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Elizabeth Nolan Brown joins us this week for a discussion about sex work. What’s the difference between sex trafficking and prostitution?

Elizabeth Nolan Brown joins us this week for a discussion about sex work. What’s the difference between sex trafficking and prostitution? How much sex trafficking is going on in the United States?

Show Notes and Further Reading

Much of Brown’s work at Reason focuses on sex work, here’s a reverse‐​chronological list of all the articles she’s written there.

We talked in detail about Brown’s September 2016 Reason cover story, “The Truth About the Biggest U.S. Sex Trafficking Story of the Year.”



Trevor Burrus: Welcome to Free Thoughts. I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: And I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: Joining us today is Elizabeth Nolan Brown, an associate editor for Rea​son​.com. Welcome back to Free Thoughts, Liz.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Thanks for having me.
Trevor Burrus: What is sex trafficking?
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: That depends I guess if you mean in the popular conception or under the law, under the federal law.
Trevor Burrus: Choose which one or [00:00:30] maybe both.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: I think when people think sex trafficking they think at the most extreme but I think they tend to think toward the most extremes. They tend to think people that are being held physically that are either kept in a room or kept in bondage and that have been maybe abducted or tricked into it, that are being threatened, that are being maybe physically abused …
Trevor Burrus: Shipped in shipping containers.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Right, coming over, shipped in shipping containers, things like that. I think at the very least people think [00:01:00] that there is some element of force or fraud being used when you talk about sex trafficking but under the federal definition and under various state and city the way that they use it in police departments and the media it often, in the media and police it could often just mean prostitution. They’ve just started referring to all prostitution as sex trafficking. Under federal law, it’s part of the general trafficking [00:01:30] and person statute which means there’s two different kinds of human trafficking in persons. There’s labor trafficking and there’s sex trafficking. For adults, there has to be an element of force, fraud, or coercion involved in order to be sex trafficking. If someone is under 18 there does not have to be any force, fraud, or coercion involved. There actually doesn’t have to be any sort of middle man or pimp or trafficker or madam or anything like that involved because …
Trevor Burrus: Can you traffic yourself then?
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Well, [00:02:00] no, but you can mostly not.
Trevor Burrus: You never know.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Under the Mann Act you can actually but that’s something different. The elements of the statute in which you can be a sex trafficker too is not just to compel someone into prostitution or abduct or force or whatever. It’s anyone who also promotes or advertises or solicits or patronizes, so customers of anyone who [00:02:30] is under 18 could be charged as a sex trafficker. In a situation say a 17 year old puts an ad somewhere and meets up with someone and doesn’t even say, says they’re 19 and then that person could be charged with sex trafficking. It doesn’t matter if not knowing the age is not a defense. There’s a lot of difference between what people think of as sex trafficking and what a lot of criminal justice, the way it’s used [00:03:00] in criminal justice in America.
Aaron Powell: That ambiguity makes answering this next question more difficult. Roughly do we have an idea of how much of this there is going on?
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: No, but most of the numbers that you have out there from various non profit groups are vary biased or from the federal government, at least the ones that they advertise are very biased and are very inflated and have been debunked [00:03:30] and discredited in various ways. Even sometimes the federal government has said to stop using them but they still wind their way through the internet and everywhere and still get recycled again and again. When it comes to the number of sex trafficking arrests and prosecutions in the United States, you can get better numbers. Still not exactly though because it’s still, like I said, there’s a wider [00:04:00] range of conduct but we’re talking about usually a couple hundred to a couple thousand in the United States prosecutions for sex trafficking every year so under the broad scope of things.
Trevor Burrus: Why are the numbers biased?
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Because there’s a lot of people who … One, because it’s a hard thing to measure. Both prostitution and forced sex trafficking are hard to measure because they’re underground and it’s very hard to get reliable [00:04:30] populations [inaudible] reliable data but also you have a lot of groups who are very invested for various reasons in conflating prostitution and sex trafficking.
Trevor Burrus: They’re just anti prostitution groups that have moved into the sex trafficking …
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Yeah, either they’re anti prostitution groups for ideological reasons because they’re certain kinds of feminists or religious groups or there are groups that are realized that there’s a lot of money in fighting sex trafficking. There’s a ton [00:05:00] of federal funding for both state and local law enforcement agencies and for non profits, small groups, social service agencies, whatever if they’re fighting sex trafficking so they have a lot of good reason to inflate the numbers of people that they’re helping and the population out there that needs to be served obviously so they can get more attention and get more money and so they generally tend to either conflate all prostitution, all sew workers as sex trafficking victims [00:05:30] or just rely on really ridiculous methods.
