New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof is leading a campaign to shut down the adult section of the online ad network run by the Village Voice.
His charge, which is supported by many women’s organizations and religious groups, is that the Voice is providing a forum for sex trafficking and he has singled out juvenile victims.
Backpage.com, the Voice’s advertizing section, is known to have carried 50 such ads in the past three years.
Fighting back against the effort to shutter the adult section, critics say that it will do more harm than good as it will just drive child sex pimps elsewhere, as happened when Craigslist shut its adult section. They also point out that, with the Voice’s cooperation, the section provides the best tool for law enforcement to tackle the trade.
Sex worker activists also say that shuttering the section will make their work more dangerous.
They say that measures which could be taken to protect victims, as well as willing sex workers, are being ignored.
Writes Melissa Gira Grant in Alternet:
People involved in the sex trade, whether by choice, coercion or circumstance, all still face criminal records after a prostitution conviction – even people who have been trafficked. These convictions can prevent a former sex worker or trafficking survivor from obtaining future employment, housing or retaining custody of their children.
In some states, a prostitution conviction means that the women has to register alongside pedophiles as a sex offender, which can be stamped in block letters on their driver licenses.
New York and Illinois are the only states which allow trafficking survivors to vacate prostitution-related sentences, removing these convictions from their criminal records.
A 2009 study of Chicago girls in the sex trade, conducted by the Young Women’s Empowerment Project, found that when girls sought out the support they needed – from drug treatment and foster care programs to hospitals and the police – they were denied help because of their involvement in the sex trade. Girls’ reports of abuse by police in the study outnumbered the stories of other forms of institutional violence that girls encountered.
A San Francisco and Washington study found prostitutes forced into sex by police. The Washington study also reported that police confiscated safer sex supplies, and strip-searched and assaulted people suspected of prostitution.
Says Gira Grant:
Censoring ads for prostitution does not end violence against people who sell or trade sex.
Activism against sex trafficking has also had terrible impacts on the fight against HIV/Aids.
A key victory for anti-sex trafficking organizations was the insertion of the anti-prostitution loyalty oath (APLO) into the US Leadership Act for HIV/Aids, TB, and malaria. This provision requires that organizations agree to oppose prostitution and sex trafficking. The APLO has the effect of disempowering sex worker organizations who refuse to sign on, shutting health services for sex workers, and alienating sex workers from public health programs.
Those involved with providing health services to sex workers have been accused of collusion in trafficking.
Critics both in the US and the UK have also questioned the numbers quoted by sex trafficking campaigners.
In the UK in 2009, an expose of the oft-quoted numbers of trafficked women by the Guardian newspaper found that they included willing workers or other miscellaneous women and figures published widely in the media and quoted by politicians had no evidential basis and were hugely exaggerated from even the highest academic guesses. It also reported that police figures of ‘rescues’ in the UK, themselves low numbers, were later strongly revised down as it became clear that most of those ‘rescued’ were willing sex workers and not coerced.
Research quoted by the Guardian by Dr. Nick Mai of London Metropolitan University concludes that, contrary to public perception, the majority of migrant sex workers have chosen prostitution as a source of “dignified living conditions and to increase their opportunities for a better future while dramatically improving the living conditions of their families in the country of origin.” After detailed interviews with 100 migrant sex workers in the UK, Mai found:
“For the majority, working in the sex industry was a way to avoid the exploitative working conditions they had met in their previous non-sexual jobs.”
Kristof is calling for a boycott of the Village Voice, there have been physical protests outside its offices and another petition website is hosting a large petition calling for the Voice’s adult ads sections closure.
Craigslist’s shutting down of its adult ads because of a campaign by Connecticut’s Attorney-General did not lead to any subsequent attention to the treatment of sex workers, trafficking, willing and not willing, by law enforcement and other agencies. Neither does it appear that those getting out the pitchforks and torches and marching on the Voice have much interest in what sex workers and their advocates say are their real issues either.
Image screengrab from The Simpsons