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In the Booth with Ruth – Tara Burns, Survivor of Labor Trafficking in the Sex Industry, Sex Worker and Sex Workers’ Rights Activist

Discussing the Advantages of the Sex Workers’ Rights and Anti-Sex Trafficking Movements Working Together

Tara Burns

Could you share how you became involved in the sex workers’ rights movement and why it’s so important to you?

There are so many moments that have added up to my becoming an activist. When I was sixteen a District Attorney declined to prosecute my father for abusing me and pimping me out because she thought a jury would not believe a teenage prostitute, even in the face of physical evidence. When I was an eighteen year old stripper I was raped and the police made fun of my dress and threatened to arrest me for making a false report. A decade ago when the Internet seemed young I discovered blogging, and sex worker bloggers like Audacia Ray helped me think critically about sex work and my life for the first time. In 2009 Carol Leigh explained the sex trafficking laws to me and I realized that a lot of the sex trafficking discourse was about people like me, but we weren’t invited to participate.

A couple years ago, I met a young woman who had been a victim of extremely violent sex trafficking. She had been trafficked since she was a minor, and her background made her seem like the perfect victim, the kind “the system” would want to help. They didn’t help her; they charged her at the federal level with twenty four counts of conspiracy to traffick. After meeting her I made a public records request. I wanted to see how Alaska’s new sex trafficking law was being used. At that time only alleged sex workers had been charged with sex trafficking, and all of them had been charged with prostitution of themselves in the same cases they were charged with sex trafficking themselves or their co-workers. The co-workers (“victims”) had all been convicted of prostitution.

That was when I set my sights on changing the laws. I was very lucky at that point to meet Maxine Doogan, a labor organizer with the Erotic Service Providers Union. Maxine really took me by the hand and taught me how to organize, have events, and talk to public officials. She has been so incredibly generous and level headed. I really can’t imagine sex workers’ rights in Alaska making it this far without her.

What does your activism and work involve?

So many things!  Just lately:

I’m doing research about the human rights effects of Alaska’s sex trafficking and prostitution policy as part of my graduate program at the University of Alaska. I’ve got all my data and I should be writing my thesis right now.

We’ve been working with an attorney from the Sex Workers Project (thanks Sienna!) to create suggested wording for legislation that would make it illegal for police officers to have sex with people they profile as sex workers or sex trafficking victims, or to use the threat of arrest to coerce people into sex.

Recently we tried to report to the police a person who claimed to be a police officer and was threatening to arrest local workers if they didn’t pay him a thousand dollars. We continue to do advocacy around situations like that.

Recently we met with a lot of legislators to talk about some of the issues our local community faces. We end up doing a lot of outreach to public officials, non-profits, and others to educate them about our issues and what they can do.

We’re also seeking an attorney to help us file a constitutional challenge to Alaska’s prostitution law because, as an assistant attorney general told us recently, it violates Alaska’s state constitution.

I’m a writer and I try to get all of these things out in the media. Most of what we have accomplished has followed media attention.

You are also concerned with sex trafficking. What do you think needs to happen so the two movements are more aligned – if you agree it would be beneficial that they are?

I think everyone who profits from the criminalization of and forcing services on sex trafficking victims should stand trial and at the very least pay restitution for the damage they have done. Those who criminalize vulnerable sex workers for protecting and caring for each other should spend the rest of their lives in jail. All the money they’ve made arresting us and forcing services on us should go to sex workers and trafficking victims, and especially to those who’ve funded their “sex trafficking shelters” by giving blow jobs. Then if there are any anti-trafficking people left, they can support us in addressing abuses in our industry.

Why do you feel it’s important for the sex workers’ rights movement and the anti-human trafficking movement to work together?

I do outreach to the anti-trafficking community because there are some allies there. The anti-trafficking movement as a whole, though… to paraphrase a wise woman, the only effective way to talk to those people is with laws. When I have access to the same basic human rights that they do, then we can talk about working together.

What legal improvements or changes would ensure sex workers’ rights and help abolish sex trafficking and sexual exploitation? Can the two groups be ensured their human rights and the protection of the law simultaneously?