One of the most cited numbers is that there are 300,000 children either at risk of being trafficked in the United States every year or being trafficked every year. It was from this one study from the early 2000s that the lead researcher has now been like, “Don’t pay attention to it, it’s terrible.” It was published in a non peer reviewed academic journal and in order to determine who was at risk they tallied up these things that they decided made kids at risk of being sex trafficking which included anything from being in a single family home [00:06:00] to living in subsidized housing to having ever been in child protective services to all sorts of things. Then they didn’t even matter if people were a few of those categories then they counted them each as separate and then they added that whole number together and magnified about how many kids that would be and then said that was why there were 300,000 children. There’s a lot of bad methodology like that.
Aaron Powell: You said that the hard numbers we have often [00:06:30] include prostitution and things that don’t fit our common conception of what sex trafficking looks like. Do we then have any sense of how much of the image of women basically sold into slavery or imported and kept confined of children pressed into prostitution against their will, that kind of sex trafficking? Do we have any sense of how much of that there is?
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: As far as hard data, [00:07:00] no. One thing I have so many Google alerts for all these different terms and I’ve been for three years now covering this and monitoring all these and for various features and research projects I’ve been doing actually digging into who gets arrested for this across the country. I almost never see cases like that. There’s some statements from various federal agents that give us some clues. The former [00:07:30] John Pistole who’s the former director of the FBI I think, he did a congressional testimony and talked about the underage victims they saw. He said only about 25% of them were forced at all and that doesn’t necessarily mean they were tied up in cargo containers but he said about 25% of the underage people working in prostitution that they encountered and counted among their underage child victim totals were people who had some element of force involved in their being trafficked.
Trevor Burrus: It seems that either way if this happens it’s a [00:08:00] bad thing. The classic type that we’re talking about maybe for some visitors who think prostitution is a bad thing too or at least under some circumstances if you’re poor or have no other options or things like this so shouldn’t we have a fairly broad definition of this in order to combat it? What’s really the problem with having a broad definition of sex trafficking in order to better combat it?
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Obviously I think that there’s nothing wrong with the definition for adults. The saying that force, fraud, or coercion involved is sex trafficking. [00:08:30] With the teen definition with anything being involved you end up with people who maybe they a lapse in judgment deciding to go meet a 16 year old for sex. Maybe they didn’t even know, who knows but maybe they did. That doesn’t seem like it should be a federal crime with a mandatory minimum sentence and a possible life in federal prison for that. When [00:09:00] we conflate it that’s what you’re doing. A, you’re making everyone treated like the worst cases under the law.
B, that means that basically the FBI and all the federal law enforcement agencies and all the small town police departments only go after those people because that’s really easy and again they have a whole lot of incentives to report on how many sex trafficking arrests they made. There’s these crazy reports that the Department of Justice has to put out where the FBI has to put all these different metrics. Here’s how many investigations we started, here’s how many [00:09:30] arrests we made, here’s how many prosecutions and they brag about how they increased their metrics this many from year to year almost just like you’re reporting on whatever except they’re arresting people and giving them federal prison sentences.
It gives them a lot of incentive to go after these because that’s really easy and because the kind of sex trafficking that is really horrible and the kind that we think of as sex trafficking is very rare and is not happening in every community. That’s what they say. It’s happening in every community. That is not happening in every community. What is happening in every community [00:10:00] is prostitution, is sometimes underage people working in prostitution and I’m not saying that that should be legal. I’m not saying that we should let anyone just pay underage people for sex, I’m not saying that we shouldn’t necessarily try to get them services but the way we go about it now by just treating … We also treat them, we arrest them in order to get them services. It just creates all these really perverse law enforcement incentives and ends up making everyone worse [00:10:30] off, people who are consensually in sex work and the people that do really need our help.
Trevor Burrus: I think that’s a good point to get into the story before we get into broader things. Since a lot of our listeners may not be aware of how this works and you wrote an excellent four part piece on a bust in Seattle that was proclaimed as the largest sex trafficking bust in years or I can’t remember exactly what the headlines were. If our listeners sitting here being like, “This woman is defending sex trafficking,” or, “This woman doesn’t care [00:11:00] about this how bad of problem is this,” I think the story is a really good example of how this could happen so maybe you can tell us what happened in Seattle.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Yeah, this is a case, it’s actually still ongoing but it started in January 2016 or that’s when the first arrests were made. The headlines from, this is in Seattle and in Bellevue just outside of Seattle and the headlines first in the local media and the TV stations and the local newspapers and then it spread to [00:11:30] AP and Reuters and the New York Times and pretty much every major outlet and even in the UK were covering it, that they had busted this league, this international league of sex traffickers. They’re trafficking in Korean women to Seattle and also around the United States. They had a secret message board where they promoted their prostitution and raided them and talked about how to access them. They had these high end brothels where they were kept all day and couldn’t [00:12:00] leave and had to be there and service all these men all day. It had taken months of work but finally the Seattle police and the King County sheriff office working with federal law enforcement agents had penetrated this ring and that was what everyone reported.
