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Ad Nauseam: The Endless Campaign to Raise Awareness about Sex Trafficking

Last month, the Lake County Sex Trafficking Task Force unveiled a billboard along the North Shore of Lake Superior in Two Harbors, Minnesota. It’s the latest example of the ad nauseam awareness campaigns targeting the sex industry that perpetuate the moral panic surrounding sex trafficking by conflating it with sex work.

The billboard warns “johns” to “end the demand” because “we’re someone’s children” and includes a police lineup photo of a chef, physician, a snowmobiler, a flannel-clad “every man,” and a college graduate, which could be used as an album cover for a Village People cover band.

Given that the billboard also features an ominous photo of two people in hoodies sitting with their backs turned, it left many wondering what it’s trying to communicate. Laura Agustín, author of Sex at the Margins: Labour, Migration, and the Rescue Industry, commented:

Even if we didn’t get bogged down with trying to make sense out of all the imagery in the billboard, maybe passing motorists will get the general gist that northern Minnesotans need to end the demand for sex trafficking because trafficking affects “someone’s children.”

We’re all woke now.

The Lake County Sex Trafficking Task Force celebrated the billboard’s unveiling, stating that the installation was the “fulfillment of a 4-5 year dream.” Not to piss on anyone’s parade, but a billboard, in Two Harbors, was not only someone’s dream, but took 4 to 5 years to fulfill? I guess if you dream to reach the stars, you’ll at least land 20 feet above Highway 61.

Now, if you’re unfamiliar with the sex workers’ rights movement, you’re probably thinking I’m being flippant about a non-profit’s efforts to raise awareness about an issue as serious as sex trafficking. So let me briefly explain the main critiques of these efforts. And if you’re already familiar, you can skip the next paragraph. Yes, this is a “choose your own adventure” article.

Apparently after reading the introduction to an Econ 101 textbook, many anti-trafficking non-profits believe the best way to eliminate the supply of sex trafficking victims is to end the demand for paid sex. The problem with this approach is two-fold (technically it’s 164-fold, but I’ll focus on two): First, these campaigns rarely differentiate between adults engaging in consensual, paid sex and those who are in the sex industry by force or fraud. Believing everyone working in the sex industry is a trafficking victim not only criminalizes consensual sex, but also diverts resources away from those who are being exploited. Second, this conflation increases the perceived number of trafficking victims and has created a modern-day moral panic. Remember all of those stories that your aunt shared on Facebook about traffickers trying to abduct kids from Ikea? Not trafficking. How about that viral tweet that warned girls not to click on a link from a text message because traffickers will find your location and abduct you? Also not trafficking. By thinking sex trafficking is hugely prevalent and everyone is at risk of being sold into sex slavery is, again, diverting resources away from those actually at risk (e.g., homeless youth, undocumented residents) and those who are being exploited.

This billboard was the result of 4 to 5 years of awareness campaigns to raise enough funds to raise more awareness. We’re aware. And according to the sign’s owner, it cost $3,770. That’s almost $3,800 that could have gone toward resources assisting the most vulnerable residents of the North Shore, which would reduce the risk of them being exploited by others. Instead, it was $3,800 that went toward informing Duluth-bound drivers the Village People are in town.

To learn more about the nuances of sex work and sex trafficking, I recommend the Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women, Beyond Slavery, the Sex Workers Outreach Project, and PACE Society.

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