Letter: U.S. sex workers rights movement is stopped in its tracks

Letter to the Editor

Tracy Ryan is a transgendered activist and spokesperson for Arresting Prostitutes is Legal Exploitation.

How can our community address concerns about human trafficking without being drawn into the political agendas of the anti-trafficking movement? Fears about trafficking, modern day slavery, sexual slavery, etc. are spread by groups that have an agenda with little to do with the actual problems that may occur. The U.S. Government has been roundly criticized for its anti-trafficking efforts, which have become part of political aims at restricting illegal immigration and abolishing prostitution.

In 2001, the U.S. State Department reported to Congress that there were about 50,000 persons trafficked into the United States annually. These people ended up in slave-like working conditions as domestics, farm laborers, and sexual providers. 

$150 million dollars was set aside to attack this problem. In response to the availability of federal funding, a cottage industry of anti-trafficking organizations grew up throughout the United States. These agencies continue to have a vested financial interest in the continuing story of the trafficking saga. In the eight years following these actions, the actual number of trafficking cases brought nationwide was only about a thousand. Many of these were local prostitution cases. After it became clear the State Department had pulled their original figure out of almost thin air, they revised it down to about 15,000 per year. Little real evidence to support even this number exists.

Researchers have found problems with the story of victimization that drives the anti-trafficking money. Nandita Sharma, then of York University in Canada and currently of the University of Hawaii, did a series of interviews of “victims” in Vancouver. These people had come in from China. Much media attention had been spent telling their story of slavery and abuse. Feminists opposed to the sex industry talked about forced prostitution. Nandita expected to hear such horror stories. What she did hear was that in these cases the “traffickers” were not viewed negatively by the victims. Instead many said they would hire the same people to smuggle them into Canada again. The women who had ended up in prostitution related that this was part of their immigration strategy. Some had been prostitutes in China. Their anger was aimed at the Canadian Government. As for the activist feminists, none of them had bothered to actually talk to these “victims.”

Cracking down on smugglers and closing routes for illegal immigration seem to be the real issues; not saving trafficking victims.

The other half of the political agenda is the moral crusade to abolish prostitution. The arguments and rhetoric are furnished by radical feminists with the money flowing from conservative groups and their allies in the Bush State Department. 

For example, radical feminist author and anti-prostitution activist Melissa Farley received financial help from the Federal Government for her book attacking the legal brothels in Nevada. On the other hand, academic research prepared by UNLV professors that reached a differing (positive) conclusion about these brothels was stopped from distribution within the Nevada Anti-Trafficking Task Force. Task force members feared a loss of Federal funding for distributing any information that contradicts the Federal position on these issues.

In this unequal struggle, the small number of courageous women, men, and transgendered persons who make up the U.S. sex workers rights movement are getting nowhere. Instead, victim horror stories encoded with radical feminist views dominate the media.  Local save-the-prostitute organizations run on radical feminist principals and funded by conservative groups provide testimonials from trafficking victims they have “saved.” How much truth is in these stories is subject to debate.

To get at the real trafficking issues, we must be able to separate the chaff of politics from the wheat of facts. Neither media nor public officials seem willing to do that at this time.

Tracy Ryan
Arresting Prostitutes is Legal Exploitation (APLE)