Beyond Trafficking and Slavery: Interview

Freedom Network USA now supports sex workers’ rights

Jean Bruggeman goes deep to explain why her organisation is getting off the fence and is backing sex workers’ rights

Jean Bruggeman
10 September 2021, 6.00am
Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved

Jean Bruggeman is the Executive Director of Freedom Network USA (FNUSA), the largest coalition of anti-trafficking advocates in the US championing a human rights-based approach to human trafficking. Beyond Trafficking and Slavery caught up with Jean as part of our feature on political fence-sitting on sex workers’ rights. We asked her why organisations hesitate to take a stand on this issue or to call each other out; why her organisation chose to get off the fence and how; and what the political prospects might be for making decriminalisation a reality in the United States. Her comments have been condensed and edited for clarity.

Joel Quirk (BTS): Much of anti-trafficking work focuses on service provision for survivors. How does this emphasis affect the capacity of organisations to speak out on controversial issues such as the decriminalisation of sex work?

Jean Bruggeman (FNUSA): Most of our members are direct service providers of legal and social services to survivors of trafficking in the United States. One tension that exists for them is their relationship to law enforcement. They need to cultivate this relationship in order to help survivors achieve their goals. Some survivors want law enforcement intervention. They want their traffickers to be prosecuted. That’s an important form of justice for them, and they want to ensure that those traffickers cannot harm others.

US law also requires foreign nationals to report their trafficking to law enforcement in order to get immigration protection. The way to an immigration status goes through law enforcement, and not having one is a gigantic risk factor for trafficking. Frankly the T Visa is the best thing about American trafficking law. As imperfect as it is, compare it to all the countries who don't offer immigration protection for trafficked foreign nationals. Countries that encourage people to come forward, maybe give financial compensation, and then promptly return them to their home countries. Doing it that way ruins the whole thing.

So providers need these relationships. They need law enforcement to work collaboratively with them when survivors come forward. That, however, makes it challenging for them to criticise some of the things law enforcement does. It’s a real – not a perceived but a real – conflict of interest. This is a big reason why FNUSA exists. We channel providers’ experiences on the ground and their criticism of law enforcement and government agencies into our policy work. That makes the critique one step removed from the direct service provider, so it doesn’t have to come from them directly.

And there is plenty to critique, especially when it comes to the treatment of sex workers. Law enforcement, by and large, is still in a rescue mentality. They love to be the saviour, to do a raid and to rescue the little girls. The criminalisation of sex work is tailor-made for that sort of project. Law enforcement has been given pretty much carte blanche to stroll into any building or business where they think sex work is taking place, to pull over cars, or to arrest people on the street in order to investigate an on-going crime that they think is being committed. They see this ability as a valuable tool, and law enforcement never wants to have a tool taken away from them.

There are many points of contention, but this one is quite pronounced. Members have come to us and said, ‘This is a problem, but we don’t want to articulate that because it’s going to harm our clients.’ Because of whom they serve they don’t want risk damaging those relationships.

Joel: So FNUSA has a greater ability to speak simply because it isn’t working on the front lines?

Jean: Exactly. FNUSA doesn’t have a direct services component. I'm not working directly with individuals who need T Visas or want to pursue criminal cases, so I don't have to worry about their individual interests. My interest is in the field as a whole. What do I think, on balance, will be better for the majority of people who are at risk of, or who are experiencing now, or have experienced in the past, human trafficking? What are the systemic reforms that we need in order to reduce the ease with which trafficking happens?

Let me step back a moment. FNUSA was founded in 2001 by a group of direct service providers who were working with foreign national trafficking survivors. The US Trafficking Victims Protection Act (2000) had just been passed, and this group wanted to figure out how to take advantage of this new law. How could they make real the protections and services promised under the law? How could they effectively work with law enforcement? How could they get someone a T Visa? It was all new, and there was a real need to work together to figure out a way through this new scheme.

These groups also knew that exploitation is endemic to the American system. It’s no accident that foreign nationals are abused and exploited in such huge numbers in American industry. Workers are excluded from immigration benefits, even though our economy completely relies on them, and industries like agriculture are set up to protect owners and businesses from any kind of accountability. So FNUSA was also set up to identify the systemic issues that enable human trafficking to exist on such a scale in the United States.

Denying rights and enabling trafficking are the same.

What we found was that it all came back to the denial of human rights. Denying rights and enabling trafficking are the same thing. When we refuse to protect workers, when we refuse to protect immigrants, when we allow discrimination against people based on the colour of their skin, or their gender identity, or their sexual orientation, when we throw people away – that’s when people get abused. If we protect people, people are less likely to be abused. To our mind it’s really that simple.

