Latest Posts

Collateral Damage: Sex Workers and the Anti-Trafficking Campaigns at Kampnagel, Hamburg

Guest post by Carol Leigh

Trailer from Collateral Damage:
Sex Workers and the Anti-Trafficking Campaigns

This work is dedicated in Loving Memory to Andrew Hunter, who held my (virtual) hand through this process, encouraged me and provided an abundance of information and material.


a conference in conjunction with Kampnagel International Summer Festival, Hamburg, in collaboration with Missy Magazine

“Beyond the moral and political questions of how to handle sex work, it has also become very clear that the debate is dominated by projections, fantasies and myths.”

Whore Images: Bleeding Hearts and Critical Thinking[1]

by Carol Leigh

I am honored to screen Collateral Damage: Sex Workers and the Anti-Trafficking Campaigns at Kampnagel’s sex work issues conference “FANTASIES THAT MATTER. IMAGES OF SEXWORK IN MEDIA AND ART.” The images of trafficking play a particularly crucial role in this crusade. The images capture the imagination of legislators and high school students pledged to fight the scourge of human trafficking. The images are both impetus and response as they motivate repressive strategies and counterproductive rescues.

The archetype of the abused whore is one of the primary aspects of our collective understanding of the female. This central archetype/image has a new status in contemporary neo-colonialist culture. I am obsessed with the re-emergence of this archetype. I am also obsessed with the impact of contemporary and historic anti-trafficking campaigns on sex worker rights.

Recently a well-known fundamentalist German feminist proposed banning prostitution in Germany, provoking “an animated discussion in the German media.” I am eager to contribute to this discussion and to warn of strategies purported to assist women and sex workers, but that ultimately increase our vulnerability and exacerbate violence against us. The material below includes some background about this movie project, as well as a further discussion of the image of the whore-as-victim, which has informed and inspired the anti-trafficking campaigns.

Collateral Damage

In the late 90s I began collecting materials for a long range film project, tracking the development of the anti-trafficking discourse and policies from a sex workers’ rights perspective.

In 2002 I was moved by a presentation by Professor Kamala Kempadoo at a conference in Boulder, Colorado, The Business of Bodies: Women and The Global Sex Market. Her presentation articulated the complex intersections of globalization, imperialism and the changing view of sex work in the context of the trafficking discourses. Her early analysis was a guiding light and formed a skeleton for my work.[2]

A decade later, in 2012 when we met again Dr. Kempadoo said to me, “When we met 10 years ago, not too many people were talking about trafficking and since then everybody has an opinion on it and everybody can say something about it…but nobody really knows what it is. It’s just this scary thing that’s out there… living a life of its own. It’s a panic. It’s a discourse. It’s laws. It’s a whole machinery that is in operation…”

From Sexual Slaves to Prostituted Women

As a long-time sex worker rights activist, I have closely followed and influenced prostitution discourses. I recall when Kathleen Barry’s Female Sexual Slavery introduced an updated version of ‘white slavery’ to feminist discourse in 1979. Although the sexual slavery language was apparently not suited to the mainstream imagination at the time, a new stigmatizing language eventually emerged, referring to us as ‘prostituted women,’ communicating the abolitionist premise that prostitution, per se, is a crime against women.

My own focus is sex work policy and history. I was eager to explore what was responsible for this return to the view of women as ‘waifs’ at the mercy of strangers, ‘foreigners’ and organized crime. I link my focus as a visual artist ‘trafficking in imagery,’ and as a de facto historian, to tell the story of this contemporary sex worker/laborer/citizen/migrant in the context of the perennial anti-prostitution/anti-trafficking campaigns.

Happy, Political, Determined Hookers

I began assembling this history through late 20th century images and videos I had collected over the years, from Xaviera Hollander’s Happy Hooker to Margo St. James’ role as prostitute activist and organizer. A new role of prostitute as citizen, political participant and worker was emerging, informed by the LGBT, feminist, labor and civil rights movements of the 60s and 70s. The AIDS crisis also introduced a contemporary view of prostitutes as sex educators, introducing empowerment and harm reduction strategies that countered the pathologized sex worker with survivors, teachers and leaders.

