By Shelbie Bostedt & Madeline Fox
WASHINGTON – Fresh out of college and working a 60-hour-per-week unpaid internship in Seattle, Hawk Kinkaid was strapped for cash. With a 90-minute commute to and from work each day, a conventional job wasn’t in the cards.
Kinkaid turned to sex work to pay the bills.
“To me it was a very conscious and easy decision,” Kinkaid said. “It wasn’t a bad experience at all.”
Stories like Kinkaid’s are often overshadowed in portrayals of the sex trade, where narratives of forced commercial sexual exploitation of women and children dominate, with little attention paid to the rights of voluntary sex workers or men in the trade.
Trafficking women and children for sexual exploitation is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, according to Equality Now, a women’s and children’s rights organization. The National Human Trafficking Resource Center’s hotline received reports of 3,598 cases of trafficking in 2014, though many cases go unreported.
A bipartisan bill introduced by Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, in January, the Justice for Victims of Sex Trafficking Act, would increase penalties for clients of sexual services. Many anti-trafficking advocates support the idea, but it could hurt the voluntary sex workers who rely on johns for their livelihood.
In recent weeks, Democrats have opposed a rider to the bill that would disallow the use of federal funds in procuring abortions for victims, holding the bill up in the Senate.
“This whole long-headed approach of ending demand for prostitution [by punishing clients] is really disheartening and upsetting for sex workers,” said Darby Hickey, a policy analyst of the Best Practices Policy Project, a sex worker advocacy group that provides resources to on-the-ground organizations. “The reason why people trade sex for money is because they need that money… so sex workers don’t want their clients being arrested.”
Though the bill was once again blocked in the Senate on Tuesday, it is not yet dead.
If passed, it would amend the federal criminal code to expand the definition of sex trafficking to equate the punishment for soliciting sex from a victim, whether known to the client or not, to that of the traffickers themselves. It also penalizes anyone seen as an accomplice to prostitution, such as a driver or a lookout.
Cornyn touted the bill’s ability to crack down on trafficking, saying it “will provide law enforcement with the tools [they need], while also lending victims a helping hand,” Cornyn said.
Though the bill is designed to not punish sex workers, punishing their clients can prove just as harmful for those who have entered the trade by choice. The bill doesn’t distinguish between those in the sex trade via trafficking and those who enter it of their own accord.
The definition of a voluntary “sex worker” is not easily stated and often open to misrepresentation, as there is no clear outline for who does and does not fit the bill. A sex worker, loosely put, is anybody involved in an industry related to sex, be it phone sex, burlesque, pornography, stripping or prostitution (though it is illegal in all but one county in the United States). Sex workers are not defined by race, gender, class or sexual orientation.
To this end, involvement in the sex trade is not a dichotomy of voluntary and involuntary, but rather, a spectrum based on circumstance. Individuals can enter the trade voluntarily but then be unable to leave on their own terms, just as people who were trafficked can reenter the trade voluntarily.
The latter was the case for Nancy Floy, a small business owner in Illinois. Floy was trafficked as a child, forced to engage in sex work by her father when she was just four years old. Even after she escaped her father’s influence, though, Floy, now 56, worked in the sex trade off and on until she was 30, returning off and on as her financial situation changed.
“There’s a continuum: From very intense, very egregious exploitation and coercion, to situations of not egregious but still nonetheless coercive and explicit practice, to one where… people are able to proclaim and defend their rights,” said Hickey.
For those who can voluntarily come and go from the industry, lack of legal protection has led to forming their own support systems.
After leaving the sex trade, Kinkaid started Hook Online, a harm-reduction nonprofit agency dedicated to providing support and education to male sex workers, in 1997 to reach other men within the industry and address their needs where they may not be reached by workers’ protections laws.
Hook Online offers services from career counseling to website design, all tailored toward helping sex workers thrive within their industry, despite the cards stacked against them.
“There is a huge distinction between those that are trafficked and those who choose to engage in the business,” Kinkaid explained. “Forced participation and those that have been taken advantage of in impoverished positions are very different circumstances than the people [Hook Online] tends to deal with.”
This conflation of prostitution and trafficking contributes to the murkiness surrounding sex workers rights and anti-trafficking advocacy, creating a point of tension between those working to improve the lives of sex workers at large, and those attempting to eradicate the exploitation and abuse that comes with the darker side of prostitution.
But for some, prosecuting clients is a no-brainer when it comes to ending trafficking.
“We want to go after the traffickers, to go after the pimps,” said Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., at a briefing about the House bill. “Don’t talk to me about johns. These are sex abusers.”
However, laws that punish clients, according to sex worker advocates, remove the agency voluntary sex workers have over who they choose to provide services to.
Though the BPPP recognizes that people enter the trade for a variety of reasons, some through trafficking and coercion, others through choice, the organization believes laws focused on punishing clients to “end demand” is the wrong route to take.
“These laws are skewing the whole conversation about human [and labor] trafficking from one that’s about human rights and structural issues of migration and fair pay and workers rights to [a conversation] that’s just about sex and arresting individual people,” Hickey said of the proposed bill.
Clients are not only sources of income, but can also be part of a solution for a better climate for sex workers, as they can identify trafficking victims and anonymously report those abusive networks and practices.
“I don’t imagine the client enjoys it if the sex worker is clearly doing it against their will,” Kinkaid said, noting that under circumstances less punishing to solicitors of sex, johns could serve as reporters of trafficking.