That was the story. I’ve covered with a blog post in January and was skeptical but there wasn’t really much to go on. Other than the fact that the board that they were calling a sex trafficking board [00:12:30] was just a board where adult sex workers advertised.
Trevor Burrus: You mean a board as in a forum.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Yeah, sorry, a forum, a message board or like Reddit or whatever.
Aaron Powell: It’s like Craigslist for sex traffickers?
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Except it was not for sex traffickers. It was for prostitution and sex work more broadly. First of all, it was not at all international or whatever board. It was a Seattle specific or that area region specific board. [00:13:00] I know some sex workers out there in that community and they advertised on that board so I talked to them about it before. It was just a place where adult sex workers could post advertisements for themselves about, here are my rates, here are my hours, whatever. It was all a little bit coded because prostitution is still illegal. Then customers could look at their profiles, could figure out how to contact them and then customers could also leave reviews and communicate in messages with each other. They could communicate in private messages with each other, they could review [00:13:30] the women and say, “I saw this person and here’s whatever.” The reviews were overwhelmingly positive if graphic because they did involve sex but they weren’t … They were typical things people would say about sex, not anything …
Trevor Burrus: Like if there were prostitutes on Amazon it’d be like the Amazon reviews, yeah.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Yeah. It was definitely not a board that was primarily about sex trafficking but at first it was like, “I don’t know maybe there were people who were being sex trafficked who were being advertised there and [00:14:00] somehow they didn’t know this.”
Aaron Powell: Were the women in this alleged sex trafficking ring under age?
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: No, no. They were all adults. They were all adults.
Trevor Burrus: The feds or I guess the local police and some of the feds considered this a massive … because they were facilitate … I can’t remember what word you used for the statute but facilitating, communicating all those things can make you a sex trafficker so now the whole board, [00:14:30] the whole forum is a sex trafficking ring which of course is not what you think of when you think of sex trafficking ring but is statutorily I guess true.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: They described it as they’re being this ring, this board and then they said there were three people only three that got arrested on human trafficking charges. Then there were about 12 men that got arrested for promoting prostitution on this board. About six months later, I wondered what happened with that case and I started [00:15:00] looking into it and I started looking at the court records and it it turned out that the three that they had described as that they had been charged with human trafficking, the huge leaders of this international ring had both been quietly offered and taken plea deals months earlier with no promotion by the police. They had really promoted this when it happened. They did all these press conferences and all this stuff. Didn’t say anything at all in the media about how they gave plea deals to these people.
The plea deals for these alleged international human traffickers, one of them was for permitting prostitution and two [00:15:30] of them were promoting prostitution which are both relatively minor charges. The one got off with no jail time and I think the other one had two months jail time and the most was three months jail time and then some community service and stuff and that’s all that they got. That was suspicious and it’s like, “Okay, if that’s what’s … why is this the case?” Sorry, not to ramble on but once you look into it it turned out basically what we had happen in here was a lot of Korean women who [00:16:00] would come over of their own accord from Korea in order to on student visas or on tourist visas and then while they were here or overstay their visa sometimes and end up working as sex workers because they could make a lot of money here and they could make it quickly and without people they know knowing about it and send money back to their families in Korea or just save up and go back home and they could make so much more money here than they did there.
There’s a huge trail of evidence [00:16:30] of them writing, and people writing about them that shows that they were not being held hostage, that they had traveled here of their own accord from different cities. They had flown here. They could come and go. If they were being held they wouldn’t be allowed any of these things that they were being allowed. The police said that maybe some of them were in debt bondage that they had to pay off loan sharks back in somewhere else.
Trevor Burrus: I’m in debt bondage to the federal student [00:17:00] loan agencies.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: They even said, “Some of them, they had loans for credit cards,” and it was like, they have credit card debt, that’s what we’re saying was trafficking them? We can’t say for sure and I don’t want to say that none of these women maybe had someone somewhere back in Korea or something pulling some sort of shady strings but there was nothing like a coordinated attempt to smuggle these people here or to keep them here under any sort of force or coercion. It was basically a lot of different women who were here for different reasons. What they would do while they were here is they would come to Seattle for a few weeks and then [00:17:30] they’d go to LA for a few weeks or they’d go to different places and then if business was good they’d come back and things like that.
