Last year, 34 sex workers were murdered in the United States—that we know of. There's little accurate data for this multi-billion-dollar industry that exists in the shadows. It's a black-market business where workers are far more likely to face violence than in conventional jobs, but they're also at risk if they call a cop. Yet sex workers continue to ply their trade for money. Hardline critics hold that all prostitution is exploitation, even if the sex worker gives her consent; advocates call for decriminalization to protect sex workers. And stumbling along, without much vision on the issue, lawmakers lurch between different approaches. (Harm reduction is the most common alternative to increased enforcement, though a lot of people in power—including the attorney general—still favor the latter).
The opioid crisis has worsened everything: When drug addicts are criminalized, it often pushes them into sex work, since a drug conviction reduces their access to legitimate jobs. The intersection of drugs and sex work generates all sorts of new vectors for the exploitation of both women and girls. And our foster care system is also the source of the majority of girls who are forced into sex trafficking—our governmental child-care system serving sometimes as a cradle of trauma.
To shine light into this dark world, journalist Noor Tagouri created a three-part documentary for Newsy, Sold in America. It's a comprehensive examination of prostitution and sex trafficking, how they're different, and how the law treats them the same—with disastrous results. In each segment, Tagouri takes a personal approach. Her subjects speak candidly, some interviewees cry, other share things they've never said before, and throughout, Tagouri offers a perceptive and intimate view of the U.S. sex trade and its victims. Pacific Standard spoke with Tagouri about her documentary, the intersections of morality and culture, and how to encourage survivors to speak out.
Why did you decide to make a film about the sex trade in America?
Sex trafficking is something I've been extremely passionate about for almost 10 years. I thought I knew everything there was to know about it because I've constantly read about it, watched docs, I've done research papers, covered it in local news, [did the Girl clothing line], and worked with organizations for it. It's been a rollercoaster of a year covering this. Everything I ever thought I knew about the sex trade kind of shattered into a million pieces. The entire series is a huge mind-fuck—that's what it was for us, experiencing it. Hopefully, the series shows the complexity of that reaction.
Every single time! Early on, we shot in Seattle. We talked with Peter Qualliotine. He's co-founder of Organization for Prostitution Survivors, and works with Demand Abolition. It’s a non-profit whose goal is to eradicate the illegal commercial sex trade in the U.S. by ending the demand for purchased sex. They believe that, once money enters a person's hand, it's not consensual sex anymore, even if that person consensually chooses to do it. His opinion is: It's wrong because we should not exploit anyone. His ideas are rooted in overcoming toxic masculinity and patriarchy and men's entitlement to women's bodies. Which seemed like the best solution possible. In the doc, he's teaching a class of men arrested for prostitution, and I remember thinking, "Oh my God, this is amazing, it's so progressive—why can't we just teach men to do better?" But then later, when we delved into the world of sex workers, we saw how, by going after demand, it can actually be super harmful to people who are working in the sex trade by choice or because they need to do it to survive. There is no one perfect solution.
In Las Vegas, you speak with Tara Tae and Willow, both sex workers at the Bunny Ranch. They and their "legal pimp," the proprietor of the brothel, Dennis Hof, say that the women working at the Bunny Ranch are empowered. Did you agree? Or are they exploiting themselves? Or is the truth, perhaps, somewhere in between?
When you're talking to people who work at the Bunny Ranch, they believe: This is their choice. So, I feel like it's empowering them. I think empowerment comes from being able to make your own choices—about your body, and about your lifestyle, and what you do. However, I'm really torn about it. Like, in Willow's interview, when I asked her, "Would you recommend this to other girls who want to do this?" She gave this response, like: "Eww, no. Of course not. Absolutely not." So there's this back-and-forth.
As a young Muslim woman for whom religion is important, did you ever think of sex work as immoral? And if so, did shooting this documentary change your opinion?
What's immoral is the fact there are people who are not able to eat or pay rent and feel like this is the only option they have. I'm too busy thinking about how that's immoral, more than thinking about how people choose to use their bodies. By looking through a moral lens at women's bodies, we have a huge blind spot about why these people are put in these positions to begin with. We are so quick to say things like, "Prostitution is immoral," before we say things like, "There are trans women of color who are homeless, and literally have no other option, women who are not able to eat, not able to pay rent ... that's immoral." Homelessness and poverty are things that we choose to turn a blind eye to. But when it comes to what women choose to do with their bodies, everybody is always up in arms about morality.
Historically, in the West and the East, sex work used to be permissible. In the Temple of Aphrodite in Greece, prostitution was a religious occupation. Our modern view of prostitution dates back to feudalism, when women's bodies became a communal good, vital for making babies after the Black Plague. Nowadays, when we criminalize sex work, we still punish the whore, which endangers women. Does it seem almost medieval to you, how a community's moral standing matters more to some people than individual women's lives?
