“Once you have entered this den of demons, you become a slave to others’ every whim!” From the Illustrated biography of a child prostitute, cartoons appearing in Modern Sketch Magazine. China, February 1937. Wang Zhu, artist.
The city of Fortaleza has gained a reputation inside Brazil and abroad for child prostitution. With the World Cup less than six months away, city officials and activists are launching campaigns to raise awareness and warn tourists and soccer fans of the penalties for engaging in child prostitution.“Teenagers may dress up to look older and say they are older. They may be encouraged by friends who say that this relationship with a foreigner is the way to a better life,” program director of Childhood Brazil, Anna Flora Werneck explains.
Foreign journalists who write about Africa are often criticized for focusing on the bad news over the good, privileging the sensational over the everyday, even for casting the continent as a 21st century heart of darkness. It can be a valid criticism, and one that I and I think most of my colleagues take to heart. Whatever we might say about dutifully pursuing the most newsworthy stories, there is inevitably a strong degree of subjectivity, and ultimately course correction, that goes into deciding what, and what not, to cover. You find yourself thinking hard about what your readers will take away from your reporting—even if only because of their own misconceptions. And you wonder whether you’ve written too many negative stories of late and try to find some more positive ones to rectify the imbalance.
Overall, though, the bad news stories tend to win out. Violent outbreaks and kidnappings by religious extremists easily get more press than local entrepreneurship initiatives and less sensational stories, though that’s not unique to Africa; take a look at the local news in New York. Problems are more obvious than solutions. Editors play a role too. Portraits of everyday life in faraway lands draw fewer clicks than frightful tales of genocide and extreme poverty. When I first moved to West Africa to report, I made the rounds of editors in the States to gin up some interest ahead of time. I got more or less the same response from a few. “Good for you. Let us know if something blows up.” Positive stories about Africa, meanwhile, can be equally frustrating, such as the mindless bandying about of impressive GDP growth figures without heed to what those numbers mean on the ground.
I’ve felt some angst about my Madagascar reporting because I haven’t by any means struck this mythical balance. I wrote about human trafficking, child prostitution, the plague and a rather flawed election. What I thought was a reasonably optimistic story about sapphire mining in southern Madagascar got the headline, “A Cursed Land.”
I am thrilled that California has just passed two laws addressing the harms of the sex industry. Measure B mandates condom use in porn among other sensible workplace safety preventions for the legal porn industry, and Prop 35 increases consequences for illegal pimps, child pornographers, and sex traffickers while decriminalizing victims of commercial sexual abuse. These laws are a done deal, hooray, yet my abolitionist work on the issue continues as long as the public debate does, and people are not done talking about Prop 35.
For over a decade I have actively tried to lessen the human losses of prostitution, and in that time I’ve heard an unbelievable number of excuses against strengthening sexual exploitation laws. Sometimes I shrug it off as the universal impetus behind Woodrow Wilson’s famous quote, “If you want to make enemies, try to change something,” and sometimes I think less magnanimous thoughts about those who would thwart the passage of anti-rape laws.
Despite Prop 35’s predictable win – and more importantly despite my extensive history of reading specious sex industry position papers – I gave naysayers the benefit of the doubt that maybe this time they had a point. Let me share some of the excuses I’ve seen made for opposing Prop 35 (full text and summary here for reference.)
First, let’s zoom past the complaint about crowding the sex offender list because databases exist. Imagine if we set a limit on fingerprint collection because oy, ten from each person! If police truly must print out sex offender lists and scan them with biological eyes then they definitely need the extra money Prop 35 would take from pimps to upgrade past 1995 home computer technology.
Some No on Prop 35ers are very concerned about the families of convicted sex offenders. Similarly, right now in Kennebunk, Maine some prostitute-using men believe they should be exempt from having their crimes known publicly by begging mercy for what the community outcry will do to their children. Forgive me for slipping myself another easy one at the start, one where men are responsible for considering the impact of their decisions before choosing to break the law.
The flimsy boogeyman of sex workers’ families being labeled traffickers was raised in 1999 when Sweden passed its revolutionary law criminalization johns. No Swedish sex worker’s children have been charged as traffickers in Sweden after twelve years of much stronger anti-exploitation laws than Prop 35. Regardless of this reality, Feministing is sure thousands of innocent sex workers and their families will be jailed and bankrupted as they claim Prop 35 just criminalized the entire sex industry (and their families) in California.
