Trafficked women face criminal records

Are the 17 Attorneys General who wanted to shut down Craigslist so badly going to work hard to change the justice system, making sure that women trafficked into prostitution stop getting doubly punished with criminal records? How is law enforcement working towards helping these women and kids recover so they can live safe and productive lives?

On, Lori Adelman writes:“Five Things You Need to Know about the Craigslist Adult Censor.” Item #2: It’s not the first time something like this has happened:

It’s been a process. Back in May of 2009, the site closed its “erotic services” section, replacing it with the “adult services” page that is now in question again. Any of this sounding familiar? At that time, Melissa Gira Grant, a blogger and writer on sex, technology, politics, and culture, wrote a compelling piece on Slate explaining how shutting down the “erotic services” section hurts prostitutes and cops. It seems the message didn’t get through.

Richard Richard Blumenthal 

Grant has been researching and working on this issue for a long time. She’s also involved with Third Wave Foundation who sent out the email blast on sex workers I put in my last 2 posts and here it is again.

When I received that email from 3Wave about young people, sex work, and sex trafficking, I felt like finally someone is disseminating real information on these issues instead of only sensationalizing the Craigslist story. The email doesn’t mention Craigslist, but as someone who has worked in the media for years, many of those as a talk radio producer, this is just the kind of info media professionals can use when a story like this is all over the airwaves.

But why isn’t Grant’s analysis getting more mainstream media play? Here’s one expert who’s been researching, writing and speaking on this issue for years. Do you hear me New York Times, CNN, Fox News?

More from Grant:

If these lead prosecutors are truly concerned about ending violence and exploitation…There’s a tremendous amount the attorneys general could do to actually curb the suffering of people within the criminal and legal systems in which they have power.

From Adelman:

Word. Like what? Gira gives several good examples. “People involved in the sex trade, whether by choice, coercion or circumstance, all still face criminal records after a prostitution conviction – even people who have been trafficked” and suggests that the attorneys general push to adopt “legislation allowing trafficking survivors to vacate prostitution-related sentences, removing these convictions from their criminal records.” She also points out that “people involved in the sex trade still face still discrimination, harassment and violence from the people charged with helping them.” Perhaps Blumenthal might one day work to combat this mistreatment of women and children- the kind that comes at the hands of government officials- as stringently as he does other kinds.

Women’s rage against Craig deserved?

After coming under fire from women’s organizations such as The Rebecca Project, which successfully pressured law enforcement, Attorneys General from states across the country finally shut down Craigslist’s adult section. A victory for women and the power of women’s organizations: prostitution and sex trafficking was being advertised on the popular site out in the open as if it were no big deal and perfectly legal. Now its all been shut down! Hurray!

Center for Young Women's Development burns $100,000 check from Craigslist

But is Craigslist’s “erotic services” section closing a real victory for women and victims of sex crimes?

No doubt it’s shocking that sex and sex with children was being sold blatantly on the internet– and shocking that no one seemed shocked– letting it all just go on for years like no one cared and it didn’t matter at all except to a few fanatic feminist organizations. Not only was Craigslist perpetuating child abuse and illegal activities, but the company was making 36 million dollars from its adult section.

But is shutting down Craigslist’s adult section really just shooting the messenger?

Women’s organizations argue even if it is, that messenger is a key to facilitating crimes against women and children. Craigslist and sites like it provide the crucial PR and marketing arm for sex trafficking, without which sex crimes would not have the massive outreach they do.

But others argue shutting down Craigslist only pushes sex trafficking further underground. The site was a tool used by law enforcement to monitor all kinds of illegal activity, a telescope into the murky, secret world of sex crime is now lost.

As far as the millions of dollars Craigslist earned from its adult section, the company was donating 100% of proceeds to charitable causes, including organizations to help women. Though now, women’s organizations are rejecting that money. The Center for Young Women’s Development burned a $100,000 check.

Salon’s Tracy Clark-Flory thought this money from Craigslist going to women’s organizations posed an interesting dilemma for these non-profits and called several of them including NOW, Equality Now, and the Fair Fund, to ask what they thought. All of their spokespeople told Clark-Flory they saw no dilemma at all; they would take no money from Craigslist. Girls Educational and Mentoring Services told the New York Times the same thing: “That money has come from pimps and traffickers who have sold many of the girls who will then walk in my door.”

I’ve got to admire any organization that stands by its principles and burns an $100,000 check. I think that must have been an empowering act for the Center for Young Women’s Development. Though I also believe its challenging to claim any money is pure. Obviously all donors aren’t investigated. It seems like every cosmetic company on earth gives money to help eradicate breast cancer, including all the ones that test on animals and sell magical creams that promise to banish cellulite. Obviously selling girls is far worse than selling potions and lines have to be drawn. Oprah doesn’t carry ads in her magazine from cigarette or diet companies. Everyone’s got their limits. Or they don’t.

