2019 Founders Fellowship
The 2019 recipient was Alix Bruce, a law student at American University Washington College of Law.
Personal Essay on Summer Internship at Amara Legal Center
The definition of commercial sex is one that eludes brevity. On the one hand, it has a specific definition: the exchange of sex or sexual acts for material compensation, whether that be money, food, a bed, or anything else. On the other, there is an ongoing policy argument about what commercial sex is and how it should be legislated—the movement pushing for the decriminalization of sex work is alive and working in DC, and frequently debated by advocates from every side of the political spectrum. Anti-trafficking, anti-sex work organizations (frequently called “abolitionist”) state that there is no way any person, even adults, could legally consent to engaging in sex work, and that all sex work is trafficking. People in the pro-sex work movement claim the exact opposite: that sex work is a voluntary, frequently enjoyable job, while simultaneously decrying sex trafficking as a crime that violates a person’s civil rights.
The Amara Legal Center (Amara) was founded to defend the civil rights of people involved in commercial sex on all sides of the decriminalization debate. This means that Amara’s clients come from a broad spectrum; clients can be survivors of sex trafficking, consensual sex workers, or people who have been sex workers or survivors in the past. The only requirement is that they be or have been involved in commercial sex, and that they live in the DMV area. Due to the nature of Amara’s clientele, my work this summer spanned many different legal issues. Amara provides multiple legal services to its clients, ranging from expungement work to family law matters.
The diversity in both the clientele and legal work gave me the chance to write victims’ advocacy memos on nonconsensual pornography, research and draft motions to close courtroom proceedings, research and analyze policy proposals in front of the DC Council, research and draft motions for civil protection orders, and attend multiple civil protection order hearings with clients. I also had the chance to attend sessions of HOPE Court, which is the diversion court in DC Superior’s Family Law court for minors who have been put into criminal proceedings for solicitation or prostitution offenses, among other offenses. Similarly, Amara provided me the opportunity to attend multiple coalition and committee meetings of legal aid providers across DC, to see how organizations can work together despite differing or even outright contradictory missions for the betterment of their respective clients.
Trafficking itself—defined legally by the act of recruiting, procuring, harboring, or receiving persons by means of threat, coercion, or fraud, for the purpose of exploitation; all three must be proven to convict someone of a human trafficking offense—can encompass people from all walks of life. In DC, survivors of sex trafficking most commonly come from Wards 7 and 8. They are usually women of color, whether cis or transgender, and they are usually (unlike what popular media presents) trafficked by a family member or an intimate partner. Often, they are blood relatives or have children in common. Several times I came across clients who had been trafficked by a parent. Unlike popular statistics, the age range of people who can be trafficked is broad, though many are under the age of 18. (As a side note, there is no need to prove the means element when it comes to minors; as they are minors, attorneys must simply prove the act and purpose elements of the statute to show that they were trafficked.)
The District of Columbia has a significant sex trafficking problem, and even consensual sex workers can fall victim to trafficking. I had the chance to work with both trafficking survivors and consensual sex workers during my time at Amara. Even entering the world of legal services for sex workers and trafficking survivors has a lot of pitfalls and complications; there were several orientations for the interns regarding how trafficking works, the linguistics of the world of sex work, and how one person can move up and down the spectrum of consensual sex work to being trafficked and back again. I have been studying sex work from a historical and sociological perspective since undergrad and have a paper on sex trafficking in Indigenous communities being published by the National Lawyers Guild Review, but it was far different working on the ground.
One of the most important things I learned from my work at Amara was how deeply trauma bonding can impact a person’s recovery from trauma. A trauma-bond is when an emotional attachment develops during consistent, ongoing cycles of abuse, where the abuse victim or survivor becomes emotionally attached to and occasionally dependent on their abuser. This bond can have devastating effects when compounded with trafficking. It is not uncommon for survivors to return to their traffickers because of that bond, and it can be a massive emotional blow as well as a legal setback for both attorney and client.
Despite this rather bleak description, working at Amara was one of the most hope-filled positions I have ever held. Because of the WBA Foundation’s Founders Fellowship, I was able to work at an organization which continuously, and fiercely, advocates for people who have frequently had their civil and human rights violated, not only by traffickers or johns, but by the criminal legal system. While it could be difficult—sometimes hearing the details of assaults could be deeply traumatic, even secondhand—it was also some of the most rewarding and impactful work I have ever had the chance to do. As an attorney in training, it has always been my goal to be able to provide compassionate, trauma-informed legal assistance to people who would not otherwise be offered it. I do not intend to speak for the voiceless, but to elevate the voices of those who have been ignored, and through my work with Amara I have gained a better, more comprehensive understanding of how to do that. If not for the Founders’ Fellowship, I would not have been able to afford to do the work that I did with Amara Legal Center; I would not have met some of the astounding women I came to know this summer, and I would not have been able to go higher and fight harder than I ever have before. I am truly grateful to the WBA Foundation for enabling me to keep fighting for women and girls in DC.