Thank you for visiting my blog. I am currently taking a break from posting while I finish my doctorate. I will be back this summer once I defend my dissertation!!
Thank you for visiting my blog. I am currently taking a break from posting while I finish my doctorate. I will be back this summer once I defend my dissertation!!
The debate of whether sex work is a location of empowered choice or patriarchal domination is currently a key argument within the human trafficking movement, particularly related to legislative campaigns to legalize prostitution in the United States. My research focuses on state-level commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC) policy and many of my qualitative interview participants have shared stories of sex workers rights activists increased involvement in state legislative processes to promote legalizing prostitution. I do not seek to come to any specific conclusions or stance in this post; rather, my intention is to utilize this forum to explore this highly-contested topic.
The human trafficking movement situates the sex industry within the larger context of the subjugation of women within patriarchy. It is argued this subjectivity drains sex workers of the agency required to make the cultural and structural changes necessary for personal and political freedom. Critics of sex work as an empowered job state the sex industry (including sex work, pornography, stripping) argue the sex trade is predicated on a patriarchal culture where women are oppressed and subordinate (Brace and O’Connell Davidson 2000).
Conversely, proponents of sex work as a chosen occupation refute the notion that they are subjects, and position sex work as being by harmed by the anti-trafficking movement, which situates them as victims with no agency. “The central claim is that workers do not actively make choices or remain in prostitution…the notion of consent is deemed irrelevant, and activists have pressed governments to criminalize all such migration [for sex work], whether consensual or not” (Weitzer 2007: 453). Such criminalization, sex workers’ rights activists argue, then make sex workers vulnerable to exploitation and violence because they have no rights when harm is done against them (i.e. being raped, physically assaulted, or robbed by a sex buyer) (Brace and O’Connell Davidson 2000). As such, these activists advocate legalizing prostitution as a way to legitimize and normalize a person’s right to choose sex work and to keep sex workers safe (McClelland 2016).
Taking all of these issues into account, the central contest regarding sex work seems to be a power struggle of who gets to decide how the issue is framed, rather than arguing over if a person can choose to be a sex worker or if sex work should be decriminalized. The very ideation of power and control that surrounds prostitution sex trafficking can then, therefore, be seen as ingrained in the very movement hoping to end exploitation. A larger contention may be individual sex workers deemed victims by the anti-trafficking movement, but do not experience themselves as objectified, are then also marginalized by the very feminists who seek women’s liberation then sex workers see themselves as even more vulnerable to within the larger culture.
If feminists who purport to advocate for women to make their own choices are against sex work, then who is left to stand up with sex workers? This very power struggle reflects the feminist debate regarding to a Foucauldian conception of power as a relational, subjective force, rather than a singular notion belonging to an individual capable of challenging and altering gendered power relations (McLaren 2002).
Locating the empowerment-victim debate to a place of power over who has the authority to deem is a person is empowered or a victim is a departure of the current framing of this debate. The centerpiece of the issue has historically been the legalization of prostitution. A 2016 New York Magazine article on this topic (see magazine cover above) states, “For both sides, the issue boils down to whether decriminalization makes women safe” (McLelland 2016: 40). Body politics – and keeping one’s body safe – is a particularly key concept within the empowerment-exploitation debate. Within a patriarchal society predicated on domination and control, particularly of women’s bodies, the ability to choose of who decides what one chooses to do with one’s own body is the ultimate liberation.
Classical sociologist Max Weber’s conception of rationality and power addresses this issue of choice when he writes, “Every genuine form of domination implies a minimum of voluntary compliance, that is, an interest (based on ulterior motives or genuine acceptance) in obedience” (1978: 212). An illuminating quote trauma pioneer Judith Herman used in the second edition of her landmark book Father-Daughter Incest (2000) further clarifies Weber’s statement. The quote is from Richard Kluft’s chapter “On the Apparent Invisibility of Incest” (1990) and relates a pimp’s description of an “ideal” prostitute.
“Beauty, yes. Sexual expertise, somewhat. That can be taught easier than you think. What is important above all is obedience. And how do you get obedience? You get obedience if you get women who have had sex with their fathers, their uncles, their brothers—you know, someone they love and fear to lose so you do not dare to defy” (25).