Our dual purpose is to work on that systemic change while ensuring that the folks who are still being abused and exploited are getting the best services possible. It's mostly our members on the ground who are providing those direct services. We enable them to do that work better by fighting the policy battles.

Joel: How do you understand trafficking in the sex sector vis-à-vis other labour sectors? Many people in the field accept that increased labour rights are a part of the solution in non-sex work sectors, but make an exception when it comes to sex work. They seem to think that, in that sector only, the usual logics don’t apply. How do you understand and navigate that break?

Jean: We see sex work as another form of work. It’s certainly a dangerous form of work, and a lot of harm is done to workers in this industry. But it’s a form of work. The people who disagree, who say it's inherently exploitative and thus not work, usually give moral or ethical reasons for why they think that. But frankly all our work at FNUSA is grounded in representing workers who are doing dirty, dangerous, unpleasant work. No little girl dreams of being a garment factory worker on American Samoa without air conditioning or sufficient food. No little girl dreams of being a poultry processor cutting apart animals and being covered in their blood and viscera for long periods of time without breaks. No little girl has such dreams.

Yet that is what some little girls end up doing, which is why we must put protections and regulations in place that make their environments less dangerous. FNUSA has always come from the perspective that there are many kinds of dangerous, difficult, unpleasant work that is harmful, that is painful. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which organises tomato pickers in Florida, is one of our founding members. It knows that agricultural work can be incredibly painful, dangerous work. Yet it’s not trying to make agricultural work unlawful or to mechanise it completely, but rather to change the systems in which that work is done. It’s trying to ensure that workers get the most protection possible, and that they can choose when to come and go from that industry.

I don't see the difference when it comes to sex work. I see it as another form of work that is dangerous, that is difficult, that is unregulated. Some sex workers suffer greatly. But, even if it’s an industry that little girls don’t dream of going into, all sex workers deserve protection. They do. And we don’t protect workers when we criminalise an industry. We leave them on their own. We leave them out in the cold.

FNUSA’s sophistication on the issue of sex workers’ rights has been a bit slower than in other areas. I think this is because our founders were simply rooted in other industries. We've been much quicker to articulate a really clear position on, say, immigration reform, because all our founding members were working with immigrants. The sex workers’ rights movement, understandably, is a lot more closed off. It is self-protective for all the right reasons. But that means we’ve had fewer connections to it.

A time came where we decided that needed to change. The tipping point had a lot to do with organisational capacity. At the beginning it was simply a network of people working other jobs. We now have a full-time staff of 12, and that has given us a lot more capacity to engage. The Trump administration also forced us to really think deeply about the systemic work, and to understand that there are communities that are taking the brunt of these wrong-headed, terrible policies. We realised that if we weren't actively working against that, then that was a failure. That really spurred us to get more engaged on the issue of sex workers’ rights.

Joel: I’ve had the impression for a long time that anti-trafficking organisations aren't comfortable criticising their peers. One of the main issues here is that people don't want to say anything negative in a context where it is generally assumed that everyone shares the same overarching goals. That seems to have changed with the Trump administration. With Trump anti-trafficking became – more so than ever – entwined in border protection, xenophobia and racism, and a conservative sexual politics. Some organisations went along with that, a choice that seems to have broken this surface-level unity. Is that an accurate reading of what happened? Is it perhaps actually easier to take a stand now on controversial positions than before?

Jean: I’d say there’s been a bit of an arc from divisive, to separate and siloed, to divisive again. In the early 2000s, when the US Trafficking Victims Protection Act and the UN’s Palermo Protocol were being signed, anti-trafficking politics were really divisive. It was the abolitionists vs. the human rights folks, and it got very ugly. People, including some of our founding members, were personally attacked and had their careers harmed. It was a highly toxic experience at that time.

Once the law got passed and the money started flowing, people really wanted to shift gears. They were happy to just focus on doing the work – there was a real backlash to the experience of the early 2000s. So that’s what our members did. They got to work providing services and started up programmes all over the country. The abolitionists also got to work, but in a different way than we did. They started up well-funded policy organisations, wrote white papers and studies, and issued positions. They slowly and steadily lobbied members of Congress. They managed to push the US even further into an anti-sex-work stance, and pushed forward policies and laws that were increasingly harmful to sex workers.

We watched this with growing distress at FNUSA, but we were unclear what to do about it. A big problem was the real dichotomy that exists in the US in terms of funding. There are some very well-funded abolition activists, some even have their own foundations. But there didn’t seem to be anybody on the other side. The folks that you would expect to fund that work were maybe doing it internationally, but not in the US. The only funding that people were getting here was coming from the government, and that had the prostitution pledge attached to it. The result was that people became very skittish about talking about decriminalisation or sex work at all. Doing so a) wouldn’t get them any funding; b) could lose them funding; and c) wouldn’t help the people standing right in front of them needing medical care, mental health services, a place to live, a job and care. So they buckled down and said, ‘You know what? Focus.’

