“We’ve been told we have to pick sides. That, in and of itself, is very disturbing” – Meg Munoz, former sex worker, trafficking survivor, ally and rights advocate
A division exists between the sex workers’ rights and anti-sex trafficking movements. Yet, both groups are concerned with people who are in the same industry and both share the goal of ensuring human rights. If alliances were made, the two movements would be stronger and more effective. Some organisations already work in this way, such as The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) and La Strada International, but so far they are in the minority.
Sex workers are often better placed than law enforcement to identify and assist sex trafficking victims. The police are feared, and with good reason: sex trafficking victims are often treated as criminals and can be charged with crimes they were forced to commit. This is what prevented Jes Richardson from turning to the police when she was being sex-trafficked. Fortunately, she met a sex worker who helped her escape, rebuild her life and begin her healing process.
I’ve been honoured to interview two amazing women who, like me, have experience in the sex trade: Lori Adorable, who is a current sex worker and sex workers’ rights advocate, and Meg Munoz, who is a former sex worker, trafficking survivor, ally and rights advocate. They discuss why this rift exists and insightfully consider how the two movements could be more aligned. They believe, as I do, that the anti-sex trafficking and sex workers’ rights movements could better achieve their aims working in partnership.
Ruth: How did you become involved in the movement against sex trafficking and sexual exploitation?
Meg: Following my time in the industry, connecting with the sex workers’ rights and anti-trafficking movements was just natural. I started escorting at 18, but due to drug and alcohol issues, I took a break after about 2 years. A few years later, I found myself suddenly supporting myself and going to school so I went back. The reality is, I liked what I did. I loved the economic independence and personal freedom I felt. I had nice clients and good money rolling in, but based on social stigma, a lack of real support, and my family upbringing, I felt like hiding everything was my only choice.
About 2 years back into the industry, I had a close friend turn on me. He blackmailed me, threatened me, and literally terrorized me for the next 3 years while forcing me to work and turn all of my cash over to him whenever he saw fit. It was a nightmare. I didn’t tell anyone for years, primarily because I felt so much shame over the abuse and stigma attached to the sex work I’d been hiding. It’s really quite ironic because it wasn’t until I started pursuing my own healing and working with sex workers/trafficking survivors that I started putting my own puzzle together. Activism should never replace healing, but sometimes it can be a great catalyst for it. It was really quite liberating to be able to more fully understand my own story, continue healing, and re-frame my time in the industry. It allowed me to embrace the time I’d spent in the industry and realize I’d been blaming the entire industry for the few horrible things that happened to me along the way. Once I was able to separate out and deal with the peripheral trauma (abusive relationships, addiction, childhood issues), everything changed for me. I was able to think more critically about my experiences and come to the table without the pain and trauma distorting my experiences in the ways they once had.
Ruth: You are also concerned in your activism with sex workers’ rights. What do you think needs to happen so the two movements are more aligned?
Meg: Oh, wow, not sure where to start and I may not win any popularity contests, but here goes nothing. I’ll limit myself to a few thoughts… First, I’m done with bad research studies. Poorly conducted, bias, limited research needs to stop being used as the foundation for fundraising, education, and awareness. The damage that’s being done is immeasurable and harmful for entertainers, sex workers, and trafficking survivors alike. We could talk for days about this, but I’ll stop there. Long story short, we need to learn to be more responsible consumers and critical of what we’re reading.
Second, for years you’ve had the majority of sex workers and adult entertainers – a majority in the sex work spectrum demographic – going unrepresented by anyone other than themselves. The refusal to have sex work acknowledged as real work based on moral objections has all but halted any civil discourse and allowed old perspectives and limited understanding to dictate policy. We’ve experienced an incredible amount of social rejection, judgment, legal bias, and isolation. From where we’ve sat, it looks and often feels as if there’s no room for the sex worker’s voice unless you’ve experienced enslavement/exploitation and are willing to support abolition and oppose sex work. We’ve been told we have to pick sides. That, in and of itself, is very disturbing. That has been deeply felt by the sex worker community and has left people feeling justifiably angry, invalidated, and hurt.