I’m most troubled that Craigslist founder, Craig Newmark, hasn’t said more about sex trafficking. I saw a much repeated CNN interview where a reporter kept questioning him about the ads on his site and he mostly stared back at her, stone faced. He seemed mad. Now he has a “Censored” sign over his adult section and that seems angry too. Especially because Craig Newmark isn’t being censored. He has a voice on CNN and any TV news or radio outlet or national magazine he wants. Why doesn’t Newmark use that platform to do something to help the powerless, voiceless kids who are victims of sex crimes instead of petulantly sulking that he’s being censored?

Is it that Newmark thinks, as Businessweek reports, that he’s not really mainstream, he’s an “alternative” site, still using the .org suffix even though he’s not a non-profit? Unlike Twitter, AOL, Yahoo, Facebook, and YouTube, Craigslist never hired extensive staff to monitor the site. Businessweek reports Newmark believes in “crowdsourcing.”

Craigslist believes that the Internet enables a new kind of small enterprise to create a global service that delivers a public good by tapping into the power of users who “crowdsource” content.

By becoming mired in a seemingly never-ending legal scrum over adult ads, Craigslist is forcing even Internet true-believers to question that model. “I have concluded over the years that crowd-sourcing isn’t enough,” says Eric Goldman, director of the High Tech Law Institute at California’s Santa Clara University. ‘There has to be enough of a human presence to make sure sites can deliver on the trust that users want to have in them. It could very well be that Craigslist is just understaffed, and there is no model for it to continue operating at the current level.’

Can the internet really monitor itself? Does Newmark really believe it can? Especially when kids are so often victims? This theory seems reminiscent of the unrealistic belief that capitalism is just supposed to take care of itself and then we’re all surprised when something like the mortgage crisis happens. This kind of libertarianism only works in a dreamworld where there are no powerless people. Newmark’s claim of censorship reminds me of the movie “The People Versus Larry Flynt” where the founder of Hustler was idolized as a proponent of free speech. I can’t really get behind Flynt or Newmark as some kind of icon of coolness, but at least Flynt used his bullhorn to speak whenever he could. I don’t get Newmark’s silence.

Here’s a statement I received on sex work from Third Wave, an organization for and run by feminists under age 35. (Full disclosure, I used to be on the board of the Third Wave.) I’m not sure what their position on Craigslist is, I’m talking to them tomorrow and will post about it, but I think they put out a great statement that begins to address the complexity of the issues around sex work and young people. Here it is:

Part of the solution: youth engaged in sex work & the sex trade

Third Wave Foundation supports the work of young people to make powerful change in their communities.

As a progressive philanthropic institution, we are committed to strengthening organizations led by-and-for young women of color and transgender youth in low-income communities. Our grant partners work on a broad range of issues and employ myriad strategies, including challenging violence and gender-based inequity and claiming rights to economic opportunity, education, and health care. Through the work of our grant partners and through our philanthropic advocacy, we seek to shift historic and systemic forms of violence and oppression that are rooted in gender, race, and class inequity.

We do not believe that sex work is a cause of that violence or oppression, nor do we believe that seeking to prohibit safe and consensual sex work or the demand for it is the solution to eradicating gender-based inequity or violence. In fact, these attempts to criminalize sex work often have the unintended consequence of leaving young people even more vulnerable. Prohibitions on sex work — even when targeted at third-parties such as customers and advertising venues — criminalize young people and force them further underground in order to meet their survival needs. As a result, they are more vulnerable to violence and isolated from one another and from rights advocates.

Third Wave supports young people engaged in sex work and impacted by the sex trade as critical partners in ensuring health and justice. We at Third Wave are deeply concerned about the ways in which young women and transgender youth may be subject to abuse and violence in any aspect of their lives. Over the last decade of supporting this work, we have learned that young people come to sex work and the sex trade through a wide range of experiences that include choice, circumstance, and coercion. Our community of grant partners and allies includes sex workers, people involved in the sex trade and street economies, and people who have been trafficked. Regardless of how young people are involved in or are impacted by the sex trade, they must be considered partners in the work of advocating for rights and achieving justice.

We recognize and affirm a difference between sex work and trafficking, and urge policymakers and allies in human rights advocacy to approach these issues with respect for that difference.

These are nuanced and deeply complex concerns. Pursuing a plan of action to address violence, coercion, or trafficking without considering the needs and leadership of young people with direct experience in sex work and the sex trade will result in solutions that do not fully address the harms that young people face. Nor will advocates benefit from the depth of their expertise.

