of “sexually using” involved, sure both partners are consensual but one is doing it because she has to, it’s her job. Sex is one of those things where this line is so very important. If the partner is not consensual then it’s considered rape, but if the person is doing it because it’s part of her job but doesn’t enjoy it, it’s ok? I don’t see much difference to be honest. While other jobs aren’t as violating, sex is relatively intimate for most people. You don’t go around just licking anyone’s privates while you might offer to sew a random person’s button (if you had that skill). Working in a factory sewing buttons might be someone’s nightmare job but it’s not intimate, it doesn’t violate that person’s intimacy.

    I can understand that some women enjoy it to a degree… but I really have difficulty believing they enjoy it more than a very small percentage of the time. Getting groped, fucked, licked, and probed by old, fat, unattractive and possibly dirty (whole other topic) male body parts doesn’t really appeal to most women.

    1. There is so much in what you write that I feel unequipped to answer, but grateful that Maggie McNeill does in her voluminous blog. But, in a few words, here are a couple of thoughts:

      1) The insistence that sex work, the use of one’s sexual organs, MUST be different in some essential way from work one does with one’s other organs, limbs, body parts, is itself an act of aggression against sex workers. It may well be true that for YOU the use of your vagina to give another pleasure is unimaginable in away that’s different from, say, the way you might use your hands if you were a masseuse, but it’s surely not true that that MUST be true for EVERY person.

      2) The comparison between rape and consensual but unenjoyable theft strikes me as spurious. I’ve had some sex I didn’t enjoy particularly, as, I imagine, have you. But I don’t think unenjoyable sex has ANYTHING in common with rape. Except its being unenjoyable. Which, I have to imagine, is just about the least awful aspect of rape.

      3) Your grudging acceptance that “some women enjoy it to a degree” seems profoundly presumptuous. I don’t know what the “worker satisfaction” rates are among sex workers, but there’s a lot to recommend the work, just as there’s a lot to argue against it. I imagine that for some, it’s liberating, fun, lucrative, and exciting. And for others, it’s pure hell. Just like, say, the law, or investment banking, or factory work. Your projection of your hypothetical relationship to it onto others denies them their agency. Again – read Maggie McNeill on this. She has LOTS to say.

      4) Your presumptions about the consumers of sex workers’ services also strike me as, um, wrong. I knew one sex worker who only would SEE men with six-packs AND 8-inch cocks. I don’t think she ever saw a man she thought unattractive. And many sex workers pride themselves on their WILLINGNESS to provide affection and comfort to men for whom it’s hard to come by. In all my years of paying for sex, my sense was that I was fairly average – a reasonably good-looking, considerate, clean guy, treating the women I saw well. Sure, there are exceptions, and I imagine the market is wide – there are surely horrible men, and horrible sex workers. But we consumers of the work of sex workers are not all the same, just as sex workers aren’t all the same.

  3. 1) Seriously? How many women do you know, who are not in the sex trade, don’t view their vaginas as a pretty intimate place? It’s what we teach our children to be on the watch for, otherwise touching children in their private parts wouldn’t be a problem. By saying this you are starting a debate on whether sexual organs are actually private or not. I understand that adults can do what they want with their bodies, but that doesn’t mean that my masseuse can use his penis to rub my back. Sexual organs are not just any other body part. I cannot agree with you on this.

    2) I honestly don’t understand this phrase: “Your projection of your hypothetical relationship (what relationship? sex?) to it (sex work? or just sex?) onto others (who? the sex workers?) denies them (the sex workers again?) their agency (what agency??)

    I understand you’re saying I’m presumptuous in saying that “some women enjoy it to a degree” but I don’t get why. Don’ t you think it’s true? didn’t you say so yourself? I guess I’m totally missing your point in number 2. I ave to say that I tried to wade through McNeill’s blog, her writing style irks me. I did however give it my best go and I read through parts here and there, I went back even and read older posts, her introduction and the article you linked to. I understand her views. I agree with some things that both you and she have been saying but I think she mostly speaks about the media and public’s take on prostitution. I understand that this is a really big part of the problem but the information on her blog is too much to go through to get the information I really want. I’m a facts and figures girl. I like statistics.

    3) yes, I think I get it, I’m presumptuous. I’m not sure why mind you. You don’t think older men, dirty men, or grabby men use sex workers? I think that’s a big presumption right there. Someone’s got to do the job… it is just another job right?
    I wasn’t trying to say that all clients of sex workers are all the same. Which is exactly why I said that sometimes they may enjoy the job but how picky can all these girls be? I have seen so many young women marry or date very old (60,70,80 year old) men here to get money and citizenship and better jobs. You don’t think that the women who live in underprivileged countries won’t sleep with dirty old men just to get money from them? I’ve seen hidden camera programs go into Russian or Polish brothels and clubs, 80% of the men are minimum 40 years their elder. And you think that is ok? If she is up for it and he is too, who cares right?
    No one is taking advantage of anyone, consenting adults making a transaction. I won’t even get into Thailand and all the men who travel there to have sex with very young women…. even children.

