Why are Sex Worker and Public Health Advocates Annoyed with Google?
Originally composed by SWAAY (Sex Work Activists, Allies and You)
Edited by Robert Childs, Executive Director of the North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition
Google released a statement last week declaring that they are making the largest-ever corporate donation – an impressive $11.5 million dollars - to "ending modern day slavery." While it is noble to fight slavery, forced trafficking, and exploitative labor conditions, Google has chosen to fund three groups whose mission, while dignified, causes serious harm to consenting sex workers and thus public health around the world. The three funded groups: International Justice Mission, Polaris Project, and Not for Sale offer a feel-good sales pitch for the (further) criminalization and arrests of sex workers; however, never in history has this led to the end of the sex industry or the exploitative labor practices faced by some sex workers. Demonizing a "vice" such as prostitution, drives it further underground and leads to increased stigma and violence against an already-marginalized people. It also pushes sex workers away from obtaining healthcare or from reporting rapes, robberies and other crimes against them for fear of being arrested themselves. Criminalization isolates and endangers sex workers in serious ways, making them more vulnerable to violent criminals such as the prolific serial killers Gary Ridgeway or Robert Pickton. It also increases the risk of HIV infection, each infection costing the state of North Carolina around $600,000 in medical expenses. Organizations such as International Justice Mission, Polaris Project, and Not for Sale use the banner of "fighting sex trafficking" as a weapon to push broader religious and moral agendas about "correct" sex behavior. These types of Western groups rely on junk science and fake "statistics," and they excel at spreading at emotional propaganda which bizarrely argues that they are saving helpless children from sex slavery by arresting adult sex workers (for an in depth analysis, please scroll to the bottom of this article). These groups commonly seek to silence the concerns of public health officials and sex workers by pointing out their financial stake in the matter. While true in some circumstances, such interest pales in comparison to the amount of money raked in every year by those who spread panic by lumping all types of sex work in with forced sex trafficking. The real profit is not in sex work, but in slandering sex work advocates in front of a public that doesn't know any better. Support service providers for sex workers struggle for funding to serve their communities, and it is offensive to watch Google shower money upon a wealthy group like the International Justice Mission, which took in nearly $22 million dollars in 2009 alone. In contrast, the St. James Infirmary, a San Francisco clinic that provides free healthcare to sex workers, operated on only $335k in 2010 and the North Carolina Harm Reduction in Durham, which provides sex worker support services, HIV testing and health referrals, runs its sex worker services on a couple thousand dollars.
"Doing good" doesn't need to be the zero-sum game that some of the Google-funded groups want us to play. We acknowledge that these groups do some good things, but that doesn't excuse the harmful deeds and words they also perpetuate. Google should not back those who support human rights for some by violating the human rights of others. Donors don't have to choose between helping victims of forced trafficking and respecting the rights and self-determination of sex workers - we can do both at the same time. Missionary-type NGOs pressure police around the world to use a brute-force approach to arrest and imprison both consenting sex workers and trafficking victims without regard for those people's wishes. Other nonprofits believe in offering effective, compassionate help through nonviolent means, including providing free healthcare, HIV/STI testing and treatment, peer-led support groups and community-building, harm reduction for drug users, legal advocacy for survivors via the removal of prostitution convictions of trafficked persons, and campaigning against the criminalization and social stigmas that put sex workers at risk of violence from both the police and criminals.
We hope that Google will stand with us in working towards a better world for every person in sex work, whether those people are there through choice, circumstance, or coercion.
Our Request to Google
* We request an immediate end to Google's funding of any organization that crusades against sex workers' human rights and safety, especially the violent, forcible "rescue" and imprisonment of sex workers in the developing world.
* We request a disclosure of how much money Google has already given to International Justice Mission, Not for Sale, and the Polaris Project -- three organizations whose work includes fighting against improving conditions for sex workers, especially in the developing world.
* We request an apology from Google in the form of equal donations to community-based nonprofits that respect all sex workers' rights and dignity by providing non-judgmental services such as free condoms and safer sex information, medical care including HIV testing and treatment, harm reduction for drug users, counseling and support groups, legal aid, and public education around these issues. Five standout nonprofits that deserve Google's money: San Francisco's St. James Infirmary, New Orleans’ Women With A Vision, New York's Sex Workers Project, India's VAMP (a project of SANGRAM), and India's Durbar.