With our support, young people engaged in sex work and who are impacted by the sex trade are organizing in their communities and achieving wins.

Across the US, our grant partners are supporting one another to create smart solutions that are rooted in their day-to-day realities.

* They conduct research on the needs of their own communities, mapping the complex social service systems that they must navigate successfully in order to seek support.

* They operate their own health care clinics with state and city-level health partners.

* They advocate for and participate in city taskforces that address youth housing needs.

* They have developed their own programs to secure legal advocacy for their communities.

* They organize and train one another to work within criminal/legal systems to advocate for their rights.

Together, they create innovative new models for peer support and education rooted in harm reduction principles and respect for young people’s power to make change in their own lives.

We value the full range of experiences of young people who do sex work and are impacted by the sex trade, and support work that builds their power and agency.

It is a step forward for policymakers and advocates to recognize that young people who do sex work or who are impacted by the sex trade are not criminals. We must also recognize that not all young people who do sex work and who are impacted by the sex trade are victims.

Partnerships between young people and adult allies must support the vision and leadership of young people. We work in collaboration with young people to secure the resources they need to continue creating a healthy and just world. We urge policymakers who seek to protect young people from violence to include young people’s expertise at every level of their decision-making. We also urge our community partners and allies to center the voices and experiences of young people who do sex work and who are impacted by the sex trade when advocating for their human rights.

New memoir on life in a Brunei harem

When I blogged a couple weeks ago about Sarah Silverman’s hilarious new memoir, I wrote that as the mother of three little kids, I now enjoy activities I used to dread for the private time they provide. Flying solo to New York and back to San Francisco a a couple times this month, I read a lot, including a beautifully written memoir: Some Girls: My Life in a Harem by Jillian Lauren.

Lauren, a nice Jewish girl from Jersey, drops out of NYU to pursue her dreams of stardom. To pay her New York rent, she supplements her income with stripping and then gets involved in prostitution via an expensive escort service. Eventually, at eighteen years old, she’s invited to travel to Brunei, as a guest of the Sultan, to spice up his parties. No one tells her exactly how much she’ll get paid for her services: “Don’t worry, you won’t be disappointed.”

For those who don’t know (as I didn’t) where or what Brunei is, Lauren writes it’s

a Malay Muslim monarchy located North of Borneo. Independent from England since 1984, Brunei still retains strong cultural and diplomatic ties with the Queen. At that time, the Sultan of Brunei was, thanks to oil and investments, the richest man on the planet.


Jillian Lauren

There’s more than a few memoirs and polemics about sex work out there, but Lauren’s book is unique. In part, just the location makes it fascinating, traveling to a palace in Southeast Asia and meeting the exotic men and women who inhabit it– it’s like The Other Boleyn Girl meets “The Hills” but much better writing than either. (Yes, the “The Hills” is scripted.)

There’s an on-going debate in Third and Fourth wave feminism about sex work, whether it’s empowering or degrading for women. Lauren’s book doesn’t preach or pick a side, just describing her experience in a brutally honest and insightful way. A woman telling the truth about her sexual life like this is rare and revolutionary.

Lauren writes:

“To those who haven’t profited financially from their sexuality, those of us who have often inspired an extreme range of emotions: Why would we take off our clothes for money? What makes us take the initial plunge? What makes one financially strapped girl into a hooker and another into a Denny’s waitress and another into a med student? You want to connect the dots. You all want reassurance that it won’t be your daughter up there on the pole. Shitty relationship with my father, low self esteem, astrologically inevitable craving for adventure, dreams of stardom, history of depression and anxiety, tendency towards substance abuse- put it all in a cauldron and cook and the ideal sex worked emerges, dripping and gleaming and whole.

Lauren’s writing about her family is also eloquent and excruciating. Before her decision to leave home, she’s rude to her mother, ignoring her when she enters the house. Her mom asks if she’s on drugs and her father flies into a rage, calling her an ungrateful little bitch.

With every punctuation mark, my father pulled me forward by my throat and them slammed my head back again. When he let go, I crumpled to the floor and pulled my knees to my chest. I called it my civil disobedience trick. I closed my eyes and made myself the tiniest ball. I showed no soft bits.

I worried about Jillian reading the book, her crazy parents and her recklessness. But I knew she’d come out of her story okay because she’s so smart.

Here’s my interview with Some Girls author, Jillian Lauren. Her book just hit the New York Times best-seller list.

You flew by private plane with another “party girl” from Brunei to Kauala Lampur to shop. You were driven to malls accompanied by men who carried suitcases of cash so you could clean out Chanel and Armani. As one of the prince’s favorite girls, there was no limit on what you could spend. But you were never allowed to leave your hotel room except with that entourage for that purpose. It seems claustrophobic and suffocating– just being in Stonestown mall in San Francisco can feel oppressive, and you shopped for over twelve hours. Was it fun? Were you thinking I’ll be able to write about his someday?

