Last February, the Metropolitan Transit Authority (MTA) plastered ads throughout New York City’s vast subway system that, unbeknownst to riders, promote prostitution.
Bright, eye-catching pink and red posters urged New Yorkers to flock to a free pop-up exhibit “celebrating the global sex worker movement.” Activities and talks from March 10-16 would have burbled at the pop-up, had alerts about the deadly COVID-19 pandemic not shut it down a few days after opening.
At first glance, the advertised event just seemed an innocuous celebration of a marginalized group that suffers in silence and isolation. In most countries, including every US state, people in prostitution are harassed and arrested by the police, shunned by society, incarcerated far too often. Women bought and sold in the few legal brothels in rural Nevada are immune to arrest but suffer stigmatization and exploitation.
But that’s not the full story behind the pop-up and the movement it promotes. Which is why 14 New York City-based groups, mostly direct service providers, survivor-led groups, and women’s rights organizations, challenged the MTA for accepting advertising that violates its own internal rules prohibiting the promotion of illegal goods and activities, political messages or “sexually oriented business.”
So, what is the story?
The phrase “sex work “is a euphemism for prostitution. Coined in the late seventies by the sex trade and its supporters to legitimize sexual exploitation as employment, the term is a creative stroke that has changed the way we talk about prostitution.
The media, academia, Hollywood, and the self-anointed progressive movement view prostitution exclusively through the lens of personal choice, autonomy and self-identity, not as a phenomenon rooted in histories of misogyny, racism, and colonization.
The sex trade functions like any commercial market, operating on the principles of supply and demand, driven by an incentive for profit.
The “supply” here comprises the most vulnerable populations on the planet, primarily children and women who have endured childhood sexual violence, inequalities, displacement, foster care, and suffered from an appalling absence of socio-economic choices.
New York is no exception. Disenfranchised women and girls, as well as trans youth, mostly people of color and overwhelmingly victims of sex trafficking, are fodder for the local sex trade.
Their profiteers thrive online and off: pimps and traffickers; owners and managers of brothels, illicit massage parlors, strip clubs, escort services, sugar dating websites; and pornographers. These perpetrators generally enjoy impunity for the crimes they perpetuate to procure victims and keep them in check, using a variety of tactics, from vicious coercion to ritualistic violence to debt bondage.
The invisible pillar of the sex trade, however, are the men who purchase sexual acts with quasi-blanket exemption from accountability. Since the novel coronavirus outbreak, a plethora of news articles are reporting about the decimation of brothelsand other commercial sex establishments and red-light districts. Almost none are talking about the men who create the demand for prostitution that hold the pillars of prostitution on their shoulders and foster sex trafficking. Do the math: without this demand, the sex trade crumbles.
The MTA defended the pop-up ad campaign as constitutionally protected free speech, promoting a cultural exhibit, not prostitution.
Had the MTA conducted any research before accepting these ads, it would have discovered these were false assumptions. They would have recognized that the poster’s red umbrella is the universal logo of the movement to decriminalize the sex trade worldwide.
The MTA might have found out that former leaders of the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (whose logo includes said red umbrella) were convicted of sex trafficking and are now serving prison sentences in Mexico and Argentina.
Had the MTA logged onto the @sexworkerspopup Instagram account, prominently noted on the colorful posters, it would have quickly seen linked pages with child pornography, which I cannot cite here.
While the MTA claimed the ads didn’t promote political activities, five minutes of research would have yielded announcementsof talks at the pop-ups by elected officials and political candidates promoting the decriminalization of brothels, sex buying and sex tourism.
Not to mention, the expensive ad campaign was sponsored by George Soros’ billion-dollar Open Society Foundations, which also endows the global movement to decriminalize, legalize, and deregulate the sex trade.
With this information, the MTA would have understood that celebrating the “sex worker movement” is not about helping those surviving the hell that is prostitution, nor about helping them exit, but about promoting the sex trade itself. Otherwise, this movement, which includes convicted pimps and sexual predators, would never ask governments to greenlight the commercial sex market.
And let’s not forget pornography, which sex trade survivors routinely describe as prostitution on screen.
The sex trade is shifting further online. Pornhub, the largest digital warehouse of pornographic videos, is taking advantage of the COVID-19 crisis by offering free premium access to its platform, which includes documented rapes and the sex trafficking of children.
Individuals can always “choose” to engage in dangerous activities that put their lives at risk and a tiny percentage of those in prostitution claim they entered the sex trade freely, as adults, without any third-party extorting every dollar. The “sex work” movement argues getting paid for sexual acts is simply labor and must be fully decriminalized.
But the growing movement of survivors, fighting the normalization of the sex trade, is a powerful one. The truths these women (as well as a few men and trans women) share about their lived experiences in prostitution and pornography offer us meaningful solutions to combat the horrors sex buyers, exploiters, and prostitution imposes.
“Prostitution is the only ‘job’ where what you earn declines the longer you remain in it,” said Mickey Meji, advocacy manager at Embrace Dignity and the founder of Kwanele, a survivor-led network in South Africa when I asked her whether claims that prostitution is work like any other is rooted in reality.
“In all other professions, experience offers you increased regard and higher earnings. Prostitution is the only ‘occupation’ where experience strips one’s dignity,” Meji added.
Will the worst health crisis in modern history end the sex trade or recreate it?
Will COVID-19 lead states to finally recognize that people prostituted in the multi-billion-dollar sex trade are not only harmed, but also in urgent need of housing, medical assistance, and other services?
Effective responses to these needs rests on laws and policies, such as those enacted in Sweden and France among other countries, which recognize prostitution as a dangerous system of exploitation steeped in acute discrimination and gender-based violence.
New York and other U.S. states must pass laws that hold sex buyers and pimps accountable, fund necessary, comprehensive services for people in prostitution, and uphold principles of equality for all—rather than letting the MTA promote Pimpland.
“It seems to me that this pandemic of global consciousness is the right time to explain that body invasion by strangers is the most dangerous ‘job’ on earth — and why prostituted women and children have such a low survival rate physically — without even starting on social and emotional survival,” said author and feminist activist Gloria Steinem on steps needed to change the dominant narrative normalizing the sex trade. “Shouldn’t we seize the moment and get a global commitment recognizing that?”
Taina Bien-Aimé is the Executive Director of the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW), one of the oldest international organizations dedicated to ending trafficking in women and girls and commercial sexual exploitation as practices of gender-based violence and discrimination.