Then, in the late 1990s, sex worker activists (as part of broader human rights community in Europe) were alerted to the dangers of this resurgence. In 1999 Jo Doezema wrote a pivotal work Loose Women or Lost Women? The re-emergence of the myth of ‘white slavery’ in contemporary discourses of ‘trafficking in women.

A new UN anti-trafficking protocol was in the works, prompted by the changes in Europe after the dissolution of the Eastern Bloc. In 2002 Dr. Kempadoo summarized this shift. “It would appear that the collapse of the Soviet Union and the appearance of women from the former USSR countries in Western European sex industries was a main reason for European governments to pay attention to the problem of trafficking. In many ways, this focus echoes the late nineteenth to early twentieth centuries crusade to end “white slavery,” led by Britain and the US, that centered upon the involvement of European women in the global sex trade… It would seem yet again that attention to the lives of white women – or women of European descent – has propelled international action.”

I understood that we were embarked on a recycling of 19th century image of the prostitute as an essential victim.[3] These images were accompanied by the ambivalent strategies of punishment and rescue, responsible for the cruel policies of prostitution abolitionism and criminalization around the world.

After 2000 there was a steady shift to the use of term trafficking in media reports about prostitution. Ultimately the resurgence of anti-trafficking frameworks resulted in a torrent of local and international laws and policies with scant resistance. In the beginning only a handful of scholars and journalists, most notably Laura Agustín, had published critical work and deconstructions of trafficking frameworks.

Compiled over the last decade, Collateral Damage: Sex Workers and the Anti-Trafficking Campaigns reflects my background as a sex worker activist and early feminist, tracing the intersections of feminist discourses and anti-trafficking movements and policies. The critique of the anti-trafficking movement/framework/propaganda ascends as scholars and journalists focus on the impact of economic and migration policies on women, people in developing nations, and working class/poor people in general.[4]

Reconciling Linda Lovelace

The issue of trafficking is very personal and emotional for me. I observe the impact of punitive policies on my friends and community and wonder “How can they criminalize us and our businesses?” ”How can they claim to be sympathetic towards women and LGBT people trying to survive, then treat us like this?” “How can they be recycling this 19th century view of women?”[5] Through this project, I am struggling to organize and make sense of this collateral damage.

As I observe the trafficking panic recycle, it occurs to me that there is something society craves in the image of the sexually abused woman. The sexually tortured and abused ‘whore’ is central in our culture, as a warning to those who leave home or who stray from conventional sexual paths, and as an archetype, communicating sexual danger, estrangement from family security, ephemeral quality of innocence, women’s weakness with woman as prey, as well as male predation. As we witnessed, the gender based analysis of predation and exploitation, with women’s chastity as a goal, is perennially used as a distraction from issues of rights and economic justice.

I recall when I first started working as a prostitute, I was disturbed that Linda Lovelace had become a feminist icon, and that she was inspiring a prurient, voyeuristic following based on her role as a victim of the sex industry. I had been a feminist since the early seventies, long before my involvement with prostitution. I grew up witnessing my father verbally abuse my mother. When I came to my feminist consciousness, I suddenly understood the abused woman who was all of us, the dynamics of the oppression of women, our second-class status and society’s tacit acceptance of our abuse. The abused whore also resonates for me. What concerns many of us now is the essentialization of sex workers and immigrant women as victims AND the use of that victimization against us.

Linda Lovelace Redux: Sex Worker as Victim-Warrior

Rather than rejecting the perennial symbol of the abused woman, sex worker activists are beginning to re-contextualize her, insisting that she is a symbol of the discrimination and violence sex workers face.

So, Collateral Damage also focuses attention on victimization of sex workers as a result of anti-trafficking policies. One of the primary critiques of anti-trafficking policies is the obsession with prostitution and its conflation with trafficking. The suffering of the prostitute, as a victim of violence and violations of human rights, is not an object lesson about the dangers of female independence. The violations are the battle scars in the struggle against state violence, and for rights and recognition.[6] And so, Collateral Damage opens with a video from APNSW, Asia Pacific Network of Sex Workers, in which a sex worker explains that she was raped by the police. The state and the trafficking policies are the perpetrators.

