Why are sex workers’ rights supporters upset with Google?

Google announced last week that they are making the largest-ever corporate donation to “ending modern day slavery”: an impressive $11.5 million dollars. We applaud and support Google’s desire to fight slavery, forced trafficking, and exploitative labor conditions, but Google’s funding recipients include three NGOs that cause serious harm to sex workers around the world: International Justice Mission, Polaris Project, and Not for Sale. As front line sex worker support services struggle for funding to serve their communities, it is offensive to watch Google shower money upon a wealthy faith-based group like the International Justice Mission, which took in nearly $22 million dollars in 2009 alone. (In contrast, the St. James Infirmary, a San Francisco clinic that provides free healthcare to sex workers, operated on only $335k in 2010.)

Does Google know what their millions are really supporting? Let’s take a look at what you won’t read about on the front pages these groups’ glossy web sites.

International Justice Mission is a massive evangelical Christian group founded in 1997 by Gary Haugen, who has said, “God is the ultimate power and authority in the universe, so justice occurs when power and authority is exercised in conformity with His standards.” IJM’s mission statement explains that it “seeks to restore to victims of oppression the things that God intends for them,” and they work “in the tradition of heroic Christian leaders” such as Mother Teresa. Since its inception, IJM has grown to become a powerful NGO (non-governmental organization) known for its relentless promotion of “rescuing slaves.” While this feel-good sales pitch keeps millions of dollars in private and public funds streaming into the faith-based group, the reality is a lot more complicated.

The term “rescue” calls to mind imagery of angelic saviors, but IJM’s so-called “rescue” work sometimes translates to actions that are nothing short of violent, neocolonialist oppression against an easy target: brothel workers in developing countries. Because morality groups like IJM refuse to distinguish between willing sex workers and coerced victims of trafficking, this steamroller approach blindly attacks everyone in a brothel or red light district in hopes of finding victims to “save.” IJM uses its power and political connections to pressure governments to crack down on the whole sex industry as an “anti-trafficking” measure, which leads to more violent raids from famously corrupt police forces in countries like Cambodia, the Philippines, and India. The people caught up in these raids frequently report being beaten and raped by the police who are supposedly “rescuing” them, and are detained against their will in privately-funded locked-door “rehabilitation centers” or in overcrowded, disgusting jails. (Please watch the video below to hear the horrifying stories of some Cambodian sex workers caught up in raids.) We don’t doubt that IJM and other “rescue” NGOs have found and helped some genuine victims through these aggressive sweeps, but in the process, they create even more human rights abuses — unwelcome messes that under-funded local organizations are often left to fix. Whether one is a survivor of forced trafficking or a person just trying to earn a living, no one deserves to be subjected to this degree of violence and humiliation, and no human rights abuse should be written off as acceptable collateral damage “for the greater good.”

Above all else, SWAAY respectfully defers to the victims of crackdowns brought on by pressure from Western NGOs. This heart-breaking 4-minute video was made by sex workers in Cambodia. Would you feel good about supporting NGOs that pressure corrupt police departments to increase violent raids? Source:SexWorkersPresent.

Founded in 2002 and operating on nearly four million dollars a year, Polaris Project markets itself as modern-day “abolitionists,” saving people it labels “slaves” from what former executive director Mark Lagon dismissively referred to as “nasty, immoral lives.” By refusing to distinguish between consensual sex work and rape/slavery, NGOs like Polaris not only ignore the wishes of consensual sex workers, but also make light of the real suffering endured by victims of exploitation. Polaris hawks unsourced urban legends as “facts,” such as the claim that “the average age of entry into the commercial sex industry in the US is between 12 to 14 years old.” Their campaign materials casually jump around between topics like violent pimps, topless dancing, slavery, escorting, and sexual abuse of minors, leading readers to believe that all are inherently linked. By treating all sex workers as passive victims who can’t be allowed to make their own decisions, Polaris dehumanizes and objectifies us to serve their own conservative goals. Polaris has fought against Craigslist for allowing sex workers to advertise on the site, and has participated in efforts to strategize about how to “create controversy on a world level” against any form of commercial sex, consensual or not.

When moral crusaders attempt to close advertising venues relied upon by sex workers, they make it more risky for sex workers to earn a living. The ability to advertise and do business online has been important to the safety of independent sex workers in the developed world. It allows us to screen potential clients for warning signs of danger (such as checking sex offender databases or local “bad date lists”), and it creates a digital paper trail. The notorious “Craigslist Killer” was caught in part through his online exchanges with the women he attacked. Online venues — like the former adult services section on Craigslist, and the current use of Backpage.com — are embraced by sex workers because they make our jobs safer, plain and simple. Taking those advertising sites away from us only makes us more vulnerable to predators, and hinders police investigations if the worst does happen.

Not for Sale is a smaller NGO founded in 2006 by theologian David Batstone. Normally operating on a budget just over one million dollars, they have stated that they just received $250,000 from Google. Like Polaris and IJM, Not for Sale is branded as an anti-trafficking/anti-slavery group, and fails to either grasp or acknowledge a difference between consensual adult sex work and forced sexual slavery and rape. Not for Sale hasn’t had the chance to do as much damage as the first two groups, but it is known for campaigning against the partial decriminalization of adult sex work in a San Francisco ballot initiative called Proposition K in 2008. Prop K sadly lost, receiving only 41% of the local vote.

