Notes from the Sex Trafficking/Prostitution Survivor Movement: Sex Trafficking Liberation Radio, Host: Mary Jones
Episode 1 of a New Survivor-Led Radio Series: Aired on Pacifica Radio KPFT– Fri, March 7, 2014
Mary Jones (MJ): Hi my name is Mary Jones and you’re listening to Sex Trafficking Liberation. With March being Women’s History Month and March 8th being International Women’s Day, we’re taking an in depth look into the global sex trade industry, along with the global push for the Nordic model. On Tuesday March 4th I spoke with Holly Sorensen, a member of Sex Trafficking Survivors United (STSU). Holly has been involved since the inception of STSU and active in the struggle for over ten years. Holly interfaces with over 200 sex trafficking survivors who are part of the survivor movement, giving her insight and understanding of the pulse of what survivors are feeling.
Recently a leaked document, revealed by reporter Julie Bindel, revealed Amnesty UK’s intention to decriminalize all aspects of prostitution, including pimping, brothel keeping and demand, meaning the buying and selling of humans for sex. Amnesty UK has stated, “the final decision on the policy will be made by the movement’s international board informed by the consultation activity undertaken by Amnesty offices around the world.” At the same time globally there is a strong push for the Swedish model, also known as the Nordic model of prostitution laws, which punishes the buyers of the prostituted along with those profiting off the selling of humans for sex, and decriminalizes those being bought and sold for sex. The Nordic model passed in 1999 in Sweden, later in Norway and Iceland. France’s National Assembly recently passed a bill in support of the model, and Ireland is very close to adopting similar laws. Here is my conversation with Holly Sorensen:
MJ: Welcome Holly. I appreciate you joining me today.
Holly Sorensen (HS): Its an honor to be here. I think this show is the beginning of something really important.
MJ: I hope so. Lets begin with a little bit about Sex Trafficking Survivors United and why you believe, as your mission statement reads, “We aim to unite and empower survivors. For when enough empowered survivors are speaking out, the sex industry will begin to be dismantled.
HS: I’m a member of Sex Trafficking Survivors United and we are an organization of sex trafficking/commercial sexual exploitation survivors — they are really the same thing. People who are in prostitution experience the force, fraud and coercion of sex trafficking but they are often categorized in a way where they can’t get help. This is something we are trying to change.
The first people who were really speaking out as groups with survivors were indigenous women. For the last twenty years or so years worldwide. Before this survivors were speaking out alone, and we would speak out, and then a bunch of crazy people, many of them pimps, some of them people who buy sex, would make it unbearable for us to speak out. So there was this history of survivors speaking out, and kind of going through an ordeal, and then finally having to stop in some way — except for a few really brave ones like Kristy Childs who founded Veronica’s Voice in Kansas City 14 years ago. But in India, in the Philippines and in North America, among the First Nations women, groups of these women have been speaking out against prostitution. Also groups of survivors in these communities have been speaking out. One such organization is The Aboriginal Women’s Action Network. We modeled ourselves so much on their work. They are extraordinary women. Not all of them are survivors but they were speaking out about the effects of colonialism and sexual exploitation on their communities. I really believe if we put indigenous women at the center of the abolitionist movement, and elevate their voices — where they should be — the public will understand the issue immediately and we will see fast change.
Some of these women from these indigenous groups, which also include Apne Aap in India, the Bagong Kamalayan Collective Inc. in the Philippines, Indigenous Women Against the Sex Industry in Vancouver, and the amazing http://www.SexTrade101.com in Toronto. Women from these groups encouraged survivors who weren’t indigenous to also unite, and they’ve been incredibly supportive and some have also joined us.
I really feel the impetus for survivors to organize came from indigenous women. We owe everything we are as an organization to their support of us and their example. We found that when we joined together it was easier for us to speak up.
The reason the sex industry is allowed to go on is because it propagates lies about prostitution and what it does to women, young men and children. But if enough survivors are speaking out, the truth will bring down all the lies. So that ultimately is our hope.
MJ: I imagine without the insider information of how the industry works it would be very hard for someone who knows nothing about it to see — even if they saw someone in prostitution on the street for instance they wouldn’t know who was running things, and how that all happened.
