Human Trafficking Should Be Illegal

“Slaves are generally expected to sing as well as to work.”

—Frederick Douglass

Donald Trump comes under fire from the neoliberal establishment whenever he does something digestible. I am amazed the liberals are mad at him so often, considering 99.9% of the time he is doing something awful. Anytime Trump has a unique thought about the vicious imperialist structures, the crippling trade deals, or the draconian CIA, the neoliberal establishment loses their heads. Now Donald Trump, in spite of his nefarious history, is attempting to stop sex trafficking. This somehow is his greatest crime and “leftists”, “liberals” and “feminists” of all stripes are losing their heads.

Donald Trump’s latest delinquency: The Frederick Douglass Trafficking Victims Prevention and Protection Reauthorization Act, which puts 430 million in federal funds towards preventing human trafficking. I wrote about Donald Trump’s denial of asylum to domestic violence victims here. .On the Douglass act, one has to be happy that this prevention attempt is getting some much-needed funding. Domestic violence shelters and other government resources are already hurting under the government shutdown and through Trump’s budget cuts in general. If Trump will fund anything, it’s the police. But with no other alternative in sight, and the Democrats surely to blow it again to Trump in 2020, the Douglass act will save some lives.

Now there is opposition to the bill by all sorts of people. The first argument against: free speech and a tyrannical government. I always wonder what people’s worst-case scenarios are for the big government complaints. Is your theoretical (hopefully, theoretical) right to buy a prostitute really more important than someone’s right not to be bought by you? I mean is the government really going to inflict something worse than ownership of another human being? Trafficking is already a dire situation. Sorry, we shouldn’t consider buying another human being to be an expression of free speech. Maybe the First Amendment believed that, but that was written by slaveholders. We should believe that buying another human being is wrong and we should know that the United States is willing to support it precisely because our society was founded on such principles of freedom that relied on ownership of others.

Corporations are seen as humans that have free speech in this country. How ridiculous. Trump’s latest restrictions are seen as a threat to free speech precisely because corporations engage in the practice he is opposing, while real voiceless humans suffer as a result. Note: there are accurate criticisms of the bill that it does not go far enough to punish big corporations and largely focuses on smaller ones.

I know based on this article’s title, there is already a raging leftist, and likely a raging third wave feminist too. Both the left and feminism have been largely blinded and co-opted by neoliberal capital’s definition of market freedom. The original free love movement not only advocated for freedom of lovers, but freedom from exploitation of the systems within the sex framework. The argument against marriage was that it was a form of prostitution, a very fair argument in many cases. Now marriage is seen with even more skepticism by young people but prostitution is treated as an expression of the market that is inevitable and cannot be regulated. Likewise, mainstream feminism has shifted from radical definitions of freedom to definitions of self-worth within neoliberal capital that frequently views the human body and soul as a commodity that can be sold and marketed.

Trump had previously passed Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA), to not much fanfare by the (neo) liberated anti-Trump people.

Prostitution is not consensual sex. It is, and always is, rape by the system of capitalism. One should simply be opposed to prostitution in the same way one is opposed to any form of violence and exploitation. Making slavery legal in order to regulate it has never been said, and indeed sounds like an odd argument. But let’s see whether or not that’s true by looking at examples in other countries.

Take Germany, where sex work has become legal. By all accounts, this has been really good for the prostitution business. From World Development:: “Countries with legalized prostitution have a statistically significantly larger reported incidence of human trafficking inflows.” Netherlands also has failed when they tried to legalize prostitution, with this statement from their justice ministry: “[P]rostitutes’ emotional well-being is now lower than in 2001 on all measured aspects, and the use of sedatives has increased.”

On the left, Sweden is often cited as an example of how we should model our society. And I agree with leftists that Sweden is one of the most humane countries in the world and that we have a lot to learn from them. Sweden has made sex work illegal and as a result, simply has less sex work and fewer murders. In fact, sex work is Sweden has been sliced in half since they made sex work illegal.

But let’s address some of the criticisms of the Nordic Model. The first one to address: making prostitution illegal prevents women from working. As we should know by now in the United States, the “unemployment” rate is by fall the least of our worries in our neoliberal death spiral. Despite an extremely unequal and exploitative society, unemployment remains extremely low in this country. There will always be work within the ever-expanding capitalist system. The question is what type of work do we want to have? No one on the left is happy that Amazon is bringing more jobs, and that is precisely because we recognize that they are bad jobs. The fact that the left can see such a contradiction when it comes to Amazon while completely missing this when it comes to the extremely dangerous and traumatic job of sex work is beyond me. I mean do leftists go out and proudly buy from sweatshops just because the work they are doing is being done by marginalized people, all the while “above ground” and in an American retail store? Of course not.