Let's be real about what kind of women we're talking about. Overall, we're talking about women of color. Marginalized women. As a society we tend to care about them less. You wanna know a fun fact, actually? Even the term "sex trafficking" is rooted in racism. We talked with a woman, who didn't [appear in] the documentary, but she had all of these artifacts—these little blue books, from the 1900s—and they had all of these names and addresses of people who were arrested. "Sex trafficking" was derived from what people used to call the white slave trade. Meanwhile, women of color who traded sex to survive were never victims; they were criminals; they were put in jail. Today, it's similar. We have a doctor in the film, [and] she admits that white girls are still more often seen as victims and girls of color are seen as bad kids. Ashley, the foster kid in the doc who was trafficked, says people always thought she was lying or just a bad kid. So, if we're talking about the endangerment of individual women, imagine if all the women engaging in survival sex were white. There would be a completely different conversation happening.
In the "Trafficking" section, you show how most Americans think of sex trafficking as something that happens "over there," and fail to see that it's a huge problem in America—in part because we tend to ignore the ugliness of our foster care system, where sex trafficking is a systemic problem. Is part of the problem that we expect the world to be ugly for poor people and to be unfair to POC, so we look away when it is?
This is true for a lot of issues we face; it's easier to turn a blind eye, or for us to look at a third-world country and be like, "Look at all the sex trafficking and slavery that happens in Cambodia, Thailand, and Nepal," versus what's happening here. That's rooted in poor-shaming and racism. There are kids in America who are not "worthy victims." When it comes to the foster-care system, it's such an overwhelmingly broken system because there is no money and resources, and there are so many cases. It's easier for people to turn a blind eye because they don't feel like there's really anything that they can do about it. And I'm realizing it more as we're talking about this, a lot of these questions all come back to racism: Who are the kids we care about?
You also examine how the opioid crisis intersects with sex trafficking. Did you see evidence that legalization or decriminalization of both drugs and prostitution would help combat sex trafficking, by removing opportunities for exploitation?
Oftentimes, drugs are involved. The only way I thought about drugs is how criminalizing people, who are in the sex trade, for drugs, makes it harder for them to get out of the vicious cycle they're in. There were situations where we talked to people who had used, who ended up being exploited because they were addicted to drugs, or people whose pimps would get them hooked on drugs, or people who would recruit women outside of a methadone clinic.
In Washington, D.C., you speak with Laya Monarez, a sex worker who talks about how dangerous life on the streets is for a trans women of color like her, and a significant percentage of sex workers are trans. The United Nations, the World Health Organization, and Amnesty International have advocated for the decriminalization of sex work in order to protect sex workers. Before this doc, had you considered prostitution as a human rights issue?
I hadn't thought about that as much as I had thought about the exploitation that was going on. But I also recognize that most people who engage in sex work are women of color from marginalized communities, and they're doing this because of a lack of a social safety net. Not only is it a human rights issue, it's a public-health issue, and so much of it is rooted in racism and socio-economic injustices. After I did the interview with Laya, she was like: "You know, my dream job is to be an art teacher. And to be honest with you, I wish I could go back to that." Like, we never think about it like that. There is such a lack of sympathy and compassion in our communities. There's a stigma about trading sex for money. Or for food.
Is anyone pushing for a modern "brothel model"? Sex workers wouldn't be on the street; they'd be safer and protected; they could get regular medical tests, which reduces public-health risks; and women could have greater control over their work environment. Brothels minimize exploitation thanks to oversight and regulation. Plus, it's a way to separate legit sex workers from the marginalized people who are being trafficked and exploited. We could criminalize sex trafficking while protecting sex workers. Are brothels ever discussed?
You mean a space where people can work safely? That's very common-sense. But the only person who brought up brothels as a model is Dennis Hof. He owns multiple. He's a businessman. Nobody else argued for a brothel model. The first step to anything like that is decriminalization. Anybody you talk to about the path to legalization, for them, the idea of having a brothel model all over the U.S. is so far-fetched, and so far down the line, it's not even part of the conversation. They're thinking about legalization, and, for them, the first step is decriminalization.
Are lawmakers talking about legally separating consensual commercial sex workers from sex-trafficking victims who are exploited? Could that be a reasonable approach, to create two distinct legal approaches to the sex trade?
When it comes to trafficking and exploitation, most times, what lawmakers are talking about is underage girls. Legally, if someone engages in sex work under the age of 18, that's trafficking. Over the age of 18, if there's force, fraud, or coercion, it's still considered trafficking. So, if we stick to that definition and talk about legalization and decriminalization for prostitution, that would separate it from sex trafficking. This is why we made two separate episodes: to separate people's thinking about them.
Senator Rob Portman (R-Ohio) would like to end human trafficking. He's set his sights on Backpage.com. But it seems like he's conflating sex trafficking with all sex work. Did you ask Portman about increasing access to housing instead of pushing a law to shut down Backpage?
I asked Senator Portman, "What would you say to the sex workers who are doing this because they choose to do this, and using Backpage is their only choice to survive?" His response was, "I would tell them to come out of the shadows." He didn't really have a solid answer beyond that. Some of these people are out of the shadows. They're putting their lives on the line by saying this is what they do illegally, and they need help. In conversations with someone like Senator Portman, there's a huge piece missing: They need to include sex workers. This is the catch-22. There are so many situations that exist somewhere on this entire spectrum of sex trade, but the laws affect every single person involved. So how can we even come up with a solution when there are so many different situations? But on the hopeful side, a lot of the legality is controlled by local and state government. If people watch this and they have an opinion or they want to get involved, this is a problem that people can start tackling, locally.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.