Ruby is one of those coworkers whose life endlessly perplexes me. When I first started at my club, I recognized her as one of the veteran dancers — her sales skills are a force to be reckoned with. It was also clear to me that she had a few illegal side hustles going but was smart about who was privy to them. When I got to know her a little better, she was anything but shy about it. What she continues to be shy about is something that got around to me via club gossip anyway: Ruby has been in the sex industry since she was in her mid-teens, lives with her pimp and 10 other women and is essentially never let outside her house. Her pimp also keeps her from getting a driver’s license, regularly checks her Internet history and takes all of the money she makes while at work.
Most of the dancers I know have promising careers they’re working toward or a partner who will support them if they decide to leave the industry. But for Ruby, I can’t see a sustainable future. Even though I feel like something should be done about her situation, I don’t know the best course of action. Unfortunately, there are many people and organizations that feel like they know exactly what would help someone like Ruby even though their interventions often cause more harm than good.
One of the main problems with NGOs and other organizations that seek to rescue people from the alleged horrors of the sex industry, is that they almost invariably conflate all sex work with violence. Part of the confusion stems from the difference between the legal definition of sex trafficking and the mainstream conception of the term.
Legally, sex trafficking means everything from asking a friend to do a double show for a client, asking someone to stand guard in another room while seeing a client, to even putting up an online ad for one’s own sexual services. Colloquially, sex trafficking is when an innocent child — usually a girl — is forced to be a sex worker and an evil monster of a person collects the money for it.
The danger of this mindset becomes clear when it influences our legislature and law enforcement: Authorities think they already know what it means to be a sex worker, so they’re less likely to listen to what sex workers actually say. They simply act on the advice of outside “experts” and remain unaware of the very real negative implications their actions can have on the safety of sex workers.
Dr. Laura Augustín, author of “Sex at the Margins,” calls groups trying to “save” sex workers “the rescue industry.” Our own local branch of said rescue industry showed its face in February when the Division of Occupational Safety and Health Standards Board of the California Department of Industrial Relations met to discuss an amendment to its Blood Pathogens Standard. The amendment was sponsored by the AIDS Healthcare Foundation, a charity organization unassociated with the sex industry, which originally made the proposal in 2009.
For porn studios, the amendment would have meant that for every adult video shot in California, actors would have to wear condoms, get tested for STIs every 30 days instead of the industry standard already in place that requires a test every two weeks, wear goggles or face shields if bodily fluids were to come in contact with their face, as well as wear rubber gloves in each shot. By making films laughably unsellable to an audience looking to fulfill mainstream fantasies, these laws would have driven reputable porn studios out of California. Those who couldn’t afford to move states would be forced to take their work underground, a place where they would no longer have to conform to any laws or safety regulations.
When the AIDS Healthcare Foundation proposed this amendment, not only did it nearly make life extremely difficult and less safe for sex workers in porn, it also garnered a large amount of publicity and as a result, increased donations for the organization. This could be a case of well-meaning but misguided efforts to spread sexual safety, but given that this same organization is currently undergoing an investigation for allegedly engaging in a $20 million scam, the integrity of its intentions seems questionable.
Relying on people and organizations outside of the sex industry to be experts and saviors is flawed — too often it can lead to selling sensationalist stories for their own profit at the cost of sex workers’ safety and quality of life. When this harmful “saving” is exported outside of the U.S., the implications can be even more dire.
In 2008, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof traveled to Cambodia to accompany local police and the Somaly Mam Foundation — an international anti-prostitution NGO — on a brothel raid, live tweeting the entire experience. His sensationalized account of the events that transpired and his lack of coverage on any other kind of sex work implied to his readers that all sex work looks like the worst case scenario. It also suggested that the raid was the proper course of action, something that would ensure the future safety of the sex workers involved. Not only was Kristof’s story later debunked, the raids are generally far from the best thing for Cambodian sex workers.
When Melissa Gira Grant, a former sex worker and author of “Playing the Whore,” visited Cambodian brothels at their invitation, she knew not to show up with cameras and police. She found out the much darker truth behind the aftermath of most brothel raids: Instead of being taken to safety, many of the workers rounded up are detained for months without trial in facilities lacking any sort of waste removal system. Many report being regularly assaulted by authorities while detained, those who are HIV positive are denied antiretroviral medication and some witness other sex workers beaten to death by guards. Supporting and participating in raids is often the opposite of saving sex workers.
Reports like Kristof’s that only show one side of sex work and fail to investigate further or report on other angles of sex work as Grant did are partially to blame for the societal view of sex workers as two-dimensional characters, unrelatable to the average citizen. These characters are only known as disembodied legs and silhouettes on billboards — people used as tools to perpetuate someone else’s agenda.
It’s no surprise, then, that when sex workers do speak out publicly on our own behalf, we are rarely taken seriously. Instead of focusing on what we say, people like Thomas Fuller of the New York Times write ridiculous, offensive articles that make a sexist satire out of our most serious actions.
The rescue industry that surrounds sex work is a consistently harmful force to those whom it intends to help. It perpetuates the stigma surrounding our jobs, making it more difficult for those of us who aren’t being harmed by the industry to help those who actually are in a bad place. Until the stigma that the rescue industry perpetuates is gone, people like Ruby will remain beyond rescue.