The men would post on this board and say, “Hey,” they all had these very Americanized pseudonyms like Chloe. Chloe’s back in town. She’s at this agency, K Girls Delight. She’s at that for two weeks. She’ll be there whatever and they would post about it. These agencies turned out, it was people who had been charged as the human traffickers originally who [00:18:00] ended up getting off as permitting and promoting prostitution, they were people that kept apartments. Two of them were men who had been former sex work clients and were now prostitution clients and were not retired. One of them was dating a sex worker, another one was a Korean sex worker herself. She had an apartment and she rented out the spare bedroom. The two men kept a separate apartment in a high end apartment building and they would organize a things where the girls would come in and they would take care of posting the ads for them, making the [00:18:30] arrangements, screening clients, making sure that no one got in.
There were very strict rules. People had to give their real identification, they had to have people vouch for them, they had to shower once they got there and use mouth wash and all this stuff. It was a very safe operation because these men had been very well screened, they were in a very secure building, nothing bad was going to happen to these women in this situation so say what you will about prostitution but even if you don’t support it, this was happening in the safest way possible. [00:19:00] You had these people who had these apartments and they ended up …
Trevor Burrus: But those are the dungeons to the [crosstalk 00:19:07]
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: That was what was being described as these brothels where they were being held in captivity and things like that. It just wasn’t like that at all. Then ultimately the men who had written on the board got charged all with promoting prostitution which is a felony and …
Trevor Burrus: You mean promoting as in advertising it or saying prostitution’s a good thing? That can’t be a felony.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Traditionally promoting prostitution [00:19:30] has been a charge reserved for people like pimps or madams or whatever you want to call them. People who financially benefit from a prostitution business or from someone else’s sex work. That’s how the charge has always been used. This is the first time, there are some lawyers who are working on the case and they had done a lot of constitutional work and they said this is the first time they’d heard of this happening anywhere in the United States but they used it to mean these people had written good reviews for these women online and since they had decided these women were being trafficked then they were [00:20:00] promoting the prostitution of these women by writing good reviews for them and therefore it was a felony. Even if the women weren’t being trafficked it was still a felony because they had promoted the prostitution of anyone.
Aaron Powell: I seem to remember from the article that they were benefiting financially because they were setting up these apartments in exchange they were taking a cut.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Okay, that’s the two men who owned the apartments were. The majority of the men, the 12 men, the 12 other men that were arrested and now there’s been a whole new crop that’s also been arrested for the same thing. [00:20:30] The majority of those that were arrested were just people who posted to the board. Some of them would meet up about once a month at a pub in town and get beers and talk about things but none of them had … Only one of the men actually ran the board. None of them had a financial stake in the board and these were just … some of them had never even met the other men. A lot of them were just people who had just posted to this board, “Hey, here’s good things about this person. Go see them.”
Trevor Burrus: [00:21:00] They’re pimps in the eyes of the law basically.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Yeah. That’s a crazy … It has a lot of first amendment implications obviously because these are just people and that was what a lot of them said that we were just writing stories. Even if they were going to get someone for solicitation or patronizing a prostitute charges, you would have to show that they had gone there and actually been there and actually offered money or at least showed up with the intent to do it, that they had the money or whatever in their pocket.
In this case, they don’t have to. They [00:21:30] just have to say you wrote about it and they can say, “Well, it didn’t actually happen because I was just making up that story. I didn’t even see the person.” It doesn’t matter because you wrote about it and you wrote a good thing and so you’re promoting their prostitution.
Aaron Powell: That was interesting in light of one of the bizarre asides in the article or odd little facts in there was that one of the cops investigating it had spent two years posting on these things? There was a cop who was writing reviews of prostitutes.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Yes, and someone [00:22:00] did a FOIA request and got them and posted them online. I forget who. It was a local media outlet. They’re the exact same. They’re indistinguishable from the ads that got people arrested as promoting prostitution. They had actually been doing this under cover since 2006. This board has been around since 2002 or 3. They had been under cover in some degree following this board and things. They arranged at least two dozen meetings with undercover cops and these Korean women [00:22:30] and that’s the other thing. They’re saying these women were being trafficked, they were being held there in sex slavery and for over six months, they had known they were there and had gone there multiple times to visit them and had undercover cops pretend to be clients. They say that then they made excuses before any activity happened, who knows.
