Backpage and the Powerful Myths about Sex Trafficking

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Human TraffickingLaw & PolicyPreventionRehabilitation & LiberationSurvivor Stories

The 2012 film Eden famously exposed the “horrible underworld” of sex trafficking, depicting the “based-on-a-true-story” kidnap of a Korean-American high school student who was trafficked into sexual slavery with dozens of other young women in New Mexico.

The only problem? The film was a lie.

As Noah Berlatsky from Salon points out, “Trafficking in real life has about as much to do with Eden as a real-life infectious disease has to do with The Walking Dead.” Yet unfortunately, much of the legislation on sex trafficking is still informed by these sensationalist narratives that capture the public’s attention.

In turn, “anti-trafficking legislation and law enforcement focus on saving people who don’t exist, and harms people who do in the process,” writes Berlatsky.

Salon explains that US efforts to combat trafficking — most recently in the case of Backpage — often ignore trafficking for labor exploitation faced by farm workers and domestic workers:

In labeling Backpage a “sex trafficking platform,” it suggests the website is abetting some sort of Eden-like conspiracy, in which innocent kidnapped victims, often underage, are being advertised online with the knowing collusion of website operators.

But the reality of trafficking is very different, according to Alexandra Lutnick, a Senior Research Scientist at RTI International and the author of Domestic Minor Sex-Trafficking: Beyond Victims and Villains. Lutnick points out that trafficking “is far more common outside of the sex industry” than inside it. She points to the International Labor Organization’s 2012 Global Estimate of Forced Labor, which found that three-quarters of forced labor does not involve forced sexual labor.

Instead, most trafficking involves farm workers, construction workers, or domestic workers who have wages withheld or are forced to work without pay. Yet, politicians rarely make grandstanding statements boasting about fighting labor exploitation of construction workers.

And, of course, no one says that we should make farm work illegal to end exploitation in the agriculture industry.

Moreover, Lutnick adds that real victims of sex trafficking rarely fit the Eden narrative. Anyone under 18 who sells sex is automatically considered a victim of trafficking, and youth who leave home are rarely kidnapped. Rather, these youth end up trading sex for shelter or food because they have no other option.

As Berlatsky notes, “In the rush to save fictional sex trafficking victims, authorities put at risk the livelihood, and even the lives, of real consensual sex workers, and real trafficking victims.”

One such survivor of sex trafficking is Sarah Fenix, who explained to Salon that she was trafficked when she was homeless. She had an abusive boyfriend who was addicted to heroin and desperate to prevent him from going into withdrawal, she began selling sex for money to support his habit.

“Backpage helped keep me safe during one of the scariest most dangerous times of my entire life,” she writes. “I could weed out the worst [guys].”

Yet politicians still resort to Eden-like narratives when they talk about trafficking, perhaps because it garners attention.

It seems “Raids on nefarious kidnappers are stirring; it’s fun to save the innocent. Giving resources to a stigmatized minority is more controversial, and less likely to garner admiring headlines. But the real story is that trafficking victims don’t need saviors — they need labor rights,” concludes Berlatsky.

Chip in and help end modern slavery once and for all.

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Freedom UnitedPeter Abetz Recent comment authors
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Peter Abetz
Peter Abetz

The author of this article has no understanding of human sex trafficking. Having researched prostitution and the associated sex trafficking for over 30 years, it is disappointing that Freedom United has posted this article, which draws on an article written by Noah Berlatsky, who writes for Playboy magazine. I have a presentation on the connection between human sex trafficking and prostitution on youtube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TGM-Iwqet68 .

Freedom United

Hi Peter,

We believe it is important to understand all sides of the debate surrounding Backpage and the new legislation to curb advertising of sexual services. Previous articles we’ve posted include a focus on how traffickers have used the website to exploit their victims, including children. Our goal is to end human trafficking and “do no harm.” This article highlights a perspective that this new anti-trafficking measure risks putting the safety and security of others in the sex industry at risk.