It’s no secret that Houston is a major sex-trafficking hub, but like every other city, the data on sex traffic, sex work and everything in-between are difficult to pin down.
“Every city seems to claim that they are the number-one hotspot,” Ms. Maggie Mayhem, a sex work activist told me on the last day of DEF CON 26. “NPR did a piece on Oakland, California being the number one site. I’ve heard it for New York City. I have heard it for Las Vegas. The numbers are really inconsistent.”
She had just finished the last of two talks for the annual hacker conference in Las Vegas, going over the law’s profiling techniques, policies and biases that violate sex worker’s rights in the digital age.
Her work isn't restricted to just sex. She’s advocated for those suffering from aspects inside and outside sex work including addiction, homelessness and health care. Back in California Maggie is a full-spectrum doula, meaning she’s assisted with both birth and death work.
Her DEF CON talk specifically focused on two bills that came into law back in April: the “Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act” (SESTA) and the “Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act” (FOSTA).
(SIDE NOTE: Anyone interested in Maggie Mayhem’s on-the-record talk will be able to see it along with others once DEF CON releases them on Youtube. )
In a nutshell, the new rules do everything possible to strain those earning living through the world’s oldest profession, and do virtually nothing to help them.
Think confiscating condoms (used or unopened) as evidence. Think non-consensual medical screenings. License plate recording. Sting operations (but only in the poor parts of town). Textbook dystopia-level nightmare fuel.
Maggie pointed to good old-fashioned lobbying as a starting point to fix the law issue. She cited Survivors against SESTA as one group working to undo some of the harm the new legislation has brought.
“We have seen this done successfully with the adult industry in California,” Maggie said, referring to Proposition 60, California’s 2016 legislation attempting to make condoms in adult films mandatory.
Had it passed, OSHA would have slapped a fine on any porn not visibly showing condoms in use. Not that Maggie has anything against safe sex: She provided DEF CONdoms to an untold number of hackers this weekend.
“A lot of people thought that was going to be a sure-thing,” she said “[But] the regulations would have been very difficult to enforce.”
Prop 60 was defeated through successful lobbying, public interfacing and discourse with OSHA. Something Maggie said could happen again.
“We have seen that when sex workers lobby, there are victories,” she said. “They may be few and far-between, but we have them.”
DEF CON focused a lot this year on the growing issue of government (and corporate) mass surveillance, data collection and overall loss of personal autonomy. But it’s a problem that has persisted in the sex work industry since before sex-for-money became criminal.
Which brings us back to the start: the government data for sex trafficking and sex workers ranges between inflated, conflated or outright off. It sounds contradictory given the state of mass surveillance, but we’re talking about an industry that is by default happening behind closed doors.
“Sometimes there’s absolute misinformation,” Maggie said, noting that there’s various estimations used to stand-in for the number of people being trafficked, such as foster youths.
Even if you use National Human Trafficking Hotline data, you’re essentially missing out on all the times a call was NOT made.
“It’s hard to get an accurate head count,” she added. “And oftentimes we just don’t necessarily see good people taking those numbers.”
A lack of people providing research and support to street workers is one problem of many, right next to ensuring the support that does exist takes a physical form as opposed to moral.
“I would ask the workers out there (Oakland) what the scene had been like,” she said. “And they would mention sometimes there would be people from religious organizations and the only resource they were offering were prayer circles.”
Which street workers did not find to be helpful, Maggie added.
Near the end of the interview I asked Maggie possibly the most controversial question about sex currently floating around: whether the self-identified involuntary celebrate (incel) community would be as prominent in an environment of legitimized sex work. But as she pointed out, a world of decriminalized sex work does NOT mean no more sexualized violence.
"It’s something that concerns me because a lot of these are people who have some violent tendencies,” she said. “Since sex workers are already so marginalized and have very limited ability to protect themselves or get support if they are attacked or assaulted, it really depends on the security measures we have and our ability to enforce them.”
Some incels may be able to negotiate with a sex worker, Maggie said. Some may be respectful, and some may be helped, but there’s no knowing before the fact.
“Some of these folks would not pass basic screening, be unwilling to pass basic screening, or would be unwilling to be respectful,” she said. “What people have to understand is that sex workers have boundaries, we enforce them to the best of our ability. Any given individual willing to do so is welcome to be an open client.”
Maggie also pointed out that she is one voice in a vast community, and pushed for people interested in helping solve the issues to look for others in the industry and help them as well.
“We just need a little bit of resources and we can do what we need to do,” she said. “I’m a sex worker, I believe in happy endings.”