Social Services

Social Services
Walk this way: Anti-trafficking efforts run afoul of sex-worker organizations.
Image: Honolulu weekly file photo

Red light

Local advocates differ on human trafficking and the sex trade

Social Services / Hawaii has a long history as a destination for traveling sex workers: in the 1930s and ’40s madams would send orders for mainland women to work Hotel Street’s brothels, which flourished until 1944 when the defacto legal system of prostitution ended.

Of course, criminalizing the profession has not abolished it.

“It’s estimated that there are about 1,000 people here who sell sex,” says Tracy Ryan of the local organization Arresting Prostitutes is Legal Exploitation, or APLE.

She says many of those are migrants, an issue that has gained visibility in recent years with increased media attention to the issue of human trafficking. But Ryan says sex work has become dangerously intermingled with human trafficking in the public consciousness. She rejects any assumption that migrant sex workers are by definition trafficking victims.

“Contrary to the myth, the overwhelming majority of international migrant sex workers crossed borders with the intention of working in prostitution upon arrival,” she said. “Studies from Europe, Asia and North America have all come to this conclusion.”

Accurate numbers of trafficking victims are difficult to ascertain, but the International Labour Organization estimates that there are at least 12.3 million people in forced labor worldwide, of which the ILO estimates that at least 1.4 million are victims of commercial sexual servitude.

Ryan and Pam Vessels formed APLE in 2001 to “educate the public on the facts about sex work and the harms done to people in this industry by criminal laws.”

First, do no harm?

Not everyone agrees with Ryan’s assessment.

Founded in 2009, Hawaii-based anti-human trafficking organization Pacific Alliance to Stop Slavery, or PASS, focuses on victims of trafficking into the sex industry “because that’s the bulk of where our victims come from,” says co-founder Kathy Xian. “There are already a lot of organizations that aid (other) labor victims, more than sex trafficking victims.”

PASS considers prostitution a “profoundly harmful institution,” opposes both legalization and decriminalization and links it directly to trafficking: “You cannot legalize prostitution because it will effect the burgeoning of forced prostitution.” Xian says.

Ryan, in turn, notes that several Hawaii groups claiming to help people in the sex industry have come and gone: “Unfortunately, many of them are simply moralizing groups staffed with untrained persons and relying on the rhetoric of radical feminist ideology rather than real evidence-based knowledge,” says Ryan, who claims that the trafficking rhetoric has become devalued by its adoption by “anti-prostitution groups.”

Ryan says the State Department of Human Services has numbers, from a 2008 report to the Hawaii Anti-Trafficking Task Force, that back her up.

“[It] concluded that over the prior eight years, only two victims had been identified,” she said. “This should indicate what we are really debating is prostitution law.”

APLE advocates for decriminalization of prostitution in Hawaii, saying it’s criminalization that puts sex workers in dangerous situations.

“Decriminalization allows johns and sex workers to engage in agreed acts without fear of the police and, by the same token, report abuse to the police,” Ryan says. “Laws against pimps or others who coerce and abuse sex workers would remain in full force, but would be easier to prosecute as the victims would no longer be criminals themselves.”

Xian, while agreeing that sex workers should not be arrested, says that removing criminal laws would turn over control of the industry to “very violent, criminal-minded people.”

But Ryan says that in order to help the victims of the sex industry, the focus must be narrowed.

“Going after johns because pimps are abusing prostitutes makes no more sense than shutting down the cotton industry would have made to addressing 19th century slavery,” she sayd.

APLE’s founders also argue that support for sex workers and decriminalization does not constitute a blanket support for the industry itself.

“APLE acknowledges the evil that is inherent in some forms of sex work and supports the efforts of others to aid those impacted by those harms,” says Vessels, “We also support the rights of adult sex workers to work and have autonomy over their work.”

The tower, the streets

Many anti-trafficking groups take an anti-prostitution stance and even those who are neutral on the issue are persuaded to pick a stance based on eligibility for funding. The Bush administration in 2003 introduced a policy that required all anti-trafficking and HIV/AIDS organizations to sign an Anti Prostitution Loyalty Oath, a mandatory pledge against commercial sex work, in order to receive federal funding. Non-government organizations applying for funding must declare themselves in opposition to prostitution and sex trafficking (but not any other kind of trafficking). Initially, the pledge only applied to overseas NGOs but in 2005 was expanded to cover U.S-based organizations as well.

Ryan says that APLE has worked with a variety of academics on the issue. APLE “is not aware of any academic in Hawaii who does not share our views,” she says.

But Xian says she prefers to go straight to the source.

“We are working with the actual victims,” she sayd. “I take with a big grain of salt anything any academic has to say about this because I have never seen an academic out on the streets of Waikiki or downtown.”

Finding common ground between the two groups remains problematic.

“I would like to see all of the organizations who are involved in any way with sex workers [have a] dialogue about the issues without all of the shouting that usually goes on,” says Vessels.