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You're Not A “Real” Survivor

The price of opinions in the anti-trafficking movement.

May 27, 2020

Laura LeMoon
Photo by Erik Witsoe // Unsplash

‘ve never been welcome in my own movement as a sex trafficking survivor, and namely that’s because I am pro sex work and anti sex trafficking. Something that stereotypical anti-porn second wave feminists like Andrea Dworkin would most assuredly say is impossible.

Sex work, for those of you not in the know, is different from sex trafficking in that it is defined by and rooted in agency, autonomy and choice.

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In 2018, the divide between sex workers and sex positive communities and professional anti-sex trafficking activists became most salient with the enactment of landmark senate legislation regulating sex industry work in the name of protecting precious young girls against sex trafficking. This legislation, passed into law April 11th 2018, is known as the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act or ‘SESTA,’ and it was made into law literally days before the federal seizure of Backpage dot com. Another watershed moment in the lives of sex workers, sex trafficking victims and alleged victim allies.

Recently, I started a public health consulting business, LeMoon Public Health Consulting, where I go around the world to nonprofits, conferences and government agencies and give trainings on providing social service and public health services to people in the sex industry from an intersectional lens that addresses the needs of sex trafficking survivors and sex workers while respecting and honoring the unique realities and truths of both lived experiences as valid.

I emailed a local nonprofit called Seattle Against Slavery of which I knew the executive director (who now works at a huge international anti- trafficking nonprofit ) from having engaged in a panel on sex trafficking with him. Seattle Against Slavery works to end trafficking, but under the belief that all prostitution is forced (no matter what many of us sex workers say to the contrary). I emailed the executive director at the time, knowing that while he and I have very different beliefs around prostitution, I tend to operate professionally under the belief that we (sex workers) should be able to have respectful and civil debates with people who disagree with us. My email to the ED consisted of a background of my credentials — same as with every other agency I email about receiving a training — and concluded with “I’m sure your agency already knows the basics about human trafficking, but I think as activists it’s important that we stay open to new ideas and new ways of tackling issues.”

In his response, he told me quite bluntly that not only would he never consider receiving a training from me, but 1) what did I even know about trafficking (keep in mind, he knows I’m a survivor) and b) what could a survivor who supported sex work have to say that was of any validity? He went on to say that he does not believe I am a “real” sex trafficking survivor, because all of the “real” sex trafficking survivors he works with at his agency are anti-sex work.

This is coming from a white cis man with a masters degree who has never, by choice or force, EVER been in the sex industry.

This highlights a big problem in the anti sex trafficking movement, which is the fact that we (survivors) are maligned from our own movement and we are separated between worthy and unworthy, or good and bad survivors based on how well we tow the company line. My voice is unworthy and I’m a bad person because I don’t advance the agenda of power-hungry non-survivors (most of whom are cis white wealthy men) who aspire to build their identities on the back of my suffering and the suffering of my survivor siblings.

This email made me cry and after I read it I felt like nothing. I felt like invisible garbage. The same way I felt all those times I was raped while I was being trafficked by cis men who didn’t care about my humanity, because they didn’t have to. Who felt like they had the right to treat someone however they wanted to merely because their male privilege told them it was their birthright.

This isn’t an isolated incident. I have been made a pariah in my town by all of the anti trafficking organizations because of my support of sex work and sex workers. When I gave a big training recently, giving people the names of local nonprofit organizations that are not friendly for sex workers I got a huge blow back. One nonprofit that had helped me as a sex trafficking survivor stopped helping me and basically completely dropped me as a client because I said in my training that some of the local sex trafficking nonprofits in the area aren’t necessarily always friendly to sex workers -something I didn’t think was a news flash or going to be controversial, since these organizations are openly anti sex work.

This statement has become a huge point of contention and the most prominent sex trafficking organizations later sent me nasty messages saying I was talking about how “bad” their organizations were and “putting them down.” As a result, I can no longer get help from many of these same organizations that I had once been case managed by, all because I publicly criticized them for not always being friendly to sex workers (I still stand behind what I said because it’s true).

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I’ve been in the field of social services and public health for over ten years from everything to a domestic violence advocate, a housing case manager, an HIV researcher for the CDC, nonprofit board member, sex trafficking policy consultant and nonprofit director and co-founder. I have been recruited by organizations like the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the US Department of Justice as an expert consultant on issues related to sex work and sex trafficking. I myself am a sex worker of over ten years and a sex trafficking survivor. I know what I’m talking about when I talk about these issues. To me, being a sex trafficking survivor alone should give me carte blanche to talk about and criticize as many anti-trafficking organizations and activists as I want (especially if they themselves are not survivors).

I lived it.

You might not have, and you (anti-trafficking nonprofits) work serving the public in a social service and social justice context, so why shouldn’t the population you serve reserve the right to criticize you and hold you publicly accountable? Why is this viewed as disrespect or aggression? Nonprofits are no different than for-profit businesses in the sense that anyone, anytime, anywhere should be allowed to call them to the carpet, criticize, make suggestions, give feedback, etc. There is NO ROOM for ego in social service work. If an organization serves a given community (like sex trafficking survivors) and that community or a member of that community has a bone to pick with the way they serve their community, to me, a nonprofit should be all ears to that feedback.

The response should NOT be anger, defensiveness and certainly NEVER to ice someone out of services merely because they spoke up and disagreed with the way said nonprofit served their community.

THAT is violence. THAT is an abuse of power, no different than when my pimp locked me in a room with five strange men and wouldn’t let me come out until I made his money. Period. You’re no holier because you have a tax exemption and a business license.

To be honest, it hurts my feelings to be ostracized like this from anti-trafficking organizations just because I’m pro sex work. What bothers me the most is that the majority of people in the anti-trafficking movement are people who have NEVER been in the sex industry, by choice or force.

I’m being judged as being a “bad survivor” by people in power who aren’t even survivors themselves, largely. I’m not a “good survivor,” I’m loud, outspoken, contrarian, empowered and and irreverent.

I write very public and opinionated articles, I do very public and opinionated trainings, I take up space in a movement that values the obedience and silence of survivors. I never claimed to be unbiased or neutral on my many opinions around sex work and sex trafficking. How could I be? To the anti- trafficking movement at large, we are props, and how dare us act like we should or could be anything more. How dare we have opinions and thoughts and express them openly. I have paid a very big price for being who I am in the anti-trafficking movement. I have made a lot of enemies and a lot of people — people who don’t even really know me — hate me simply because I have a difference of opinion and I threaten the patriarchal status quo of fragile old rich white men. And you know what? I wouldn’t have it any other way.

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