You’ve heard the sex trafficking story before. A woman from a foreign country is brought to live in the US in a dirty apartment and forced to have sex with people until the police step in, she escapes or she dies.
This is just one example of sexual coercion.
Santa Fe recently became the backdrop in a case involving forced sex acts when two women filed a lawsuit against Jeffrey Epstein. They said the billionaire banker used his house outside the city to host "underage orgies" and that Epstein forced them into a life as "sex slaves."
My feminist hackles always get a bit of a rise when I hear that last term.
When media reports use the term "sex slave," it sensationalizes rape and abduction.
I would like to make it abundantly clear that I'm not discrediting the reports of the women who have been brave enough to come forward against Epstein, yet the language adopted by those telling these stories deserves a second look.
Sera Miles is the co-director of Sex Workers Outreach Project in New Mexico, a nonprofit organization that works to end violence and oppression against sex workers. Miles says the way media have covered the Epstein case is offensive and dismissive.
"Using such eroticized and sensational terminology allows the privileged, dominant, male, hetero, cisgender culture to promote the idea of being owners instead of rapists," Miles says, adding later, "Those children are crime victims, kidnapping victims and rape victims."
There's no arguing that campaigns to raise awareness of sex trafficking and urge its prevention are important on a global scale.
But, I see flaws in these campaigns that often end up making life more difficult and dangerous for sex workers (the preferred term by those who choose the work, instead of prostitute).
Many campaigns that vow to end sex trafficking don’t differentiate between those who chose sex work versus those who are coerced. In 2012, California voters passed Proposition 35, which requires anyone convicted of “sex trafficking” (read: could be a happy, consenting sex worker) to register as a sex offender a
It's important, Miles says, to make a distinction between sex trafficking, sex work and survival sex work.
"Sex work can never be human trafficking. Human trafficking does not lead to work," Miles says. "It leads to commodification, exploitation and rape."
Take it from Maggie McNeil, a former sex worker who is now an activist and blogger. She talks about how much of the data about survivors of sex trafficking might be unreliable and how confounding the idea that all sex work is sex trafficking is problematic. In an interview with Reason.com, McNeil says that until sex work is decriminalized, it's difficult to have any real idea of how many sex workers are choosing the work versus needing to versus being forced into it.
Not having reliable data hasn't stopped countless women's rights, human rights and faith-based organizations from bold, potentially unsupported claims about what sex trafficking is and isn't.
Even anti-trafficking organizations report that the definition of trafficking is murky. According to a report from the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women: "[W]hen statistics on trafficking are available, they usually refer to the number of migrant or domestic sex workers, rather than cases of trafficking."
The New Mexico Attorney General's Office, which in recent years has purchased advertising slots to take aim at trafficking, defines that crime as "the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harboring, or receipt of persons by means of force, fraud, or coercion for the purpose of exploitation."
Most victims of trafficking, the AG website says, "are forced to work in the commercial sex industry, such as prostitution or sex entertainment, or exploited for labor, such as domestic servitude or restaurant work, sweatshop factory work or migrant agricultural work."
Hunter Riley is a Santa Fe native living and working in Albuquerque. She is the store manager of Self Serve Sexuality Resource Center. Send your questions to firstname.lastname@example.org or you can follow her on Twitter, @hunteroriley