HS: Yes that’s absolutely true. Especially in the United States and Canada where there’s so much physical distance between people. A lot of people live in a suburban kind of situation. People are very detached from each other. Its very easy to live in a bubble where you don’t experience commercial sexual exploitation, you just see it packaged for you by the sex industry. Either on TV, or online, or maybe someone’s driving past a strip club and they notice it has a lot of colored lights. They don’t really see the horrible human rights violations that go on.
What’s kind of funny in the States is that we have an anti-trafficking movement, with some very well-intentioned people and some very good people in it, but they don’t actually know a lot of stuff about what really happens in sex trafficking. There are misconceptions that can be made, big mistakes that can have bad consequences on the people being trafficked.
For example in the United States there’s a big drive to act as though sex trafficking is something that happens separate from prostitution. That people choose prostitution — in fact we can arrest these people and give them criminal records. But that there are some sex trafficking victims, for some reason they are very hard to find. All the effort in the anti-trafficking movement is about finding these trafficking victims and identifying them. To someone who has actually survived sex trafficking — if it weren’t so sad this would be laughable.
Because all you have to do to find trafficking victims is look at prostitution. People in prostitution experience force, fraud and coercion on a daily basis. The problem is that we have such a teflon system of blaming the victim, and keeping these vulnerable marginalized victims of multiple crimes isolated so that they’re silenced. So we just accept that we’re criminalizing these victims, that we’re arresting them. Meanwhile we’re out there looking for a trafficking victim like its some kind of rare orchid. Its very tragic.
Now in Europe they have maturely and intellectually responsibly recognized that prostitution is what drives trafficking — not because its separate from it but because of the fact that people are trafficked through prostitution, that the people in prostitution are the victims of abuse — the vast vast vast majority — and that for all practical purposes sex trafficking and prostitution operate as the same thing.
Mary Honeyball, a politician in England who recently successfully advocated for the Nordic model in European parliament has said that she is convinced “no one chooses prostitution except, perhaps, an eccentric few. I would go further and I would say that those eccentric few who are “choosing prostitution” — what they’re talking about is really not what we are talking about. We’re talking about an abusive system where women are exploited by many men for profit — for someone else’s profit — or because the men (sex buyers) want that. We are not talking about a well-off 60-year old woman who says she is a ‘sex worker’ and sees one person a week supposedly.
MJ: Can you give us an idea of the routes and ways people are trafficked. What vulnerabilities do predators look for?
HS: The greatest vulnerability is being a person of color or a member of a colonized people — such as being a member of the First Nations in North America. The next vulnerability is great poverty.
Now a lot of people try to say that incredibly impoverished women choose prostitution. For me that’s a bit like saying someone who jumps out of a burning building “chooses” suicide. If you have a baby, and the baby is going to die of starvation, and your only “choice” is prostitution, you don’t really have a choice. A choice means you have an option of equal or greater value.
Those are the main routes to prostitution. Now there’s also all kinds of other vulnerabilities. Mental illness, for example, makes people especially vulnerable — such as, for example, bipolar disorder or being a victim of neglect or sexual abuse. I’ve noticed that a lot of survivors of sex trafficking tend to be nicer than the average person and kind of dreamy. These are wonderful qualities if you have a protective circle around you, but if you are among the wolves it makes you extremely vulnerable. Another tragic vulnerability is illness. I myself have a disabling illness and it made me extremely vulnerable to being trafficked.
MJ: Also, I would imagine, as you talk about mental health or mental illness, the medications that are often prescribed would make one very vulnerable. Sometimes it almost seems as though these institutions are somewhat complicit in the sex trade industry.
HS: That’s a very interesting point. I do think that the drug treatment industry has some complicity — in that its often framed that drug abuse causes prostitution. In fact for most people in prostitution — they don’t go into prostitution because of drug addiction. Drugs become a way to handle the prostitution. Or they are given drugs by the people trafficking them to make them pliable.
There’s this whole cycle of bright young things being chewed up by the sex industry and becoming more and more hardcore drug addicts as time goes on. Because its the only way anyone with a soul could endure what they go through every day in prostitution.
