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Old 11-17-2016, 11:18 PM
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Default Snuff Films, White Slavery and Trafficking: America's History of Hysterical Sex Fear and Fantasies

Of all the myths about porn, sex and crime to get a footing in popular culture, the belief in snuff films is one of the most improbable, yet enduringly resilient. For decades, journalists, politicians, law enforcement officials, and anti-porn crusaders talked about snuff films as if their reality had been as firmly documented as the address of the White House.

Forty years after the idea of snuff films was sold to America via a cheap marketing gimmick by filmmakers Michael and Roberta Findlay, the facts are easily accessible: unless you count a few videos made by serial killers for their own enjoyment or terrorist groups who post the decapitations of journalists to the Internet, no actual snuff films have ever been found. But the idea was easily sold to Americans because it told them their deepest fears were true - their widespread anxieties caused by radical changes in sexuality and gender roles in the post-1960s era and even deeper fears driven by racism.

The Findlay's 1976 film Snuff was originally a cheap horror film from Argentina called Slaughter. The two spliced a new ending into the original movie that ostensibly showed the film crew murdering a woman. Later, they sold the whole thing with the tagline: "The film that could only be made in South America—where life is CHEAP!"

The Findlays did not invent the idea of the snuff film, but they certainly breathed life into it. The rumors had been there for years, but their film appeared to bring snuff out of the realm of speculation and into the light of proof. Snuff films became a horror with actual breadth and depth. Even if that solidity was transformed into vapor as soon as it was examined, it was substantial enough to help fuel decades of anti-porn political activism and anti-sex work law enforcement.

The idea of snuff films may have been terrifying, but as marketed by the Findlays, it was also strangely comforting, particularly to white, middle- to upper-class Americans. It validated everything they suspected about the foreign cultures outside their own borders: they valued life less; they were sexual predators with no respect for women; and the well-being of American society demanded vigilance against them.

The story of snuff movie hysteria is just a single link in a very long chain of moral panics around sex and sex work which stretches back centuries. In 1910, the same sexualized racism that would later make it so easy to believe in snuff films culminated in the passage of the White Slave Traffic Act, more infamously known as the Mann Act. Just as the snuff film craze demanded that Americans be vigilant against South American culture and other “Third-World” areas where "life was cheap," the white slavery hysteria of the late 19th and early 20th centuries fed on fear of immigrants from Eastern Europe and Asia. Chicago reformer Ernest A. Bell saw a particular threat in the ownership of ice-cream parlors by foreigners:

One thing should be made very clear to the girl who comes up to the city, and that is the ordinary ice cream parlor is very likely to be a spider's web for her entanglement…The only safe rule is to keep away from places of this kind, whether in a big city like Chicago or in a large country town. I believe that there are good grounds for the suspicion that the ice cream parlor, kept by the foreigner in the large country town, is often a recruiting station, and a feeder for the ‘white slave’ traffic.

Like many others, Bell saw the fight against trafficking as not merely as a problem for law enforcement, but as an existential clash of cultures:

Unless we make energetic and successful war upon the red light districts and all that pertains to them, we shall have Oriental brothel slavery thrust upon us from China and Japan, and Parisian white slavery, with all its unnatural and abominable practices, established among us by the French traders. Jew traders, too, will people our [red light districts] with Polish Jewesses and any others who will make money for them.

The crusades against white slavery are an excellent example of how conservative impulses can nestle at the heart of liberal movements. Bell and his contemporaries who pushed for the passage of the Mann Act weren't the latter-day equivalents of Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter; they were part of the so-called "Progressive Era," which laid the groundwork for the labor protections which the GOP has spent the last 30 years assiduously dismantling. Melinda Chateauvert, author of Sex Workers Unite: A History of the Movement from Stonewall to Slutwalk, describes the movement against white slavery as being led in part by "proto-feminists" who wanted increased economic opportunities and suffrage for women.