Here’s the thing, though: in saying that, I’m quite aware there’s this huge glitch in that process that needs to be addressed. There has to be safe space for people on both sides of this to come to the table and talk because I think a lot of healing needs to happen. I always encourage those with the most publicly identifiable power, privilege or voice to initiate. In many cases, that usually means reps of larger entities such as anti-trafficking organizations, religious leaders, or government agencies. I think a lot of burned bridges need to be re-built. We may never agree on everything, but we do need to respect each other and listen.
Ruth: Why are sex workers’ rights important to you?
Lori: Obviously, a good amount of it is self-interest. My job is hard enough without the stigma and criminalization, and I know I deserve better. But I’m not the one hit the hardest by whorephobia. I’m white, cis, from a middle-class background, work indoors, and don’t do full-service. I’m not the one usually targeted by police and rescue organizations and serial killers. Sex work, as an underground economy, attracts a lot of the most vulnerable from every marginalized group, and I am very much here for them as well.
Ruth: Why do you feel it’s important for the anti-human trafficking movement and the sex workers’ rights movement to work together?
Meg: Like I implied, I don’t think we have to pick sides. Whether you’ve chosen sex work or had it chosen for you, neither side benefits from trying to silence or disregard the other. This matters because sex work and trafficking are both part of the same industry, but very different in both concept and execution. Sex work will always be around. Erotic service providers will always exist. Trafficking will never be fully eradicated. We have so much to learn from and teach each other, but it can’t start until we find a few people we trust on both sides to come to the table and talk. Believe me, I’m not naïve – I know there are obstacles, but there’s too much to lose if we don’t find a way. Too many human rights abuses are happening, too many opportunities being lost, and too many freedoms being denied. All of this goes for both sides. When you have those being trafficked being criminalized, we’ve got a problem. When you have sex workers being denied the full opportunity to engage, participate, and provide for themselves, something’s horribly wrong. You can’t make decisions for an entire group of people and leave them out of the conversation and that’s what been happening to sex workers and survivors alike since the beginning of time. Allowing moral biases to dictate policy is dangerous for those who are there by choice and force.
Ruth: Experiences of selling sex, like mine, that are not positive are often used by those seeking to end prostitution in their argument for the Swedish model. I believe they show why decriminalization is needed. What are your thoughts on this?
Lori: I understand that it’s easy for many sex workers to be reactionary and push back against partial criminalization (e.g. the Swedish model) by countering the assertion that they’re victims who hate their jobs. I’m sure it’s incredibly frustrating to hear you hate your job when you don’t, and I’d never tell anyone not to speak their truth. But making it about feelings allows the conversation to be derailed. How workers feel about our jobs is irrelevant to the basic human right to safe working conditions, and it’s been proven that partial criminalization is anathema to safety. The “give me rights, because I love my job” argument is nonsensical within this framework.
It’s also alienating workers who don’t like their (our? I still struggle with how I feel about my job) work, who need rights most urgently. When a sex worker is independent and in control of how she works, it’s easier for her to love her job. However, if she’s a full-service street worker trying to negotiate under criminalization or a pro sub working for a house with a no-blacklist policy or a stripper dancing in a club with outrageous fines or a porn performer shooting for a company that doesn’t pay fair wages, it’s harder for her to stand up and say “I love my job!” But workers like that are crucial to the sex worker movement; they show everyone where we need to focus our energy. They (we?) also provide the strongest testimonies for workers’ rights.
“How workers feel about our jobs is irrelevant to the basic human right to safe working conditions” – Lori Adorable, sex worker and sex workers’ rights advocate
Ruth: Do you think because negative experiences are used by people seeking to abolish prostitution, people who have had or do have those experiences are not heard as often in sex workers’ rights discourse?
Lori: This is sort of a chicken-and-egg question. Is it negative experiences being used by Antis that prevents sex worker advocates from embracing those same experiences, or is it that sex worker advocates didn’t embrace those negative experiences and so pushed the women who had them to side with the Antis? I don’t know, and I’m not sure it matters at this point. What matters is that sex workers with negative experiences are indeed more openly welcomed by Antis, even though they’re only valued in a tokenizing way. The mainstream sex workers’ rights movement needs to make more of an effort embrace those experiences, to show that all workers are welcome. I do think there are significant strides being made to that extent, but a lot of it is still lip service.
Ruth: To people who believe the Swedish model will help those with negative experiences in the sex trade, what would you say?