Trevor Burrus: It’s a little bit shady. If they would arrest someone who went in there …
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: If you really believe that these people were in grave danger or being horribly harmed, [00:23:00] you wouldn’t just be like, “Okay, cool. We’re going to take another six months to build a case against 12 men who wrote reviews for them.” They knew from the beginning the two men who owned the apartments. They had their information from the very beginning of the investigation.
Aaron Powell: Something I wondered about as I was reading the story because the setup as it actually occurred as opposed to sensationalized headlines was relatively indistinguishable from say what happens in Nevada brothels all the time [00:23:30] that these women come in and they work and then they leave and there are lots of people who are opposed to that but we don’t discuss it as this grand sex trafficking ring and wonder how much of it is just that these women were Korean. That they were foreign and so it played into if they came here it must have been because they were shipped over in they way that we often talk about people being shipped over and then how much of it plays into our odd ideas about women from [00:24:00] that part of the world and their agency or lack of it. Is there a sense that that was part of the story?
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Oh, definitely, definitely. The men who ran the board, he went by the name, the pseudonym Tahoe Ted. He actually because they’d been under cover for years investigating them and they’d have these meetups between area sex workers and people who were frequent reviewers and contributors on the board. It included all [00:24:30] sorts of white sex workers, all sorts of sex workers of all races and also the Korean sex workers that worked in these places and there also so Thai agencies that are the same in the area.
In these undercover conversations with Ted, they had him saying that he thought that they were getting too many Asian girls advertising, Asian women advertising on the thing and he didn’t want it, not because he thought they were being trafficked. He specifically said he knew they weren’t being trafficked but it attracted law [00:25:00] enforcement especially the feds because they always thought that Asian women were being trafficked. That was years ago that he had said in 2009 or something. That was definitely I think an element of it is that they, yeah.
Trevor Burrus: What we have is by all appearances, we have probably fairly middle aged men who don’t usually frequent, probably don’t … I’m just guessing don’t prefer their prostitution by picking up [00:25:30] on the street which is dangerous for the women and sometimes the johns too. They prefer to go onto a board to protect themselves and maybe even protect the women involved with respect for the women involved.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: They were very respectful. As I said again, there was definitely some lewdness but when it came to talking about what the women did or boundaries and consent and things like that they were very respectful. A lot of them considered themselves, [00:26:00] they called it hobbyists is what they prefer to be called, not johns or whatever as hobbyists and they had very ongoing years long relationships with some women that they were regular clients on. Then they also liked to go and visit these new Korean agencies that were in town. They paid for sex and they were very respectful and up front about it and they just wanted a place to be able to do that.
It does benefit both them and the women. Like I said before, this is one of the safest ways. You get to screen your clients, you get to set your own standards [00:26:30] of how much you screen them. You have an email trail of them so if anything does go wrong, heaven forbid, there is a paper record of text messages and stuff like that. You have security at these apartment buildings. Its just all these layers of things that actually do help keep people safe. Seattle has a huge problem with sex workers being murdered when they’re picked up on the streets too. That’s where the green river killer is, but there’s been many more than that. They have this huge problem with that and that’s the kind of things that they’re encouraging happening by [00:27:00] ruining things like this that do help keep people safe.
Trevor Burrus: There’s some line which I’m paraphrasing in your article that says now by cracking down on this activity the most legally safe way of being a prostitute or a john but being a prostitute is the most unsafe way of doing it, which is really perverse and that brings up this question of if this is how we’re prosecuting sex trafficking much of the time, [00:27:30] we might be making prostitution itself more dangerous.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: I think we’re definitely because you have clients too who are not going to be willing to do these things. They’re not going to be willing to give their real names, they’re not going to be willing to give references or use their real phone numbers or anything that could identify them because now they’re going to be charged as sex traffickers. You have them unwilling to take these things that do keep the women safe.
Just to conclude this story, the women they just talked to and then let go. [00:28:00] I talked to him months later and said, “What happened?” They’re, “Oh, I don’t know. We didn’t keep track.” In the one level that’s good because a lot of times in what they would have done was maybe arrest them for prostitution or arrest them and hold them in order to coerce them and get to testifying but they said they gave them all the option to testify and no one wanted to testify. If you look on some of the boards, some of their names are being used and their pictures are showing up on boards back in LA so by all intents they just let them go right [00:28:30] back to this life they say was so terrible but they got all these arrests and they got all these assets from these arrests and they got all this publicity from these arrests.
Aaron Powell: I think there’s this attitude because we desperately, we as a society and the cops and the people that oppose this desperately want to strip these women of agency, want it to be that they’re forced into it. It seems like it’s part of there’s this broader attitude that [00:29:00] I wouldn’t want to do job X and I can’t imagine doing job X and so therefore anyone who does job X must be doing it against their will. You see this in prostitution but it shows up in people arguing against sweatshops in other countries and hell, it even shows up in …
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Uber drivers.
