I was so pleased by the great turnout at CAST’s Sex & Money screening last night. We were proud to be cosponsors and I was honored to be asked to serve on the post-screening discussion panel.
The film is a 93-minute documentary on domestic minor sex trafficking. The filmmaking team talked to many of the nation’s experts on human trafficking, including some of my favorite allies – Bradley Myles from Polaris Project, Dorchen Leidholdt from the Center for Battered Women’s Legal Services at Sanctuary for Families, Melissa Farley of Prostitution Research & Education. Others I know because of their work, such as Siddarth Kara and Benjamin Skinner (both of whom I’ve seen speak) and Mary Ann Layden (a colleague of our good friend Dr. Linnea Smith). And the film includes conversation with my hero Lou CdeBaca, head of the federal Trafficking in Persons office, and someone who really gets the multiple and complex challenges of addressing human trafficking.
The film is extremely informative and well done. In addition to accurate and robust coverage of the subject, we get to see some of the experiences of the filmmakers and their process of making sense of what they’re learning – and even a few welcome moments of humor. I admit to being a little turned off at the choice to begin the film with one of the filmmakers on the brink of tears – kind of an odd decision. But that was one “off” moment in what is otherwise an excellent production.
In addition to commentary and analysis by experts, Sex & Money includes interviews with survivors of sex trafficking, former pimps, former buyers, law enforcement, and service providers; there are also segments filming prostitution arrests. And, there is some coverage of the volatile protest outside Craigslist’s headquarters during the advocacy to remove erotic services from their on-line postings. Streetlight in Phoenix was highlighted as a promising practice provider.
The film addresses head-on the issue of the “choice” to prostitute. The connections between, or conflation of, prostitution and human trafficking have created large fissures in the anti-human trafficking movement. Some consider that consensual prostitution is possible and see no problem with consenting adults agreeing to a paid sexual encounter. Others feel that prostitution is inherently degrading and exploitative and that the idea one could “choose” to prostitute is meaningless if there are no other viable and sustainable choices one could make. However, there is no need even to discuss the possibility of choice when we are talking about minor victims. The federal law (and most state laws, including North Carolina’s) removes the need to prove force, fraud or coercion in a situation where minors are involved. The law considers it impossible for minors to consent to a commercial sex act; thus, any minor involved in any kind of commercial sexual activity is a victim of sex trafficking and should be identified and treated accordingly.
The film addresses the incorrect (in my view) perception that legalizing prostitution is a useful option. As Leidholdt so eloquently noted, legalizing prostitution turns pimps and traffickers into legitimate business people and makes invisible the harm and violence done to trafficked and prostituted people. Additionally, the countries and regions that have legalized prostitution have seen an increase in prostitution and human trafficking.
The film discusses the Swedish approach, which many of us see as a potential best practice. Leidholdt and Farley both find this model to have great potential. As many of you know, the model criminalizes the buyer, decriminalizes the “seller,” and offers necessary services to people engaged in commercial sexual activity. The evidence suggests that this has reduced both prostitution and human trafficking in Sweden, although advocates acknowledge that many traffickers have simply moved their business to other countries that are more hospitable; others question the validity of the claim of success, arguing that rather than reducing prostitution, it has been driven underground. This debate came up in the Q&A after the screening when an audience member asked why we don’t adopt that model in the US. I replied that I think it is a very promising approach and that many advocates are working to move us in that direction. However, the model is predicated on an understanding that commercial sexual activity is a human rights violation and antithetical to gender equity. That is not an understanding that is commonly shared across the United States.
There were several chilling moments in the film, including an interview with a former pimp, who noted that “anyone can control a woman’s body, but it takes a pimp to control her mind.” This man, and other commentators, discussed the highly systematic process of grooming and controlling prostituted women and girls. Other interviewees discussed the valorization of “pimp culture” as a very problematic aspect of our society which discourages people from seeing the harm that prostitution does to those enmeshed within it and to our communities.
The film is on a national tour, and UNC-Chapel Hill was only one of two sites in the state to host a screening. Thanks to the CAST co-chairs Caitlin Dixon and Stephen Bishop and other CAST members who planned and managed this event. Thanks to UNC alum Otilia Enica, who started the process last year in her final semester as CAST co-chair. Thanks to Christie Arnold and Elyse Elder who staffed the Carolina Women’s Center table at the event. And, a special thanks to our co-panelists – Dave Dawson and Jack Moore from the FBI and Andrew Castle from World Relief. Earlier yesterday afternoon, Dave also presented a wonderfully comprehensive training at UNC Health Care for our local SANEs and other health care and service providers.
If you’d like to learn more about human trafficking in general, or anti-human trafficking work in North Carolina, please visit humantrafficking.unc.edu.