What feminists recognize is that making sex work legal only expands the economy around it. As pornography and prostitution have grown from shameful to cool, more possibilities for illegal networks that are related to the legal practice have risen as well. Like any product, an expanding product has led to expanding demand, and while one can point to more “humane” models for the richest portions of society, an underground economy grows as society becomes more accepting of the practice in general. One should also ask: where is the model where sex work is humane under a legal system? Where is the evidence that it can ever be practiced freely or consensually? Where is the society that actually treats sex workers with dignity just because the work is technically legal?

But let’s not give Donald Trump too much credit. Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act (FOSTA) and the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act (SESTA) is no Nordic Model. The main objections by the neoliberal establishment is that the bill harms “consensual” sex work. This framing completely erases the construct of neoliberal capital that is thriving in the internet age. Today one can use a prostitute casually, and mostly incognito through the internet. I was happy to see that the bill, among other things, will be shutting down parts of Craigslist, a place notorious for making prostitution easily accessible for people largely ignorant of the harms of the practice.

The neoliberal establishment argues that the online community has created a “safe” space for sex work and that by punishing websites who sell sex, we are only opening the possibility for more dangerous conditions elsewhere. And while the average sex worker may be safer online, the market of sex work itself has only expanded. For the 21st-century bourgeois “liberated” subject, this is not a problem because they cannot recognize the inherent dangers within sex work, and therefore never mind expansion.

The law has a fairly basic principle. Take a trip (pun intended) to Colorado, where marijuana is now legal. Yes, people are not hiding their weed. And this leads to a more healthy weed experience. But everyone in Colorado is smoking weed now. If something is legal, it will be done more often, even if it is safer for things to be done outside of an underground economy. Weed should be legal everywhere. It doesn’t hurt us and it’s fun. Pretty much the only danger of weed is when it is illegal. But prostitution is not the same as weed. We want less of it, not more.

The Huffington Post is perhaps the definition of the new pseudo-feminism that has co-opted the radical roots. They write with a straight face about Trump’s bill: “The bill was intended to fight sex trafficking, but it has had a dangerous effect on the many sex workers who have consensually chosen the profession and who relied on the internet and its tools to keep themselves safe and make a living.” Now I think Huff Post makes some fair points in their critique. Trump’s bill is taking away the ability to screen clients online, which seems to be intended to punish the prostitutes, an unsurprising move for the right.

But I think the overall framing by the paper is enormously ignorant, with blow-up pictures of “empowered” women holding handcuffs sprinkled throughout their negative piece. Such an image is simply not the normal profile, in this country or in others, of people who have to sell their bodies in one way or the other. It’s a fantasy, and a lazy one. The oppressed are always pictured with smiles, framed as powerful, and told they are free. If these women are that well-off, they can just change jobs. If they aren’t, then they need help to get other options.

Perhaps I’m just an old soul in a young man’s body and do not understand the new forms of freedom hailed by my generation. I much more likely to get lost in a Grateful Dead stupor than I am to find any form of soul in the modern subject’s form of self-expression. For example, take the case of Stormy Daniels. Why is she a hero for liberals? Most likely this actually has little to do with sex and more to do with the fact that selling one’s self commercially is now not only the means of survival but a virtue in a society full of cheery images covering up bombing campaigns.

I also think liberals love Stormy because she did what they always have wanted to do: have sex with Mr. Trump. Now, I don’t say this to be mean, or even to be funny. I just see Donald Trump fitting snugly into the neoliberal framework of image and sexuality. Trump is the perfect fantasy for liberals. In bed he is utterly conventional and in Stormy’s words, boring. He is also conventional in that he is prone to sexual harassment. So he is old school enough for liberals to play with him and make fun of them. But he also is mean enough to play with them back, and play with them roughly, hitting them where they want to be hit—BDSM style. There is an inherent whiteness to BDSM, as people of color are literally in cages and in prison as we speak. And perhaps the most disturbing thing about the Trump era is that while he tears the world down there continues to be a certain amount of pleasure gained from this symbiotic relationship. Trump is so obtuse that he becomes very fun for everyone without skin in the game, who merely see politics as a plaything.