Aaron Powell: Uber drivers or stay at home mom, that the only reason that they would do that is because their husband is patriarchy and all of that [00:29:30] stuff that we just can’t … We lack enough empathy to understand the choices of others and so therefore deprive them of agency.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Yeah, I think that’s definitely true.
Trevor Burrus: Did you interview some of the cops and lawyers involved with this on the government side?
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Yeah.
Trevor Burrus: Did anyone seem to realize what they were doing? Maybe the didn’t know when they went in but said this wasn’t the worst thing. Did anyone express remorse because [00:30:00] also …
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: No, and that’s what’s so interesting because I talked to Val Ritchie who’s a King County prosecutor and he was the one spearheading a lot of this and who spearheads a lot of similar efforts in that area. I asked him about why these people who had been described as these huge traffickers got off with permitting and promoting prostitution and he said, “Well, if we had discovered that there was something like force or fraud or anything like that being used but we discovered it was more that they provided a place where prostitution happened,” and he said [00:30:30] things directly like that but then still clung to the idea that what they had done was important and right. It’s just, I don’t know.
Trevor Burrus: There’s a tragic part to this too.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: It was, they did if you talk to them they … the think is if you read the police reports. If you read the police reports themselves the court documents you can see that yes, they don’t actually think that what is being said is was happening was happening but they also still think that they did the right thing because [00:31:00] no one could choose. That’s what they say. Exactly what you were just saying. [inaudible] no one would’ve chose this life. It’s fine, maybe it wasn’t like they were being held there in force but they did work long days and he said it wasn’t any picnic or something like that. It’s like, “Well okay.” A lot of jobs aren’t any picnic but it doesn’t mean we conduct a huge years long stings and arrest dozens of people unjustly and things like that in order to stop them from existing and then don’t even help the the people in any way. Those jobs shouldn’t [00:31:30] exist, great. What are they supposed to do now if they’re here in the country illegally? It’s crazy.
Aaron Powell: Given all that and given how much of your career has been reporting on these issues and how many people you know within sex work, can you correct some of our misperceptions? Why do, if they’re not forced into it, they’re not enslaved into it, why do women who go into sex work choose to do it?
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: [00:32:00] I think for a host of reasons. For so many different reasons from that some just really do want to do it and like to do it to the people who have no other options obviously. There’s a huge spectrum. When we talk about the people like a lot of these Asian women who come from Korea or China or anywhere and work in these agencies for short time as I said, it’s a way where they can come over and make way more money than they maybe would back home without the stigma that would maybe come from someone [00:32:30] discovering them doing it back home. They can say they’re doing an internship or school or whatever.
Aaron Powell: How much money were the women in the Seattle case making?
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: $300 an hour was generally the standard and the people who had the apartment kept 100. That was for the apartment, and the food and the everything there and the advertising and the screening the clients and everything. Then they took $100 and the women would keep 200. That was generally the arrangement.
Trevor Burrus: I’ve [00:33:00] had a couple friends I’ve brought this story up to a few friends of mine who are of more of the feminist vein who say that the problem here is that the patriarchy basically teaches these women that this is and okay way of making a living. It’s not really volitional that the problem here is that we have to make it the demand side has to be considered unacceptable that men thinking it’s [00:33:30] okay to purchase sex is just an example of an objectifying women in the patriarchy and so we need to shame that demand side like we’ve shamed smokers or other types of things that used to be pretty common in order to fight the problem with sex workers. This is one reason why they would say we can let the women go because they are victims and they’re victims of the demand side which is part of just the patriarchy. How would you respond to that?
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: That’s a huge strain of things. There’s obviously a lot of [00:34:00] divides within feminism. There’s a group that usually considered themselves called Radical Feminists and they are very opposed to sex work and especially in Europe and places like that in the Scandinavian countries it’s very popular to criminalize the purchasing of sex but not the selling of sex. Theoretically but you see in those countries that the ways in which you can do sex work are very, very prescribed and limited. You can’t do it with one or more or two or more people in a place. You can’t do it with a [00:34:30] person making the appointments for you because they’ll be criminalized as a pimp still or a trafficker or whatever.
