Parsing a Miserable But All-Too-Typical Article Concerning Sex Work Which Ostensibly is Not Attempting To Be Whorephobic But In Fact Is

What follows, in un-bolded text, is an article from a major city news source in New Orleans, written without any particularly vested perspective on the matters discussed.  What we’ll quickly discover is an under-researched, uncritical rehearsal of law enforcement diatribe and baseless putting words in the mouths of those whom they purport to serve and protect.

NOLA.com

The Times-Picayune

LOUISIANA POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Law enforcement takes new tactic in prostitution enforcement operation

A terse little title which at once serves to hint at just how stentorian and backwards policing sex work has been in this country, and at the same time acknowledges the continued militarization of police.  A “new tactic” certainly sounds like one or more tactical maneuvers have been attempted in the past.  “Prostitution enforcement” reminds us that all enforcement is selective and that bad laws only work insofar as bad enforcement is willing to prioritize them, badly.  “Operation” puts the icing on the cake: this is either surgery to extract the undesirable underbelly of the city, or else it’s a full-fledged war against one of the most at-risk sets of populations in any given area.

Posted on February 1, 2017 at 6:40 PM

FBI Special Agent in Charge Jeff Sallet speaks during a news conference held at New Orleans City Hall to announce what they called the rescue of 11 potential human trafficking victims.

Oh, good, the Feds are involved.  They did so right by New Orleans last time their services were required.

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By Kevin Litten, NOLA.com

klitten@nola.com

Authorities on Wednesday (Feb. 1) announced they had made contact with 11 women who were engaging in prostitution, some of whom are suspected of being coerced into the trade by pimps. FBI officials described the operation as a “rescue,” saying that none of the women were arrested as part of the effort.

“Made contact” is a nice neologism for picked up, detained, likely interrogated, all without charges.  What’s most misleading and nefarious about using this phrase rather than anything more specific is it wholly obscures the relationship between city police and, especially, street-based or outdoor sex workers.  Did these women call a troubled prostitute hotline?  Voluntarily meet in a mutually safe space?  Or, as the phrase “made contact” seems to imply, did they answer a coded signal beamed into space, a la an alien race?  “Engaging in prostitution” expertly sidesteps the simplest of our concepts, that sex work is work.  Teachers don’t engage in educating, politicians don’t engage in legislating, police don’t engage in law enforcement, though they might engage in rights-suppression, selective enforcement, murder, rape, etc.  The artful qualification of the next statement is a feat of plausible deniability: “some of whom are suspected” sounds like a very strong case for the epidemic of forced labor from which these rescuers seek to save the women of New Orleans.  What follows is an important touch of Hollywood: “coerced into the trade by pimps.”  Without opening a discussion about what labor under capitalism is not in large part coerced, this completely speculative and sensationalist claim is wholly without nuance or justification.  When any semblance of probable cause is left in doubt, why not defer to the most antique, hackneyed cliché about working conditions for sex workers?

The decision not to arrest the women is rooted in a new approach authorities are taking in dealing with the human trafficking problem. Women who are engaging in prostitution are increasingly being seen as potential human trafficking victims under the control of a pimp, and the FBI acknowledged that police are using the contacts to catch perpetrators who are seeking to recruit women and force them to have sex for money.

And the bombshell.  What was “some” of eleven workers “suspected” of being coerced in their labor is now the oldest, easiest, grossest conflation in the book: trafficking.  How difficult is it for a reporter to decouple sex work (or any kind of work) from trafficking (or forced labor, or slavery, or rape)?  Show us where any direct intervention into sex work resulted in a reduction in human trafficking, or vice versa.  The next sentence actually stands as a rather elegant syllogism referring to precisely this fallacy.  Rather than challenge Kevin Litten with being inexact with his words, I’ll take them at face value as the conceptual knot they represent.  “Women,” because obviously they’re the only ones, “engaging in prostitution,” again, a phrase which makes clear that it is not work, or at least not legitimate work, are seen as “potential human trafficking victims,” which more than implies that they are not currently, but remain somehow susceptible to being trafficked, as if they would be whisked into a back alley, mid-stroll, and a price tag affixed to their foreheads, “under the control of a pimp,” as though that were a strictly non-voluntary, never mutually beneficial or protective relationship due to the omnipresence of the threat of just such law enforcement and its officers, and instead could only be a gag and shackles on their labor and income.  As is the case with all such “operations” and the writing thereabout, conflating all sex work as forced prostitution and trafficking completely obscures the latter whilst giving enforcement carte blanche to selectively enforce and punish in whatever manner they see fit.