At first you have a bunch of pimps, many likely connected with organized crime, profiting off these women and young men, and as they get older and their drug problem starts to show in the way they look and they way they act — they aren’t making as much money for their exploiters. So along comes a new group of people — who are drug dealers — who basically do another kind of pimping of these women. Where they sell these women drugs, and then the women have to go be prostituted. So I do feel that the drug treatment industry, the psychiatric pharmaceutical industry have a responsibility to acknowledge the role of trauma in drug addiction and prostitution/sex trafficking. And yes, a lot of psychiatric meds make people vulnerable, as do pain meds. It can make them sitting ducks. In our group of survivors we see a lot of this.
MJ: Now you’ve been deeply involved in the current campaign challenging Amnesty UK. In light of this leaked proposal calling for complete decriminalization of all aspects of the sex trade industry. This was a leaked document by Julie Bindel, and reported by her in an article in the Daily Mail, “An Abject Inversion of Its Own Principles.” For many of us this news was shocking and clearly most were unaware of Amnesty International’s plans. Can you situate for us the progression of these insights — from your viewpoint?
HS: Sure. I need to provide a caveat which is that I don’t live in England. Most of what I know I know from my friends over there who are involved, including the survivor community, or from what I’ve read in the news and online.
Basically — Amnesty International was involved with one of the biggest pimps in Northern England. He joined Amnesty UK and Amnesty Manchester, and he tried to get the sex trade involved. When we say “sex trade” one needs to understand we’re talking about people who profit off the prostitution of others. So this pimp tried to get Amnesty to adopt a resolution supporting the complete decriminalization of all aspects of prostitution, so that they would be promoting what we have right now in Amsterdam and Germany. Where brothels are legal, escort agencies are legal. Being in prostitution when you are not in an approved location may not be legal. There is a lot of profit being made off of prostitution.
Now supposedly that resolution failed, and Amnesty has said they didn’t know he was a pimp. However, there was a very popular documentary called the Escort Agency on British television. It was the cover subject of several tabloid newspapers, which many people would have seen on their way to the Underground, so Amnesty obviously didn’t do their due diligence before they started working with this guy.
The proposal that he worked with Amnesty on in 2008 had all the same things in it that Amnesty’s current prostitution proposal document has. I don’t know — may be its just me — but if I was a big human rights organization and I found out I was working with a pimp, and I had drafted policy with him — I would maybe want to change that policy. Because I would think maybe there was a conflict of interest.
This has caused a big controversy, really internationally, within the Human Rights movement and Amnesty has become very defensive. They’ve said he (the pimp) wasn’t involved in writing their policy, but its exactly like the policy he wrote. So they didn’t feel the need to change anything apparently. So that’s what’s going on. There’s been a lot of protest of that.
MJ: Actually, once this report was leaked — very quickly the Invisible Men project on twitter put together a campaign with the hash tag #QuestionsForAmnesty. Talk a little bit about that campaign ..
HS: Yeah. Its a wonderful campaign. Amnesty obviously was feeling the heat because they have denied that Douglas Fox, this millionaire pimp featured in a popular reality television show — they’ve denied that he was involved in their current prostitution policy. Many survivors and abolitionists worldwide are just heartbroken and shocked that Amnesty is suggesting what they are suggesting in this document. They suggest, for example, that the ability to buy sex is an important human right. As survivors of sex trafficking and commercial sexual exploitation we know that this means all the crimes against us become invisible. Its like a complete inversion of their principles, which is the title of an article the great reporter Julie Bindel wrote, and she was the one who broke the story.
So in this campaign people are using the hash tag #QuestionsforAmnesty and it has generated a lot of activity on Twitter. What’s especially great about this campaign, I believe, is that there’s a level of depth and intellectual rigor addressing the questions around human rights activity and prostitution which I have not seen anywhere else, except maybe in France and the recent initiative in the European Union regarding the Nordic model. People are confronting the issue head on. They’re not afraid to ask the hard questions. Which of course we must be asking. Prostitution and sex trafficking — its the heart of darkness, the heart of abuse. You cannot address this issue without people who are very nasty getting very upset with you. Because you are interfering with their profits, and you’re interfering with the psychopathy which says its OK to commoditize people and put them in a situation where they must be having sex with many men a day that they don’t want. So I really recommend this audience go check out hash tag #QuestionsforAmnesty on Twitter. And the Invisible Men Project, who started it, is wonderful. Please look into their work too.