Absolutely. Sex workers and sex trafficking victims need to be able to go to the police when they are victims of crimes, like sex trafficking, without being arrested or having their co-workers, clients, or other allies arrested. We need special punishments for police who rape, rob, extort, or pimp sex workers or sex trafficking victims. Cops who rape underage trafficking victims so they can put them in handcuffs and “rescue” them away to jail should go to jail themselves, forever. Basically, we need access to equal protection under the law and the way to accomplish this is to decriminalize every aspect of adult, self-directed sex work.

We need anti-discrimination laws (as recommended by the Obama administration in 2010) to protect us from discrimination in accessing housing, employment, child custody, public services, financial instruments, health care, and education. This is not an abstract concept. If you don’t want people to be prostitutes, or even if you just want people to be able to leave the sex industry, making it impossible for sex workers and sex trafficking victims to get other jobs or rent a home is the opposite of effective. If you don’t want people to be abused in the sex industry, denying them emergency shelter because they’ve been involved in the sex industry is not the answer.

We need the right to negotiate for our own labor and safe work conditions. No one should be abused at work or have to endure unsafe work conditions.

For anyone else who wants to be involved, what can other people do to help?

Click on the donate button at ESPLERP to contribute to their constitutional challenge of the United States’ prostitution law. Come to Sex Trafficking Alaska and get on our mailing list. If you’re in Alaska and you’re an attorney, help us overturn the prostitution law. If you’re in the United States, contact your senators and tell them that you OPPOSE the SAVE Act because it increases the vulnerability of sex workers and sex trafficking victims by forcing them out on the streets.

Find your local sex workers’ rights group (not just the people making art – find the people changing laws) and ask them what you can do. And the next time someone tells a dead hooker joke, tell them to knock it off.

What are your plans for the future?

I plan to achieve safety and protection for everyone working in Alaska’s sex trade by decriminalizing prostitution, decriminalizing prostitutes working together or hiring people, ensuring safe reporting when we are victims of crimes, and implementing anti-discrimination laws.

What websites would you recommend for people who would like to know more? 

Here’s an article about the first couple years of sex trafficking law here in Alaska, and here’s another one.

This one time a famous feminist writer said you shouldn’t listen to me because I’m not the right kind of sex trafficking victim.

If you click here you can read all about me being a sex trafficked teenager.

This is what happened when we tried to report (someone claiming to be) a cop to the cops.

You should definitely read what is maybe the first and only community based participant directed research done on and by youth in the sex trade: Girls Do What They Have To Do and The Bad Encounter Line by the Young Women’s Empowerment Project.

All of the research reports published by the Sex Workers Project are important.

You should read Melissa Gira Grant’s book Playing the Whore: the Work of Sex Work.

If you are concerned about international sex trafficking, you should read Laura Agustin’s book, Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets, and the Rescue Industry.

I wrote some short books of stories about doing sex work, too. You can read an excerpt from the third here.

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About Ruth Jacobs (297 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.

5 Comments on In the Booth with Ruth – Tara Burns, Survivor of Labor Trafficking in the Sex Industry, Sex Worker and Sex Workers’ Rights Activist

  1. Reblogged this on Soul Destruction and commented:

    Tara Burns, a sex trafficking survivor, sex worker and sex workers’ rights activist, discusses the advantages of the sex workers’ rights and anti-sex trafficking movements working together.

  2. Another really good book is “Soiled doves” about prostitution and sex slavery in the early west…early 1900’s.

4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. In the Booth with Ruth – Meg Munoz, Former Sex Worker, Trafficking Survivor, Ally and Rights Advocate | Ruth Jacobs
  2. In the Booth with Ruth – Jemima, Sex Worker, Writer and Student | Ruth Jacobs
  3. In the Booth with Ruth – Jes Richardson, Sex Trafficking Survivor, Former Sex Worker and Anti-Sex Trafficking & Sex Workers’ Rights Activist | Ruth Jacobs
  4. In the Booth with Ruth – Pye Jakobsson, Sex Workers’ Rights Activist from Sweden | Ruth Jacobs

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