Primary Voices on This Issue: Video of sex workers who want to stop trafficking
More information on the NGOs discussed:
International Justice Mission is a large-scale evangelical Christian group founded in 1997 by Gary Haugen, who has said, "God is the ultimate power and authority in the universe, so justice occurs when power and authority is exercised in conformity with His standards." IJM's mission statement explains that it "seeks to restore to victims of oppression the things that God intends for them," and they work "in the tradition of heroic Christian leaders" such as Mother Teresa. Since its inception, IJM has grown to become a powerful NGO (non-governmental organization) known for its relentless promotion of "rescuing slaves." While this feel-good sales pitch keeps millions of dollars in private and public funds streaming into the faith-based group, the reality is more complicated.
The term "rescue" calls to mind imagery of angelic saviors, but IJM's so-called "rescue" work sometimes translates into actions that are nothing short of violent, neocolonialist oppression against an easy target: brothel workers in developing countries. Because morality groups like IJM refuse to distinguish between willing sex workers and coerced victims of trafficking, their steamroller approach blindly attacks everyone in a brothel or red light district in hopes of finding victims to "save." IJM uses its power and political connections to pressure governments to crack down on the whole sex industry as an "anti-trafficking" measure, which leads to more violent raids from famously corrupt police forces in countries like Cambodia, the Philippines, and India. The people caught up in these raids frequently report being beaten and raped by the police who are supposedly "rescuing" them, and are detained against their will in privately-funded, locked-door "rehabilitation centers" or in overcrowded, disgusting jails. (Please watch the video below to hear the horrifying stories of some Cambodian sex workers caught up in raids.) We don't doubt that IJM and other "rescue" NGOs have found and helped some genuine victims through these aggressive sweeps, but in the process, they create even more human rights abuses -- unwelcome messes that under-funded local organizations are often left to fix. Whether one is a survivor of forced trafficking or a person just trying to earn a living, no one deserves to be subjected to this degree of violence and humiliation, and no human rights abuse should be written off as acceptable collateral damage "for the greater good."
Founded in 2002 and operating on nearly four million dollars a year, Polaris Project markets itself as modern-day "abolitionists," saving people it labels "slaves" from what former executive director Mark Lagon dismissively referred to as "nasty, immoral lives." By refusing to distinguish between consensual sex work and rape/slavery, NGOs like Polaris not only ignore the wishes of consensual sex workers, but also make light of the real suffering endured by victims of exploitation. Polaris hawks unsubstantiated urban legends as "facts," such as the claim that "the average age of entry into the commercial sex industry in the US is between 12 to 14 years old." Their campaign materials casually jump between topics like violent pimps, topless dancing, slavery, escorting, and sexual abuse of minors, leading readers to believe that all are inherently linked. By treating all sex workers as passive victims who can't be allowed to make their own decisions, Polaris dehumanizes and objectifies us to serve their own conservative goals. Polaris has fought against Craigslist for allowing sex workers to advertise on the site, and has participated in efforts to strategize about how to "create controversy on a world level" against any form of commercial sex, consensual or not.
When moral crusaders attempt to close advertising venues relied upon by sex workers, they make it more risky for sex workers to earn a living. The ability to advertise and do business online has been important to the safety of independent sex workers in the developed world. It allows us to screen potential clients for warning signs of danger (such as checking sex offender databases or local "bad date lists"), and it creates a digital paper trail. The notorious "Craigslist Killer" was caught in part through his online exchanges with the women he attacked. Online venues -- like the former adult services section on Craigslist, and the current use of Backpage.com -- are embraced by sex workers because they make our jobs safer, plain and simple. Taking those advertising sites away from us only makes us more vulnerable to predators, and hinders police investigations if the worst does happen.
Not for Sale is a smaller NGO founded in 2006 by theologian David Batstone. Normally operating on a budget just over one million dollars, they have stated that they just received $250,000 from Google. Like Polaris and IJM, Not for Sale is branded as an anti-trafficking/anti-slavery group, and fails to either grasp or acknowledge a difference between consensual adult sex work and forced sexual slavery and rape. Not for Sale is known for campaigning against the partial decriminalization of adult sex work in a San Francisco ballot initiative called Proposition K in 2008. Prop K sadly lost, receiving only 41% of the local vote.
We hope that Google will stand with us in working towards a better world for every person in sex work, whether those people are there through choice, circumstance, or coercion. We would be happy to coordinate a meeting for Google with sex worker and human rights advocates to discuss our concerns and needs in greater depth. We can be contacted via email at email@example.com