MJ: Sex Trafficking Survivors United stated in their open letter to Amnesty International, “The general public understands, and as survivors we know, that commercial sexual exploitation is controlled by organized crime. Amnesty’s proposal will only strengthen organized crime’s hold on the exploited and vulnerable communities worldwide.” Can you talk about these realities as you understand them?
HS: Well organized crime is often the elephant in the living room that no one will mention when they talk about prostitution and human rights, and when they talk about sex trafficking. In this country (USA) its almost never discussed. Even though the image of people being trafficked from other countries into the US requires some kind of organized crime narrative. Somehow it all disappears, once they get here and everyone acts like it doesn’t link up with US organized crime, which of course it does. The public knows organized crime controls prostitution. They’ve known this for centuries. So we really need to talk about it. We need to say yes this is the elephant in the living room on this issue. And once you start thinking about organized crime so much of the activity around quote unquote “human rights” and prostitution, and around sex trafficking begins to make sense and become clearer.
MJ: One of the debates critical to legislation and upcoming votes on policy such as at Amnesty UK center around beliefs about sex trafficking and prostitution. One belief: They are interlinking — that is, where there is prostitution traffickers will bring humans to be sold for sex. There’s kind of the suggestion there’s the real victims — who are sold by traffickers, and the prostituted who are not victims and are there by choice. The second belief is that to be prostituted is to be sex trafficked. Ultimately and hopefully some day the appropriate word will be used, which is sex trafficking instead of prostitution. Can you help us understand these debates?
HS: Certainly. The side which says sex trafficking and prostitution exist completely separate from each other is merely a cover. Its merely a front to try to keep prostitution going. Because you can’t separate them.
I believe what happened is that with the breakup of the Soviet Union there was a flood of white women into prostitution in much greater numbers. Now there’s always been so many women of color in prostitution, because of racism. Unfortunately because of systems of oppression somehow that was accepted. So when the middle, upper middle class started seeing all these blue-eyed white girls (in prostitution) they realized something was going on. Because of this NGOs and governments recognized that there was serious organized crime involvement and it was coercive.
I believe the term “sex trafficking” is merely an awakening to the reality of what prostitution is. The UN definition of sex trafficking, which was ratified by the UN General Assembly, which is really significant because it means they voted on it … all these countries voted to accept this definition: Sex trafficking exists if there’s force, fraud of coercion involved. And if any of those things are involved, it doesn’t matter if it seems like the person is consenting to it. That’s really just common sense isn’t it? If you threaten to hurt someone’s grandmother, and then she acts like she’s going along with you, how can anyone say she’s consenting? Because she’s afraid you’re going to hurt someone she loves. It’s just common sense.
But of course, people who can make a lot of money off of exploiting people in prostitution really are upset about this (definition of trafficking). So they keep trying to frame it as though prostitution and sex trafficking are completely separate. This problem has been compounded by the fact that it’s very easy to raise money if you act like sex trafficking is different from prostitution, if you act as though a blonde upper middle class girl can be kidnapped from her driveway and trafficked. I’m not saying that never happens but its different than what you see in your city, in areas where there’s either a lot of street prostitution, or strip clubs or brothels or what you see in the major hotels where a lot of prostitution is going on. But prostitution and sex trafficking really are not different. The only difference is that when we say sex trafficking we see the victim as a human being like ourselves, when we say prostitution we think it involves someone who is not like us.
MJ: I think also what’s hard for people to understand is the relationship between the person selling — usually a pimp — understanding that relationship….There’s a term called “Romeo pimping.” This is now understand as one of the number one ways of trafficking, Romeo pimps. So this is a person who will court — usually a woman, but a male as well — and a relationship develops and eventually he will be selling her. And she’s doing it based on her love for him. I don’t think people understand that.