The “locking up rapists overcrowds prisons” one has also been around since the early days of the Swedish model when naysayers predicted many nonviolent, merely ‘naughty’ men would be thrown in jail by the Swedish Gestapo. Turned out men don’t need hookers so much when there are negative consequences to their actions because soliciting reduced dramatically and few johns were jailed. Did the low jail rate vindicate the pro-johners and bring on a round of smug “told you so”s? Heck no! They used the low number of jail sentences to suggest the law was unnecessary and ineffective. There’s no pleasing some people.
Melissa Gira Grant creatively made a new use for an old line that’s been shutting down discussions about porn for years when she suggested “sexual exploitation” can mean anything at all and no one can know if what goes on under that label is criminal or not. Postmodernists who say words have no distinct, shared meanings are blaspheming linguistics and manipulating language to their own ends like three-card Monte cheaters. Once upon a time there was no such thing as sexual harassment or domestic violence, now that time has passed and taken with it ignorance of how sexually exploitation harms people.
I saved the worst for last.
Behold the euphemism for child pornography that a pornsturbator at California’s Ventura County Star concocted against Prop 35, “Also, individuals could face severe penalties for very limited, indirect involvement with artistic or other creative works that later are found to have used minors illegally.”
Prostituted kids needs to be decriminalized at the very least, however sex worker groups who call decriminalization their goal have never put decriminalizing kids on their legislative agenda. It’s abolitionists who get laws passed erasing the criminal records of exploited children and giving prostituted women the right to sue pimps for damages.
Not only aren’t sex worker groups working for safe harbor laws, in addition to Prop 35 they tried to kill New York’s law from passing when it was proposed by a coalition of activists led by survivor Rachel Lloyd of GEMS. Sex industry advocates wanted the law, including the part decriminalizing kids, rejected because they didn’t like that youths could be placed in care facilities which didn’t allow them to come and go as they pleased. Variations on safe harbor laws have been passed in 13 states, leaving 37 states, leaving no time like the present for sex work advocates to get the jump on abolitionist lawmakers by pushing forth the first child decriminalizing laws they won’t protest.
Prop 35 passed with a mandate-making 81% of the vote. Eyes are watching to see how California’s authorities wind up applying the new law, and there’s always some lag time between implementation and results, but there will be results eventually. When Prop 35 follows Sweden’s lead and doesn’t result in strippers’ children having to register as sex offenders, will any of the people who tried to roadblock Prop 35 find the grace to apologize?
Samantha Berg can be read at Genderberg, Johnstompers, and in comment threads everywhere.
What She Means:I just really love Aelin's court. Like, Lysandra, a girl who was abandoned as a small child and raised in prostitution, is so badass and is starting to take care of herself. And then there's her cousin, Aedion who is my spicy cinnamon roll that takes care of Aelin even if she doesn't need it and he just loves her no matter what. Then there's her big slunk of fae man meat and he's just so in love with her and that makes me so happy because he loves her for everything about herself and everything is rainbows.
When I figured out what this girl was doing, it makes you sick. This video was done so amazing. I think the most important thing that it touches is not only how real the horror is happening, but all the people who are there to see it, and they could do something about it.
“I’d never thought of [acting] before and then a director gave me a job out of the blue when I was 16 – literally gave me it out of the blue, in a film about child prostitution/pornography and that was it really. That was me kind of going, ‘Oh, I could be an actor…’ but I didn’t do any more acting for a couple of years, I worked in a bakery and just thought, ‘Fuck it, I’ll go to drama school.’ Luckily I got in, if it hadn’t had been for that, I would have been in the navy.”
My son told me he was a serial killer. I believe him.
People look at me strange when I tell them that I have an eighteen year old son. I’m thirty-three. When James and I
go out it isn’t uncommon for people to ask if he is my little brother. He could easily pass for being in his twenties, and so could I. The past eighteen years haven’t been without their trials, but I like to think I did the best I could given the situation. During my freshman year of high school I knocked up my girlfriend. Her parents were going to put the baby up for adoption but my mom stepped in and helped me get custody.
My son is a straight-A student. He is a point guard for the school basketball team. I scrounged together enough money to get him a halfway decent car. He’s popular in all the ways I wasn’t. By the time I was his age I had a two-year old son, a GED and a job at the local Pella factory. We live in a two-bedroom apartment duplex a few blocks from his high school. He does his homework without much prompting and spends his downtime with friends or in the living room kicking my ass at Call of Duty.
At one point I thought he might be gay. I wouldn’t have cared, but I thought it was weird that a boy his age had never had a girlfriend. I asked him about it and he smiled saying,