Data is not prostitution

The internet is not a place. A website is not a brothel. Data is not prostitution. At least one court now agrees.

In the matter of a New Mexico man’s website for discussing and arranging appointments with escorts, a state judge ruled this week that “an online message board nor a computer amount to a ‘house of prostitution or a place where prostitution is practiced, encouraged or allowed'” (Albuquerque Journal), and so therefore, his website was legal.

The prosecution could still appeal, or try to argue that, as the Journal quoted their attorney, “if the website itself is not a place where prostitution is practiced, encouraged or allowed, and neither is a computer, is the room where the computer is stored?”

So the creation, collection, or transmission of data about prostitution in a room constitutes enough of an act of prostitution to render the room itself a house of prostitution?

What server room, hotel, or high rise isn’t a brothel, then?

What to do when the Keystone Cops get into human rights work

The best way to illustrate the antics of NGO “rescuers” seeking to save sex workers from themselves? Thailand’s Empower Foundation turned to the golden age of silent cinema cop drama to explain why these US-backed larks turn their lives upside down.

Laugh now. The State Department’s annual Trafficking In Persons (TIP) report is on its way. TIP scores and ranks countries based on how much they are doing to “combat trafficking,” based on US goals, with the threat of sanctions for non-compliance.

In 2008, the Thai government passed over-broad anti-trafficking legislation, which, as Empower points out (PDF) leads to frequently violent police raids on their homes and workplaces—in much less slapsticky versions of the scene above.

If the aim of anti-trafficking legislation is to restore human rights, then why, in enforcement, do NGO’s rely so heavily on threats of public shaming, violence, confinement, and deportation—all tools of power and control that anti-trafficking campaigners frequently ascribe to “pimps and traffickers”?

NGO-conducted raids to satisfy US metrics on “combatting trafficking” aren’t just confined to Thailand. Much of Southeast Asia has been on the US watchlist at one point or another. Below, a video of an actual raid in Malaysia, filmed by sex workers.

In 2008, Malaysia had been ranked at “Tier 3” in its 2008 TIP report, the lowest ranking possible for a country. “Rather than address the real labour trafficking issues,” said the Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, “the government set out to close down the sex industry. Now nearly all brothels in Kuala Lumpur have been shut. Sex workers are forced to work in dangerous and difficult conditions on streets throughout the capital.” In 2009, after the Malaysian government’s anti-sex work campaigns, the US raised Malaysia’s rating in the TIP report to a more favorable “Tier 2.”

The problem with “The Other Problem with Sex Trafficking”

Kudos to nearly anyone who wishes to raise an issue like commercial sex among liberal changemakers.

In a talk at Personal Democracy Forum this week, Julie Ruvolo laid out the problems with online crusades against “sex trafficking” (I’m putting it in quotes, as I don’t have space to define and unpack the term here; take for a given that it has multiple meanings, emerges from a complicated framing of both commercial and criminal concerns, and appears so often in glossed-over media accounts of its “reality” as to be almost meaningless).

Ruvolo isn’t a researcher, sex worker (that I know of), or a Kristof type: she works at the Museum of Sex, and her bio points to her involvement in a few tech start-up ventures. Maybe it’s because she’s positioned somewhat outside the usual venues of the tech/trafficking debate that opened up some space for her at a conference like PDF. She doesn’t appear, whether she does or doesn’t, to have much skin in the game.

The talk opens awkwardly with Micah Sifry (probably unnecessary disclosure: I’ve written for his website, TechPresident) [corrected 06.17.2012 to:] Andrew Rasiej saying to the audience, “Let’s talk about sex!” We should probably watch the talk in full (or check out the crib) before going further:

Are you back?