“We have a priority to rescue victims, but I also want to make clear to the people that are coming in here, that are victimizing them and victimizing different people, we will arrest you,” said FBI Special Agent in Charge Jeff Sallet. Asked whether the FBI developed information from making contact with the victims and will use it to arrest human traffickers, Sallet said, “in this case, any information we collected in the future could certainly be used for prosecutions. We’re not looking to prosecute the victims. We’re looking to prosecute the victimizers.”

By the time the cops actually get to speak, the bullshit is so thick that they have to work to float to the top (or is it sink to the bottom?).  The second clearest concept from which any writing about sex work which gives a damn about what sex workers have to say—rights not rescue—is immediately cast aside by agent Sallet: every “prostituted woman” is a victim, and Mr. Tough FBI man is gonna arrest all the victimizers, out there “victimizing different people.”  The one direct question asked of Sallet is answered with a vague deflection, though he does make clear again that it’s the victimizers who will be the object of his prosecution.  And for all those who aren’t being trafficked?  Self-victimizing, one supposes?

The operation was a multi-agency effort, with State Police, New Orleans Police, Homeland Security and the FBI participating as the lead agency. Authorities declined to say how they made contact with the women, but said it was a two-day, “large-scale operation” that included connecting women to services, health care and, in some cases, returning them to friends and family.

Just the sort of big happy family collaboration we’ve been waiting for. The reporter’s due diligence made sure to avoid giving away all the FBI’s best secrets for the mysterious “making contact,” but it’s nice to know that “in some cases” they were returned to friends (obviously not those who were also sex workers, just the acceptable ones) and family, like lost puppies.  But should they not have friends and families willing to shelter them, there’s always the ubiquitous “services,” in the US’s proud tradition of serving purported trafficking victims.

Backpage website a major factor in New Orleans human trafficking, rescue group says

Covenant House says just over half of human trafficking victims they help had ads on Backpage.com.

(The above is the text of a link for another article.  That should tell us all we need to know about the paper’s angle on sex work issues, as well as the next “service” to be cited.)

Sheri Lochridge, a caseworker at the youth homeless shelter Covenant House, participated in the operation last week, and described it as an effort to identify potential human trafficking victims. She said the women were interviewed by both police and social workers, and many of the women were released and likely returned to their previous work.

Covenant House is, as the name implies, a Christian endeavor which services children (and young adults) ages 16-22 years old.  As such, the age ranges of their target demographic includes both children and adults, which in this instance further threatens to blur the line between workers and child laborers.  Their mission is to “serve suffering children of the street,” though in this case that suffering is far from assured and the participation of those targeted entirely non-voluntary.  One wonders if Christ forced “assistance” onto the wanting. The phrase “potential” trafficking victims again rears its head, reminding us that all outdoor sex workers are either current or future victims, with no agency or decision-making capacities of their own, so unthinkable is it that these workers might want simply to be left alone to work.  “Likely returned to their previous work” is at least a little better than their previous “engagement” with sex work, and is about the most obvious statement in the entire piece.  Did they expect the workers to be “scared straight” by a tactic with which they are undoubtedly entirely familiar already?

“I would go in and talk to them about Covenant House and try to relax them. All of them were scared they were going to jail,” Lochridge said. She said victims were told that “none of them were going to jail that night. So it was easy to calm them down.”

In the least surprising revelation of the piece, the workers were scared. Perhaps their fear arose from the fact that they had been picked up and detained, likely without any charges, and on their way to jail, none of which was likely in the least bit novel for them. Just another needless roundup to remind people already marginalized and stigmatized that they can be dragged in for “contact” at any time.  What would be harassment in any other line of work is supposed to be rescue in this one.

Lochridge said she made contact with seven of the 11 women, and said several exhibited signs of human trafficking. One of the women was what Lochridge considered “independent” and told authorities she simply “enjoyed sex work.” One of the women exhibited signs of mental illness and a third had a heroin addiction.

