There’s a difference between human trafficking and willing prostitution

FAIRMONT — For one professor at WVU, human sex trafficking is not always what it’s made out to be — and it’s often confused with a consensual sexual transaction.

Alison Bass, journalism professor at WVU and author of Getting Screwed: Sex Workers and the Law said she began researching sex workers in the U.S. after a former journalism student at Mount Holyoke College told her an interviewee was a sex worker.

“One of my students was writing a profile about a community activist in Northhampton, Mass., and she was having trouble bringing this activist to life on the page,” she said. “The writing needed help. She suddenly blurted out, ‘She’s a sex worker you know.’ Here was a woman from a middle-class background, from an Orthodox [Jewish] background, and it made me go ‘wow.’ That really defied stereotypes, my own stereotypes about sex work.

Bass became interested in the subject, and she arranged an interview with the woman.

“She kind of opened my eyes and put me in touch with other sex workers in the United States,” she said. “I just kept finding out there were so many myths about sex work and about trafficking. I’m the kind of journalist that likes to do stories that aren’t told and don’t get a lot of exposure. That’s how I started doing this book. I talked to a lot of policy makers, a lot of researchers, and from that grew this book.”

Bass said she found that most women she spoke to were engaged in sex work for economic reasons — not because they were trafficked.

“Most sex workers in the United States are selling sex by choice, largely for economic reasons,” she said. “While trafficking is a major problem in many other countries, particularly developing countries where underage prostitutes are being trafficked and illegal immigrants are being trafficked from Eastern Europe to Central Europe — in the United States, there’s very little adult trafficking.

“In other words, most women are coming from like Mexico, and they are coming, they know they are going to be doing prostitution. In fact, I went on a brothel raid, and you can read about it in my book, in Rhode Island. The police chief took me on this brothel raid because I was there that day and it turned out that there were two prostitutes in the brothel and they arrested the pimp.”

Bass said she spoke to both of the women involved, and they both said they were not being forced — they were there to make money.

“The Mexican woman said, ‘I used to do housekeeping, but I wasn’t making enough to send back to my family in Mexico, so I decided to do prostitution because I could get paid a lot more,’” she said. “So, she was not being trafficked.

“What was sad is even though they said they weren’t going to arrest the women, only the pimp, they ended up arresting the Mexican woman because she was illegal and deporting her. She’s been deported before. She will probably come back at some point because she can make more money here for whatever reason.”

Bass said part of the problem for women going into prostitution is they aren’t able to get good jobs, even when graduating from a university. She said some women turn to sex work as a way to pay their way through school.

“It’s hard for them to earn a decent living because many of them are not in the higher paying professions like geology or computer science or the STEM professions,” she said. “At this brothel in New York, I met a number of students who were trying to get either undergraduate or graduate degrees, and they could make so much more money doing sex work. And these were middle class women, obviously over the age of 18, who were doing it for economic reasons.

Bass said for single mothers who need flexible hours to take care of children and for others, sex work provides a way to make it financially.

“So, it’s economic reasons that explain it,” she said. “And most of these women do not go into it for a career. Very few of them move into it for a career. They are doing it, they move into it, like the strip dancers at the Blue Parrot. Many of them are trying to get into law school or they are earning their tuition through WVU. Once they get to where they want to be, they aren’t going back into sex work.

Bass said it was interesting that other forms of sex work, such as stripping, pornography and being a mistress in exchange for money and power were legal, while sex work involving a straightforward transaction was not.

“What’s the difference between Donald Sterling, the former owner of the Yankee Clippers, who spent millions of dollars on his much younger mistress—bought her a car, an apartment, all this stuff, and basically, essentially to have sex with her, and someone who has a more straightforward transaction for an evening or an hour? There’s really no difference, but one is legal, perfectly legal, and one is not,” she said.

Bass said human trafficking advocates often use inflated statistics

Assistant US Attorney General Andy Cogar said the data surrounding human trafficking can be based on sometimes questionable inferences.

“Human trafficking by its very nature is an underground crime,” he said. “That’s very difficult to assess in an accurate way in terms of its scope or magnitude.

“We do what we can based on calls to the human trafficking resource center hotline, based on actual prosecutions, based on other data points that we use to estimate the nature of the crime, but it always is going to fall short. So, I do agree that we do have a data challenge when it comes to law enforcement and trafficking.”

“However,” Cogar said. “There are many reported prosecutions of traffickers who sex traffic adults, so of which involve drugs, some of which don’t.

“I can’t tell you the details of one investigation that I was involved with, but I can tell you that there was strong evidence of sex trafficking of an adult that didn’t involve drugs, but it did involve more of force and coercion. So it does occur.”

Cogar said statistics he has suggest strongly that many people were introduced to trafficking as minors.

“So, some statistics suggest that some, most trafficking victims were first trafficked when they were minors,” he said. “So, there’s this threshold where you are trafficked as a 16-, 17-, 18-year-old, and you are conditioned to this lifestyle.

“There’s a threshold you cross, a point where we have to ask ourselves, ‘Is it then ok after they turn 18 because they’ve been conditioned to it? They voluntarily accept it? Does that then make it OK to accept prostitution as a legal concept? I don’t think so.’”

Bass said while her research showed that some sex workers had been abused or trafficked as minors, it wasn’t always the case.

“It is true that a greater percentage of women who do sex work and men who do sex work, have been sexually abused underage,” she said. “But, there are many, many women in sex work who have not been abused. They have no history of abuse.

“It’s true that a slightly higher population of sex workers than the general population have been abused…but a lot of anti-trafficking proponents will say that all women who go into sex work have been abused as children, and that’s simply not true. Not even the vast majority have.”

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