HS: I think you’re correct. A lot of people don’t understand that because its such an inversion of what love is supposed to be. But we understand domestic violence and abuse, where someone takes something beautiful like love, or marriage, or a relationship and twists it. And controls the woman within that. Romeo pimps do the same sort of thing. It can seem like the person in prostitution likes the guy who’s pimping her. But she is really in a tragic abusive situation. She has been completely isolated by him and also by people he might be working with to exploit her. There’s often this image that pimps are working completely alone but there’s always a group of people who are profiting, in one way or another, off someone who is being exploited in prostitution. You know, a Romeo pimp might send a woman to work for an organized crime pimp he knows, to work in his club, there’s a lot of overlap going on.
But people can say, “Well, it’s her boyfriend, they just want to do that…” and the sex industry loves to perpetuate these myths. But in this country (US) we’ve said its a crime to hit your wife and terrorize her in her home, even though she married you and is living with you. We need to be saying the same thing about Romeo pimping.
MJ: As quickly as this story has leaked, about Amnesty UK, what was also brought to light with rapid speed was the involvement of Douglas Fox, which we spoke about earlier, by MLA DUP Jim Wells. Regarding Douglas Fox, Wells stated to Amnesty UK, “So you allowed the largest pimp in the northwest of England to have input into your policy document.” Amnesty, as we discussed, as gone to great lengths to distance themselves from Douglas Fox. Can you give us an overall understanding of how pimping, organized crime, humanitarian agencies, and government agencies can often be interlinked? We’ve been given the tools here, by watching what’s happened in Ireland: How they’ve exposed this.
HS: Before the survivor movement there was a lot of uncertainty and unknowns about trafficking. So a pimp or madam (which is just a female pimp) could say, “Hey, I’m a ‘sex worker’ and I want full legalization of prostitution.” There wouldn’t be anyone else who had actually been exploited speaking against the pimp — because they were afraid of repercussions. So this whole system of so-called ‘advocacy’ was developed – and there are a lot of big organizations and big funders who actually fund people who are in favor of the complete decriminalization of big time pimping. By that I mean legal brothels and big legal escort agencies. Now why is that? Gee, if prostitution’s legal, they can make a lot more money than if it’s illegal. We end up with situations where there’s lots of conflicts of interest going on.
So the beauty of what happened in Northern Ireland is that Jim Wells and the government he’s part of were actually doing their job. They weren’t afraid to point out that they couldn’t help but notice that someone who was exploiting other people was speaking for them, and that that was wrong. We need to be doing that in this country. In North America we really aren’t doing that at all. In fact people don’t even really talk about organized crime here. They don’t really even care very much about how credible what they are doing is, in many organizations. There are situations where former madams are presenting themselves as survivors, and are being honored as survivors. It’s a mess. And it’s really easy for it not to be. People just have to act ethically and responsibly.
There’s some great organizations like Equality Now… fabulous organizations like the European Women’s Lobby… that are really being ethical and responsible. These organizations are using a lot of intellectual rigor to approach the problem. The rest need to catch up with them, especially in this country.
MJ: Now in June 2013 Lord Morris Morrow brought the Human Trafficking and Exploitation bill, that we are alluding to, before the Northern Ireland assembly. It would see sex purchasers criminalized, rather than those who are bought and sold for sex. The committee issued a call for evidence from interested parties on both sides, who are either for or against this. A lot of amazing evidence and information has come through these testimonies, some of it revealing the intricacies of the sex trade industry. During recent questioning of PSNI, which is the Police Service of Northern Ireland, MLA DUP Jim Wells addressed Clause Six, one of the areas most contested in most discussions about policy around the sex trade industry, which is criminalizing demand. Jim Wells stated the PSNI were receiving recommendation to oppose criminalizing demand, from “the largest prostitution website, run by Peter McCormick and Mark McCormick… I will say it again, Peter McCormick and Mark McCormick. They have been prosecuted and convicted, and they are both perfectly open about what they do.” Can you talk more about this?
HS: Well they’ve been prosecuted and convicted of being pimps. Owning multiple brothels at multiple locations — at least Peter McCormick – with links to organized crime. So what happened in Northern Ireland is you had organized crime-affiliated pimps — it seems, I can only say it seems — lobbying against legislation that would reduce the demand for prostitution which would reduce the profits for pimps and would help prevent people from experiencing the violence of sex trafficking — which is what happens to people in prostitution.