The fear of loss of love is an integral force within the interplay of dominance, control, and obedience. Additionally, as the title of chapter suggests, these dynamics of violence and obedience are seemingly invisible, thus complicating the notion of a person’s apparent “free will” to walk away from a damaging situation. Kluft (and the pimp) suggests choice manifests from fear of loss and habitual relational templates of violence, rather than conscious agreement.
Weber’s notion of “decision making” seems to be what people are alluding to when rehashing, “Why doesn’t s/he just leave?” violent situations can occur in the sex trade and interpersonal relationships. When we see a victim of violence who is not physically restrained, we think that person should “just” make the choice to walk away. And if that person does not make that choice of leaving, we believe s/he is making some choice because we assume people have agency. The person, though, may be choosing fear of loss because that all s/he knows. Within the context of choice in the sex trade, Weber’s notion of domination referring to conforming to cultural norms. The father is a central figure (perhaps the central figure) of patriarchal society; therefore, obeying the father, even in the face of enduring violence. Additionally, pimps are often referred to as “Daddy,” which extends the incest dynamic into prostitution and sex trafficking.
We must further distinguish the context of the word “domination” when applying this specific Weber quote to the sex trade. Weber utilized the term “domination” when references how bureaucratic social structures are maintained (1978), not physical domination of one person over another. However, the conscription of current bureaucratic system of dominance and control is the very system sex workers’ rights advocates are contesting (McClelland 2016). Whereas, the anti-trafficking movement could be placed in the realm of “radical feminism” in that they seek to abolish the entire patriarchal system that subjugates all women, including sex workers (McLaren 2002). Again, the argument seems to return to who is making sex workers subjects – patriarchal culture, the anti-trafficking movement, or maybe even both.
As previously stated, I do not intend to posit a specific answer to the debate about choice and the sex trade. Instead, I appreciate the opportunity to examine this question in a public forum. As a social science researcher, as well as CSEC survivor, I know this conversation is critical, especially now. I strongly believe the United States is finally coming to grips with the fact that our culture has condoned and promoted sexual violence toward those deemed “weak” as a form of entertainment and maintaining patriarchal power. Not to be flip, but #timesup. Now we must work together, even amidst differing opinions and opposing agendas, to achieve our ultimate goal – safety for all.
Brace, Laura and Julia O’Connell Davidson. 2000. “Minding the Gap: General and Substantive Theorizing on Power and Exploitation.” Signs 25(4): 1045-1050.
Herman, Judith. 2000. Father-Daughter Incest. (2nd ed.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Kluft, Richard. 1990. “On the Apparent Invisibility of Incest,” in, Incest-Related Syndromes of Adult Psychopathology. Washington, D.C.: American Psychiatric Press.
McClelland, Mac. 2016. “Is Prostitution Just Another Job?” New York Magazine, March 21-April 3, pp. 38-45.
McLaren, Margaret. 2002. Feminism, Foucault, and Embodied Subjectivity. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
Weber, Max. 1978. Economy and Society: An Outline of Interpretive Sociology. Edited translation by Guenther Roth and Chris Wittich. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Weitzer, Ronald. 2007. “The Social Construction of Sex Trafficking: Ideology and Institutionalization of a Moral Crusade.” Politics & Society 35(3): 447-475.
Weitzer, Ronald. 2015. “Human Trafficking and Contemporary Slavery.” Annual Review of Sociology 41: 223–242.
Even though wealthy, white men have been the primary focus of the #metoo and Times Up movements, poor and working-class men are just as responsible for sexual harassment and violence. I was sex trafficked from infancy until early adolescence in Appalachia in the 1970’s and 1980’s by a poor, male family member who also physically and sexually abused me. (This is a photo of me with our cat Shnooks around 1976.)
We were white trash, and he sold me for sex to white, working-class men – primarily truckers driving on a nearby highway – by “advertising” via CB radio. These men, including my exploiter, often told me I deserved the sexual violence I endured. My role and “duty” as a “white trash” girl was to be bought and sold for sex by men who felt they had the right to use my body as entertainment. A strict, intergenerational class hierarchy is a cornerstone of Appalachian culture: your family determines your status. I was trapped and I was expected to follow these rules.