    I get the feeling you are taking this topic personally, it was the last paragraph with a description of yourself that probably did it. I wonder whether you are justifying your use of these women and their use of you (because, yes, they are using you too), trying to convince yourself it’s ok for both parties when there’s possibly guilt or affliction on both sides to some extent. Maybe you and McNeill are right. Maybe it’s socially induced, but I think human guilt is a pretty good indicator as to whether something is ok or not. Maybe all the prostitutes you were a client of were enjoying it as much as you, I’m sure it’s hard to imagine that they weren’t when women can be such good actresses when it comes to sex. You never can know though, can you?

    The truth of the matter is sex work isn’t just any other job. It can’t be when humans use sex to emotionally and physically bond with another human being on a regular basis. Take feeling and emotion out of sex and everyone feels a bit guilty. You’ve talked about it yourself. If she doesn’t enjoy getting you off, you don’t get off.

    1. A couple of replies/responses/thoughts:

      1) I think sex work is hugely diverse. Any attempt to generalize is almost certain to be wrong. There surely are some ugly, dirty, mean johns (just as there are some ugly, dirty, mean sex workers). And I imagine some sex workers love their work, some hate it, and there are plenty in between.

      2) In general, attempts to regulate/outlaw sex work are opposed by sex workers. This seems to me a really interesting data point with respect to many of the claims those opposed to sex work make.

      3) Statistics are certainly welcome. Maggie McNeill has written a lot about the paucity of meaningful, useful statistics. (There are all sorts of claims presented as statistics concerning the average age at which sex workers start work, the volume of human trafficking, etc. But I’ve never seen ANY such claims that withstand even the most gentle of scrutiny.)

      4) I share your frustration with Maggie McNeill. She’s not accessible, and she doesn’t present bite-sized chunks. But she’s smart, and I still recommend her.

      5) Sure, I’m responding personally! You’re generalizing, sweeping me and the women I saw up in your generalizations, and I don’t like it! (It doesn’t accurately describe me – I’m not fat, I’m not ugly, I’m not dirty. And neither were any of the women I saw accurately described by anything you’ve written. Which makes me think either you’ve got it wrong, my experiences – hundreds of them – were anomalous – or some combination.)

      6) I’m not arguing that vaginas aren’t personal, that sex work isn’t intimate. I’m arguing that you seem to deny people the ability to form their own relationship to that work, insisting that your relationship to that work is somehow “correct” and/or universal. In your last paragraph, you write, “[sex work can’t be just another job] when humans use sex to emotionally and physically bond with another human being on a regular basis. Take feeling and emotion out of sex and everyone feels a bit guilty.” But that’s surely not true. Many humans use sex to distance themselves from other human beings. Many can’t tolerate sex with people with whom they’re intimate. Many only can bond with those to whom they feel no attraction. Many only feel guilty when fucking people they love. That assertion about “everyone” feeling “a bit guilty” is clearly wrong. You may be describing you. You may even be describing me (though I don’t think so). But why are you trying so hard to assert some reality that extends beyond your experience?

      This is what I don’t get.

      At the end of the day, the vast majority of sex work is a consensual arrangement between two adults. There surely is some sex work that lies outside that description – that is coerced, or features children. I am opposed to all that, as is, I think, just about anyone with a moral compass. But plain vanilla prostitution? The kind where a man pays a woman to get him off? That’s never going to stop. And the issue, I think, is that a lot of people use their discomfort with that reality to inform their thoughts about “sex trafficking.”

      I’m sure there is some sex trafficking. I’m sure there is some underage sex work. I’m sure there are some nasty, mean pimps. And all that shit should be stopped. But the vast majority of writing/advocacy on the subject (see Nick Kristof, for example) is clearly about something other than advocating for the women doing the work. The statistics, language, and arguments belie the claims made by the writers and advocates.

  4. 1) agreed
    2) agreed
    3) ok
    4) agreed she is good at what she does
    5) I never meant to generalize the whole trade. I think we are saying the same thing from two different points of view. You see the cleaner and younger side of things while I see the dirty old man side. Both exist in a sex worker’s world and I really don’t believe that they can always choose… as you say it varies. The fact (to me) is that I put myself in the shoes of a sex worker. I wouldn’t want to be dealing with dirty old men, while ,since it would technically be my job, I may feel an obligation to do so, especially if I need to pay the rent. I already feel this way about my English students. I take on students I don’t want to be teaching. I do my job and am proud of the results whether I enjoy that client or not… It doesn’t matter, as long as I’m satisfied with my job. I can’t say the same thing however if I were using my vagina to teach my students it would honestly gross me out.

    N. Says: “The insistence that sex work, the use of one’s sexual organs, MUST be different in some essential way from work one does with one’s other organs, limbs, body parts, is itself an act of aggression against sex workers.”

    It sounds to me that’s exactly what you were arguing with the phrase above. Comparing the use of sexual organs to that of other body parts.