These mysterious “signs” are interesting.  Did they have a tattoo, or perhaps a wallet-sized card reading “potential trafficking victim?”  Do “trafficked” sex workers look different from—and here we lack as pithy a term—“independent” ones?  Naturally, the only time the instance of the term “sex work” actually being used is the one direct, if partial, quote from an actual worker.  I also appreciate Sheri Lochridge’s credentials in identifying mental illness and drug addiction.

“There were a few that kept denying they had pimps,” Lochridge said. “But you could tell they weren’t telling the truth and you could tell by their stories that someone at some point had forced them into doing this. These girls are trying not to get their pimps in trouble.”

Denying abuse is not unusual, it is true, but the wild speculation that even such a keen observer of the human condition as Sherri Lochridge might be able to discern that these workers were trafficked even as they directly contradict said assertion seems hard to believe.  Miss Lochridge’s vested interest in her evangelical shelter may make it impossible to believe that most or all of these women are “independent” in the sense of choosing their employ because it is in fact the safest, most lucrative, most empowering or, frankly, only viable option available, but that doesn’t make it any less possible that one or more of these reasons is accurate.  Without delving back into the Hollywood concept of pimp, is it so difficult to believe that one might not want to jeopardize a mutually beneficial relationship, seeing it as the potential end of one’s already tenuous means of income?  And that’s assuming that these mysterious, unspoken-of “pimps” even exist in the first place.  But why trust their testimony.  They’re just confused potential trafficking victims.

Lochridge said that while none of the women she spoke with agreed to be sheltered at Covenant House, that doesn’t mean the women won’t make contact in the future. She said that “in this case, you’re hoping the girls reach out to you. You’re giving them a choice and a different option.”

Stunning.  How could these workers possibly reject this kind of generosity?  Could it be that they neither asked for nor want it?  I’m sure the “girls” would appreciate Covenant House worrying about Christ’s mission and values where they are in any way desired.

“You’re planting the idea in their head because a lot of them feel like there are no options,” Lochridge said. “Maybe they think this is the greatest thing, but now they have an idea in their head that there is someone they can reach out to.”

Because, in myth number three, sex work could only be employment of absolute last resort.  There are no shades, there could be no nuance to the reasons and varieties of work.  It is either they cry for help of the “trafficked girl,” or else, in an equally reductionist concept “the greatest thing.” That someone who has clearly encountered sex workers in her work could retain such unitary, simplistic, and generally counterfactual views ought to be stunning, but is all too common, particularly when enabled and promoted by both church and state at once.

Backpage still posting prostitution ads, experts say

The ads have been a major factor in human trafficking cases in New Orleans.

(A link for another article on this site.  At least they are consistent.  The experts are, you guessed it, missionaries from Covenant House.)

James Kelly, the executive director of Covenant House, praised the work of law enforcement, saying he was pleased that officials did not decide to use arrests as part of the operation. It is a departure from a similar operation last year, Kelly said, that involved arrests that raised concerns that the victims were being treated as criminals.

Well of course he did!  Jimmy sees the good officers at services every Sunday.  In what possible world does this “operation” not treat the “victims” as “criminals”?  They are being brought in against their will, possibly directly off of their strolls, and “returned” without any charges filed; how is this any different from shaking down “potential” or actual drug dealers, gang members, etc., knowing damn well none of them have the financial wherewithal to sue the state for unlawful arrest?

“This is a best practice model. We weren’t here a year ago,” Kelly said. “There are many venues for human trafficking in our city: There is Backpage, there are strip clubs, there are massage parlors, there are hotels, motels. Human traffickers go after the youngest and the most vulnerable. They find the youngest and the most vulnerable the most valuable.”

Just reading him talk about it is gross.  James Kelly: inside the mind and economy of the trafficker.  We remain waiting for any evidence that this sort of raid has resulted in the cessation of any sort of trafficking whatsoever. If irritating, inconveniencing, and frightening sex workers can be linked to stopping trafficking, the workers would be the first to welcome it.  No sex worker wants to aid or harbor actual traffickers.

He described the victims that Covenant House provides services to as “good,” “beautiful” and “brave.” But he said 90 percent of those victims also have suffered trauma in their past, including sexual violence, physical violence and domestic violence, and are often using drugs to “self-medicate the years of pain, the wounds and the actual acts that take place in sex trafficking.”