My exploiter told me, “This happened to me, so it’s happening to you.” He had grown up hopelessly poor with alcoholic parents and had also been sexually abused. My exploiter, and other family members, chose to pass down our family’s legacy of violence instead of protecting me. They all called me “bad” and “dirty” as if I brought on the violence myself.
I was recently reminded of this victim-blaming when I heard supporters of Judge Roy Moore’s state his female accusers knew what they were doing by engaging with the powerful former prosecutor when they were teenagers. These supporters – many of them female – did not allow his accusers to be victims and chose to believe a sexual predator with a privileged social position. Helping a predator maintain his social power allowed them to maintain theirs. This is especially important to women who already have less social power, especially in Appalachia.
Thankfully, the majority of Alabama voters did not agree with this victim-blaming stance and Moore lost the election. His loss is another clear signal that the #metoo and Times Up movements are energizing a shift in power to support and believe victims of sexual harassment and violence that has been building for decades. Male and female victims are speaking up and men are refusing to enable predatory male behavior by looking – or voting – the other way.
In my experience with Appalachia, “power” is the common theme linking class expectations and sexual violence, which is about gaining physical and emotional power over a “weaker” person. The men who purchased me had more power than me and my exploiter due to higher class status. But my male exploiter had power over me because I was a girl, which gave him a sense of permission to abuse and sell me.
I am not saying all white, poor and middle-class Appalachian men are pedophiles or sexual predators: I am saying the region’s class hierarchy made me vulnerable to sexual violence and sex trafficking. My exploiter saw an opportunity to gain the social and economic power he had did not have as a poor man by selling me to for sex to middle-class men who felt they had the right to buy me. Their superior class status gave them permission to use my “white trash” female body for their entertainment, and my exploiter profited by handing me over.
I started speaking out against my exploiter after I charged out of Appalachia in my teens. Subservience was supposed to be my fate, but I refused to comply. Hillbilly Elegy author J.D. Vance says disconnecting from unhealthy Appalachian social norms and family relationships is important for “self-preservation.” I needed to move away from my family members who said I made up this story in order to demand money from them to pay for college. Nothing could be further from the truth. I did make up my mind to speak out against my exploiter to help myself and all victims of sexual violence to heal.
Sometimes I am nervous to speak out against my exploiter for fear that he or my family will harm or attempt to discredit me. But I am now more outraged than I am scared. The #metoo and Times Up movements remind me I am not alone and that we are causing change. The repudiation of Roy Moore in classically conservative Appalachian state gives me hope that some of those beliefs that helped shape the monster that my exploiter became are finally becoming a thing of the past.
I am humbled to announce I have been selected as an American Association of University Women (AAUW) 2018-2019 Dissertation Fellow. This $20K award will help offset my cost of living expenses for my final year of my doctoral program. I am so honored to join the ranks of amazing scholars supported by AAUW.
The episode of “Crashing” that addressed addiction was the most spot-on, heart-breaking, powerful depiction of interpersonal interactions with an addict I have ever seen. One moment, you are having the best day with an amazing person who professes their love and admiration for you, who says how being with you makes them feel great….and then 12 hours later they are cursing you for ever even believing any of the bullsh*t they said earlier (or denying any of the good stuff ever happened) and insulting you for even wanting to be around a piece of sh*t like them.
For years…even decades, I, literally, chased people to get back to those beautiful and tender moments, and completely dismissed the about-face insults because I knew there was love and admiration in those relationships. But, I chose to only see the good in them and I was unable to absorb the bad…that, right there, is the very definition of co-dependence. At the same time, I have forgiven myself long ago for these mistakes. Those wonderful moments were really that wonderful and the love was really that real, but not sustainable. I am grateful Pete Holmes and Artie Lange’s unflinching portrayal of that very crushing dynamic. Many thanks!
[Update: A lot of people have thanked me about this post, which I appreciate. As a result, I want to clarify the vast majority of my relationships with addicts were friendships, not dating/romantic . Sure, I dated my share of men struggling with addiction in my teens and 20s, and those hurt. However, my failed friendships hurt the most by far. I trusted these people completely, but in the end, the toxicity of addiction and drug culture eviscerated that trust.]