The Whore with the Heart of Stone

It is clear the image of the individual in the sex market as a victim-warrior is eclipsed in mainstream society by the competing image of the victim-waif. At the same time sex workers are imaged as predators, invoking the Whore of Babylon, an allegorical figure of evil mentioned in the Book of Revelation. With this predatory identity, a sex worker couldn’t possibly care about trafficking. When a sex worker tries to deconstruct or disrupt an anti-trafficking framework, they are accused of being a pimp, perpetrator and apologist for the abuse of women. How does one enter the conversation with such a profound reputation?

The abuses of sex workers are considered inconsequential as ‘non-persons,’ either slaves or fiends. Sex workers can’t be raped. Sex work is a dangerous life and sex workers should expect violence and abuse. As Catherine Mackinnon recently claimed, “All you can do to help a prostitute is help her to get out.” The same perception separates guilty and innocent victims, insisting that prostitutes have to be considered victims or they must be considered perpetrators.

There is little way for sex workers to challenge the state’s structure for implementing or overseeing or discussing the effects of its policies. The way that debates are framed makes it difficult to enter the conversation: if you are not against trafficking, are you for it?

Further Complications

Sex worker rights advocates have a complicated message to deliver, one that also pivots on an explanation of the intersection of economic forces and choice in the realm of sex and work. Some explain that they are consensual sex workers and not trafficked people. “Forced prostitution exists and it is terrible,” some explain, “but we are not all forced.” In the opening sequence of Collateral Damage New York activists chant, “Sex work is not trafficking.” But this invokes contradictions. We educate the public that not all sex work is forced and that we should respect choices, often made in a field of limited options. At the same time invoking the dichotomy of forced and free sex work reinforces the discourse of extremes, obscuring the daily harms of stigma, criminalization, and the struggle for economic justice and fair working conditions.

Yes, exploitation, rape, sexual abuse targeting of women is a pervasive theme and occurrence. Sex is distracting, especially in our sexually repressed and/or sexually ignorant cultures. The general public still needs to learn what it means to see sex work as work. However the posture that presumes that there is a sharp dividing line between trafficked persons and other workers ignores the continuum of labor abuses in all industries, particularly in relationship to more marginalized workers including migrants, LGBT and youth, people of color among others.

Only Rights Can Stop the Wrongs

As we move forward under the weight of this new stigma of ‘predatory trafficking denier’ and excluded from participation in policy making by decree (i.e., the Anti-Prostitution Loyalty Oath), sex workers face questions about developing effective strategies and priorities. From the suggestion by long time sex worker rights advocate, Cheryl Overs, that “Perhaps the highest priority for the sex workers’ rights movement should be to unite to reject the entire paradigm of trafficking and sexual exploitation” to the principles of “nothing about us without us,” our right is for inclusion and leadership in policies that affect us, which is a fundamental challenge to mainstream approaches to abuse and exploitation. As Overs explains, sex workers are charged with reminding the public that solutions include justice for all of us, “…[for] the duped innocent, for the incorrigible slut, for the happy hooker; for the screaming queen and for the ‘sex slave’ – and for the other 99% of adult sex workers who don’t fit these stereotypes – all need the same thing and our slogan says it perfectly – ‘only rights can stop the wrongs.’” [7]

[1] This essay was originally written as a discussion of my film at a conference presented by Dr. Kamala Kempadoo and the Centre for Feminist Research at York University From Bleeding Hearts to Critical Thinking March 19-20 2012 (

[2] A compilation of From Bleeding Hearts to Critical Thinking: Exploring the Issue of Human Trafficking conference presentations.

[3] Critiques of progressive era anti-prostitution campaigns were documented in Prostitution and Victorian Society: Women, Class and the State by Judith R. Walkowitz; Uneasy Virtue: The Politics of Prostitution and the American Reform Tradition by Barbara Meil Hobson; and The Lost Sisterhood: Prostitution in America,1900-1918 by Ruth Rosen.

[4] A publication expanding on these issues from Dr. Kempadoo’s York University student conference is available here: From Bleeding Hearts to Critical Thinking: Exploring the Issue of Human Trafficking.

[5] Responses within the international sex worker community can be viewed through the Global Network of Sex Work Projects, which also presents regional and local responses.

[6] The institution of December 17th as International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers by Annie Sprinkle and Robyn Few (with Sex Workers Outreach Project), is another strategic turning point in the relationship between the victimization of the sex worker and the ultimate empowerment.

[7] Willing Brides and Consenting Homosexuals?: why we must unite against the trafficking paradigm by Cheryl Overs


Photo credit: Tracy Mostovoy

Photo credit: Tracy Mostovoy

Carol Leigh has been a sex worker and activist since the late seventies. A writer and performance artist, she coined the term “sex worker” in the late 70s. She was lead writer of the San Francisco Board of Supervisor’s Task Force on Prostitution representing San Francisco’s Commission on the Status of Women. She is a founding member of SWOP and a long time COYOTE member. Leigh founded and co-produces the San Francisco Sex Worker Film and Arts Festival. Leigh received the Creative Work Fund Award for her video documentation in conjunction with the Center for Sex and Culture Sex Worker Media Library. Since the late seventies, Leigh has written and performed political satire as “Scarlot Harlot”, work based on her experience as a prostitute and has toured internationally and in the US with the Sex Worker Art Show Tour. She has produced work in a variety of genres on women’s issues including her video, Blind Eye To Justice: HIV+ Women Incarcerated in California, which was narrated by Angela Davis. Leigh’s book Unrepentant Whore: The Collected Work of Scarlot Harlot was published by Last Gasp in 2003. Leigh presents sex worker and human rights perspectives on trafficking at Trafficking Policy Research Project: Examining the Effects of U.S. Trafficking Laws and Policies. Leigh is a recent recipient of a 2014 Acker Award For Achievement In The Avant Garde.
About Ruth Jacobs (296 Articles)
Author of Soul Destruction: Unforgivable, a novel exposing the dark world and harsh reality of life as a drug addicted call girl. The main storyline is based loosely on events from my own life. In addition to fiction writing, I am also involved in journalism and broadcasting, primarily for human rights campaigning in the areas of sex workers' rights, anti-sexual exploitation and anti-human trafficking.

12 Comments on Collateral Damage: Sex Workers and the Anti-Trafficking Campaigns at Kampnagel, Hamburg

  1. Jueseppi B. // August 7, 2014 at 6:20 pm // Reply

    Reblogged this on The ObamaCrat™.

  2. Of all the women I know working on the empowerment of women and girls–I love and respect Ruth Jacobs–one with the best women in the field. Ruth is kind, caring, bold, brilliant, and beautiful–and her work is so important.

  3. The 10 min excerpt on the Anti-Prostitution Pledge is fascinating: …the US has forced it’s deeply misguided public health policy re sex workers on many other countries by making the adoption of the pledge a condition of receiving financial aid.

  4. As a feminist, and a former teenage runaway who had to prostitute in order to live, and a former coke whore, and an academician, and a street clinic doctor serving every kind of prostitute and junky, and a general observer of trends in sex positivity, I am glad to see “happy hookers” standing up for themselves at a time when our collective focus, like it or not, has been on rescuing the involuntary sex slave. To deny their existence is ridiculous–just go to any truck stop in America or any bus station anywhere, and you will see the young Russian, Ukranian, Sudanese,
    Philapina…wobbling in spike heels too big for her, leather skirt up to her ass, etc., we’ve all seen them. I don’t know how this phenomenon of voluntary sex workers denying the existence, in ridiculously large numbers, of “sex workers” who did not choose their “job,” don’t love it, and want to be somewhere safe, even if there’s no such place as “home.” I wasn’t trafficked, but I’ve treated a whole lot of girls and a few boys who were. Only a year ago, the movement to give trafficked people a voice was gaining momentum. Now it seems their voices are being shouted down by voluntary sex workers. I have never noticed that voluntary sex workers did not have a voice. Voluntary sex workers often have a good income, a decent standard of living, good education, access to publishing. They write books and give interviews. It’s so easy to deny the existence of the girl who barely speaks the language of the country she was trafficked to. Why are you denying her a voice?

5 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. Reflections on ‘Fantasies That Matter’ | Fornicatrix
  2. Von Bildern in unseren Köpfen | Kaufmich Magazin
  3. ‘No Human Involved’: Filmmaker PJ Starr Discusses Her Documentary Telling Marcia Powell’s Story | Ruth Jacobs
  4. ‘No Human Involved’: Filmmaker PJ Starr Discusses Her Documentary Telling Marcia Powell’s Story | JL Film & Media
  5. ‘No Human Involved’: Filmmaker PJ Starr Discusses Her Documentary Telling Marcia Powell’s Story | Soul Destruction

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: