What I Learned about Human Trafficking from a Sci-Fi Sex Worker
When I streamed the 2002-2003 Joss Whedon series Firefly about ten years ago, I understood the spaceship crew that smuggled goods to maintain their independence from an inegalitarian interplanetary government, but I was uncomfortable with the presence of a sex worker among them. Inara Serra held the title of Companion: a state-licensed, guild-trained, freelancing sex worker. She leased a private shuttle on the ship Serenity and shared in the crew’s life on the outskirts of the realm. I was grateful to have my prejudice challenged and to learn to respect the basic human dignity of a woman whose chosen career path was not one I would choose for myself.
Last year, when the U.S. Congress passed the Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act of 2017 (FOSTA, which incorporated elements of the bill Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act of 2017, SESTA), I liked the idea of holding internet platforms accountable for preventing sex trafficking by users, but I did not fully understand its implications. After reading the perspectives of lawmakers, religious leaders, tech industry and non-profit administrators, and sex workers, my takeaway was that while the original intent of this law was good, many online platforms responded by removing sites or features that might be used for legal, consensual encounters between people. This made it more difficult for sex workers to vet potential clients and harder for law enforcement to find trafficking victims and prosecute perpetrators. I noted that these real-world actions led away from fictional Inara’s guaranteed rights to screen her clients and to blacklist individuals who were abusive.
Local and national laws vary in how they define and address sex work. Most legislation refers to sew work as brothels, solicitation, and street prostitution but generally does not apply to escort services, massage parlors, and strip clubs.
Buying rather than selling sex is illegal in several countries, including France, South Africa, Sweden, Sudan, and Vietnam. This means that the individual who purchases sex is criminalized while the sex worker is not. The International Union of Sex Workers has observed more harm than good from these sex buyer laws: enforcement “increased the risks to which prostitutes were exposed including providing sex without a condom; working in more isolated locations; having less time to assess potential clients or agree prices, boundaries, safe sex and other limits; and finding themselves in situations they would have declined if they had more time to make a decision.”
Methods of decriminalization that allow the selling of sex are diverse, but they usually involve registration and mandatory medical examinations of individual sex workers and regulation of brothels. Here are a few examples:
Since the 1940s, some Mexican states have allowed cities to designate zones for commercial sex. In Tuxtla in the state of Chiapas, the zone established in 1992 has registered sex workers who commute to and rent rooms in buildings owned by private landlords on city-owned land guarded by municipal police. This system, however, did not prevent the problems sex workers shared with scholar Patty Kelly: continuing poverty, social marginalization, and difficulty in changing their form of employment.
In Mexico, sex worker registration mandates frequent screenings for HIV/AIDS and sexually transmitted infections. RedTraSex, a network of current and former sex workers who advocate for their human rights and labor rights in Latin America and the Caribbean, notes that such tests violate privacy rights and that positive test results can lead to severe penalties, including imprisonment.
The Netherlands legalized sex work in 2000, creating a system of licensure for brothels and increasing the penalties for exploitation. However, the working conditions of sex workers did not improve, whether they were self-employed or in brothels. Preventing sex trafficking has also been hindered because police lack resources to enforce licensing as well as monitor and investigate non-licensed commercial sex.
In 2003, New Zealand's Prostitution Reform Act decriminalized sex work, certified brothels, and ensured protections of human rights and occupational health and safety for sex workers. The New Zealand Prostitutes Collective praised this comprehensive approach because it “protected the rights, health and welfare of sex workers, protected them from exploitation, and allowed them to report violence without fear of action by the police against them or their clients.”
In Turkey, sex work has been legal since 1923. This form of employment is licensed and taxed as are the state-regulated brothels. Nevertheless, mayors and other officials have limited licenses and closed or demolished legal brothels over the past 12 years, and sex workers have struggled to find other opportunities.
In Firefly, prostitution without licenses and outside the guild mirrored illegal sex work in the real world. Sex workers are more vulnerable to violence from clients, abuse from police, and discrimination from doctors and landlords when their form of labor is criminalized. It is important to remember that not all sex workers are trafficked into this industry. Some adults choose these jobs without coercion or deception in order to make a living through consensual prostitution. Because I care more about people’s well-being than about my preferences, I would like to see laws that ensure sex work is held to the human rights standards of other industries.
About the Author
With undergraduate majors in piano and Spanish from Vanderbilt University, and a Ph.D. in composition from Stony Brook University, Krystal J. F. Grant uses her music and words to reckon with society's brokenness. Her passion for fair-trade fashion led her to Dressember, and her childhood in Alabama guides her commitment to freedom throughout the world. She and her husband enjoy visiting museums and National Parks, or just making popcorn and watching anime at home.