ITK: A Survivor's Perspective Autumn Burris

Truckers Against Trafficking

In The Know

By Autumn Burris

                  I am writing this blog at this particular time for a specific reason … yes, a time in history where we are all likely pretty exhausted with political talk. Survivors have told me, “Get your politics out of here,” and challenged my position on the sex trade on numerous occasions in a variety of ways. The sex trade in all its forms is a political issue globally, nationally, state-wide and locally. The purchase of human bodies applies to women, girls, men and boys; however, it is largely a gendered issue and a form of violence and inequality that predominately affects women and girls. The confusion and consequences of the effects of legalizing, regulating and decriminalizing the sex trade must be understood, the currency followed and solutions developed based on realities. Most importantly, it affects the lives of our sisters and brothers who are being exploited right this moment.

                  I am an abolitionist, meaning I am in it to end it. I exist to expose the truth that the majority of us never dreamed of being an exploited person and were involved by choice but in the absence of other viable options for survival. The vast amount of gender-based violence that happened prior to, during and after sexual exploitation vary widely; however, the end results are continued dismissal of the harms we experienced in the sex trade. When organizations or individuals straddle the political fence, we inflict more harm than good.

                  In delving more deeply into the political and legal stances regarding prostitution, we can acknowledge the shifting sands and complexities of proposed prostitution solutions via systems of decriminalization, legalization and regulation. All intended to solve and/or promote prostitution in various ways: move it indoors, zone it, put the onus on women to do health checks to protect the buyers’ health, de-link prostitution and trafficking, promote as a victimless crime, and call exploitation “sex work.” All these tactics provide benefits and a welcome mat to traffickers, brothel owners, sex buyers and escort services and not the exploited individuals. In short, decriminalization, legalization and regulation promote a gender imbalance between men and women and fail to protect anyone except perpetrators; these ignore the harms of the sex trade and trample on the human rights of exploited individuals -- the right NOT to be bought and sold.

                  Sexual exploitation does not occur in neat silos, and an effective response will require a change in the mindset of the people and in policy solutions … an expansion, really, to include all forms of sexual exploitation as part of the problem, including “legal” parts such as stripping and pornography. These legal forms of sexual exploitation promote and intersect with prostitution and the trafficking of adults and children into the commercial sex industry. Trafficking occurs in so-called legal venues, such as the stripping industry, massage parlors, on or near military bases, in urban and rural area hotels, escort services, online, schools, in an alley, in a car outside Trump Towers, trucker parking lots, gentleman’s clubs, cantinas and a long list of others. As Dr. Melissa Farley so succinctly put it, “Prostitution is where sex trafficking happens.” I would expand, “Stripping is where sex trafficking occurs and is pornography on stage.” The stripping industry and pornography normalize sexual exploitation of women and girls by facilitating and grooming for the purposes of sex trafficking. In counties in Australia where prostitution is normalized and legalized, not only did human trafficking increase, but so did the trafficking of children. In crafting solutions and legislation, it is imperative that we are clear about these links.

                  From a human rights perspective, prostitution itself is a violation of human rights. For this reason, the majority of exited survivors reject the term “sex work.” The notion that prostitution is a form of work as purported by some international agencies and reports is erroneous, hinders efforts to combat sex trafficking and masks the harms in prostitution. Furthermore, usage of language such as “sex work” or describing survivors of prostitution as “sex workers” is inaccurate and damaging, not only to prostituted women, but to the eradication of sex trafficking. Sex buyers’ currency fuels sex trafficking, including children. I doubt buyers are asking if the woman is trafficked or how old that child is. In fact, many buyers prefer children. Purchasers of sex are often violent and, in some cases, can be linked to other violent crimes against women, such as serial killers. The buyers of sex fuel systems of prostitution and sex trafficking. Sex buyers should be held accountable in accordance with their role in the problem. The Palermo Protocol addresses the demand for sex and calls for state parties to “discourage the demand that fosters all forms of exploitation of persons, especially women and children, that leads to trafficking.” The protocol clearly acknowledges the inherent links between all forms of exploitation and trafficking as well as calls for demand-reduction strategies.

                  If we trace the economics of the sex trade, we find that the almighty currency drives the market; the distribution steps up to the demand; and the “supply” or exploited take the fall, experiencing frequent violence, multiple abuses and even death. Therefore, solutions must be made where the problems begin. In brief, the sex buyers’ currency is needed to meet sexual needs; the trafficker facilitates this happening; and the exploited are abused, violated and ostracized for being “prostitutes.”.

                  The Nordic Model works because it addresses the root of the problem -- men’s entitlement to access to women’s bodies -- and addresses the demand for paid sex. In 1999, the Swedish Model or Sex Purchase law instituted a policy solution that addressed the root cause -- the demand for paid sex and the men paying for sex and criminalization of the purchase of sex. The “seller of sex” or exploited individuals are not criminalized. The traffickers in the area stated on wiretap that Sweden isn’t a good country to establish themselves. In short, if sex buyers are penalized, traffickers will not get their money due to real penalties against the purchasing sex. Trafficking, therefore, is reduced. The one place that the pro-legalization and abolitionists agree is not penalizing the individual selling sex. The divide is the decriminalization of traffickers and sex buyers. Why? Those opposed to the Nordic Model are likely still profiting from the sex trade. An important point to note – with the Nordic Model, a cultural change occurred in the public’s perspective on the prostituted individual, and the stigma was reduced. The Nordic Model proposes solutions that work in implementation to combat trafficking, reduce the stigma of prostituted and put the onus on the sex buyer, who holds the currency facilitating both prostitution and sex trafficking.  

