“Teens sold for sex aren't prostitutes, they're rape victims.” That's what the billboard just a few blocks from my house reads. I live in West Oakland near San Pablo Avenue, where the reality of minors in the sex industry is on my doorstep. The Bay Area, especially Alameda County, was recently named one of the nation's top sites for child sex trafficking.
I'm an independent sex worker. I love my job, partially because no one forces me to do it. I make my own hours and I choose my own clients. I didn't enter the business because someone coerced me, or because I was desperate for money. I'm also not a child.
I'm lucky. But many in the Bay Area are not.
Sex trafficking is an atrocity that violates fundamental human rights. Sex work, however, is just my job. The two are as different as night and day. But whether a person is forced into the sex industry or they enter it by choice, I believe that they deserve the same right to justice when they experience violence. However, sex workers are often left out of the anti-trafficking conversation. A silent protest in San Francisco on Feb. 11 sought to highlight the lack of sex worker perspectives within the anti-trafficking movement.
On a Tuesday at 9:30 a.m., I arrive at the San Francisco Public Library, where a multigenerational group of sex workers and allies had gathered in protest. They sat silently in front of the library with red tape over their mouths, red umbrellas in hand, holding homemade posters that read “Nothing About Us Without Us.” Inside the library, the 2014 Abolitionist Awards and Panel to End Demand was slated to start at 10 a.m. Attendees and panelists bustled into the library and tried to avoid eye contact with the sex workers who sat outside in protest.
One would think that sex worker rights advocates and anti-trafficking organizations would be natural allies. Trafficking is a form of violence, and sex worker rights advocates are certainly against violence within their own industry. But, according to Sex Worker Outreach Project (SWOP) representative Sandy Bottoms, “What the mainstream anti-human trafficking campaigns would like to have happen is an end of the sex industry as a whole.” Anti-trafficking organizations, and the legislation they push for, often do not differentiate between consensual and non-consensual sex work.
Later, inside the library, I sat and listened to vehement anti-prostitution advocate Melissa Farley speak. “Buying sex is wrong for the same reason that incest, rape, battery, and other forms of violence against women are wrong,” she said within the first five minutes of her presentation. Her words stung.
Then Casey Bates, the district attorney of Alameda County and the head of the Human Exploitation and Trafficking unit, approached the podium. Bates is one of the faces behind the recent PR campaign to raise awareness about the sex trafficking of minors in the Bay Area that has resulted in billboards like the one by my house. When he stood up to introduce himself, he raised his eyes towards the group of sex workers who stood silently at the back of the room with their signs of protest. “We're not against you,” he said, “we're with you, and I want to let you know that.”
“Then stop arresting us!” one of the protesters called out.
The rest of the panel was a tense presentation of programs designed to combat trafficking in the Bay Area. One of the sex workers involved in the protest, Kristen Diangelo, spoke up during the question and answer portion of the event. She was keen to point out that no one on the panel was a sex worker or a survivor of trafficking. After an awkward pause, Ellen Bell, the executive director of the Standing Against Global Exploitation (SAGE) project, responded. “I have had involvement in the sex industry, yes.” she said. She went on to encourage more sex workers to be involved in the anti-trafficking movement. “We need your voice… to move forward,” she said.
When the voices and perspectives of people in the sex industry aren't included in the anti-trafficking movement, legislators are missing an opportunity to engage with a population on the front lines. These seemingly disparate organizations have a great deal of common ground to work from. That morning, it was clear that sex workers want to be involved in the fight to end violence and exploitation in their industry. Perhaps the anti-trafficking movement is finally ready to listen.
Listen toSiouxsie's podcast on the anti-trafficking protests.