It makes a lot of sense from organized crime’s standpoint to be trying to lobby against laws that would limit its profits. What is remarkable about what happened in Northern Ireland is that people actually addressed this. They had the guts to actually stand up to the cops. Who were listening to these men (convicted pimps), and following their advice. And the police, the PSNI, actually changed their position when they were called on the carpet by their government. You don’t see that in the United States. And it has to start. Survivors demand transparency and accountability in the anti-trafficking movement. There are many good police officers who care deeply and want to help us and we love them for that. At the same time the anti-trafficking movement needs to do its due diligence and behave in an ethical and transparent manner, as does the US government, questioning whether or not organizations are what they say they are. Its really easy to figure it out if you just look at what’s in front of you. But no one really did it with any guts until Northern Ireland. Well, it happened in the Republic of Ireland too. People in the government there acknowledged pimps were funding campaigns to prevent the government from doing the right thing (re sex trafficking/prostitution).
Survivors support the Nordic model legislation — which means you never criminalize the people who are in prostitution themselves, but you hold the men who are buying sex accountable with charges or DUI type fines, which should then go to fund services to help people exit prostitution. And you criminalize all pimping. Survivors are very much in favor of this model, but only if this model also provides help for people to exit prostitution. Prostitution is a tremendously devastating and traumatizing thing. I have close friends who suffer from fatal illnesses which they acquired as a result of prostitution, which have really limited their lives. It (sex trafficking/prostitution) creates huge holes in peoples’ biographies, in terms of education and work experience. People really need help dealing with the effect its had on their lives. The truth is there are a lot of rich, usually powerful men who are creating this devastation by demanding to buy sex. We need to help people out of this abusive system — and treat them as though they are actually a member of society and we want them back. So survivors will only support end demand legislation when it will also support and fund services to help people exit prostitution. Otherwise people in prostitution might experience it as something that could hurt their livelihood without providing them with any other meaningful options. We need to keep an eye on the victims of this terrible crime, and be helping them – not just making laws without being victim-centered.
MJ: And if you “get” that it’s torture, I think then a lot of these discussions — they distract us. Like is it “consent?” or conversations around age. None of that would really be brought up if people understood that to be trafficked is to be tortured — given what goes on. You know ten to fifteen men you’ve never met are using your body every day…for years on end. Studies have shown that survivors — and there’s very few, because there’s very few survivors actually. Most die — 34 years of age is the average life span, and the number one cause of death is murder. But those who do survivor live with extreme levels of PTSD — at the same rates as state-sponsored torture.
HS: Yes there was a peer-reviewed study, and then many follow up studies, which show people in prostitution experience the same levels of trauma as the victims of state-sponsored torture. Their levels of trauma were actually higher than soldiers suffering from PTSD. So the effects of prostitution were equivalent with the effects of state sponsored torture. And if you’ve been there it’s no surprise to you. You’re like, “Well yeah, tell me something I don’t know. Because what I was experiencing would be called torture in any other setting, in any other environment.” Its only because the sex industry wants to hide this that people aren’t more aware of it. One thing a lot of survivors are frustrated with is that we know if we were all allowed to sit with a group of people in government and tell them about our lives, and explain to them exactly what we experienced, they would feel the truth of what we were talking about. They would understand it and the world would never be the same. People would not be trying to keep prostitution by saying its a choice. People would understand it was a human rights emergency. But for some reason we are always talked over. Or maybe a little bit of our words get out, but the power of us all coming together is resisted. We really think that must change.
MJ: I think where some of the problem lies also is in the conflation of sex with being sex trafficked. The arguments being that just because money is involved, that makes it that….
HS: That’s a brilliant point. I mean it’s natural — people shouldn’t feel bad that they make this mistake, we all tend to try understand others’ experiences with our own experiences. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. For example, some people think that being sex trafficked is kind of like … “maybe it would be like a one night stand … or maybe it would be like being with my boyfriend but I never met him until that night.” You know whatever their experience of sex is, they will connect that with prostitution/sex trafficking. The sex industry banks on this because then they are able to confuse people about the reality of it. So that it can seem like its an issue of sexual freedom for people in prostitution, when actually prostitution is the opposite of sexual freedom. It’s sexual slavery because you don’t get to choose who you are with, or what you do. You are with someone more powerful than you, and if you’re a woman …. Men are just bigger and stronger than women. It’s a fact, and that’s a huge huge factor in the physical damage caused by being sex trafficked. It’s the opposite of freedom but people conflate it with their own experience. And because of this they can believe all this baloney about it. You know, the story of the happy hooker, or the story of the person who loves being in “sex work.” Because they don’t know any better. They’re creating a little tableau in their imagination which has nothing to do with the truth.