We should here remember that none of the women picked up in this broad sting are “victims that Covenant House provides services to.”  They did not ask for this sort of asylum, and even after being made aware of it, wanted nothing to do with it.  Kelly’s offhand statistics on trauma and abuse sound like they could apply to any economically disadvantaged community, and to claim that sex workers are automatically subject to more abuse and drug use is demonstrably untrue and perpetuating of stereotypes which only serve his evangelical, hubristic fantasies of saviorism.

“I must emphasize how good they are and how much they want our help,” Kelly added.

So much so that none of the eleven agreed to it after your intervention.

Law enforcement on human trafficking has proven to be an extremely challenging crime to attack, mostly because victims often see their pimps as loved ones. Because many trafficking victims are estranged from families or friends, or start out as runaways, pimps are often viewed as a caretaker who slowly takes over their lives.

The structure of the first sentence above is priceless: indeed, it sounds as if law enforcement is pretty criminal here, and it does seem “extremely challenging” to attack it when it is so embedded in a puritanism which does not only allow but necessitates the cooperation of religious and law enforcement agencies.  This oversimplified account of the relationships between workers and pimps once again includes zero actual accounts of said relationships from actual workers.

Kelly said that the most obvious signs of someone being human trafficked is a lack of access to identification. Pimps often take control of bank accounts, credit cards, transportation and phones, and in many cases, the women are not allowed to keep the money they earn when they have sex for payment.

Well, if James Kelly says it, it must be so.

Because many of the victims that have passed through Covenant House have experience dancing in New Orleans strip clubs, Kelly has advocated a holistic approach to stopping human trafficking. He called on area residents to help shut off the “spigot” of demand for human trafficking by rejecting paying for sexual labor.

The classic “demand side” reduction effort.  What is it called when we “reject paying” someone for their labor, be it physical, therapeutic, emotional, or a combination thereof?  Sounds a lot like encouraging theft, which has particularly awful implications when it comes to sex work and the lack of protections for the workers.  Though one imagines his influence on the sexual appetites and needs of New Orleanians is vast and powerful, it still seems somewhat unlikely that the head of an Christian shelter advocating not paying for sex will have much effect on those who either buy or sell these services.  The “spigot” of the oldest profession might have a stickier valve than Mr. Kelly and his ilk can operate, no matter how compelling their arguments.

Covenant House has provided services to 70 victims in this year alone. And he said those numbers are on the rise.

Of which apparently none are the victims of any kind of trafficking, lest James Kelley neglected to mention them.

“This is about greed. … We need to say no more,” Kelly said. “Whether it be Backpage or sleazy strip clubs or massage parlors or motels or hotels who are not cooperating with us, we need to say no more.

The greed of whom, exactly?  Faceless pimps and traffickers?  Or women (and men, and trans* folks) trying to get by?  Must someone joyfully participate in their job in order for it not to be exploitative?  And why the hell would backpage, an advertising site not unlike craigslist, “cooperate” with an evangelical teen shelter in New Orleans?  Kelly has apparently redefined greed as “those who do not share our narrow mission of ending the desire for sex work.”

The FBI said that the operation was timed to coincide with the upcoming NBA All Star Weekend, which starts on Feb. 17, and as Mardi Gras parades begin. Both events draw hundreds of thousands of people New Orleans, and pimps often bring women to town to meet the surge in demand for prostitutes.

Another classic myth: that large events somehow create spikes in trafficking. Is heightened demand for sex work the greatest crime during an event like Mardi Gras?  Is there no other need for public safety which eclipses people paying for sex?

“We are going to be relentless in our pursuit of this so it will be ongoing on a regular basis,” Sallet said. “This is not a safe haven. This is not a place to come and human traffic.”

It certainly is not safe for some, Agent Sallet.  You have managed to commit what sounds like enormous resources on an operation which yielded zero “victims,” in that none of those rounded up wanted anything to do with your help, you have further conflated sex work with human trafficking, and you’ve arrested no evil pimps who were extorting their brood of drug-addicted, mentally ill, abused prostitutes. Instead, you’ve struck fear into members of an already marginalized industry who just lost their safest, most trusted advertising and vetting resource, and attempted to shame them out of their profession with the aid of an at best misguided evangelical halfway house.

… …

Kevin Litten covers New Orleans City Hall for NOLA.com | The Times Picayune. Reach him at klitten@nola.com or 225-436-2207. Follow him on Twitter @kevinlitten.

 Aaron Hammes is writer, musician, and organizer based in Chicago.

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