It seems like society goes through the same cycle every decade or so with a new Public Enemy #1. From the fight against “feeblemindedness” that led to the Eugenics craze of the early 20th century, Nixon’s War on Drugs in the 1970s, to whatever is manifest as the most recent Satanic Panic, cultural scapegoating is an enormous driver of attitudes and policy that harm already marginalized people. Lately, people who trade sex are in the crosshairs of a new war that has yet to be fully defined.
These moral panics always fixate on a perceived “social ill”. The way they cycle tends to go something like this: A trend will arise or an existing cultural norm will be perceived by those with granted cultural moral authority (the Church, politicians, etc). Those in power then rally the troops with fear, fire and brimstone.
“Do you know where your children are?”
Once the base is whipped up into a proper frenzy, politicians looking for low-hanging electoral fruit will carpet-bag onto the issue and pass legislation that is at best ineffective or completely arbitrary and at worst, life-destroying for those impacted by its punitive, short-sighted nature.
The War on Drugs is an excellent example of this cycle. Richard Nixon’s solemn declaration would march the United States into a long, dark period of interdiction and mass incarceration.
Did the war get won? Hardly. Many of us remember when marijuana was considered a “gateway” drug to addiction. Now marijuana is a common medical treatment and has some level of legalization in almost every state, and there are more people in prison for drug charges than ever before.
There was a war on homosexuality in the 50’s that was officially kicked off by J. Edgar Hoover featuring the FBI’s notorious “Sexual Deviant” crusade. For much of the 20th Century, the FBI targeted gay men and women and their organizations under cover of a bizarre and fear based official rationale—such as suspicion of criminal activity or vulnerability to blackmail and influence. Gay marriage is now legal in most states and PRIDE parades and events happen across the world.
Did we “win”? Hardly. The LGBT movement sacrificed the “T” in LGBT in order to gain the right to marry. Trans men and women, particularly trans women of color, were left behind to suffer the consequences of a war left unwon.
The “War on Women” sought to restrict womens right to birth control and abortion and has deep roots all the way back to the 1920’s when women were seeking the right to vote. The War on Pornography” was launched in 1989 by Andrea Dworkin who stated categorically that pornography was harmful to women.
But did the war get won? Hardly. “Feminism” has turned its back on many of us, including, ironically, women of color, trans women and people who trade sex.
We’ve had wars on terrorism. Wars on racism. Wars on mass incarceration. These wars have gone on unchecked for decades, and we should know by now that a war on anything never ends with the results we want, so much as it “settles” for a half baked solution that inevitably causes more harm..
Have we won any of these wars? We have not. Terrorism has become grassroots. Racism is alive and well. Our prison system is an ever growing industry that is well documented to be the purveyor of human rights abuses and our broken criminal justice system feeds its relentless appetite.
There are “Info wars”. Civil wars. Social wars. Psychological wars. Wars on policing, and wars on war itself.. “Alternate facts” are accepted by more than 50% of the US population. Civil unrest doesn’t just happen in far away lands: it’s happening here in the USA every single day. Social media is a constant battle with increased surveillance, unexplained de-platforming of users “bot” accounts that brought rise to QAnan.
Troubling acts of war are in full display – from the U.S. to Afghanistan, Ethiopia, Ukraine, China, Taiwan, Yemen, Pakistan, Haiti, Myanmar – and these conflicts that jockey for power and control set the world ablaze. As we look ahead, many bad situations around the world could easily get worse.
Wars are steeped in fear and rely on a combination of moral horror, bad information, horror stories, slanted research and personal bias and they accomplish very little other than making everyone pick a side and then feel hopeless about the outcome.
The war that has been waged on human trafficking is no different. It has particularly been hyper-focused on people who trade sex. People who trade sex around the world are in serious danger. First they thought all they would have to do was define people who trade sex as victims. Whether they knew they were a victim or not was based on who you talked to. More often than not, it was up to the person with the loudest voice in the room. And the anti-trafficking movement has had a very loud voice. Later on they had to concede that arresting victims was a pretty bad idea and the Swedish models of criminalization started becoming popular. Particularly with feminists who will only consider bodily autonomy to be applicable for someone seeking an abortion. Time and time again, one politician or another will tweet about how every woman should have the right to an abortion and in the very next tweet, they will demand an end to sex trafficking and firmly assert that all people who trade sex are either victims or criminals.
“Winning” during times of war is not always seen as a solid victory. In fact at times, it's an illusion. The war itself is very real, and, at first glance, the difference between “at a cost” and “at any cost” may seem trivial. But closer examination reveals that the human cost of this shift is anything but trivial; the stories of lives brazenly sacrificed to fulfill an ideological obsession are often gut-wrenching. Unfortunately, and yet predictably, moral outrage combined with hog the spotlight, and costs incurred, especially people costs, rarely get the scrutiny deserved. The sheer longevity of the anti trafficking movement and the dizzying rise of the worst possible solutions are fearsome. Countless families and communities have been literally leveled by the desire to win at any cost.
What will it take to end the war on the people who trade sex?
We need to create an inner awakening concerning the reckless sacrifice of people and their wellbeing by “at-any-cost” mindsets. The conscious crafting of a journey that results in an increase in wellbeing and the longevity of the health and wellness of those who need the relief the most is the only hill to die on.
Any willful and unnecessary neglect and sacrifice of people is unacceptable.