“Proposition K would have helped end the underground economy in San Francisco that allows abusers, pimps, and rapists to take advantage of the most vulnerable sex workers. The groups that opposed Proposition K did so on a moral and religious basis, without understanding how decriminalization would have drastically improved the lives of sex workers in San Francisco and exposed those abusers thriving in the underground. Their moralizing cost us our freedom. Proposition K would have guaranteed that sex workers in San Francisco could go to the police for help without fear of arrest, but Not For Sale and other religious-based organizations led a nasty misinformation campaign that kept us far away from the freedom and protection we so desperately need and deserve. It was heartbreaking to see an organization with such great funding lead such an ignorant and damaging anti-freedom campaign.”From Patricia West, Yes on Prop Kcampaign media spokesperson

Lobbying for or supporting the (further) criminalization and arrests of sex workers never translates to the end of the sex industry or the end of exploitative labor practices faced by some sex workers. Driving a “vice” such as prostitution further underground only leads to increased stigma and violence against already-marginalized people, as well as pushing sex workers away from obtaining healthcare, or from reporting rapes, robberies, and other crimes against them because they fear being arrested themselves. Criminalization isolates and endangers sex workers in serious ways, such as making us more vulnerable to violent criminals such as the prolific serial killers Gary Ridgeway or Robert Pickton.

Organizations such as International Justice Mission, Polaris Project, and Not for Sale use the banner of “fighting sex trafficking” as a weapon to push broader religious and moral agendas about “correct” sex behavior. These types of Western NGOs rely on junk science and fake “statistics,” and they are excellent at emotional propaganda which bizarrely argues that they are saving helpless children from sex slavery by arresting adult sex workers. These groups commonly seek to silence our concerns by pointing out that we have a financial stake in the matter. We do. But that stake pales in comparison to the amount of money that gets raked in every year by those spreading panic that lumps all types of sex work in with forced sex trafficking. The real profit is not in sex work, but in maligning us to a public that doesn’t know any better.

“Doing good” doesn’t need to be the zero-sum game that some of the Google-funded NGOs want us to play. We acknowledge that these groups do some good things, but that doesn’t excuse the horrible deeds and words they also perpetuate. Google should not be backing those that support human rights for some at the cost of violating the human rights of others. Donors don’t have to choose between helping victims of forced trafficking and respecting the rights and self-determination of sex workers – we can do both at the same time. Missionary-type NGOs pressure police around the world to use the brute-force approach of arresting and imprisoning both consenting sex workers and trafficking victims without regard for those people’s wishes. Better nonprofits believe in offering effective, compassionate help through nonviolent means, including providing free healthcare, HIV/STI testing and treatment, peer-led support groups and community-buildingharm reduction for drug users, legal advocacy for survivors via the removal of prostitution convictions of trafficked persons, and campaigning against the criminalization and social stigmasthat put sex workers at risk of violence from both the police and criminals.

We hope that Google will stand with us in working towards a safer world for every person in sex work, whether those people are there through choice, circumstance, or coercion.

Sex workers want to stop trafficking. See this 3-minute PSA on the topic from sex workers’ rights activist Serpent Libertine of SWOP Chicago.

Our demands of Google

* We demand an immediate end to Google’s funding of any organization that crusades against sex workers’ human rights and safety, especially the violent, forcible “rescue” and imprisonment of sex workers in the developing world.

* We demand a disclosure of how much money Google has already given to International Justice Mission, Not for Sale, and the Polaris Project — three organizations whose work includes fighting against improving conditions for sex workers, especially in the developing world.

* We demand an apology from Google in the form of equal donations to community-based nonprofits that respect all sex workers’ rights and dignity by providing non-judgmental services such as free condoms and safer sex information, medical care including HIV testing and treatment, harm reduction for drug users, counseling and support groups, legal aid, and public education around these issues. Five standout nonprofits that deserve Google’s money: San Francisco’s St. James Infirmary, New Orlean’s Women With A Vision, New York’s Sex Workers Project, India’s VAMP (a project of SANGRAM), India’s Durbar, Cambodia’s Women’s Network for Unity, and theAsia Pacific Network of Sex Workers.

* SWAAY would be happy to coordinate a meeting for Google with sex worker and human rights advocates to discuss our concerns and needs in greater depth. We can be contacted via email at swaay@swaay.org

From SWAAY’s Seattle protest on December 21, photo by @ishfery. A high-resolution, non-copyrighted copy is available here, attribution required to SWAAY / http://www.swaay.org

Groups that endorse this campaign

SANGRAM of India.
SWOP Bay Area of the USA.
SWOP Chicago of the USA.
SWOP Los Angeles of the USA.

Media coverage, blog talk, and protest reports and photos

* SWOP Bay Area posted photos and a summary from their protest.
* The North Carolina Harm Reduction Coalition re-worked this campaign page into a post onDailyKos.com: Why are Sex Worker and Public Health Advocates Annoyed with Google?
Sex Workers Rallying to Protest Google’s Funding of Morality Groups was posted in porn and adult novelty trade magazine XBiz.
* The Google campaign was mentioned in International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers on the SAFER Campus blog.
* WebProNews publishes Google ‘Gives Back’ To Some Dubious NGOs: Sex workers outraged over some Google Gives Back recipients, plan protest today.

Protest locations

Google has offices around the world, possibly even in your city. If you would like to step up and serve as a local coordinator, please get in touch via email so we can offer any support you may need. There were several protests on December 21st, and no date has been set yet for more actions. Check back after the New Year!

Resources for protests

If the economy has you down, SWAAY will reimburse up to $100 worth of supplies used to stage a Google protest, such as markers, poster board, paint, materials for banners, and the printing costs of handouts. Email us a photo or scan of your receipts, an explanation of what they were for if the receipt doesn’t specify, as well as a photo of your protest, and SWAAY will cover the costs of your solidarity action.

Click here to download a printable PDF version of our handout for protests. These are two-sided, half-page.

Sign ideas:

* Google: Sex workers need rights not “rescue”
* Sex workers’ rights are human rights
* Google: Don’t be evil