This is how the United Nation defines human trafficking:

“the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purpose of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practices similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs”

This describes Cyntoia Brown’s situation to the letter, and yet there are still feminists and social justice sites who demand we don’t refer to the Brown situation as trafficking or sexual slavery. Guerrilla Feminism is a particularly pernicious site when it comes to supporting the sex trade and protecting the rights of men to buy women. Not only  are we supposed to accept that because Cyntoia Brown “identified” as a “sex worker” for survival, she wasn’t trafficked or being treated as a sex slave, we are also supposed to go a step further and say that the sex was consensual, and when people objected by stating she was underage, the explanation “we need to think about who writes those laws” was given along with “teens can consent.”

I have already been kicked off this site (FYI, this is not some grudge rant, I was kicked off because I disagree with them, and thus would still be critiquing them regardless) and I am concerned because this seems to be a rather popular site and other social justice sites, such as “In Justice Today” use the same kind of rhetoric, as in the article “Not A Cardboard Cut Out: Cyntoia Brown and the Framing of A Victim.”

Here are some actual quotes,

“Cyntoia characterized her survival strategies as survival sex work or teenage prostitution for an adult pimp. While she says that she was coerced into sex work by Kut Throat, Cyntoia never described herself as a child sex slave, a term that is now being used to characterize her experience by some advocates on social media. Such sensationalist language is reductionist and obscures the complexities inherent in the experiences of young people in the sex trade and street economies.”

“Trafficking, on the other hand, refers to any form of labor — including, but not limited to, sexual labor — by force, fraud or coercion. It’s true that there are young people who are trafficked and who experience extraordinary violence in the sex trade. But it is important not to assume that every young person who trades sex for money is trafficked, even if the law defines everyone under the age of 18 who trades sex as trafficked, regardless of their actual experience. Doing so ignores the complexity of their experiences — and does a disservice to them by denying them any agency or self-determination, including to define their own experiences and demand their own solutions. Their lives should not be flattened in the service of “perfect victim” narratives.”

“Or will the current attention and the framing of her as a victim of sex “slavery” or trafficking serve to further marginalize them by silencing their voices and complexities in service of pursuing a “perfect victim” narrative, one that Black women are routinely excluded from?”

First, note the contradiction that trafficking includes coercion, and that Cyntoia admitted she was coerced, and yet according to the article she supposedly wasn’t trafficked. What is more important is agency, agency, agency. People who correctly describe the situation as trafficking are considered to be marginalizing Cyntoia and other teen girls while also “flattening” their lives.

This is bullshit on so many levels. If Cyntoia had all this agency, why did she feel that the only why to get away from a situation in which she states she was coerced was to kill her john? If she had so much agency, why did she fall prey to the pimp so easily? It is because when living on the streets, teenagers lack the ability – i.e. agency – to avoid being exploited by grown men wanting to pimp them out.

They are pimped because  in general teenagers, particularly teenage girls, lack the agency within society at large to protect themselves when they lose familial support. Survival sex is never an act of “agency” because had the girls been safe off the streets, they would not engage in survival sex, and generally their survival sex begins by being exploited by a pimp.

Miriam-Webster defines agency as “the capacity, condition, or state of acting or of exerting power.” The only power Cyntoia exerted was killing her john because she thought she would lose her life. This isn’t agency, it is a desperate act of self-defense by a girl who was easily exploited because of teenage girls’ lack of agency on the streets, and in society, as compared to grown men.

And this is what is missing from ALL the liberal feminist and social justice narratives of these situations: the role of the pimps and johns. These men prey on these girls (and it is mainly girls, although boys (whether gay or straight or feminine) can be victimized) because the girls lack the ability, aka agency, to take any other route then the exploitation by men. These men know these girls are desperate and lack any kind of power in society, and thus they are perfect targets of sex trafficking and sex slavery.

This would not be happening if the teens had actual agency, i.e. the ability to exert real power.

And here are two definitions of slavery by Miriam-Webster:

submission to a dominating influence
3a the state of a person who is a chattel of another
Cyntoia Brown admitted to being coerced against her will by her pimp to a john, which can also be described as “submission to a dominating influence.” Want she wanted did not matter, she was a body to which the pimp and johns could do whatever they wanted. In other words, she was “a chattel of another.”
Just because Cyntoia Brown doesn’t precisely use these words doesn’t mean her situation didn’t fit the definition. And to pretend otherwise is to ignore the reality of the situation of the sex trade and human trafficking for so many women and girls.
By focusing so much on individual agency, liberal feminists and social justice sites have lost complete sight of the systemic, structural issues at hand, such as material inequality and male sexual privilege, that led to Cyntoia being in this situation in the first place. Cyntoia wasn’t in this situation because of her “agency” to undergo survival “sex work.” She was in this situation because she became homeless, lacked any real power, and was exploited by men who felt they had the male sexual privilege to access her body however and whenever they wanted.
This does not “flatten” her life. It describes reality. If she wants to define it differently in order to handle trauma or feel empowered, that’s fine. But if a woman was raped by her husband, but afterwards doesn’t consider it rape because she believes the husband is master of the house, do we suddenly deny that marital rape is not a thing, that in fact she wasn’t raped even though she said “no” in the first place? No. She was raped, pure and simple, and instead of talking about her agency, we work to end marital rape.

 

Feminists need to ask themselves: when promoting this narrative, who REALLY benefits? Will this prevent teens from being exploited and coerced into sex to the point where they feel the need to kill? No. Will it allow men to continue to buy women and girls, and make it easier to exploit them because these girls because apparently have agency and can “consent” in a time of desperation? Absolutely.

And thus begins the fight for the soul of feminism.

The patriarchy is built upon the exploited and degraded bodies of women and girls, and prostitution reinforces this degradation by upholding male sex right, which keeps women and girls subjugated as subhuman.

Prostitution has never been about empowering women – it is about empowering men to dominate women. So feminists who think they are being pro-woman rights when they say they are “pro-sex work” and “pro-sex worker” are really acting as mouth pieces for the pimps and johns who are waiting to justify their purchase and abuse of women’s bodies. Part of me wonders if they do this because patriarchy is so powerful that they decided if they can’t beat em, they’ll join them. They are simply unable to imagine any other structural version of society. But it doesn’t matter. Whatever their motives for enthusiastically upholding prostitution – i.e. the sex trade – they are undermining the liberation of women, and their feminism thus has no soul.

I would like to end with an excellent analysis, which I recommend everyone read, of the Cyntoia Brown situation that addresses systemic issues while also being TRULY intersectional. From the Women’s Media Center, here is a quote from the article Cyntoia Brown’s case reveals a larger truth about child sex trafficking:

“This legacy continues today, as America still doesn’t take care of girls of color. A significant percent of Native American girls enter prostitution today because they believe it’s their only option for survival, and experience high rates of abuse in this work. Immigrant girls are also susceptible to sexual exploitation and are even more unable to report their experiences due to fear of deportationFifty-twopercent of children arrested for juvenile prostitution have been black, and these girls are more likely to be tried as adults and criminalized as prostitutes rather than treated as victimized sex slaves.”