The human trafficking movement has been gaining momentum in recent years. Populated by a curious alliance of religious organizations and feminist groups, this movement advocates for stronger criminal laws and increased media attention to the issue. The media has heeded this call enthusiastically. For example, the following headlines have run in newspapers around the world in just the past few days: “The dark underbelly of human trafficking”, “33 years in prison for man who trafficked local girl”, “Child sex gang caged for total of 50 years”, “21 Thai women freed from forced prostitution”, and “Oklahoma mom accused of sex trafficking her baby for crystal meth”.
A recent investigative report by the Toronto Star, The Game: Living hell in hotel chains, reproduces the trafficking narrative that has become so popular: the “Romeo” pimp tricks innocent girls into the sex trade. This Toronto Star investigation is based on federal government documents and interviews with the victims as well as an accused pimp who is behind bars awaiting trial. The article begins with black and white images of young Indigenous women with the words “branded”, “beaten”, and “sold” flashing in white across their faces. It explains the techniques used to pimp these women in great detail, and then publishes the pictures of 15 pimps whose cases have come before the court in Toronto in recent years.
What’s wrong with this trafficking narrative? Undoubtedly slavery is wrong, and the kind of violence detailed in the piece is deplorable. The problem with the trafficking narrative is that it tells an oversimplified story of an innocent girl who is corrupted by an evil pimp, and ultimately rescued by a valiant knight. The story employs stereotypes and titillating details, ultimately reproducing the violence and shaming it seeks to disavow. While this type of story is framed as a public service piece, it is actually staging the image of the sex slave, and providing salacious details about her mistreatment. Narratives such as told in “The Game” are inadvertently reproducing the image of the sex slave it sets out to fight.
The reality of the sex industry is far more complicated than the trafficking narrative provides for. People who sell sex for money are not “selling themselves for sex”, they are exchanging sex for money. A wide variety of people participate in the sex industry, including women, men, and transgendered people. Some of these people work for themselves, and some actively choose to participate in the industry. The trafficking narrative provides no space for the consenting sex worker. In the trafficking narrative there are innocent girls deceived by evil pimps. A person who chooses sex work, or a sexual relationship with a business partner, is an impossibility, can’t exist, and must be lying to themselves.
The report sets out in great detail the physical and sexual abuse, as found in the police reports. There are so many details of the physical violence and humiliation endured by these women, at times it reads as more of a BDSM scene than an investigative report. By reproducing in such voyeuristic detail the torture methods employed on these women, this article can be read as a reproduction of the violence experienced by them.
Apart from profiting from the reproduction of sexual humiliation, the trafficking narrative also reproduces a racialized public enemy: the pimp. The report publishes the photos of 15 people charged with human trafficking, 14 of these are men and 10 are black men. We can see the report participating in publicly shamming pimps, and in doing so punishing them. The reader is able to condemn the pimp, while simultaneously being entertained, perhaps even perversely aroused, by the reports descriptions of sexual abuse and humiliation.
The trafficking narrative is also wrong in its overly simple solution to the problem: charge more pimps and keep them locked up for longer sentences. If the goal of this solution is to stop the abuse of people in the sex industry, increased criminal penalties are unlikely at achieve this objective. The report outlines in great detail how police currently troll the website backpage, and respond to ads where they suspect the woman might be trafficked. The police report to look out for pictures where the person’s face isn’t showing, offering to do “fetishes” and asking that clients use text messaging. This would include literally all of the ads: people rarely show their face in an advertisement for sexual services because the industry still carries with it so much stigma.
When the police identify a new ad, they often book an appointment and arrive for a “knock and talk”, just to meet the girls and see if they need help. From the sex workers perspective this experience can be very traumatizing- having a police officer arrive while you’re dressed in lingerie and discuss your romantic life while suggesting you should find a respectable profession does not engender a positive relationship.
This approach does not create a safe atmosphere for sex workers to report physical and sexual abuse. Physical and sexual violence is illegal, and prohibited by some of the most axiomatic provisions of the criminal code. The problem is not that laws do not protect victims of physical and sexual violence in the sex industry. The problem is that they are unable to access those laws because of stigma, racism and systemic violence.
Current police strategies pit the sex worker against the police, assumes her consent is just because she is brain washed, and doesn’t protect her unless she identifies as a victim. Sex workers are some of the most marginalized and stigmatized people in Canadian society today. They are exposed to greater risks of violence, both sexual and physical. Poverty, mental illness, addiction, and the foster care system, are explained as root causes by the victims in the report. Yet the solutions mentioned do not include any of these systemic factors.
The solution to prevent further abuse and exploitation of these marginalized people must include social programs addressing these systemic factors that contribute to the marginal position so many women find themselves in. At the same time, the possibility of the consenting sex worker must exist in law, because it exists in reality. The solution is not simply to lock pimps up indefinitely. The solution is not to publicly shame them. The solution is certainly not to restage the sexual violence perpetrated against these women in the thinly veiled name of public service.
Megan Ross is a lawyer, and a doctorate student at the University of Toronto, Faculty of Law.
The SexText blog is written by students, instructors and faculty of the Mark S. Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies. The views in the blog do not necessarily represent the program but are meant to start a discussion regarding issues of sexuality and gender. For questions please contact firstname.lastname@example.org