As someone who has been researching and writing about slavery and trafficking since 2005, I worry that the overall desire to help on the part of Google has overridden a lot of details that must be understood if we are going to find a way to rid the world of trafficking and slavery. The most harmful and least understood of these details is the importance of supporting organizations that distinguish between consensual sex work and sexual slavery (something the State Department finally does and something NGOs must do to really help combat this blight). Several of the organizations that Google is funding do not make this necessary distinction.
International Justice Mission is a Christian group whose abolitionist practices are founded in morality, which casts anyone involved in sex work — coerced or not — into the role of victim in need of salvation. Their crackdown on the sex industry is driving prostitution further underground, making it difficult for law enforcement to find real victims, and impossible for sex workers who have information about crimes to step forward.
The Polaris Project is little different. One look over their materials exposes their position on consensual sex work: they see no difference between a sex slave and a topless dancer. It’s also worth noting that they were one of the organizations on the forefront of the attack on Craigslist that resulted in the removal of the erotic services section. The problem with efforts like these is that people involved in sex trafficking will not cease their activities because a single avenue is closed off. Almost immediately after the section was closed, listings for adult services began to appear in other sections of Craigslist — in sections that do not require payment for postings, meaning there is no paper trail for law enforcement to follow.
While opponents of Craigslist may shake fists screaming about how Craigslist “profited” from sex trafficking, it is important to remember that the system of payment for adult services was instituted to create a record. That’s how Boston authorities managed to apprehend the Craigslist Killer, Philip Markoff. Censoring Craigslist has moved these activities to locations within the site where there is no paper trail, making it hard for law enforcement to locate and crack down on perpetrators.
Campaigns to remove sites similar to Craigslist altogether — such as that leveled against the Village Voice’s classified ads site Backpage, at the hands of Ashton Kutcher and the organizations with which his own DNA Foundation is aligned (among them the aforementioned Polaris; Shared Hope International, an organization that fights child sex trafficking by educating men about “the dangers of engaging in commercial sex markets, especially pornography”; and Citizens Against Trafficking, which continuously launches smear campaigns against sex educators, whom they believe are the cause of all these problems) — will only result in moving these activities underground where law enforcement will have an even more difficult time helping victims.
Censoring a site, it must be noted, is an easy victory. It gets organizations more money and it gets politicians elected. Never mind that doing so doesn’t really do anything to help real victims. And that’s not where it ends, unfortunately. The inability of these organizations to see a difference between sex work and trafficking means that efforts to censor will continue beyond sites like Craigslist: pornography is frequently a target and we’re not just talking about nude magazines and independent sites (where do you draw the line? Remember when Lady Chatterley’s Lover was considered obscene?). Sex educators are also consistently attacked, as are any groups whose desires don’t fall into the cookie-cutter moral ideal of what sex should be.
Ignorance on the topic, willful and not, and the eagerness of people to exploit this lack of information in pursuit of a moral agenda or political gain results in inaction and very dangerous legislation that affect all victims of slavery.
E. Benjamin Skinner, author of A Crime So Monstrous — an expose about modern day slavery in various forms — has been a vocal advocate of the necessity of not only differentiating between the sex industry and sex trafficking, but also giving the same amount of attention to other forms of slavery, often overshadowed by sensationalism surrounding accounts of sex trafficking:
“The West’s efforts have been, from the outset, hamstrung by a warped understanding of slavery,” he says in A World Enslaved. “Though eradicating prostitution may be a just cause, Western policies based on the idea that all prostitutes are slaves and all slaves are prostitutes belittles the suffering of all victims.”
The inability to see the differences between sex work and slavery thwarts efforts and taxes resources set aside for identifying, freeing and protecting actual victims of slavery, because those working to help victims become diverted with matters of consensual prostitution, which should be handled by local law enforcement as necessary, and which, though a crime in most U.S. cities, is nowhere as severe as slavery of any kind.
Not for Sale also conflates consensual adult sex work and forced sexual slavery and rape. Their stance against the partial decriminalization of sex work among consenting adults in a 2008 San Francisco ballot initiative more than illustrates their position. Allowing this initiative, known as Proposition K, to pass would have brought the underground to the surface, making it easier for sex workers to work with law enforcement to nab abusers and rapists, and to find real victims of sexual slavery. The moralizing, driven in part by Not for Sale, led to the failure of Proposition K.
So, no. I am not glad that Google is supporting these organizations.