Or some women, at least. The movements of the Progressive Era were notorious for excluding – and sometimes scapegoating – people of color, and the anti-traffic movement was no different. Framing the problem as "white slavery" erased not only women of color who were doing sex work, but the entire black American experience of slavery.

"[T]hey lifted the idea of slavery as African-Americans had experienced it, and claimed it was analogous to what ‘white women’ or ‘white girls’ were experiencing in becoming part of the sex industry," Chateauvert said when I talked to her. "So there's also a racial element to it in the sense that they were denying the realities of antebellum slavery in the United States. Which…continues to haunt us in the idea that we keep using the term 'modern slavery' as though, again, [sex work] is analogous to what was going on then."

But the problem, as Chateauvert says, is that there is no analogy to be made between antebellum slavery and the realities of sex work, now or in the Progressive Era. "You cannot analogize the two at all," she says. "There's not an entire government and citizenship that is bound and determined to enforce [sex work]. So, to analogize that is a very racialized understanding and cynical use of what the word slavery really means."

The legacy of the Mann Act was also highly racialized. While it may have been penned to quell nativist fears about predatory Italians, Jews and Chinese, it primarily turned out to be a weapon against African-American men, especially those who had relationships with white women. Jack Johnson, the first African-American boxer to hold the U.S. heavyweight championship, was convicted in 1913 of violating the Mann Act for driving a white woman he was involved with across state lines. In 1959, rock 'n' roll legend Chuck Berry was sentenced to five years in prison for driving an underage Apache girl across state lines; she was arrested for prostitution several weeks after they parted company.

The Mann Act remains law to this day, and its scope has expanded. Amendments to the law have made it gender-neutral and added clauses addressing child pornography. Its persistence and its origins in the mythology of white slavery show something important about how laws against sex work are made. Despite the compassionate rhetoric surrounding them, and the pleas of reformers that society has a duty to the vulnerable, they are more often than not shaped by something entirely different: The status quo's need to defend their own privilege against populations that they see as alien, strange and growing in power.

One thing that made the myths of white slavery and snuff films seem so fearsome was that they weren't just stories about bad people doing bad things. They depicted vast networks of deliberate, organized evil preying on society's most innocent. There are actual videos of murders by serial killers or terrorists, but things like that are distinct from what made the idea of snuff films so horrifying. A true snuff film would be one where the victim is specifically kidnapped and murdered in order to make the film and distribute it through a vast, secret criminal network. Similarly, white slavery would necessarily involve a nightmarish web of kidnappers and pimps working cohesively in a well-organized criminal subculture. Far more than mere fear of violent crime, the existence of snuff films and white slavery would reveal a shadowy, near-omnipotent “other” infiltrating respectable society.

The case of Monica Jones is an example of that same fear at work in the modern world. A black transgender woman attending Arizona State University in Phoenix, Jones was arrested in May 2013 on the nebulous charge of "manifesting prostitution." According to the city of Phoenix, that can include repeatedly trying to talk to passerby, gesturing to passing cars, or trying to determine whether someone is a police officer. In Jones's case, she allegedly “manifested prostitution” when she accepted a ride home from a bar. The person offering the ride was an undercover officer, and she was handcuffed as soon as she got into the car.

Jones was arrested as part of a sting operation called "Project ROSE" which sends more than 100 officers to sweep the streets of Phoenix for suspected prostitutes five weekends a year. Her arrest is a prime example of the issues around criminalizing sex work. First, trans women of color are disproportionately targeted in sweeps like Project ROSE. Enforcement of local vice laws relies heavily on profiling, and as in the early days of the Mann Act, some bodies and genders are more likely to be criminalized than others. Many cities even now continue to consider condoms to be valid evidence of intent to engage in sex work. In some areas, the combination of being trans, a person of color, and carrying condoms can add up to a criminal act in itself.

