Whore Next Door: Strange Bedfellows

What happens when a sex-positive activist and anti-sex-trafficking activist talk politics?

(Photograph by Isabel Dresler/Isabeldresler.com)

Jamie Walton and I aren’t supposed to be friends.

Not only are there geographic constraints — she lives on the other side of the country in a small Florida suburb — but we fall on historically opposing sides of the advocacy fence. Sex-worker rights activists like myself often butt heads with people who work in the world of counter-trafficking, as Walton does. Yet there we were, sitting side-by-side in spa massage chairs, getting mani-pedis. (She opted for a light pink with subtle sparkles, while I stuck to my signature candy-apple red.)

Walton and I have been talking on the internet for more than two years, but this marked the first time we ever met in person. I’ve been watching alot of Catfish reruns recently, so a part of me was prepared for the possibility that she would end up being a 55-year-old Korean man, rather than the tiny brunette spitfire I’d met on Twitter.

Walton runs an organization called The Wayne Foundation. (Yes, Wayne as in “Bruce Wayne” from Batman.) Though the Dark Knight himself doesn’t sit on the board of directors, indie director, comic-book writer, and podcast mogul Kevin Smith — who named and underwrote the organization — does.

A longtime fan of Smith’s work, Walton casually approached him via social media in 2010, urging him to use his large platform and fan-base to help victims of exploitation. To her surprise and delight, Smith responded with enthusiasm. Ever since, The Wayne Foundation has been interfacing with policymakers and law enforcement, as well as providing direct services to victims.

But unlike other counter-trafficking organizations that wish to conflate all sex work with trafficking, Walton doesn’t see the profession as inherently exploitative, nor does she view all people who do sex work as victims.

Walton herself is a survivor of child sex-trafficking, though at the time she didn’t self-identify as a victim. In hindsight, however, she realized that at 14, she was still a child — and her boyfriend, who was taking most of her money, was exploiting her.

Along with providing direct services to victims in her area, part of Walton’s work with The Wayne Foundation includes fighting for legislation to improve the lives of victims and harshly prosecute those who exploit them.

So I had to ask for her thoughts on a new wave of legislation that declares pornography a “public-health crisis,” blames the adult industry as a key contributor to the exploitation of minors and victims, and combats an imagined link between the two via mandatory internet filters that will be required on every device sold in states that adopt the bills as law.

Consumers will have to pay the government a $20 fee to deactivate them, the act of which will then place them on a list that potentially implicates them as people interested in content that promotes human trafficking. Proponents of the legislation insist that by limiting people’s access to platforms that “promote” the sale of sex — which would include adult entertainment, advertising platforms, and even sexual health and LGBT content — the demand for commercial sex will disappear altogether.

I sat with Walton in her hotel room and showed her a 14-minute YouTube video made by Chris Sevier, the author of the Human Trafficking Prevention Act. (In addition to drafting the bill and pushing it in more than a dozen state legislatures, Sevier once tried to marry his computer as an anti-same-sex marriage stunt, and he’s also been charged with stalking and assault.) I asked Walton if there was any chance that his Orwellian, McCarthy-inspired garbage would actually help victims.

“This is the most bizarre way to fight trafficking I’ve ever heard of,” she concluded, adding that she’d never seen this type of link between legal pornography and sex trafficking.

“I wanted to like it,” she said, but ultimately found the reasoning behind the legislation, “really disingenuous.”

Using the red herring of human trafficking for what amounts to a government extortion and censorship scheme is not the most cost-effective, efficient, or moral way to address victims’ needs. But it may be the shadiest.

While we were waiting for our nails to dry, I asked Walton for some examples of legislation that actually could help victims. She told me policies that allow people to vacate and expunge their prostitution convictions from their records in an expedited fashion are incredibly beneficial, as are efforts like California’s recent SB 1322, which decriminalized commercial sex acts by minors.

Leading human-rights and public-health organizations such as Amnesty International and the World Health Organization agree that decriminalizing sex work is a critical step to combating exploitation. Walton says that the psychological damage that victims experience when they face criminal charges (in addition to violence) is counterproductive to breaking cycles of exploitation.

Walton and I may have different perspectives about the sex industry, but we can absolutely agree that no one’s labor should be exploited, and those who are victimized should not face criminal charges for something they were forced, coerced, or deceived into doing.

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