Read my January 11th Human Trafficking Awareness Day blog post for Ms. Magazine.
I am a survivor of the commercial sexual exploitation of children (CSEC), specifically family-controlled child sex trafficking and child pornography. I am now a Ph.D. candidate in sociology at the University of Massachusetts in Boston, utilizing my experience to conduct gender-based, data-driven research on state-level CSEC legislation—specifically factors associated with states that decriminalize versus criminalize sex-trafficked children.
29 states currently retain the right to arrest and prosecute a children for prostitution. Even though the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act of 2000 (TVPA) mandates that all children who are sexually exploited for commercial purposes are human trafficking victims, the majority of states criminalize them. Understanding this tension is important, because local police interact with sex-trafficked minors more often than federal officials—and they determine if sex-trafficked children are treated as criminals or victims.
State prosecutors and law enforcement often cite the need to be able to control “non-compliant” sexually exploited minors as justification for threats of arrest and prosecution, and criminal justice officials also argue that putting CSEC victims in detention “protects them” from traffickers and sex buyers. These policies ignore the likelihood that incarceration may re-traumatize sex-trafficked children, since up to 90 percent of sexually exploited minors have prior histories of child sexual abuse and neglect, and that those with histories of violence often have difficulties trusting others, especially authority figures such as police. These policies also fail to consider that sex-trafficked children may be under the psychological control of their traffickers, due to trauma bonding.
Refusing to acknowledge the numerous ways criminalization can trigger a traumatic response by CSEC victims undermines their legitimacy as victims. Legal authorities claim that they are working with “uncooperative” victims, but their policies drive those same victims—who see these procedures as an attempt to control, not protect, them—toward stress responses. I invite criminal justice agents to join with CSEC advocates and demand more resources such as safe housing and funding for support programs so that jail is not seen as the only option for “protecting” sex trafficked children. In addition to re-traumatizing victims, arresting and prosecuting them disregards the long-term implications of having a criminal record—such as impeding future housing, employment or educational opportunities.
Sex-trafficked minors are expected to make a “rational choice” of protection by authorities or cooperate with prosecutors; otherwise, they remain suspect of deviance or complicit in their exploitation. Exploited minors begin to be seen as criminals, not victims of a violent crime, if they do not choose to be “rescued” by law enforcement. For female victims, the implications are compounding: Being perceived as “out of control” is particularly problematic for sexually exploited girls, especially girls of color, for whom acting outside of racialized, feminine ideals such as purity and obedience increases their risk of being labeled “deviant.”
Historically, sexually exploited children have been labeled “bad kids” who do not deserve non-criminal protection and services. It is argued this bias occurs because they do not fit our current cultural narrative of childhood being a time of innocence. This model of purity requires that children be white and heterosexual, with little or no sexual knowledge (even if sexual knowledge has been obtained through violence). They should have access to quality education and adequate healthcare. They must live in secure housing within a heterosexual nuclear family. Sex-trafficked youth with experiences far outside of this model can be seen as “willing participants” in their exploitation who need to be controlled, not victims in need of services and support.
I was sexually abused and trafficked by an immediate family member from infancy until early adolescence; my exploiter used a CB radio to advertise me to truckers traveling along the interstate near our house. The exploitation ended once I hit puberty—my exploiters’ clientele only liked very young girls—and going to college was my ticket away from my exploiter and my family. I often wonder if I would still be getting my Ph.D. if I had been arrested or prosecuted for prostitution while being exploited. I am doubtful, because I would not have qualified for student financial aid. Therefore, I hope my research and decriminalization advocacy will “pay it forward” for fellow CSEC victims and survivors—especially those with academic dreams.
Here is the final installment of a series of the Top 11 things I have learned while healing from CSEC. (Yes, eschewing 10 for 11 is an overt Spinal Tap reference. “These go to 11” is the exact volume at which I intend to live my life.) These reflections seek to answer that question of how I survived, and also to provide some insight on common themes that still run through the dynamics of CSEC. My experiences as a survivor and as a social scientist can never be disconnected. This is who I am.
We’ve reached number one. Thank you for reading along with me and for having patience in between each post. I thought I would be able to write all of these on winter break last year, but I needed more time. Each piece has been exhausting to write, and I needed time in between each to simply breathe.