I was an avid journaller, but I was definitely never thinking of writing anything beyond that. The shopping was a whirlwind. It wasn’t exactly fun, but it was an adrenaline rush. I was excited and yet sort of disgusted with myself at the same time.

You were a guest of the Sultan’s brother, Prince Jefri, though one day, “Robin,” as he was called, shared you with his sibling, sending you to the royal yacht where female kitchen workers, wives, and girlfriends were cruel to you before you met the Sultan.

You write:

My survival instinct kicked in. I didn’t have any reason to believe that if I was unwanted, was deemed uninteresting and undesirable, I would be thrown off a cliff or stoned to death in public or shoved in the trunk if a car never to be seen again. Yet I was ready to fight with all I had to stay on the tightrope of royal favor. Maybe there didn’t need to be a threat of corporeal danger; maybe the threat of being unlovable was enough.

In your book you call yourself a “feminist sex activist” but your beliefs and feelings seem more complicated than “sex positive” feminism. Can you elaborate?

I really came into the feminist movement with a very particular viewpoint. And in the early nineties, when I was coming of age, there was this sex-positive explosion in the feminist movement. There was Susie Bright and Carol Queen and a bunch of bright, incredible women who were very vocal about being sex positive. Now I’m friends with a lot of these women. I do absolutely consider myself part of that camp. However, Its not simply about, “Sex work is so empowering, hooray.” Because that’s not how I feel anymore, now that I’m out of it and have lived with the consequences for 20 years. Sex work affected my relationship with my body, with my sexuality.It still has a ripple effect in my life. Taking your clothes off for money is a valid choice. For some women, maybe it’s the only choice. Certainly decriminalizing prostitution and having health care available for sex workers would help. But I don’t think it’s the greatest thing women can do for our souls, for the most part.

Did you make any lasting friendships in Brunei? Do you know what happened to those girls? What did they seem to want out of their experience there?

I’m absolutely still friends with some of the girls and they’ve been very supportive of me telling my story. But I can’t speak for them; I can only speak for myself. It’s up to them to assign meaning to their own experiences.

When you went back to Brunei a second time, you describe having sex with Robin again and this time, the intimacy startles you because you’ve been away and you’ve forgotten to click your “off” switch. For a moment, he’s human you’re shocked by the feel of skin and his hair. Were you able to recover from turning yourself off? Is it something you have control over?

It took me many, many years to come back to my body. The end of the book is really only the beginning of the journey. I still struggle with dissociation but I have tools with which to address it now.

You write a lot in your book about your childhood dreams of stardom, wanting to become a performer, a singer, a dancer. You never mention wanting to grow up and be writer yet that’s what you are now. Was becoming a writer something you ever wanted? The second time you went to Brunei, you brought a computer and exchanged short stories with a friend in New York, though you made fun of those writings. Was this the beginning of your writing career?

I never wanted to be a writer, but ironically writing was the thing I was generally doing the most of. I’ve kept journals since I was probably around eight or nine. Brunei was the place where I unknowingly started to develop a daily writing practice and that practice has been the most important thing to my writing career. So in a way, I guess my career did start in Brunei.

What happened in the years after Brunei, before you got married? Did you stay involved in sex work?

I was still involved in sex work for a while on and off until a terrible substance abuse problem pretty much made it impossible for me to do anything else. It wasn’t until I got sober that I met my husband and my life started to resemble the life I have now.

How did you make the transition into married life and motherhood?

I made the transition into marriage and motherhood not by any one big choice but with a series of small daily decisions through which I learned to take better care of myself and the people I love.

Did you know you wanted to marry your husband? What made him different than the other men? Was it the right time?

My husband is that rarest of things…he’s a truly good man. Besides being cute and funny and a great musician and all that other stuff. I knew almost immediately that I was going to marry him.

Your parents do not come off well in the book– your father is abusive and your mother neglectful. What is your relationship like with your parents now?

I don’t think my parents come off badly. I think they come off as complicated. I tried to the best of my ability to treat their portrayal with compassion and love. They’re still very upset about the book but I have faith that we’ll work it out. We’ve been through worse.

What is your new book, Pretty, about?

Pretty is a girl who survived a horrific car accident that killed her boyfriend and is serving out a self-imposed sentence at a halfway house, while attempting to complete her last two weeks of vocational-rehab cosmetology school. It’s about trying to find faith in a world of rampant diagnoses, over-medication, compulsive eating, and acrylic nails.