Can a man who once wore a suit made entirely of denim be sincere? But, I think these celebs have their hearts in the right place, trafficking is a real and monstrous issue and I applaud anyone trying to take it on.
But, first, let's clear some things up. What, exactly is trafficking? The image concocted by the media is often of foreign women and girls forced into another country as sex slaves, but this is not always the case, or even the majority of cases. Women can be trafficked in their own homes. Serpent Libertine of the The Sex Workers Outreach Project lends a hand: “When we talk about trafficking, we need to remember the difference between choice, circumstance and coercion. Trafficking is any form of coercion into the industry.”
In each of my “johns” interviews, the topic of trafficking inevitably arose. These are men who have seen sex workers hundreds of times, guys who understand that not all sex work is trafficking. In turn, they often know it when they see it.
Jacob had been on a seven year hiatus from seeing sex workers. “When I started again, there were loads of women from Latin America all of the sudden. And soon after, women from Eastern Europe. At some point I met a Polish woman who seemed like marble, completely lifeless, beset by fear, anxiety and disgust... I cannot remember that anything sexual happened between us.”
There is a lot of shame (and shaming) that comes with buying services from a sex worker. This was evident in many of my interviews. Chris Atchinson, the researcher behind Johns’ Voice, a study that focuses solely on buyer's experiences, also found the hundreds of sex buyers he spoke to were familiar with this phenomenon.
When Jacob was on vacation in the Netherlands, he scheduled a date with a sex worker he'd never met before. She was a Colombian woman. “At some point she broke, tears in her eyes. I had been nice to her, it's not that I was trying to harm her in any way,” he says. The woman hardly spoke anything but Spanish, so when he tried to ask what was wrong, she didn't understand.
“She clearly didn't want to be on the job. She was probably a genuine trafficking victim.” Not knowing what to do, he gave her a good luck charm from his pocket. “I felt completely helpless afterward. At the time, sex work was still illegal in the Netherlands, so had I reported the case to the police, I would have been in trouble myself.”
According to Serpent, Jacob's story is not unique. She hears from many buyers who come across cases of trafficking, but fear they can't do anything, because they too will be arrested. “This is a complicated situation as clients need to assess whether they may be endangering the trafficked person in other ways if police or a national hotline are called. I know the simple answer is "call the police" but that's not always the best idea. Police could arrest the client and the worker and never get them to services at all,” she explains.
Stephen has thought a lot about the morality of seeing sex workers who are in the business out of circumstance. Stephen solely sees transgender women — a part of the population marginalized and often discriminated against, in the workplace and otherwise.
“The first sex worker I picked up was at a trans bar, and I actually felt very connected with her. I even wrote a poem about that experience — it was moving to find that I could have a genuinely intimate experience with somebody I didn’t know. About a year later, I went back to the same bar and I picked her up again. I went back to her place, except now, she was living in this place with junkies in the hall, and she was gonna shoot up before we had sex. I said ‘Keep the money, but I can’t.’ She started crying ‘Oh, god! My mama didn’t raise me for this. I tried to crack once or twice. I thought it was just a joke!’ I cried because this woman, the first transsexual person I ever had sex with — who introduced me to that in such a wonderful way — look what had happened to her.”
I ask Stephen how he handles this, ethically. “If I’m going to a sex worker — even if it’s somebody who is doing sex work for difficult reasons — I’m gonna treat them well. Most people probably don’t like the work that they do. Like, guys working in factories 40 hours a week. It’s bad for your health, bad for your mind. Why do they do it? They need the money to pay the bills. Sex work is another job. It’s a hard job. I know a lot of people who are major advocates on how sex work can be a great job. But I also know it can eat you alive. I don’t think it’s a moral issue. I think that it’s a logistical issue.”
For me, the line between circumstance and trafficking remains confusing. Serpent explains, “Many of these street economy workers are actually not trafficked, they are doing so with their own consent, but under less than desirable situations. Many are drug users, but that doesn't mean they are trafficked either. Circumstance becomes trafficking when a person willingly answers an ad or goes to work for an agency, but then are tricked into situations that they don't consent to or are not paid for their work.”
Sexuality educator, Charlie Glickman recently wrote a blogpost with this analogy: “sex work is to trafficking as sex is to rape.” And it's interesting; because with sex and rape, we understand there is gray-rape, there are gray areas of consent. Perhaps this too is how we should look at sex work and trafficking.
Ron, a man I interviewed over email, said about trafficking: “I sometimes think that when I am forced to confront the discomfort of a sex worker face to face there is more there than when I buy a DVD player, knowing the conditions the worker in China was operating under.”
Glickman goes onto point out: “I would LOVE to live in a world in which nobody was forced, coerced, or tricked into sexual slavery. For that matter, I would LOVE to live in a world in which there were no sweatshops or agricultural and domestic trafficking, although to make that happen, we (as a society) would need to be willing to pay people a fair wage for their labor. Instead, we’d rather give huge amounts of money to the CEOs and stockholders and get cheap sneakers.”
But back to Demi and Ashton and their assertion about real men and sex buying. Real men (and women) make conscious choices when it comes to buying sex. Real men and women research the person they are employing as a sex worker. Real men and women contact SWOP or other organizations designed to protect sex workers when they come across possible trafficking. And real men and women face their own shame around buying sex — for their own mental health, and to ensure a healthy interaction for the real human being from whom they are buying sexual services.