So. Here it is. The most important thing I have learned while healing from CSEC is that I only need to forgive myself for all of the mistakes and stumbles I have made along the way. I don’t need to forgive my exploiter or any of the sex buyers or abusers. I don’t need to forgive all of the people who looked away even though they knew something was wrong in my family. I don’t need to forgive all of the companies who have exploited the land and the workers in Appalachia. I only need to forgive myself: first, because I was a child, and second, because I did my best.
Yes, I have hurt people along the way. I stuck around too long in my hometown and I was a disaster to a lot of people I met when I first moved to Boston/Cambridge. Granted, most of my faux pas were minor – I was needy and clingy to my friends…old and new. But I had also just lost my mother, who was the only person who had ever fully believed in me. I was adrift, not to mention drowning in grief.
I was also stuck in cycles be transgenerational trauma. I had been “chosen” by my mother to be the one to get away from my family and hometown: I would put an end to our familial madness of poverty, addiction, violence, and mental illness. But I had also been “chosen” by my exploiter to be his property. I did not understand how these two roles had created a push and pull in me to both hate and long for my hometown. I was living the life my mother wanted me to live in Cambridge, but was also homesick for the familiarity of Appalachia, despite the dysfunction.
Eventually, I understood I was trying (and failing) to reconcile these two roles I had been given. I felt in a state of flux and could not settle down. I did not understand how these two conflicting “assignments” prevented me from being present to the new life I was creating for myself. Yes, I did want to get away from my hometown, but I did not want to be the “city girl” my mother had always envisioned me to be.
While I loved Boston/Cambridge, it was loud and crowded and overwhelming. At the same time, I did not want to go back to my hometown, but I wanted to live in a small college town where I could walk everywhere, and feel deep sense of community. I missed running into people I knew in the grocery store and living in a college town (yes, Cambridge is a “college town,” but it’s really a college city).
Fundamentally, I became my own person. I was able to stop worrying about being obedient, or a dutiful daughter, or any other role people had tried to put me in growing up. I realized the abuse was not my fault and I had healed my trauma as best I could (I will always need to manage my PTSD, which is a chronic illness).
These “a-ha” moments were graceful, but urgent. As my brain rewired itself and my central nervous system calmed, I understood it was time for me to stop playing out these dueling roles that simultaneously pulled and repelled me to Appalachia.
I had already cut ties with old friends and my family out of self-preservation, so my reconciliation was really internal. I needed to give myself permission to grieve for all that I had lost – my family, my childhood, my mother, and my sense of place. But I also needed to acknowledge how strong I had become and what I had gained – a new family, new friends, employment as an academic, and a new sense of place.
Most importantly, I realized I needed to forgive myself for not knowing what I could not know while taking this journey. I wish I could have just left my hometown once my mother had died, but I couldn’t. I was stuck in that transgenerational push-pull.
One former hometown friend told I would not be able to move on until I healed “my inner child.” (I simply cannot stand that phrase.) I didn’t have the words to tell her at the time, but, no, I did not need to heal my inner child. I needed to learn how to set boundaries and to state my needs. Ironically (or not), once I learned those things, she and everyone else from my hometown disappeared. My inner being – my authentic self – had always been a warrior. That strength is what had kept me alive.
“But maybe the only way to take the measure of a place’s terror and beauty is to leave it like a bat out of hell only to be drawn back in.” This is a great quote from a movie review of Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea.” This sentence reminds me so much of my experience of being sucked back into my hometown when my mother had gotten sick. I had spent my entire life wanting to get out of there, but I only realized the beauty and mercy once I watched the person I loved the most on this planet die amongst the Appalachian Mountains that she had never been able to escape herself.
I initially resented having to return, but now that I have lived in New England longer than I lived in Appalachia, I understand I needed to return for that time so I could fully and completely leave once she died. When I was 18, I had simply run away. But once I left after her death, I closed that door completely. I needed a few years to truly separate myself, and it was not a pretty process. But for that messy time, I have finally forgiven myself. I am not perfect, but I am finally my own person.
Thank you to all who have read all eleven posts. Writing these has been cathartic. I intend to publish these lessons (and others) sooner rather than later. Stay tuned!
Also in this series: