#Blacksexworkerslivesmatter: White-Washed ‘Anti-Slavery’ and the Appropriation of Black Suffering
Claiming to be a modern-day anti-slavery ambassador is a highly profitable cause, one that is increasingly popular in Hollywood circles. Most recently, hundreds of celebrities endorsed an open letter to derail Amnesty International’s draft policy to decriminalize consensual adult prostitution. The letter was written by the Coalition Against Trafficking in Women International (CATW), a U.S-based anti-prostitution lobby group who frequently lobbies for the criminalization of the sex industry while using the term interchangeably with “contemporary slavery.” Indeed it has developed into, quite literally, a ten-million dollar industry; it has become common-place to see organizations seeking large-scale donations for some take on a “movement to re-Abolish slavery.” Yet if fighting the supposed legacy of slavery is this popular of a social cause, how is it that crowd-funding remains one of the only means of fundraising by families of Black persons killed by the police? In what some are calling the Age of Ferguson, an era where police killings of Black men, women, and children are institutionalized and enshrined in law in the same way that slavery once was, the question must be asked: how legitimate can a ‘new’ anti-slavery movement be when the legacy of the transatlantic slave-trade is a living, breathing horror for anyone living with Black skin in the Americas? And what does this say about the value placed on Black lives that fighting ‘slavery’ is only popular when it is whitewashed of any Black-led struggles for justice?
For anti-prostitution campaigns pushing for the criminalization of the sex industry, ‘slavery’ has been decontextualized from Black struggle and repurposed to describe the multiplicity of workplaces where sexual services are exchanged consensually and for remuneration, such as strip clubs, brothels and massage parlours and on the street. As a black woman with experience in the sex industry and as a long-time outreach worker with both street-based and indoor sex workers in Montreal, this rhetoric has always troubled me. Mobilizing slavery in this way has always seemed a deeply disrespectful appropriation of Black suffering, disrespectful both to our deceased ancestors and to our still-endangered lives as Black folks.
But by hijacking the terminology of slavery, even widely referring to themselves as ‘abolitionists’, anti-sex work campaigners have not only (successfully) campaigned for funding and legal reform; but they do so without any tangible connections to historical or current Black political movements against state violence. Indeed in pushing for criminalization, they are often undermining those most harmed by the legacy of slavery. As Blacks persons across the Americas are literally fighting for our lives, it is urgent to examine the actions and goals of any mostly white and conservative movement who deign to be the rightful inheritors of an ‘anti-slavery’ mission which deigns to abolish prostitution but both ignores and indirectly facilitates brutalities waged against Black communities.
What is this ‘New Anti-Slavery’ Movement Devoid of Black Solidarity?
It is not only CATW that appropriates the anti-slavery narrative. Politicians, highly influential and well-funded international NGO’s, women’s groups, high-profile celebrities and Evangelical and Catholic organizations across Canada and the United States regularly and repeatedly invoke Black suffering under chattel slavery in a push to criminalize the sex industry. Canadian Progressive Conservative Member of Parliament Joy Smith frequently invokes ‘modern slavery‘ to pass legislation criminalizing sex work in Canada. This is part of a broader anti-prostitution movement that self-identifies as ‘abolitionist’, nominally assuming a direct lineage with those who fought and opposed chattel slavery. Vancouver women’s organization Vancouver Rape Relief explicitly link their own efforts to criminalize all forms of prostitution to the anti-slavery movements in 18th century West Indies, the United States and Canada; and go on to place themselves as modern anti-slavery ambassadors, claiming their role in “a new international abolitionist movement [which] has recently emerged.” Joy Smith directly parallels her work to the abolition of the Atlantic slave trade. Writer and sex worker Maggie McNeil has pointed out in the Washington Post, the use of the historically and emotionally loaded term ‘slavery’ is deliberate and not accidental: activist group Demand Abolition openly state that they strategically use the word slavery as a stand in for prostitution in order to garner popular support.
Slavery Without the Slaves?
Anti-prostitution and right wing government agencies frequently repeat the (rarely cited) statistic that sexual slavery is the ‘third largest world economy’, yet these claims have repeatedly been demonstrated to be baseless. The oft-repeated statistic that the average of entry into the sex trade is 12-14 in North America have been categorically debunked since they are based on studies which excluded adults, to the point of being excluded as evidence in the Ontario Superior Court by Justice Susan Himel. Even those horrific instances of conditions that could arguably be called ‘sex slavery’ are not definitive of the entire sex industry; despite anti-prostitution advocates’ frequent but inaccurate claims to the contrary. In Canada the only large-scale national peer-reviewed study investigating the topic found that most women working in the sex trade do not consider themselves victims, let alone could they be considered slaves by any legal categorization. Working conditions in the sex industry, like in many unregulated or criminalized industries, can be far from ideal, and indeed can be coercive and even violent in many instances. Yet ‘slavery’ is an empirically inaccurate description of the sex industry as a whole; only made possible by misrepresenting facts and conflating sex work and sex trafficking statistics to drum up support to criminalize prostitution.
Using ‘Abolition’ to Promote Human Rights Abuses
Though they invoke slavery and abolition, neither the money raised nor the visibility of prohibitionist movements goes towards the Black-led movements against continued state violence. In borrowing this narrative, these ‘abolitionists’, who, as I have argued elsewhere are more rightly termed prohibitionists, exploit Black suffering to provide emotional weight to their own cause.
Not only is Black suffering appropriated and evacuated from so-called ‘new abolition’, but this movement is being used to champion a pro-criminalization movement which has been documented to harm those it purports to support. After much lobbying, Canadian prohibitionists championed a recently passed federal legislation intended to eradicate the sex industry in the name of ‘protecting vulnerable peoples’, (officially the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act). Sex workers, racial justice and human rights advocates across the country fiercely opposed this legislation, however, because it continued to criminalize sex workers and their necessary safety practices both directly and indirectly. Hailed as an ‘abolitionist victory’, the law continues to criminalize street-based sex workers, even though a nearly-identical law was recently struck down by the Supreme Court of Canada as unconstitutional because it put street-based sex workers lives in danger and left sex workers vulnerable to police abuse. Incidentally, street-based sex workers are disproportionately Indigenous, Black, and trans women. One recent application of this new ‘rescue’ law saw Quebec-based ‘abolitionist’ group the Concertation des luttes contre l’exploitation sexuel (CLES) call (successfully) on the police to increase surveillance and enforcement of sex work locations during Montreal’s June 2015 Grand Prix; another saw 11 migrant sex workers deported in an Ottawa-based sting in May of this year. In the wake of both empirical evidence and consultations with sex workers demonstrating the harms caused by criminalization, UNAIDS, and the World Health Organization have come out in favor of decriminalization of the consensual exchange of sexual services for money, in order to better support sex workers’ multifaceted struggle against human and labour rights abuses, including violence at the hands of law enforcement, and vulnerability to contracting HIV/-AIDS. For the same reasons, hundreds of sex worker organizations around the world, notably in post-colonial nations across the continent of Africa and the Caribbean islands, continually advocate for decriminalization. Criminalization, regardless of its purportedly benevolent intentions, places sex workers in harm’s way, and invoking black slaves who lived and died fighting for their humanity to this purpose is an abuse of history.
Robbed of Our Narratives: Black Slavery and Abolition Are Not Metaphors
Yet it is simply false to parallel the entire sex industry to an economic, social and political system based on the full subjugation of one race to another, wherein Blacks in the United States and Canada were systematically chained, raped, beaten, branded, used, and disposed of by their white slave owners under the trans-Atlantic slave trade and plantation economies, categorically deemed subhuman for hundreds of years. For too long, Black communities have been robbed of our bodies, languages, and innovations, and here we are also robbed of our own historical narrative.
How is it that a quintessentially pro-criminalization movement is called ‘new abolition’ when it works directly against efforts taken to combat anti-Black policing and Black incarceration? Abolition is an important part the Black tradition; Black ex and runaway slaves played a crucial role in the formal abolition of the institution of slavery in the Americas, and were without question the original abolitionists, alongside white supporters. The significance of those Black slaves that escaped and fought for abolition cannot and must not be abstracted into mere metaphor, for the purpose of evoking strong emotions against prostitution, or any other means of working, trading, surviving or thriving.
Abolition belongs not only to Black history but also to contemporary Black-led struggles against incarceration and policing. The words of formerly incarcerated ex-Black Panther Angela Y. Davis on her involvement with anti-prison activism demonstrate this lineage clearly:
I choose the word `abolitionist’ deliberately. The 13th Amendment, when it abolished slavery, did so except for convicts. Through the prison system, the vestiges of slavery have persisted. It thus makes sense to use a word that has this historical resonance. (Davis, (1996: 26).
Though it goes ignored by the Hollywood, white-feminist, and Evangelical-church-based version of abolitionism, there exists a vibrant contemporary Black, indigenous, and women of colour-led abolitionist movement against the prison-industrial complex; pushing instead for a transformative justice which does not rely on law enforcement; INCITE!, TGI Justice, and #BlackLivesMatter are only a few. In their push for criminalization, anti-prostitution advocates under the borrowed term of ‘abolitionists’ are taking the space that rightfully belongs to grassroots Black-led/allied abolitionist movements against the prison industrial complex and the ongoing lived effects of slavery. And they do so while promoting practices that harm Black communities and Black organizing efforts against law enforcement.
Criminalization is No Friend to Black Women: #Sayhername #Blacksexworkerslivesmatter
It is not arbitrary that many Black feminist writers and racial justice activists advocate and organize to create anti-violence measures beyond the state, and are less likely than our white feminist counterparts to push for more policing to ‘protect’ us. The most significant violence Black communities face is still at the hands of the state. Black (and Indigenous) communities always bear the brunt of criminalization, be it via laws against sex, drugs, or even inhabiting public space. Indeed the Black inmate population at federal institutions in Canada has grown by nearly 90 per cent since 2003, the result of unapologetic police profiling, hyper-surveillance, and harassment, experienced by the Black population in every Canadian and American city. Recently, #BlackLivesMatter has made some gains in highlighting the erasure and silence of the state’s silent War on Black Women. Profiling, and indeed police murder of Black women is less mediatized, but it is no less a reality; as black feminists and others continue to point out, notably here and here. Still, our lives (and our deaths) are accorded little value in the Americas.
Where do the pro-law enforcement strategies promoted by these ‘anti-slavery advocates’ leave Black sex workers, and Black cis and trans women more generally? In the context of unchecked anti-Black racism, more police on the streets and surveillance of indoor sex work locations inevitably means more abuse of Black women and Black sex working women at the hands of the police, particularly trans women. The Ontario Human Rights Commission found that many Canadian Black women were profiled because “they were assumed to be prostitutes [by police] because they were in a car with White men who was assumed to be a customer.” Black women who sell or trade sex are specifically targeted by law enforcement; the Red Umbrella Project based in New York recently documented that Black defendants in Brooklyn made up 94 percent of charges on the offense of “loitering for the purposes of prostitution.” Where there is profiling, already a form of harm, there is abuse and violence, and sex workers have been documented to experience high rates of sexual assault at the hands of the police. The violence of the criminal justice system is most notably silenced when it involves Black transgendered sex workers; as tragically exemplified by the recent death of Mya Hall, a black transgender sex worker killed by police, and near media silence. Black sex workers too often live in fear of losing their children, fear losing of their only source of income with which they support their families, and sometimes fear losing their lives.
#Realabolitionnow – Our Abolition Movements Are Not Over
The abolition of ‘formal’ slavery was accomplished, but the abolition of its horrific legacy is far from over, and so abolition cannot rightly be borrowed to enhance the popularity of the political causes of celebrities and highly-funded NGO’s. Though ‘abolition’ has been appropriated, I do not intend to easily surrender the legacy of Black slavery and abolition to those who would abuse it. Co-opting the horrors of Black slavery in order to push for increased policing of women’s (often Black and cis and trans women’s) workspaces and bodies is dangerously misinformed: the harms wreaked on Black women’s bodies by hundreds of years of racist policing and imprisonment stand for themselves. The legacy of the abolition of slavery belongs to those who are still living (and dying) in its wake; there is no place for an ‘abolitionism’ that organizes for more, and not less, law enforcement, in a context in which hundreds of thousands of Black lives have been lost to law enforcement or vigilantes in the United States and Canada in recent decades.
It is only in allying ourselves to end the state’s war on Black women, including trans Black women and Black sex working women, and for an end to Black suffering, can we truly deign to call ourselves abolitionists. To fight the modern legacy of slavery, we must be part of fighting, and not contributing to Black suffering.
 For more information on Canadian prohibitionist’ misuse of statistics including ‘age-of-entry’ see John Lowman’s Brief to the Senate Committee on Legal and Constitutional Affairs on the Protection of Communities and Exploited Persons Act.
 Canada (Attorney General) v. Bedford, 2013 SCC 72,  3 S.C.R. 1101.
 World Health Organization: “Violence against sex workers and HIV prevention” 2005; UN AIDS, UNAIDS Guidance Note on HIV and Sex Work, 2009.
 Report of the Commission on Systemic Racism in the Ontario Criminal Justice System. Toronto: Queen’s Printer for Ontario, December 1995.
 A 2007 report for the United Nations brings forth a 2002 Chicago-based study that found that 30% of exotic dancers and 24% of street-based sex workers who had been raped identified a police officer as the rapist. Approximately 20% of other acts of sexual violence were also committed by the police. This study was entitled In the shadows of the war on terror: Persistent police brutality and abuse of people of color in the United States A report prepared for the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, published in December 2007 and written by Ritchie and Mogul, DePaul College of Law Civil Rights Clinic, 28.
Robyn Maynard is a Black feminist writer, activist, and most recently, a brand-new mama. She is a full-time outreach worker Stella, a by-and-for sex workers service and advocacy organization in Montreal. She is a frequent media commentator on the harms caused by the criminalization of sex work and the harms of systemic racism, and her voice has been featured on CBC, CTV, the Globe and Mail, the Nation, Maisonneuve Magazine; she also recently testified before Canada’s Parliamentary Justice Committee on the new prostitution laws. For nearly 10 years she has been part of grassroots efforts against police racism and brutality in Montreal and she is a co-founder of Justice for Victims of Police Killings, a group of family and supporters of people killed by the police across Canada.