It was just so clear that you could no longer say, ‘Well, they're well-intentioned.’

The past several years have changed that. It’s really brought back up the critical need to address these systemic harms. Racial justice issues, the attack on sex workers, the attack on human rights, the attack on civil rights: it’s all became so heightened that I think people have re-engaged in the fight. Fighting on the policy level is critical to ensuring that services remain available. We’ve seen in the US that when you shy away from that, you get a resurgent right wing that cuts back services. And that undermines the work being done to protect refugees, asylees, undocumented workers, and everyone LGBTQ. Across the board, all the populations that are most at risk of trafficking were thrown to the wolves. Protections were being gutted left and right. That reawakened a commitment to policy work in us. You need the policy work in order to do the services. They go in tandem.

Also to your point: the fault lines grew so stark. It was just so clear that you could no longer say, ‘Well, they're well-intentioned.’ The entire appetite in this country on the left, for that conversation, is gone. It’s now very clearly, ‘If you support racist policies, then that is harmful.’ And, moreover, we don't have to shy away from saying, ‘No. That is a racist policy. You are being racist in doing that.’ I think we've been emboldened to be more direct and critical of harmful policies, and to call them out. At the beginning of the Trump administration so many anti-trafficking organisations were not speaking out. I found that horrific, and it made me determined to use FNUSA’s voice as loudly as possible. That is what we are still trying to do.

Joel: FNUSA just released a new position paper on the decriminalisation of sex work. I’ve read it and it’s a really powerful, important statement. Could you say something about the drafting process? Who did you talk to, and how did it come together?

Jean: We started drafting it around four years ago, so it’s been a long time coming. Some of our members and former members are sex workers’ rights advocates, and we relied on their expertise to frame things in ways that were not offensive. We're very aware that sex workers and sex workers’ rights organisations have been very harmed by anti-trafficking work. Being part of the Anti-Trafficking Fund at NEO Philanthropy really helped us there. They brought us together with other grantees, including sex worker organisers, and through those conversations we learned how harmful the anti-trafficking movement can be. There were a lot of blanket statements made in those conversations: anti-trafficking programmes are problematic; they hurt us; they do this to us. It made us realise that we had not done enough to distinguish ourselves from the harm some other organisations were doing. It became important to make that separation real, and to articulate that.

We invited Cyndee Clay from HIPS to talk to our staff about the challenges and harms that she has seen. We asked her how she talks about sex work, and her answers heavily influenced our policy paper. This sort of legwork is necessary. In the same way that people have to engage with anti-racism in order to counter the racist thoughts that have been put into our heads our entire lives, we had to work to counter the anti-sex-work thoughts that we had received from our puritanical society in the United States. We had to undo them, and we had to do that very thoughtfully.

That was a big concern in doing this paper. I'm a white middle-class suburban lady. I can have good intentions, but that does not mean I'm going to do this right. I need to be aware of that. But I can improve my chances by collaborating with people who can check my work. So we reached out to some of our partners. We made the draft available to them. We had one-on-one conversations with members who had concerns. And again, most of their concerns were, ‘I have to work with law enforcement in order to serve my clients. As a lawyer, as a social worker, my ethical obligation is to provide the best services possible to the human being in front of me. And I am concerned that this policy paper is going to make it harder for me to do that. This is why our organisation doesn't take a position.’ Providers in more conservative areas were especially worried. They didn’t want this to impact their ability to get services to their clients. This wasn’t a theoretical issue for them.

As long as we’re in a situation where survivors are encouraged to attack each other, politicians and advocacy groups will find a way to use that.

It was also important to be intellectually honest and admit that decriminalisation in the United States would be an experiment. We don’t know what would specifically happen. There are some studies already out there, of course, but they come from contexts that are all quite different from the United States. A European country with a state health scheme and unemployment support – an actual social safety net – is a very different situation than what we’re dealing with here.

So we need research being done here, in this this country, and it needs to cover both before and after. Getting a baseline reading now is crucial, otherwise we’re likely to misread the changes. For example, I would anticipate that, with decriminalisation, reports of abuse and exploitation are going to increase. Not because episodes of abuse and exploitation are increasing, but because people would now feel safe reporting that, and because people would now be accessing the services and support they've always needed. It’s important, I think, to set those kind of expectations ahead of time.

And then we need to understand the long-term implications of decriminalisation. Are people more able to leave the industry when they want to, to get protection when they need it? Do they feel more freedom? Are they able to engage in harm reduction activities in a way that they perceive is making them safer? We’re going to need that data if we want decriminalisation to be more than something that just happens in little liberal enclaves in a few towns here and there.

Joel: Aren’t you getting a bit ahead of yourself there? There are still plenty of hurdles in the US to overcome before you actually have an applied example of decriminalisation. And that’s putting it mildly. What’s your read on that? It's one thing to advocate for decrim, but it's not an easy thing to realise.

Jean: It's an interesting time. The US is going through a lot of reckoning about criminal justice reform, and we’re in a real moment of conversation around racial justice and racial equity. And we know that criminalisation, including in the context of sex work, has a disproportionate impact on people of colour. Both in terms of the workers and in terms of the customers: Black and Brown people are more likely to be arrested, be convicted, and serve time. When white men get arrested they plea out. They’re not getting convicted. Black and Brown men, in contrast, tend to suffer the burden of these ‘end demand’ tactics. That is the other piece of the conversation.

The biggest challenge continues to be the mixed experiences of survivors. Everyone's experience is different. This is not a 100% true by any stretch of the imagination, but what we mostly see is that the people whose only experience of sex work was when they were being trafficked tend to oppose decriminalisation. Their experience is that the entire industry is abusive and exploitative.

On the other hand, trafficking survivors who have also engaged in consensual sex work – either before or after their trafficking experience – are more likely to support decriminalisation. They say things like: ‘Criminalisation did not help me. It didn't help that my customers were being arrested, because I couldn't engage in harm reduction activities. It didn't help when I was arrested because now I have a criminal record. I can't have custody of my kids. I can't get a new job. I can't get good housing. I can't get a million things. The police were also abusive of me during the arrest, so now I don’t trust cops. Even when I need cops, when I want to go to cops, I don't trust them. I have too much trauma from that experience."

Both are understandable, logical differences in experience. But the advocacy around this issue has created damaging animosity between and among survivors. That’s where things get ugly. Some advocacy organisation will pop up and say, ‘Well, this survivor is saying that decriminalisation means that you're a paedophile.’ The name calling really ratchets up, and it's being done by pitting survivors against each other. We saw this in action when the decriminalisation bills were being debated in DC and New York. Things got really painful for the sex workers’ rights advocates. They were being attacked by trafficking survivors and being told that their experience isn't true, that their experience doesn't matter, and that they don't understand. We need to find a way forward from that. As long as we’re in a situation where survivors are encouraged to attack each other, politicians and advocacy groups will find a way to use that.

Joel: Do you think taking an openly pro-decrim position will change things for you as an organisation?

Jean: We’ve been preparing for what might come. We started up a sex workers’ rights working group to make sure that we’re clear and comfortable in our position and how we talk about it. We’re also working to provide support to the survivors in our network, and to create a safe space for them to support each other and to prepare for any attacks that might be coming their way. That they might be attacked was one of the hesitations that we've had moving forward. We've been intentionally increasing the number of individual survivors who support decriminalisation in our network so that we can be sure that we are doing this in a knowledgeable way, and that they are making this decision with us.

Joel: One of the challenges associated with the sex work conversation is that it tends to get separated out from conversations regarding worker rights, unionisation, regulation, etc. Do you think taking a decriminalisation position provides greater scope for building solidarity and connections between different groups of workers and different communities?

Jean: I personally think so, but so far it doesn’t seem to be happening. I've never heard any sort of union organiser talking about the importance of protecting sex workers as another form of labour. They hide from it too.

But perhaps that’s one of the benefits of FNUSA’s holistic approach to trafficking: we see connections where other people don’t. For us, human trafficking sits at the intersections of racial justice, labour rights, immigrant rights, sex workers’ rights, reproductive rights, and LGBTQ rights. People become vulnerable to abuse and exploitation when these rights are not protected. Trafficking is one form of abuse and exploitation on the continuum that marginalised communities face, but it’s not the only form. Any trafficked person has suffered some other form of abuse and exploitation almost without exception.

I have hope. We're at a moment of time politically where people are hungry for a conversation about those intersections, and we’re at a time when we're really talking about systemic reforms. The racial justice issues and Covid have really made it clear in the United States how much these populations are being abused and exploited systemically. They're being left out of healthcare systems. They're being left out of legal systems. They're being left out of the economy and immigration protections. And that is leading, quite literally, to their deaths.

We even have a White House that is now recognising this. And the conversation on sex work fits within all of these other conversations on systemic discrimination and racial justice. Think about it. The industries in which trafficking is the most widespread in the United States – agriculture, sex work and domestic work – were all done by formerly enslaved people. There are people trafficked into every industry, but these are the three industries that are rife with extreme forms of abuse and exploitation. And they are the ones that were left intentionally unregulated after reconstruction, because they were primarily being done by formerly enslaved people. That sort of through line demands our attention. I’m hopeful that in this moment people will actually engage in that conversation.

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