The Anti-Sex Trafficking Movement is Batshit Crazy

Writer Melissa Gira- Grant explains in 3,671 words why the anti-sex trafficking movement is batshit crazy.

She points fingers at celebrity feminists Gloria Steinem and Norma Ramos, New York Times op-ed columnist Nick Kristoff,  and Warren Buffett’s NoVo Foundation for waging a war on sex workers, ironically in the name of feminism. (Steinem has gone so far as to condemn HIV prevention programs in Calcutta’s red light district as supporting sex trafficking.) Gira Grant unpacks how the mentality that “prostitution is paid rape” harms more women than it helps in this must-read for anyone purporting to care about the anti-sex trafficking issue.

Excerpts from The War on Sex Workers: An unholy alliance of feminists, cops, and conservatives hurts women in the name of defending their rights, published in the February 2013 issue of Reason Magazine:


Not all people who do sex work are women, but women disproportionately suffer the stigma, discrimination, and violence against sex workers. The result is a war on women that is nearly imperceptible, unless you are involved in the sex trade yourself. This war is spearheaded and defended largely by other women: a coalition of feminists, conservatives, and even some human rights activists who subject sex workers to poverty, violence, and imprisonment—all in the name of defending women’s rights.

[In early 2012,]  feminist icon Gloria Steinem held court in the brothels of India as part of a humanitarian junket sponsored by the NoVo Foundation, one of the largest private women’s charities in the United States. NoVo’s money is Warren Buffett’s money: $1 billion, transferred by the second wealthiest American to his son Peter, who chairs the effort along with his wife, Jennifer. Steinem accompanied Peter and Jennifer Buffett on a tour of Sonagachi, Calcutta’s biggest red light district. Steinem came away from her visit with an astounding proposal: What would really benefit the women who worked there—whom she described to the Calcutta Telegraph as “prostituted,” characterizing their condition as “slavery”—would be to end sexual health services and peer education programs in brothels, programs that have been recognized by the United States Agency for International Development as best-practices HIV/AIDS interventions. Steinem described the women leading those health and education programs as “traffickers” and those who support them “the trafficking lobby.”

How have we arrived at this point, that in the name of “protecting” women, or even ensuring their “rights,” feminists are eager to take away their jobs and health care? Ramos, Steinem, and their allies deliberately conflate sex work and what they now call “sex trafficking” for their own reasons, not to advance the rights of sex workers. The result is—or should be—an international scandal.

On the domestic front, anti−sex work activists scored one of their biggest wins with the 2005 reauthorization of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPRA). TVPRA earmarked $50 million for law enforcement agencies to “develop and execute programs targeted at reducing male demand and to investigate and prosecute buyers of commercial sex acts.” Although ostensibly aimed at supporting victims of forced labor, TVPRA provides money for efforts to discourage men from hiring sex workers, including quasi-legal and legal activities such as escorting, pornography, stripping, and phone sex, as well as for investigating the people they attempt to hire. Although nearly all prostitution-related law in the United States is made at the state or municipal level, redefining prostitution as trafficking provides a rationale for federal action against the sex trade.

Meanwhile, legislators in many states have responded to the demands of feminist activists by boosting penalties for prostitution-related offenses and prioritizing enforcement.

An article in the August issue of Marie Claire follows Andrea Powell, executive director of Free Aware Inspired Restored (FAIR) Girls, as she trolls Backpage for classified sex ads she suspects were placed by or for minors: “Putting in an earbud and picking up her pink-and-black Kate Spade-encased iPhone to dial a local police officer, Powell says urgently, ‘We have to report her now.’ ” But when the cops set up a sting operation against the advertiser, the story continues, “she said she was in fact an adult—and didn’t want help from the police or anyone else.”

Some activists view calling the cops to “rescue” people from the sex trade as the model of a successful human rights intervention. They don’t count their victories by the number of people they help; they count them by arrests.

Sex workers bear the brunt of this coalition’s preference for using law enforcement to protect women’s rights…. A 2012 examination of prostitution-related felonies in Chicago conducted by the Chicago Reporter revealed that of 1,266 convictions during the past four years, 97 percent of the charges were made against sex workers, with a 68 percent increase between 2008 and 2011.

It is not sex work that exposes sex workers to violence; it is our willingness to abandon sex workers to violence in an attempt to control their behavior. Prohibition makes prostitution more dangerous than it would otherwise be by pushing it underground and stripping sex workers of legal protection. The fight over that policy is about more than just strains between generations of feminism. It is about an unholy marriage of feminism with the conservatism and police power that many feminists claim to stand against.

If we are going to call attacks on reproductive and sexual rights a “war on women,” then let’s talk about a war on women that has actual prisoners and a body count. It’s a war on the women engaged in sex work, waged by women who will not hesitate to use their opponents’ corpses as political props but refuse to listen to them while they are still alive and still here to fight.


Read The War on Sex Workers: An unholy alliance of feminists, cops, and conservatives hurts women in the name of defending their rights on, and follow Melissa Gira Grant @melissagira on Twitter. 


Additional reading:

Some Feminists Are Wrongfully Fighting Against Sex Workers, by Katie J.M. Baker for

Sex Trafficking on Much Ado About (Statistically) Nothing, by MoSex co-editor Julie Ruvolo for

What Anti-Trafficking Advocates Can Learn from Sex Workers: The Dynamics of Choice, Circumstance, and Coercion, by Microsoft Research’s Danah Boyd


Featured image from Some Feminists Are Wrongfully Fighting Against Sex Workers, on