Lori: You can argue all day over whether the sex industry is harmful to women as a whole and workers in particular, but you can’t argue with the studies that show the Swedish model allows violence against sex workers to continue. You also can’t argue the fact that, were it to succeed, sex workers would simply find themselves unemployed. So clients may be ‘punished’, but the workers will be punished as well. If you want to help those in the sex trades who don’t want to be there, provide more options. Provide alternatives. Don’t just take this one option away.
Ruth: What legal improvements or changes would help abolish sex trafficking and sexual exploitation and ensure sex workers’ rights? Can these two groups be ensured their human rights and the protection of the law simultaneously?
Meg: I’m not sure I’m the most qualified person to speak into this, but in short, yes. I always like to defer to those currently working in the industry as their perspective is more well rounded and current. Personally, I feel that decriminalization makes the most sense and offers more protections for both sex workers and trafficking survivors alike. Until sex workers are allowed to come to the table, protected, respected, represented, and heard, survivors will suffer as well. But, honestly, why would sex workers come forward and put themselves at horrible risk in so many ways when society makes it so hard by punishing, blaming, and demonizing them in general? The sex work community is our greatest asset and ally against trafficking and they really care about it. As a person of faith that’s supportive of sex worker rights and abolition, I’m often criticized for this within certain circles, but I feel strongly that justice is for everyone. And this is where you generally cue the hate mail…
Ruth: What legislation do you think would be best to ensure sex workers have all the same rights as all other citizens?
Lori: I’m not particularly in favor of any legislation at this point. I think sex work should be fully decriminalized. If the state does need to be involved, it should regulate sex work via civil ordinances rather than criminal law. I used to be in favor of hate crimes legislation that protects sex workers, but the more I learn about the prison industrial complex in the U.S., the more wary I am of giving the state more opportunities to disproportionately incarcerate poor people of color.
Ruth: For anyone else who wants to be involved, what can other people do to help?
Meg: First, you can’t trash an entire industry, and demonize those working in it, then offer them mascara, a cupcake, a Bible or diversion and expect them to trust or come to you when they hit a snag in the road. You’ve already established you have an agenda and shown yourself to be fundamentally unsafe. That may speak to a few people, but it does nothing to serve the majority within the industry who aren’t planning their exit.
I’m a firm believer in knowing the people you care about and want to serve/support, as well as those you disagree with. Think that all prostitution is paid rape? Hang out with sex workers who’ve chosen and love sex work. Think that trafficking is a myth? Listen to and get to know survivors. Challenge your own biases and be willing to learn, grow, and change as a result of stepping outside your theological or philosophical comfort zone. Ask how you can be the kind of ally and advocate that supports the people you care about in ways that matter to them. And above all, check your motives. Nothing is more offensive than being told you aren’t smart enough to understand your own experiences or choices and need rescuing. That’s infantilizing, disempowering, and offensive.
Ruth: For people who would like to know more, what would you recommend reading?
Lori: I’ve written more about how Antis can help sex workers here. I also recommend people explore the websites of the organizations who are members of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects. Often times, Antis will presume to speak for women in the Global South, but these women are speaking for themselves, and they’re asking for decriminalization. Finally, for everyone interested in the data behind the claim that the Swedish model harms sex workers, check out Sex Work Research. It’s a great resource that’s curated by sex workers and allies with backgrounds in sociology.
Meg: I’d much rather hear from others about who they think I should be learning from! Seriously – I love that! I’m a big fan of RedUp in NY – Prose and Lore offers sex workers across the spectrum a forum to express their voices and tell their stories. I love hearing others’ stories! Tits and Sass, SWOP, Melissa Gira Grant, the list is endless. That’s why Twitter is so great – I can follow great conversations, link up to fabulous reads, and of course laugh…I’m always learning something new.
Ruth Jacobs is the author of Soul Destruction: Unforgivable, a novel exposing the dark world and harsh reality of life as a drug addicted call girl. The main storyline is based loosely on events from her own life. In addition to fiction writing, Ruth is also involved in non-fiction, journalism and broadcasting for charity and human rights campaigning. Information on the Soul Destruction series can be found at www.soul-destruction.com and Ruth’s author website is at www.ruthjacobs.co.uk.