Your clients are going to be criminalized so the cops are still tailing you and still doing this and the clients still don’t want to be giving you the real number actually letting you screen them because they’re worried about getting arrested so it just re‐​creates all the same harms. Yes, you might have nominally less women being arrested directly for selling sex but you see them getting arrested for other things then so they can get them to testify against people. You still see them falling prey to all the same harms that criminalization [00:35:00] of prostitution generally brings where they’re less safe and they are not able to do this in a way that is …
I think when people talk about that, I just don’t have patience for arguments that are theoretical at the expense of actual people and what’s actually happened people because these people who say this will say, “We want to help women,” and it’s like okay, but your way of helping women cannot in actuality harm them and harm underage people and make life worse for them. If that’s your manner of helping women, it’s just I don’t know. [00:35:30] I have no patience for that argument.
Trevor Burrus: This is even if you think that prostitution is an extreme moral harm and if more of that moral harm is on the male side for wanting it, since that doesn’t seem likely to go away given the world’s oldest profession, you should not make it incredibly dangerous and even more harmful to women.
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: They actually did a big study in Ireland where this was the law or was about to become the law [00:36:00] and they were of clients and said will this criminalization of clients of sex [inaudible] things make you less likely to do this, do this, do this? It made very few people say they were less likely to purchase sex. It did make them say they were less likely to do things like give their real names or go to a … Do these various things that make it safer.
Trevor Burrus: You’ve written about the moral panic and one of your articles you wrote about how it’s like the war on drugs and in the beginning of that one [00:36:30] we recovered from this war on drugs where like, well some of us have recovered, where we say, “Wow we’re just kicking people’s doors and we’re doing all this crazy stuff based on panics.” Is that something that you’re concerned with now with sex trafficking?
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Yeah, because you see even at these … wonky example but with mandatory minimums and you see this huge push now in so many quarters to end mandatory minimum sentencing and for sentencing reform in general except when it comes to sex [00:37:00] crimes. Rand Paul who’s one of the biggest advocates against mandatory minimums and says he’ll never vote for mandatory minimums, he voted for the 2015 justice for victims of trafficking act which added a 10 year mandatory minimum for people who advertise sex trafficking which is really meant to go after sites like Back Page or Craigslist and things like that. He voted for that law and only one person against it and it was not Rand Paul even though he says he’s a big advocate.
That’s just one small example but I think you see that across the board where [00:37:30] there are all these ways that we’ve learned, not just libertarians but a lot of people have learned about how this is not going to help. Even if the thing is ultimately bad, even if you ultimately think that drugs are bad and people shouldn’t do them, the way that we have been going about it with this extreme criminal justice approach and not a more holistic approach has been really detrimental. No one is applying that same lesson here. Obviously sex trafficking is bad. I do not think prostitution between consenting adults is bad [00:38:00] but even if you do think that is bad, just going after it with this full crazy criminal justice approach that prioritizes getting more people behind bars for longer instead of the underlying causes and problems is not going to help.
Aaron Powell: This panic seems relatively new. The sex trafficking, we weren’t talking about this as much five, 10 years ago. Is there a reason for that? Has there been a uptick in the amount [00:38:30] of trafficking that might have caused this?
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: No. Not at all. Actually if anything the government has lessened it’s estimates of trafficking. There’s still very inflated but it’s lessened them by ten’s of thousands over the past decade and a half with no explanation. People have tried to get …
Trevor Burrus: Are those worldwide? Worldwide numbers or …
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: No, United States. People have tried to get them to be, “Hey, how come there was 80% less trafficking in this one than five years ago?” And nothing because there was actually a GAO, the Government Accountability Office Report [00:39:00] on some of the early trafficking data that the Department of Justice and various people disseminated and they concluded there was not reliable. I’m paraphrasing but the quote was something like, because of methodological inconsistencies and the fact that it was all done by one man who did not document his work. That was the basis of all of our federal trafficking data and knowledge for the first five or six years that we had this new law.
To back things up, in 2000 the Trafficking Victims Protection Act was passed and that was the first one that set [00:39:30] a federal crime of trafficking a persons. Obviously states had laws against forced prostitution compelling prostitution. We had federal laws against indentured servitude and slavery. We had the Mann Act which prevents people being transported across state lines for immoral purposes which is still very much used by the FBI today. In 2000 this law first introduced the federal crime of human trafficking and labor trafficking and sex trafficking.
That’s when really all this started. It’s been reauthorized every [00:40:00] few years since then and with every authorization there has been a lot more grant money for both non profits and law enforcement. There’s been a lot more task forces. There’s been a lot more federal agencies expanded or given little wings or positions that are going to coordinate and look into various facets of human trafficking. It’s just become this huge thing where there are so many people dependent on all of this money coming in for trafficking that it just keeps growing and I think that that is really the underlying root of it. [00:40:30] Then when those people go to the media, obviously stories like this are very salient and reporters want to write about them so it’s spread like wildfire but that’s really been in the past since 2010 or so maybe.
