Last weekend, I had the great pleasure of attending an eye-opening conference at the University of Southern California, “From Prosecution to Empowerment: Fighting Human Trafficking and Promoting the Rights of Migrants.” The conference presenters challenged themselves with a bold aim—to redefine people’s perceptions of human trafficking so that they could contribute in an informed and meaningful way to the contentious debate surrounding this explosive industry.
One of the panel discussions I attended seemed to capture the sentiments of the conference particularly well. The two-hour workshop was called “Sex Workers: The Impact of Curb Campaigns,” and it attempted to explore the flaws in the dominant cultural and legal perspectives on prostitution, both at home and abroad, as well as propose alternative approaches to the issue. As I listened to the stories and insights of the activists, researchers and scholars before me, I came to formulate a new understanding of the way our society sees sex workers.
This perception actually relates to the way women are commonly portrayed in popular culture, a phenomenon known as the virgin-whore dichotomy. This term refers to the characterization of women as either sweet, good, chaste and submissive or “morally loose” with no self-respect. This dichotomy is one aspect of the overarching either-or that too often clouds the lens through which our society sees women (she’s either pretty or ugly, she’s either a career woman or a housewife, she either dances with you or she’s a cold bitch). This dichotomy is especially realized in the context of human trafficking.
Most American-based anti-trafficking ads tell the same story: the misunderstood and lonely tween girl who is lured over the internet by some greasy, sleazy 40-year-old pimp, who then kidnaps and forces her into sex work. The ad might take an international angle, in which case the girl will be from a rural village somewhere and duped by a faulty promise of passage to America. These girls are, of course, your virgins. They are innocent, helpless and utterly without agency. They need us to swoop in and rescue them from their horrible plight.
The whores, on the other hand, are the women who got into sex work because they have no sense of self-worth. They’re promiscuous and probably addicted to drugs. They’re the women who run away from their shiny new factory jobs and return to the sex industry after some philanthropic white man has purchased their freedom. They’re criminals.
But—like any virgin-whore dichotomy—this representation ignores a great deal of crucial details. It doesn’t consider the fact that a teenager might feel safer in the sex industry than she did in the home she ran away from, that a factory job might mean longer, harder work for half the pay, that many prostitutes are just trying to feed their families. It is also ignorant of the fact that sex trafficking accounts for approximately only one ninth of labor trafficking worldwide and that many sex trafficking victims are male.
It is difficult, however, to address or even allow room for these details when our view of the sex industry itself is so severely skewed. Panelist Erin Kamler, a doctoral student at USC’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, explained how there is a fundamental assumption that sex work is wrong (and in certain circles, sinful), so that “the only way sex workers get respect is as victims.”
In reality, sex work is no more inherently exploitative than getting a professional massage. By branding it as such, society is refusing to engage with the actual factors that lead to exploitative relationships within the sex industry, such as sexual harassment, wage withholding or failure to provide for the worker’s safety through contraception and other means. In fact, the current approach we take to sex work tends to encourage further exploitation, as it allows politicians and law enforcement to promote their careers through cracking down on prostitution—at the expense of the livelihood and freedom of these individuals themselves.
Even philanthropists can jump on the exploitation express. Norma Jean Almodovar, retired sex worker and full-time international sex worker rights activist, introduced at the panel the idea of “victim pimps”—privileged people who make names for themselves by commodifying the stories of trafficking victims and marketing them just like the workers themselves.
According to Almodovar, the heroic fantasies of these (white, Western) spokespeople parallel the sexual fantasies certain clients have of rescuing the sex worker from her prison of prostitution. She described world-renowned journalist and co-founder of the “Half the Sky Movement” Nicholas Kristof as acting on a fantasy of his own in which he would “come in and rescue us poor whores and turn us into good Christian girls.”
When these fantasies do play out sexually—in the form of Western men who use sex services while travelling abroad—local sex workers will often exploit the fantasy itself, challenging the idea that female sex workers, trafficked or not, have no agency or will-power. In her presentation, panelist Kimberly Hoang shared her research on sex workers in Vietnam, who would use the “poor, Vietnamese village girl” stereotype to their advantage, going so far as to organize tours of fake villages to impress their clients with rural poverty and thus extract more money out of them.
What this work and the work of all those who presented at the conference demonstrate is a dire need to restructure our approach towards both human trafficking and the sex industry. Trafficking victims don’t need sympathy; they need practicality. Sex workers don’t need a rescue mission; they need respect. Until we start treating these women—and men—like capable, autonomous and dignified human beings, we will only compound the discrimination against women and laborers in the trafficking industry that makes it so fundamentally exploitative. If we actually consider the perspective of the sex worker, perhaps we will actually be informed enough to make the decision that is right for her.