To break it down, it appears (from the Twitter responses, anyway) that you can get a room of left-leaning people who want to make the world a better place to consider adopting a slightly less kneejerk response to “ending trafficking” than removing websites from the internet, if you:

  • • compare sex work to suicide;
  • • uncritically cite government data (NCMEC);
  • • use explicit language to describe sex acts (that might not often be uttered in a Microsoft-funded gathering);
  • • uncritically cite NGO data (Polaris Project) to support your claims (and then go on to attack that NGO, who honestly, does deserve attack);
  • • cite Kristof’s campaign to get Goldman Sachs to dump their Village Voice Media shares, without also acknowledging that he did that as part of his long campaign against Backpage and commercial sex (again, like Polaris, confusing and strange);
  • • and at no point include the voices and expertise of people involved in the sex trade.

There are, in there, some good points: calling out Google for their support of anti-trafficking NGO’s, for one, in a room of the tech-inclined. Also, calling out Equality Now and their executive director Taina Bien-Amie for her conflation of sex work and trafficking.

Considering this talk was presented before a room that I hope still contains a few internet history nerds and policy wonks, I’m surprised that Ruvolo didn’t include at least a nod to some of the structural factors behind why so many sex ads have moved to the internet in the first place, how this is nothing new in the nearly twenty years of the web, and how much of the fear-mongering on the part of so-called “anti-trafficking” experts has nothing to do with providing alternatives or opportunities for people who are coerced into the sex trade, but is a superficial internet clean-up campaign.

Likewise, their campaigns against commercial sex ignore any policy or social change that could benefit people in the sex trade right now, whether or not Backpage exists: like public education campaigns to reduce the stigma associated with being involved in the sex trade; or advocacy to fund legal services for people in the sex trade to ensure they don’t lose housing, their children, or work opportunities for having a criminal record; involving people in the sex trade in homeless services and youth services oversight to ensure their needs are being met; supporting training for medical providers and others in social services to offer non-judgmental health care to people in the sex trade; or removing the criminal penalties associated with prostitution that are themselves the largest barrier to identifying people coerced into the sex trade and who need outside support to get out.

It’s these laws – not the structure of the internet sex trade – that deter people who come into contact with someone forced into the sex trade from seeking help. In some states, like Illinois, laws against trafficking are written so broadly that buying a MetroCard or a meal for someone in the sex trade could make you vulnerable to arrest or prosecution yourself, as someone “involved” in trafficking. It’s in this climate of increased policing and penalties, of the mass incarceration of youth of color and low-income youth, that trafficking can go “unidentified.”

But to accept that “the problem with sex trafficking” is merely one of identifying victims is falling in line with the anti-prostitution campaigners’ frame. It also prevents us from calling their bluff: along with taking down websites like craigslist and Backpage, they want more money for more cops, even though sex workers and trafficking survivors alike report that cops are likely to be violent towards them in the course of “protecting” them.

Today’s so-called anti-trafficking activists (the anti-Backpage campaigners among them) have proven, in a decade of advocating for laws like the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, that their primary concern is putting more power in the hands of police to arrest people involved in the sex trade, to drag a wide net and just sort out who is a “victim” (in their understanding) and who is a “perpetrator” later. They aren’t interested in adopting new technologies to better identify victims; they don’t make such a distinction, and why would they, when their endgame is to abolish any evidence of the sex trade?

By their own metrics, the anti-Backpage set are winning. They can’t end prostitution, pornography, or other forms of commercial sex, but they can make the sex trade more invisible, and much more dangerous.

Which is exactly why it’s critically important to raise this issue.

But to do so without including people in the sex trade – the people who actually use Backpage – you might miss the real problem.

The real scandal is when you don’t pay her

Re: this whole Secret Service “sex scandal” that began in the Colombian city of Cartgena just ahead of a summit attended by President Obama, I just can’t. Is that a bored-whore posture? Oh no, another prostitution scandal! Loosely involving a Democrat (or a Democratic regime), which guarantees nothing good can come from it on the Left, and lots of madness will come of it on the Right, and just about nothing good will come of it for any of the sex workers involved. I first heard about it late Friday night in the Washington Post, and aside from speculating what headline the New York Post was going to go with (ICYMI: SECRET SERVICED), I tried to just let. it. go.

