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Ideas | S.I. Rosenbaum

In sex trade debate, everything old is new again

House Judiciary Committee Chairman Robert Goodlatte, whose bill to hold websites criminally accountable for facilitating paid sex was recently passed in Congress.Zach Gibson/Getty Images

FOR MANY OPPONENTS of the sex trade, there’s nothing complicated about it: Prostitution goes hand in hand with human trafficking, and human trafficking is a form of enslavement. As the market for paid sex has moved from darkened street corners onto the Internet, and as long-standing taboos meet shifting political and social currents, opponents of prostitution have increasingly tapped into an old reserve of moral authority — the anti-slavery movement that flourished before the Civil War in New England and elsewhere.

“Prostitution and sex trafficking are inextricably linked,” Representative Robert Goodlatte, a Virginia Republican who leads the House Judiciary Committee, declared in a summary of the bill that would hold websites criminally accountable for facilitating paid sex. The bill — the “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act,” or “FOSTA” for short — recently passed the House 388 to 25. “Where prostitution is legalized or tolerated,” Goodlatte continued, “there is a greater demand for human trafficking victims and nearly always an increase in the number of women and children trafficked into commercial sex slavery.”


Over the past decade, sex work of all kinds has increasingly been described as trafficking or enslavement, with reformers describing themselves as “abolitionists” — for example, the organization Demand Abolition, currently based in Cambridge. An anti-trafficking group called Liberty 89 touts the work of “modern-day abolitionists” from Glenn Beck to Ashton Kutcher. It sells a painting by well-known conservative artist Jon McNaughton that depicts people in modern attire carrying rescued children down a train track, as Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Tubman look on approvingly. (On its website, the group doesn’t distinguish between adults and children in the sex industry; it commits broadly to “ending human trafficking and providing liberty throughout the world.”)

Yet in the recent legislative wrangling over FOSTA, and its sister bill in the Senate, the lines of debate were blurrier than the abolitionist imagery might suggest. Perhaps surprisingly, some of the strongest opposition came from advocates for a key group that the legislation is meant to protect: adult women in the sex industry.


“There’s an assumption that everyone in the sex trade is there by force,” said Kate D’Adamo, an activist and community organizer with the Sex Worker Outreach Project in New York. She argues that adults selling sex do so for a variety of reasons, and that the distinctions between them matter.

In this context, the recent emphasis on the slavery metaphor illustrates how the debate over sex for pay has changed in the United States — and how it hasn’t.

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In recent decades, a number of social taboos — such as those against marijuana — have significantly waned. Many feminists, even those who disapprove of prostitution, have urged lawmakers to ease up on people (usually women) who sell sex and focus instead on the customers (usually men) who pay for it. The idea of overt legalization has drawn some support even among conservatives, as libertarianism has gained influence on the political right. Public-health researchers have steered away from the pejorative term “prostitution” in favor of the more neutral “sex work.” Advocates such as D’Adamo argue that, for some marginalized people under difficult circumstances, sex work is the most realistic way to make a living. “If you’re not supporting the way people are surviving,” she argues, “you’re not supporting their survival.”

To some degree, FOSTA is an attempt to grapple with a changing conversation. Ostensibly, the law is designed to help people who have been forced into prostitution against their will. The idea behind bill is that ads “advertising the sale of unlawful sex acts with sex trafficking victims” are hidden in plain sight among ads for voluntary paid sex, on websites such as the now-shuttered Backpage.com. Make it illegal to sell any kind of sex act on the Internet, and the marketplace shuts down, driving the illicit traffickers out of business.

That’s the theory, at least. Advocates for sex workers argue that the proposed law is written broadly enough that even providing a community forum, education on issues such as AIDS prevention. Resources such as “bad date” sites where sex workers keep track of problem clients, could be seen as being complicit in sex trafficking, said D’Adamo. “You’re talking about people who are in a safer space [online] than on the street,” she said.


Inside and outside feminist circles, however, others prefer not to differentiate between voluntary sex work and forced trafficking. “Trafficking is merely a process in which some women and children are prostituted,” the author Julie Bindel has argued. “Prostitution itself is the problem.”

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The notion that prostitution itself is a form of slavery has a long history. It’s a reprise of the Progressive Era reforms of the early 20th century, when a burgeoning national media, lead by McClure’s magazine, established the “white slave trade” as an urgent and widespread peril facing the nation.