A 2012 study of the LGBTQ community in Jackson Heights, Queens, found that 59 percent of transgender respondents had ben randomly stopped by police. In contrast, only 28 percent of non-LGBTQ respondents said they had. According to the study:

Many transgender interviewees reported being profiled as sex workers when they were conducting routine daily tasks in the neighborhood. They commonly reported stops that seem to be without basis but in which the police officers involved later justified the stop by charging the person with prostitution-related offenses because condoms were found in their possession. These arrests were frequently accompanied by verbal and physical abuse.

Second, operations like Project ROSE rarely present themselves to the public as punitive law enforcement. Instead, their mission is to "rescue" sex workers. In Jones's case, she wasn't taken to jail. The officers led her, in handcuffs, to a local church where she was assessed for the Dignity Diversion Program, run by Catholic Charities. Her cell phone was taken from her. And she was not allowed legal counsel while she was questioned by a Project ROSE volunteer and a city prosecutor.

Technically, the Phoenix police department claims that people who are swept up by Project ROSE aren't arrested. Instead, it's called "contact." Those caught in the sting are given the (notably limited) choice between arrest and a six-month diversion program. Like most law enforcement toward sex work, the philosophy behind Project ROSE seems to be that sex workers need to be rescued – whether they want to be or not. Oddly, "rescue” in this context – from local operations like Project ROSE to federal programs like the FBI's annual Operation Cross-Country – almost always involves some form of arrest and prosecution.

Last year, I interviewed the late Shannon Williams, a member of the Bay Area Sex Work Outreach Project (SWOP-Bay). According to her, such operations are more likely to endanger sex workers. "Every study ever done asking sex workers about violence they've experienced, the majority of the violence they experience is from the police," she said. "The majority of the violence that sex workers experience is directly related to the fact that they are criminalized. So, if you're really worried about the violence that sex workers experience, decriminalize sex work, and that will solve two major problems. One, the police will no longer see us as criminals that they can abuse and treat like crap. And two, when other people abuse us, the police will take it seriously because they won't see us as criminals involved in our own abuse."

Trafficking is the latter-day equivalent to white slavery hysteria. Sex workers like Monica Jones are, by default, seen as people who have been trafficked and have no agency of their own. Once again, the media and certain activists have constructed a narrative of Eastern European and Asian countries engaging in a massive, illicit trade of sex slaves in the United States. As in the early 1900s, the threat of trafficking seems to make it imperative that Americans protect themselves against an existential threat from outside cultures.

It would be ignorant and irresponsible to claim that trafficking, sexual or otherwise, doesn't exist. However, the term is used so broadly that it's difficult to disentangle it from the mass of sexual and nativist fears that it's become associated with in popular culture. Trafficking is now an all-too-convenient excuse to tighten immigration laws and crack down on sex work of all kinds.

"My standard line is that if you're concerned about trafficking, change the immigration laws," Chateauvert says. "If you're concerned about people who work on the streets and do sex trade, why don't you work [to ensure] a living wage. The problem is not the sex industry per se. The problem is the laws that create the situations that enable coercion. We don't want to approach it that way, because that's too big a systemic addressing of the problem."

In their own way, her words are also reminiscent of the Progressive Era. In her 1910 essay The Traffic in Women, Emma Goldman critiqued the way that white slavery was used to ignore talking about the costs of more mundane forms of exploitation:

The procurer is no doubt a poor specimen of the human family, but in what manner is he more despicable than the policeman who takes the last cent from the street walker, and then locks her up in the station house? Why is the cadet [an archaic term for pimp] more criminal, or a greater menace to society, than the owners of department stores and factories, who grow fat on the sweat of their victims, only to drive them to the streets? I make no plea for the cadet, but I fail to see why he should be mercilessly hounded, while the real perpetrators of all social iniquity enjoy immunity and respect.

History does tend to repeat itself, but it doesn't have to. Whole libraries of sex work laws have been written and enforced because lawmakers listened to nothing other than their own fears and paternalism. The result is a system that, while purporting to protect and “save” sex workers, actually makes them more vulnerable in myriad ways. Our lawmakers should instead try listening to the wants and needs of the workers themselves. Perhaps then sex workers will get real protection, and justice.
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