I learned about a new meme last week: “Activism Boy.” According to my wise, mean co-worker, an “Activism Boy” is the kind of straight, white cis boy who has a lot of Feelings about posting photos of himself picketing on Facebook and thinks it might be kind of sexy to get arrested for resisting the patriarchy. And as of right now, one particular Activism Boy -- okay, Activism Man -- in California is trying to make being even mildly involved with sex work an offense worthy of extended prison sentences and surrendered Facebook passwords.
Note: as far as I could tell, “Activism Boy” is not a catchall term for any Privilege Jenga winner who happens to also care about a cause. I’m definitely not a fan of trying to police what folks believe in, especially when it comes to shit that might affect me personally down the road.
And with that in mind, I’m gonna go ahead and extend the term to encompass anybody (regardless of identity) who hears a 10-minute pitch about a cause and then takes it upon themselves to lead the uprising. This always sends me into fits of severe eye rolling. We’re not in "Rudy," dudes. Nobody’s gonna carry you home on their shoulders as Protest King when the cops bust up the party.
Though I find Activism Boys annoying as shit, I don’t usually think they’re particularly malevolent. It’s a human impulse to get excited by things and to try to make them your own; some people just aren’t great at understanding how to respect spaces. If that manifests in some overbearing behavior, usually the most you can do is make the rest of us look like jerks while you clutch at a megaphone. Supremely irritating? Natch. Lethal? Not really.
However, when Activism Boys get their hands on some capital, all that well-intentioned rage starts to really grind at me. Take Chris Kelly, a former Facebook executive and 2010 candidate for California attorney general. Flush with cash and some good old-fashioned righteousness, he’s taken it upon himself to seemingly single-handedly eliminate human trafficking in California.
According to SFGate, “If passed, Proposition 35 would increase prison sentences for traffickers from five to eight years to 12 years to life, depending on the circumstances. It raises the maximum fines from $100,000 to $1.5 million and requires that the money be spent to help trafficking victims and to assist law enforcement agencies prevent trafficking and rescue victims.”
So far, so good, right? Nobody likes human trafficking. And that, according to the test ballot I got in the mail this weekend, is all you’d see on polling day. Seems pretty straightforward. Sex traffickers bad; revenue raising good. It’s like voting for Batman, if Batman cared even a little bit about bureaucracy. It’s so good, in fact, that one wonders why Chris Kelly has sunk $1.85 million into the campaign, making up 85% of the total donations.
A more cynical person (not me, surely) might even observe that a person who’s selflessly worked toward ending human trafficking in the state might be welcomed with open arms the next time he made a run at the attorney general office. They might even observe that in Kelly’s last bid for the position, he’d lost to an opponent who’s since raised the felony conviction rate from 52% to 67% in the last four years alone. Taking a strong stance on a seemingly cut-and-dried crime would definitely put him back in the public spotlight.
With that in mind, let’s take a look at the rest of this bill -– the part that won’t appear on the ballot this November.
“All traffickers would have to register as sex offenders, and all registered sex offenders in the state, whether their convictions are for trafficking or other offenses, would have to disclose their Internet providers and online identities to law enforcement agencies. The measure also mandates new training for law enforcement officers.”
I realize it’s hard to overcome the knee-jerk “sex offender, bad!” reaction that all discussions about trafficking seem to elicit. I am, in no way, in favor of sex offenders having unfettered access to those they would victimize, particularly in ways that would put them in positions power. But I fail to see how automatically seizing the passwords of everyone on the sex offender registry, even if their crime had nothing to do with the Internet, is not a gross violation of privacy rights. This is the part of the bill that’s made the ACLU awfully uneasy; like me, they’re not huge fans of the “give us all your Twitter passwords” judicial system.
For me, though, the more dangerous part of the proposition is the one that actually defines human trafficking. Right now, the proposed law defines trafficking as "substantial and sustained restriction of another's liberty accomplished through force, fear, fraud, deceit, coercion, violence, duress, menace, or threat of unlawful injury to the victim or to another person." As the Bay Guardian points out, that’s an awfully complicated definition for something that could conceivably lead to 15 years in prison or exorbitant fines.
To make matters worse, it also includes the definition of pimping as a form of trafficking. Again, doesn’t sound too bad, until you consider that in California, a pimp is "any person who, knowing another person is a prostitute, lives or derives support or maintenance in whole or in part from the earnings or proceeds of the person's prostitution, or from money loaned or advanced to or charged against that person." In other words, if your friend buys you dinner with the money she got giving tech-y assholes blow jobs in the backseats of their Priuses, you could conceivably be a pimp -- and, in turn, a human trafficker.
As the Guardian mentions, this also goes for any children, partners or roommates of sex workers. One minute, your roommate’s appointments in the Financial District are helping pay your rent; the next, you’re giving up your Tumblr password to The Man. They should just put that on the ballot summary.
In all seriousness, though, this proposition isn’t about me. It’s about the victims of human trafficking, many of whom decidedly oppose Prop 35. Lots think that the focus on sex crimes is too narrow or the scope of possible conviction is too broad. Victims’ rights advocates fear that fewer people in need would actually seek help, for fear of somehow getting slammed with prison time.
Which is not to mention the many, many sex workers who will likely find it even harder to obtain reasonable police protection after all those new state funds get ferried toward, vaguely enough, “helping trafficking victims.” Unfortunately for them, anti-Prop 35 advocates have pretty much zero financial backing -- because what politician is going to want to come forward apparently in favor of sex trafficking?
Former Facebook exec Chris Kelly, meanwhile, has remained unperturbed by even the slightest suggestion that his ticket to the attorney general’s office is anything but perfect -– according to the Mercury News (linked above), he called the advocates’ concerns “borderline laughable.” He continued, “This is a chance for the voters of the state of California to step in and say (to victims), 'We will protect you.'“ Unless you’re a voter who actually works for advocacy organizations, apparently. Then you’re not fit to protect anybody.
I know that to people outside of California, this whole issue might seem a bit distant. But even the federal human trafficking law is consistently being potentially revamped -- and expanding the definitions of the crimes in the way that Prop 35 does sets an awfully dangerous precedent. There’s a fine fucking line between truly trying to advocate for victims and just throwing a lot of cash at the problem and hoping that someone more capable will make it go away.
At the very least, this whole thing should be a handy reminder to actually read about the issues before you skip off to your polling place. I can’t help but be reminded of the whole Prop 8 fiasco from four years yore, when local news interviewed bunches of people claiming to have gotten “confused” by the whole “Yes on 8 is a No for Gays” thing.
Personally, if my housemate hadn’t shouted at me at length in our kitchen about this two weeks ago, chances are I would’ve happily checked “Yes” in response to a blurb that essentially boils down to, “CHECK IF U H8 HUMAN TRAFFICKING AND LOVE FREEDOM.” Even hypothetically, that prospect really disturbs me.
This election cycle, I want to make sure my vote counts for something I believe in. And honestly, I don’t believe that millionaire post-Facebook frat guys should be the people to “bravely” take on human trafficking and sex abuse.
Kate is going to be insufferable this election season at @katchatters. Join her!