The ensuing moral crusade led to “formal responses on both the local and federal levels, including the election of anti-trafficking candidates to governmental office; the proliferation of commissions to study white slavery and vice; the implementation of their recommendations, including the formation of special vice units within municipal police forces; the passage of such national legislation as the Mann Act to curb white slavery; and the expansion of the Bureau of Investigations [the precursor to the FBI] to enforce this act,” according to Gretchen Soderlund, author of “Sex Trafficking, Scandal, and the Transformation of Journalism.”

Before this, the phrase “white slavery” had been used to mean any form of labor considered tantamount to chattel slavery. For example, in 1888 a newspaper described the plight of underpaid, overmanaged the oppressive telephone operators “a system of white slavery [whose] principal slave-owners live in Boston or Lowell.”

But with muckrakers leading the way, by 1910 all other uses of the phrase had been “overshadowed by the image of the enchained white female prostitute,” Soderlund wrote.


“White slavery was largely a cultural myth for understanding sex work,” wrote social-work researcher Nicole Bromfield of the University of Houston in a 2016 paper. In that myth, today’s scholars see both a liberal sensibility — based on the urge to eliminate observable misery — and a retrograde moral and racial outlook. “White slavery” offered some prostitutes the role of innocent victim rather than lascivious perpetrator. It also linked a moral crusade with the vilification of immigrants — especially nonwhite immigrants — who were painted as pimps and slavers. Women of color who did sex work were dismissed as “voluntary” prostitutes, unworthy of redemption or rescue.

As for white women, their innocence might be presumed but their consent was considered irrelevant. “Both voluntary and coerced prostitution were referred to as white slavery,” Bromfield wrote, “as well as any female sexual behavior that was considered to be immoral, such as kissing and/or dancing with unrelated men.”

Predictably, the resulting policy and legislation cast a wide, sometimes unpredictably inclusive net. The Mann Act, passed in 1910, prohibited the transportation of women across county or state lines for “immoral purposes.” This term, Bromfield writes, “was ambiguous, and the Mann Act was used to prosecute consensual behavior between adults that was deemed to be immoral, such as the prosecution and conviction of Jack Johnson, a famous African-American boxer who transported his white girlfriend across state lines in 1912.”


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Today’s anti-trafficking activists are operating in the context of 100 years of civil-rights progress; they’re concerned with prostitution, not miscegenation. Still, American University professor Janie Chuang raises the prospect of “slavery creep” — as more and more different kinds of sex work are described as trafficking or sexual slavery, policies and laws will tend toward a one-size-fits all approach to very different situations.

Now, as during the Progressive Era, some are beginning to back away from slavery rhetoric — even some you might not expect.

“We feel like using any term that would paint everyone involved in the commercial sex trade with one broad brush stroke may not be the helpful way to think about the problem,” said Alex Trouteaud, a spokesman for Demand Abolition.

True to its name, the group once led the “anti-slavery” charge, but Trouteaud said the organization is looking to become more subtle in its approach.

“There’s a range of experiences that people have in the commercial sex trade,” he said. “Some people get involved in it because they’re in place where they feel they have no other options; some are lured into it by others. There’s a very narrow range of people who get into it because they say they simply chose it and had other plausible options.”

Stigmatizing sex workers, he said, “doesn’t do anyone any good.” And while “the nice thing about ‘trafficking’ is it communicates to people that harm is caused here, the downside is not everyone involved [in sex work] is a trafficking victim.”

Even speaking of rescuing victims of trafficking smacks of paternalism, he said: “To say you need to be rescued is to deny the agency of that person, and that’s not the right way to handle it.”

Trouteaud defended the FOSTA bill, saying that the final product of the legislative process tends to devolve to “talking points.” And legislators, he added, too often see the issue in terms of pop culture: “They think it’s like the movie ‘Taken,’” he said. “They think it’s everyday kids getting drugged and smuggled and tossed around by some gang.”

But he said that he hopes the discussion of trafficking and sex work can move beyond the language of the bill.

“There’s more to this issue than talking points. I think it’s healthy for us to take good detailed look . . . it’s a complicated issue where nuance can be hard to come by.”

Trouteaud and D’Adamo, the advocate for sex workers, are nominally on different sides of the debate. But they agree on this: that the reality of the sex trade is complicated — more complicated, perhaps, than the language of slavery and abolition can encompass.

S.I. Rosenbaum can be reached at si@arrr.net. Follow her on Twitter @sirosenbaum.