MJ: What is often left out of this conversation is the grooming process, the breaking down of a person. So these questions, is it “consensual” or is it sex trafficking…. The person is no longer the person they once were, who would be able to consent ….
HS: Yes. That’s a very important point. There is lots of medical research that shows trauma changes your brain. It changes the physical structure of your brain. It puts you in a fight, flight or freeze mode. For some reason we humans have not evolved a society that effectively deals with the experience of trauma. So we can get stuck, our brains can change as an effect of trauma. So what happens is your hippocampus, which is where narrative memory is formed in your brain, shrinks. When that happens your ability to speak about your life is actually limited. You lose that ability. Your world becomes more experiential.
I remember it personally as time actually felt like it changed. Each minute actually became much wider because I was exquisitely aware of every possible threat in every possible area. I was on alert because at any moment while I was being sex trafficked in prostitution, I might be murdered, I might be beat up. My mind permanently created this alert. So when you’re in this state, you can’t think “Gee, I’d like to apply for a scholarship to this college”… you’re not in that condition. When you’re in this (traumatized) state … it’s very easy to take advantage of people when they’re in this state. You know evolutionarily it probably helped people survive which is why we have to deal with it as human beings. But the way our society is structured — it’s very easy to take advantage of traumatized people. So in commercial sexual exploitation you basically have an industry that breaks and traumatizes people routinely, blames them for their own victimization, and then uses the effects of the traumatization to control them. Now medically these effects are very obvious. You can look at brain scans and see what’s going on.
MJ: I think its important to take a look at the Nordic model, because that’s a big part of where we see solutions. Talk about it from the macro and the micro.
HS: The Macro of the Nordic model is very inspiring, and again — the sex industry works overtime to make people think that facts I’m about to tell you aren’t true. The Nordic model has criminalized buying sex, criminalized being a pimp, but it never criminalized people in prostitution themselves, those being sold for sex, while at the same time providing all kinds of social supports to help people exit prostitution, recover from the trauma and help them create the meaningful lives they want for themselves. It was passed in 1999 in Sweden, and since then trafficking in Sweden has been reduced exponentially. There are less than half the number of people in prostitution than there used to be in Sweden before the law. It’s been a wild success. The law has also been passed in Norway and Iceland. it’s being considered now in Denmark, Ireland and Northern Ireland. It’s passed in the French National Assembly and beautifully, just this week the European Parliament passed a resolution by a huge majority, 343 to 129, recommending the Nordic model to EU states, including the funding for social supports to help people recover from the trauma, exit prostitution, and build the meaningful lives they want.
So the Nordic model is sweeping the world and there’s lots of hard evidence to back up that it’s the best way to deal with this horrible system of exploitation which inflicts suffering, disproportionately on women, but also on young men and marginalized LGBT youth. When it comes to sex trafficking/prostitution, why is anyone talking about anything but this, right? The United States again needs to catch up. It’s been phenomenally successful. At first police in Sweden were against it – just because it was different, and they didn’t want to have to be arresting men buying sex. But now they have become believers in how effective it is, and they are invested, with pride, in seeing how these women in prostitution are able to go on and create meaningful lives for themselves free of abuse.
The Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland are both likely to pass it this year. And yesterday in the UK an interparty group of members of Parliament introduced a bill proposing similar legislation. So its a beautiful thing to see it begin to sweep the world. With each victory it will become less and less justifiable for anti-trafficking organizations and governments to be suggesting any other legislation around prostitution and sex trafficking.