The erroneous misconceptions by the general public that prostitution is a choice -- a victimless crime – demonstrates a lack of understanding between the inherent link between sex trafficking and prostitution and a host of other myths about prostituted people. The pro-legalization parties will tell you a variety of myths. Frankly, while involved in the sex trade, I told myself the same lies in order to withstand the constant abuses, violations and near death experiences. If I had told myself the truth, I would have psychologically split into a million pieces. One old myth is that prostitution is a victimless crime. This myth can be de-bunked effectively by having the facts regarding harms. If you keep the harms of the sex trade in the forefront of your heart and mind, coupled with numerous studies exposing the undeniable truth that post-traumatic stress disorder and other psychological harms, physical abuse, high incidents of violence and being targeted by rapists and serial killers and even death occur, then it is clear this is not a victimless crime. The exploited feel the brunt of harms, not the traffickers or sex buyers.

The myth is that selling sex is a “choice.” As many survivors have stated in a variety of ways, it is a “choice” of those with a lack of choices. The fact is that child sexual abuse as high as 90 percent, according to several studies, precedes involvement in the sex trade and serves as a grooming process. The truth is that prostitution, trafficking and the sex trade stem from vulnerabilities and not a full spectrum of viable, healthy options for survival. To name a few economic disparities between women and men: poverty, racism, classism, runaways, LBGTQ individuals, foster children and a myriad of other social malfunctions and failures.

The myth that prostitution is a job like any other job unravels on itself by focusing on the harms. When one individual in a sexual act doesn’t want to be there or has to endure the act by disassociation, the currency does not equal consent. No, in fact, prostitution is paid rape. "You cannot purchase sexual consent," as so eloquently stated by Rachel Moran, founder of Survivors of Prostitution-Abuse Calling for Enlightenment (SPACE). As Bridget Perrier stated, “You don’t have to seek treatment after working at McDonalds.” The repeated and regularly occurring violence, abuse and death are rarely, if ever, a sign of a healthy and bonafide place of employment. The exploitation of women and girls is claimed to need protection by profiteers, i.e., traffickers. The very ones who claim to protect them are often the ones causing harm. If the sex trade is not dangerous, why the need for protections? Traffickers and other profiteers claim to protect exploited individuals … a false sense of security, because we know once the door closes, it is you and a sex buyer, and there is no guarantee of safety. The “sex work” ideological myth that prostitution is a form of work delinks prostitution from trafficking and denies that those involved are rendered choice-less, resorting to prostitution due to the myriad of vulnerabilities, systematic failures and structural inequalities.

The public health claim that decriminalizing, regulating or legalizing will reduce HIV/AIDS is easily dismissed. For centuries, the onus has been on the prostituted to get health checks in the spirit of protecting the purchasers of sex. Sex buyers are not required to get testing and provide the results. It has been argued that legalized brothels or other “controlled” prostitution establishments protect women through enforceable condom policies. In one study, 47 percent of women in U.S. prostitution stated that men expected sex without a condom; 73 percent reported that men offered to pay more for sex without a condom; and 45 percent of women said that men became abusive if they insisted that men use condoms (Raymond et al, 2001, p. 72). In theory and in some instances, the prostituted individuals are charged, producing a clean bill of health, while the buyers are not held accountable.

In closing, indoor/outdoor, international/domestic, adult/child, legal/illegal, female/male, high-end/low-end, it all feels the same to the exploited. Exploitation of people is a violation of the most fundamental human rights, denying rights of life, liberty and security of person, and the slave trade being prohibited in all its forms. Please join me in advocating for Nordic Model legislation, placing the onus where it belongs, on the sex buyer.

Autumn Burris, dedicated and passionate leading expert with over twenty years’ experience in combating sexual exploitation. As the Founding Director of Survivors for Solutions and a survivor of sexual exploitation and multiple forms of violence against women, Ms. Burris utilizes her lived experience and expertise as an influential and invaluable force in effectuating public policy reform, delivering training and presentations, and fostering positive change and social recognition to exploited individuals. Autumn holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science/Public Policy with minor Human Rights from the University of California, San Diego. As a subject matter expert and survivor of sexual exploitation, Autumn’s public policy advocacy experience includes the United Nations, British Parliament, legislative advocacy at the federal level, testifying on California legislation and expert testimony in federal trafficking cases. She is currently an Expert Consultant with the Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center, a Peer Reviewer with the Office of Justice Programs and a member of SPACE International.

Autumn Burris, dedicated and passionate leading expert with over twenty years’ experience in combating sexual exploitation. As the Founding Director of Survivors for Solutions and a survivor of sexual exploitation and multiple forms of violence against women, Ms. Burris utilizes her lived experience and expertise as an influential and invaluable force in effectuating public policy reform, delivering training and presentations, and fostering positive change and social recognition to exploited individuals. Autumn holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science/Public Policy with minor Human Rights from the University of California, San Diego. As a subject matter expert and survivor of sexual exploitation, Autumn’s public policy advocacy experience includes the United Nations, British Parliament, legislative advocacy at the federal level, testifying on California legislation and expert testimony in federal trafficking cases. She is currently an Expert Consultant with the Office for Victims of Crime Training and Technical Assistance Center, a Peer Reviewer with the Office of Justice Programs and a member of SPACE International.