Now today it’s A1 above-the-fold in the New York Times, so I guess it’s back? Or I have to say something. Okay.

Charlotte Shane, over at (my favorite sex work blog) Tits and Sass already covered the possible corners this story will get dragged into – the legal status of prostitution in Colombia, the martial status of the agents involved, the role of the military in the cover-up, sketchy feelings about national security, and, lest we forget, the spectre of “sex slavery.” You could just read that and stop if you wanted.

But the thing the Times did that I was hoping someone with a reporting budget would do? Get an interview with the woman “at the center of the scandal!” as they say in these things.

At least women get to be at the center of something? Though truly the thing at the center of this scandal is yet another man trying to cheat a woman out of her pay.

(Did that sound sort of second wave? It was on purpose.)

The thing that no one really knew as this thing broke, and that I suspected had to be part of the story… as it’s ridiculous that of upwards of a dozen Secret Service and military dudes in a hotel, all conniving to shut up a woman one had paid for sex, that there was only one woman being paid for sex? (Come on.)

What happened was this: solidarity, motherfuckers. There were (at least) two escorts working together, looking out for each other in the club where they picked up their clients (no matter what the Secret Service bro insists, that he was shocked that there were prostitutes in that bottle service section). That as soon as one of the women was facing difficulty in getting paid by her client, she could storm across the hall and get back-up.

That’s just so beautiful.

And the kind of thing, under most anti-prostitution law in the US, that could get you charged with pimping, pandering, or conspiracy.

Sex workers here do it anyway, of course: have each other’s backs. It’s not front page news to us. Neither is it that clients will, on occasion, try to rip you off. But that you can incite an international incident over it? That’s just beautiful.

Loitering With Intent

I’m just starting to dig into this new report from the Sex Workers’ Project and the PROS Network: Public Health Crisis: The Impact of Using Condoms as Evidence of Prostitution in New York City. They’re launching it today in Albany, along with sex workers and advocates from all over New York, as part of a day of lobbying for a bill that would stop cops from searching people they’ve profiled as prostitutes in order to find condoms and make what they (and the courts, unfortunately) believe is a stronger case against them. Condoms-as-evidence is NYPD’s own sexed-up form of stop-and-frisk. As a result, close to half of the sex workers surveyed for this report say they have had condoms taken from them by cops, and close to half have stopped carrying condoms altogether, for fear of getting charged for the crime of protecting their own health.

If you do like I did and flip to the back of this report, you can find your own evidence in a frightful little narrative (really very dream-of-the-1890’s) drawn from court records and sworn cop statements.

There’s quite a few cases supported with direct cop testimony. Here’s just one, involving Officer Thomas V. Hill (shield number 15783), who reported this as cause to stop and cite one woman:


(The year, by his own hand, was 2011.)

After stopping this woman for being “dressed in (describe clothing) a long black wig, tight short jean shorts, tight red shirt” Thomas sought to charge her with “loitering for prostitution.”

What’s the basis of your conclusion, officer (their handy pre-printed form asks)?


1 condom.

So you know: here’s what cops are looking for when they want to profile a woman (and let’s be real, in New York and around the country, cops are actively profiling not all women, but women of color and transgender women in particular) as a prostitute, and slap her with a charge that could get her kicked out of her apartment, cost her current and future employment, sic the state on her to take her kids…

I would love a similar check sheet for cops: do you love staring at women? Rifling through their private belongings? Roughing them up? Strip searching them? At best, that’s a fantasy they ought to be paying for, rather than having us subsidize, but you know. Cops are as perved-out on patriarchal bullshit as everyone else. It’s just that they just get paid to slutshame some of the most vulnerable people in the city straight to prison.

I guess what I am saying is, look out for cops loitering with intent to solicit you to partake in a non-consensual, possibly unconstitutional search-and-seizure roleplay.

And thank our stars for the people who want to hold them to account for that.