Let me give you a powerful statistic. Since the Nordic model passed in Sweden once woman in prostitution was murdered. It’s terrible, but its important to know she was actually murdered by her partner and they were involved in a custody dispute. She was not murdered in prostitution under the Nordic model. During the same time frame at least 127 people in prostitution in the Netherlands were murdered. Its likely there were more, because there are many people trafficked in with no record. Now the Netherlands has a population of approximately 16 million. Sweden has a population of almost ten million. So the Netherland has around 1.66 times the population of Sweden. If the prostitution murder statistics were the same, there should have been 1.66 murders in the Netherlands, for every murder in Sweden — of people in prostitution. But instead there were 127. Its irresponsible to be discussing any legislation but the Nordic model. That’s the Macro picture.
The Micro picture: When I was a young woman in prostitution who was sex trafficked and abused it was very hard for me to understand what was happening to me. And one of the hardest things for me was knowing that everywhere I was — people knew. They knew I was in prostitution. They knew bad things were happening to me and somehow society was agreeing to it. Society was acquiescing. Society had put its stamp of approval on this abuse happening to me. Whether it was the rich powerful men who were buying me, whether it was the cops who saw me, in the streets or as buyers. Whether it was … you know … anyone — no one seemed to care.
In addition to having a devastating social impact, the legalization of pimping and buying sex sends a terrible message to people in prostitution. It says its OK that this is happening to you. When I was in that life Madonna’s song “Like a Prayer” was very popular and that became kind of a talisman for me. The song has a line, “I hear you call my name, and it feels -like- home. I wanted a home. I wanted to feel like I belonged somewhere. That’s why I loved that song so much. A genius of the Nordic model is that it’s telling people in prostitution “You belong with us. We don’t want you exploited, we don’t want you abused by our men. We don’t want profiteers to be making money off you while they threaten you. We want you to be part of society, and part of us. We want this to feel like home for you.”
Another one of my talismans …. I was kind of a dreamy girl like a lot of survivors I know. I loved poetry and music, and I wrote things down in my diary sometimes…. It kept echoing in my mind … a poem by William Blake called The Sick Rose. It echoed in my mind the way you hear sirens in the distance in the city. I realize now I was trying so hard to understand what was happening to me. I was in a system that blamed me for the abuse of people who were richer and more powerful than me. So this poem was trying to tell me what was happening to me. The Sick Rose by William Blake, it begins:
Oh Rose though art sick
The invisible worm
That flies in the night
In the howling storm
Has found out thy bed
Of crimson joy
And his dark secret love
Does thy life destroy.
A lot of us have seen a rose with a worm in it, and although the rose is sick, there’s no question: It’s not the fault of the rose. It’s the fault of something that’s happened to the rose, or been done to the rose. This is a beautiful poem on so many levels, but I realize now that part of the reason that poem was such a talisman for me was that it was a way for me to understand what was happening to me. That it wasn’t my fault. Something dark and invisible — that howled in the storm and came to me in secret – had hurt me and changed who I was.
The beauty of the Nordic model is that it recognizes that people in prostitution, sex trafficked people, are being abused and its not their fault they’re being victimized. We cannot blame them. We need to recognize that something bad is happening to them and give them the power to see and speak to that. To not feel they have to pretend that it was their fault, or not speak out about what they experienced. So I believe that on a personal level, as well as on a grand social scale, the Nordic model is exceptionally powerful. It has a special genius no other solution I’ve seen has.
MJ: I really appreciate so much your taking the time to give us such an intricate and in depth insight into this industry and what can be done. I’d like to end this with understanding what you might recommend to anyone listening to this show, first, in relation to Amnesty UK, because they have an upcoming consultation on this policy for complete decriminalization of all aspects of the industry. What can our listeners do to have some kind of influence or say on this policy?
The most important thing is to write Amnesty and tell them you aren’t stupid, you understand that it isn’t really not supporting people’s human rights to allow big-time legal brothel owners and big-time escort agency owners to exploit them. That this is making the violence invisible and that you aren’t going to stand for Amnesty doing this. You know a lot of people think that no one cares about people who are sex trafficked and in prostitution. But I don’t believe that’s true, I believe there’s a lot of care out there. So please let Amnesty know. Go to their website. Write them.
MJ: Thank you so much for your time Holly.
HS: Thank you for having me. It’s been an honor to speak with you.
Copyright 2013 by Sex Trafficking Survivors United