Along the way no one considers class. For the mainstream upper-middle class, we can indeed imagine sex work to be just precisely because it can be framed as a choice for those with economic options.

For those without options, it’s a cruel reality and our intention should be to create different kinds of work, not “just” forms of sexual slavery. We should be focused on creating jobs outside of this industry that are just for the worker. Because no matter what end of the spectrum a sex work job is on, it is among the most dangerous, traumatic and cruel jobs in this country. Would anyone really be opposed to the end of coal mining? Only the far-right would defend such a dangerous and destructive practice as “worker’s right” or “worker’s choice”. We all know that there is a reason we aren’t doing these jobs. It’s because we don’t have to.

Indigenous women are pushed into prostitution more than anyone else, and when their bodies go missing, no one reports it, let alone splats a smiling picture on the Huffington Post. The pro-prostitution argument also has a fetishizing transgender spin. We are supposed to believe that dehumanizing sex work is the only option for transgender people and that any bill opposing sex work opposes trans people. But couldn’t we argue that it is exactly the close-mindedness of society that can only categorize trans people as sexual objects and that by placing prostitution as not only the punishment, but the goal, for this marginalized group only reaffirms our belief that transgender people are not human simply because they have denied society’s hierarchy to begin with?

In a somewhat ironic twist for the suddenly pro-immigrant white community, sex workers are disproportionally migrants. In New Zealand, where prostitution became legal, prostitution was even listed as a desired “skill” for migrants. In New Zealand, we see both the legal and social consequences of legalizing prostitution. Not only does the practice become more normalized, men feel more entitled to the women’s bodies they possess. Many on the pro-sex spectrum believe in a no shame approach. But I see this no shame approach as homophobic. Consensual gay sex is often grouped in the same category of liberation as the anti-liberation act of prostitution.

And indeed there is sexism too in the way we think differently about different labor practices. 94% of sex trafficking victims are female, while 65% of labor trafficking victims are male. It would make sense to be opposed to both. But the left too often is just opposed to the latter. We fail to imagine agency for women here.

While we are here, let’s talk about race. I think any good leftist questions the racial implications of the police state getting more power. However, people of color are also disproportionally trafficked. Likewise, white people are disproportionally traffickers. I don’t think one can honestly separate the factors that push many of the same people into sex work, into criminal work, and into jail (although there is certainly gender divisions here too). It’s the same communities being hurt by all these factors, and pushing resources into creating a new economy away from sex work will only help these communities find work that is both legal and fulfilling.

Whether or not sex work is legal these communities will be put in jail and treated with injustice. Just because the law is unjust doesn’t mean we should have unjust laws. The goal should not be to celebrate criminal behavior but to create a society where the underclass does not have to participate in criminal behavior to survive. The criminal behavior of these communities is almost always done internally while the white bourgeois class who sees prostitution and gangsters as cool, fun, and ethnic, never have to suffer the consequences of crime.

Perhaps leftists have good intentions when they advocate for sex trafficking. I assume it’s nothing more than ignorance and privilege that blinds them. But it is overthinking things to try to find a humane form of sex trafficking. Donald Trump may be a prude, a controlling patriarchal man, and an advocate of the police state. But what then does that make the advocates of prostitution? Something far worse.

I would agree that is largely true that even under a system of illegal sex trafficking, pimps are let off the hook while prostitutes are criminalized. That’s the awful truth, and it goes to show the patriarchal trappings within the police state. But legalization only makes the practice legitimate. It makes sex work grow, and the number of people used for it far greater. If we want to create a society that treats the marginalized fairly, we have to start with laws that protect the marginalized, even if they cannot be enforced with justice nearly as often as we would want.

I have never understood while there is a healthy skepticism of the police during a time of illegal sex work, there is never the same skepticism when sex work is legal. We have the same police, don’t we? When sex work is legal, police are even less likely to intervene in favor of the sex worker. Legal wars may be more humane, legal oil pipelines may be more cautious, legal slavery may have more regulations, and legal poaching may result in less suffering per animal. If we made these actions legal, they would increase, the business behind them would grow, and more people would suffer, albeit in different ways. All of us on the left agree that while legalizing something that we disagree with may bring it out of the shadows, there should be explicit efforts to stop actions we deem immoral. Prostitution is wrong. We should oppose it. End of story.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at