"Sex slave" & "Trafficking" Melodrama
Makes great anti-prostitution headlines,
 But ignores willing foreign women choosing sexwork

For a long time I have wondered if the sex trafficking hype was a bit overblown. My experience in Canada and the great Eastern European gals, makes me suspicious of some of the melodrama of the media about sex slave trafficking. I am sure some exists and should be stopped, but the extent of the issue seems vastly overblown and assumes anyone in sexwork is an exploited women.

Highlights of July 22, 2005 press release by Carol Leigh:
Activist and writer, Carol Leigh, is featured author in the San Francisco Chronicle Open Forum asking readers to see through the "sex slave melodrama" and consider the real lives, needs and challenges of local massage establishment workers. After recent highly publicized arrests in San Francisco massage parlors, Leigh reveals the hypocrisies behind these rescue efforts.

"I am very pleased to have this opportunity to present an alternative view of sex work and migration in the context of discourses on forced labor and slavery, aka trafficking. In academic and human rights circles there is a great deal of criticism of the anti-trafficking strategies and perspectives of the US government, but this criticism has received little notice in the media. The public is ready for these complexities. They are ready to look squarely at the growing criminalization of immigration, the scapegoating of prostitution and sex workers and at the destructive and ineffective aspects of the US anti-trafficking policies."

San Francisco District Attorney Kamala Harris is a feminist and a progressive. She has demonstrated some support for justice for women in the sex industry, although her portrayal of trafficking is inaccurate, even contradicted by recent US government reports. For example, she repeats the estimate of 50,000 people trafficked to the United States this year. In fact recent US government statistics contradict these estimates, as noted in a Hastings Women's Law Journal article by Kathleen Kim. The estimate is now actually around 15,000.

But few of the supposed 15,000 have been identified
Despite multi-million dollar programs, victim identification has been extremely slow, and federal agencies have recognized that they are not finding victims at an 'acceptable rate.' There is a 'significant difference between the estimated number of people trafficked into the United States annually and the number of victims that the U.S. government has reached'. The T-visa cap has not come close to being reached in any of the three years reported so far. In fact, of the estimated tens of thousands of victims in the United States annually, only a few hundred have been identified and protected since the TVPA became law. By March 2005, fewer than 500 victim-witnesses had been granted temporary trafficking victim T visas since the law went into effect in 2000."

In her article, D.A. Harris claims that "100 victims were discovered". The SF Chronicle report holds that "In a series of searches begun Thursday, investigators said they found more than 100 women working as prostitutes at 10 San Francisco massage parlors." D.A. Harris seems to be asserting that all the above were 'victims.' The Chronicle story of July 13 claims that "Fifty-nine of the women came here willingly and will face deportation proceedings." These women certainly are victims, of the INS, that is. Other aspects of their victimization are unclear and current anti-trafficking efforts 're-victimize' them.

These inaccuracies and weaknesses belie a general tendency to allow moral panics and sensationalism to obscure the details and therefore reduce effectiveness when dealing with the serious issues of forced labor, slavery and other abuses in all workplaces, for immigrant workers and in the sex industry.

Carol Leigh
Bay Area Sex Workers Advocacy Network