A Dangerous Groundswell

Attention to the issue of sex trafficking in the United States has risen dramatically over the last few years to the point of a moral panic.

As defined by the Department of Health and Human Services, “sex trafficking is a modern-day form of slavery in which a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such an act is under the age of eighteen years.” Statistics for trafficking victims are hard to determine given the shadowy, illegal nature of the practice, however misconstrued figures, religious and celebrity-endorsed campaigns, and media outlets hungry for a good story have fueled a national hysteria. And the blame for the perceived epidemic has been placed squarely on the shoulders of online advertisers who offer adult service ads, namely Craigslist and Backpage.com, the online classifed site owned by Village Voice Media (VVM).

In September 2010, after several murders were linked to adult ads on Craigslist, the site announced it would ban sex-related advertising in the United States (in truth, the ads are still there, just well hidden). A year later, Auburn Theological Seminary launched a “social action initiative” called Groundswell which began what they called a multi-faith campaign to target Backpage.com’s adult services section. This included an open letter to VVM published in the New York Times on October 25, 2011. The letter was signed by prominent religious and moral leaders (including Harvard Humanist Chaplain Greg Epstein), and claimed the backing of fifty-one state attorneys general.

The apparent groundswell of support for Groundswell’s campaign can be traced back to a 2009 paper from two University of Pennsylvania professors stating that “an estimated 100,000-300,000 American children are at risk for becoming victims of commercial sexual exploitation” (emphasis mine). Runaways and those living near an international border were among those considered at risk. The actor Ashton Kutcher, who with his wife Demi Moore started a foundation to combat child sex trafficking, then misreported the figure as fact in an interview on CNN with Peirs Morgan in April 2011.

“There’s between 100,000 and 300,000 child sex slaves in the United States today,” Kutcher stated. “If you don’t do something to stop that—that’s when there’s something wrong with you.” With the help of other celebrities, they then launched a Public Service Announcement campaign called “Real Men Don’t Buy Girls.” These PSA’s led to an explosion of mainstream media and blog discussions across the United States and helped launch thousands of activists eager to stop the supposed child sex-trafficking epidemic. Enter Groundswell and their campaign against online adult services advertising.

It goes without saying that child sex trafficking destroys lives and is a complete affront to any reasonable understanding of human ethics and morality. Yet Groundswell’s campaign is fueled by scare tactics with very little basis in real facts, is an assault on free speech, and is against the best interests of actual sex workers who use online services to conduct business in a much safer and more regulated fashion than other forms of sex work.

Unlike Craigslist, VVM has mounted a much stronger defense, claiming to have spent millions of dollars implementing policies and monitoring services to ensure that Backpage.com is adults-only. In a July 2011 article in the Village Voice they stated:

Not only do we have security specialists making constant searches for keywords that might indicate an underage user, but we’re quick to cooperate with law enforcement and the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children when we find suspicious ads. In some cases, our reports about suspicious ads have resulted in underage runaways being traced and recovered—as opposed to the underground economy of bus stations and street corners where kids are truly invisible. Backpage’s 123 employees, who screen about 20,000 ads every day, alert NCMEC when they find something suspicious, who in turn contacts law enforcement. That process triggered 230 reports last month.

As a humanist, as a transgender woman, and as a sex-worker advocate, I stand with Backpage.com and am opposed to any call for them to remove the adult services section from their website. As a U.S. company, Backpage.com has a right to free speech protected by the First Amendment, and their adult services section is in full compliance with the Communications Decency Act of 1996 (or CDA). But at stake here is more than a question of free speech, this is a question of morality—of the best way to avoid human suffering and lives lost. I firmly believe that the adult services section provides an invaluable service to sex workers desperately in need of a safer and more regulated way to conduct business.

It is a sad reality that a very high percentage of transgender women, especially transgender women of color, depend on sex work for their very survival, a phenomenon that has long been studied by organizations such as the Sylvia Rivera Law Project in New York City, and the Trans-Health Information Project in Philadelphia. And in 2011 the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force (NGLTF) and the National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE) released a massive, scientifically rigorous survey of transgender and gender non-conforming individuals across the country, which found that 16 percent of those individuals had engaged in the “underground economy”—defined as sex work or dealing drugs—at some point in their lives. Survey participants were also four times as likely to live in extreme poverty than the general population, and 47 percent had either been fired from a job, not hired, or denied a promotion because of their transgender or gender non-conforming identity.

While I believe there is nothing inherently “wrong” with sex work, those who depend on it to provide the basic necessities for life often have been left with no other option because of societal oppression. The Prostitutes Education Network estimates that 1 percent of women have engaged in sex work at some point, and every study of transgender women, including the aforementioned NGLTF/NCTE report, has found a much higher rate among transgender women. Moreover, attempts to stop sex work simply drive it deeper underground, leading to a higher risk of violence, HIV/AIDS, drug abuse, and other dangers.

Of course it’s important to address the root of the societal oppression that leads many transgender women and other individuals to sex work, but it’s naïve to think that such oppression will disappear anytime soon. Getting rid of the adult services section of Backpage.com would be a major step backward from the goal of protecting sex workers, and instead I think stricter regulations and protections can be put in place there. Likewise, to combat the practice of child sex trafficking, we should look to ameliorate the conditions of adolescents deemed at risk.

In 2007 I volunteered at a harm reduction organization called Trans Health Information Project (TIP), which is based out of inner-city Philadelphia and serves hundreds of transgender and gender non-conforming clients who are largely homeless and/or living in poverty—almost all of whom depend on some kind of sex work to survive. We provided HIV testing, counseling, safe-sex supplies, syringe-exchange (both for IV drug users and also for trans individuals who injected silicone and/or hormones), legal counseling, referrals to healthcare providers, job training, and drug counseling, if needed.

One thing TIP never did while I was there was pass judgment on anyone who engaged in sex work, and instead TIP advocated for legal protections for sex workers, and also provided advice on how to do sex work more safely. Very discreetly, TIP even helped teach individuals how to advertise through the adult services section of Craigslist, as a safer alternative to working the streets or having to go through a pimp. A transgender woman walking the streets, especially if she is black or Latina, is at an extremely high risk for violent hate crimes, and in my six months at TIP I attended a funeral for one of my clients who was killed in a hit-and-run hate crime incident. Police never investigated the crime despite demands from the transgender community.

On November 17, 2011, transgender activists held a demonstration in Washington, DC, at the Metropolitan Police Department Headquarters to protest the failure of police to properly respond to a recent surge in anti-transgender hate crimes. At this point, the dereliction of the police in protecting transgender individuals from harm is hardly surprising. It is merely symptomatic of society’s larger failure to recognize how dangerous transphobia—often fueled by religious moralizing—is to individuals. I believe that humanists, atheists, feminists, anti-racist activists, and all those involved in fighting for social justice must recognize their common struggle with the transgender community and speak up when religious leaders help enforce rigid gender roles and sexual taboos that ultimately rob human beings of their inherent dignity.

Groundswell’s campaign, even if it has both progressive and conservative religious leaders involved, advances a reactionary moral vision that goes against the best interests of transgender women and sex workers. This moral vision must be opposed. Please tell Groundswell that you want child trafficking stopped—but that their campaign against Backpage.com is not the way to do it.