Aaron Powell: How can we then I guess rhetorically or strategically move things in a better direction with this especially given that [00:41:00] America is a profoundly puritanical society both on the right and to an extraordinary degree on the left and that just the very act of talking about this stuff or recently there’s basically [inaudible] do a hit piece written about you in the Federalist I think it was that the very fact that you’re discussing the numbers, you’re looking into the way that the data was gathered, what the crimes actually look like, makes you this evil [00:41:30] person who condones the enslavement of children. How do we given that strong cultural bias against even examining this stuff closely how do we start pushing back against the over criminalization and the runaway prosecution?
Elizabeth Nolan Brown: Two things. First of all a lot of people in this country as puritanical as we are are not necessarily against legalizing or decriminalizing prostitution between consenting adults. They were showing that in polls it’s changed now where it’s trended down [00:42:00] again recently I think because a lot of this conflation in the 90s and early 2000s the majorities of Americans I think supported decriminalization of prostitution which is why you started to see I think some of these anti prostitution activists really. There’s actually documents from some of these groups back then that were saying, “We need to start framing this as sex trafficking so that we can get people to be against it.
I think that has happened a lot. I think one thing is always to make sure to distinguish between things, distinguish what we’re talking about when we talk [00:42:30] about sex trafficking and prostitution and sex work and things. From a rhetorical standpoint I think that it’s important to emphasize that you have the same goals as people. That you are also interested in helping victims of sexual exploitation and that that is among the foremost of your goals. I’m very interested in helping adult sex workers and their clients not be persecuted by the state, but I’m also very interested in helping women and children or people of any gender [00:43:00] who are in prostitution and don’t want to be or in the sex trade and don’t want to be. I think it’s important to emphasize that. When you have these activists who say, “Well, talking about the numbers at all is who cares or whatever,” or, “Well, so what if this operation doesn’t get as many people as they say it did, at least it’s raising awareness and stuff.”
I think you need to bring it back to the fact that they are actually the ones that are then hurting victims with this strategy because we don’t have endless money and resources and attention [00:43:30] and law enforcement capabilities to fight this. We are using what limited … If the problem is really as big as they say and as urgent as they say and we have so few resources as they say and we are using them to arrest adult sex workers, we are using them to spend years investigating people who post prostitution ads online. The FBI does this huge annual sting called Operation Cross Country which might actually just our April issue of Reason I had a cover story about that and it’s supposed to be a big [00:44:00] underage sex trafficking saving victims of it and they ended up maybe arresting five people on federal charges. Only two of them had to do with underage people and both of them had just been driving them.
In the mean time they arrest hundreds and hundreds of adult sex workers and then they arrest hundreds of men on solicitation charges and things like that. They’re spending so much time and money that they’re saying is going to victims by doing this. When you’re defending these inflated numbers and the moral panic they cause [00:44:30] and when you’re defending the, “Well, at least if it’s doing something it’s going to help.” You are taking away from the things that really would help victims. What they really need is better social services, more places … Sorry, just to bring this back to you asked before about who people are who are in prostitution, who victims are.
The federal government does actually have a lot of good data on this they just don’t like to publicize it. When you look at the people that are under 18 that are involved in prostitution, a huge number of them have been in Child Protective [00:45:00] Services. A lot of them are runaways. The disproportionate amount of black and LGBT youth and youth of color and just low income family dysfunctions. A lot of them have had abuse in their past or neglect.
A lot of them have drug habits but there was this DOJ report from last year and it said that sex trafficking or whatever, their involvement in the sex trade it just said was the least or one of the least of their problems is what they did interviews with three different agencies [00:45:30] that work exclusively with underage sex trafficking victims. The Salvation Army and two others and that’s what they said. These people needed places to stay and often they couldn’t get in to shelters because if you had a criminal record you couldn’t get into a shelter and a lot of them had criminal records because they had been arrested for prostitution in order to save them from it before.
A lot of them were returned to Child Protective Services even if they’d run away three and four times. Who knows what was happening but a lot of them reported abuse from the people that they were living with so this method of just taking them, putting them in jail then sending them back [00:46:00] to [inaudible 00:46:00] is not helping but we’re spending all of our money and time giving cops more money to do that instead of giving money to things that could actually give them material resources and help them get out of these situations.
Trevor Burrus: Thanks for listening. This episode of Free Thoughts was produced by Tess Terrible and Evan Banks. To learn more, visit us on the web at www​.lib​er​tar​i​an​ism​.org.