    6b) I have a hard time accepting that you believe that less than the majority of humans bond over sex and sexual acts. I personally don’t believe that children should have any other outlook on sex, it just wouldn’t be healthy. Correct me if I’m wrong but otherwise you’d be teaching your child that it’s ok to use people for sexual pleasure. I’m pretty sure that this is not something widely accepted as ok. I understand that there are all sorts of people out there and all sorts of different views on sex but I’m pretty sure that the most common one and the most widely accepted is bonding for pleasure and to procreate because we love our partner. I’m not pushing that view on anyone, it’s just how the western world works. I’m not even saying it’s what’s best. I was the one that wanted to be part of the Chinese Mosuo tribe based on matriarchy and some shape of sexual promiscuity so I’m certainly not denying anyone’s approach or views on sex. I just don’t see why, when considering the sex trade, I/we shouldn’t extend the same values we would use when teaching children about sexual relationships. Why should children get one value and adults use another?

    6c) maybe we’re discussing two different things in the end. Maybe we’re arguing about two different facets of a crystal that has a million different sides. I’m arguing that what happens in some way needs fixing because I don’t believe it is exactly healthy behavior (I still have mixed feelings about this) while you are perhaps arguing that it happens and it can be justified (?).

    7) I know it’s never going to stop. I would never expect it to. I am however all for finding solutions for people who are in unhappy positions and I wouldn’t mind talking to a large number of prostitutes to find out how many of them are really happy with what they are doing. If offered a job that paid just as well or even less but with more stability, for something they were equally capable of doing, would they take it?

    P.S. Plain vanilla prostitution…. is there such a thing? if everything is a melting pot of different people and tastes can that term even exist? If everyone wants something different and everyone likes different things, how often will the prostitute’s and client’s tastes match and how often will she bend to something she doesn’t like because you pay her extra or you pay her period?

    1. On 6a, I think you misunderstood me. I was saying that anyone who says anyone MUST have ANY particular way of thinking about their sex organs is doing violence against those who feel otherwise. I have met people who argue that it is the presumption that sex IS different from other work that MAKES it difference, that, in other words, if people would just stop stigmatizing sex work, it wouldn’t be stigmatizing. Or, said differently, that the construction of sex work as different is a CONSTRUCTION, not an essential aspect of reality. This makes sense to me.

      6b: I’m not making any assertion about proportions. I’m simply saying there are a multiplicity of ways of relating to this stuff, and no right one.

      6c. I don’t think unhealthy behavior needs to be stopped. And, I’m not sure I agree that “prostitution” or “sex work” is, by definition, unhealthy behavior anyway. (But drinking is legal. Smoking is legal. Driving is legal. These things all kill lots of people and could reasonably be understood to be unhealthy. Why is sex work different?)

      7. I’m in favor of helping all people who are in unhappy positions. BUT…. that hypothetical you pose is one that could well be applied to any job. Barista. Factory worker. Banker. How many people wouldn’t trade some other equally well paying job for the one they have? Lots of us would. So what?

      And on your PS, sure, I agree. Everything is different, everyone wants different, and money makes people consider doing all sorts of things they wouldn’t otherwise do.

      Including work.

  5. Ok
    6a. I understand what you’re getting at but I think this goes right back to the fact that it IS different. I’m not saying it should be stigmatized but I don’t believe you can put it into the category of “just any job”. Sex is socially accepted as a physically intimate thing and most other jobs don’t have that physical intimacy I don’t see how it will ever be seen as “just another job”. (see also point 7)

    6b) I’m not sure I agree that there is no right one. I believe that there are multiple ways that are ok to relate to sex and multiple ways that are wrong to relate to sex. If you can’t bond with your partner through sex then there’s clearly something wrong, if you feel guilty after having sex with your partner there’s also something wrong. They are symptoms of an unhealthy relationship and I’m pretty sure those people aren’t happy with their situations.

    6c I didn’t say stopped, I said fixed. It’s not the same thing. In any case if we’re talking about prostitution, I think it needs to be addressed and it’s not being addressed in most countries, whether it’s legalization or some other solution. I don’t understand your statement though, unhealthy behavior is exactly that, it’s unhealthy. If you drink too much, that is unhealthy and you need to address the issue. Ignoring it is not the solution. I agree there are lots of other problems around that are “legal” and that are dangerous for your health and killers. Smoking is something I’d gladly wipe off the face of the planet but like prostitution it’s not possible but that doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be addressed.

    7. No. I don’t agree. It can’t be applied to any job, because prostitution is not any job. See point 6a. I think you’re trying to separate the topics and they can’t be separated. Sure there are lots of people who would be happy in different jobs but those jobs don’t violate the engrained social construct of “relationships” that is within most people of the western world. Unless you can change that social construct you can’t say that prostitution is just another job.

    So…. either people change their views on relationships completely (and this might change our outlook on prostitution) or we continue with this patriarchal system of creating family units around a mother and a father who love each other. In the former we might end up with a healthier view on sex and love, in the latter we continue to “mate for life” and teach our children that people should want to “love” the person they are having sex with. There isn’t much of a middle ground in my mind.
    That doesn’t mean I don’t think the world could have better views on relationships… I’d happily convert the world to the Mosuo tribe system, I think people would be much happier. But I really don’t think it’s going to happen anytime soon. This in turn means that the situation needs to be addressed according to how the world works NOW while we quietly try to change people’s views on sex through blogging. 😉

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