Noor Tagouri begins her podcast series “Sold in America” with a story from her childhood. As she tells of a trip she took to Saudi Arabia with her parents, her voice shakes, and she pauses and stumbles over her words. She recounts how, in the elevator of her hotel, a man attempted to assault her. She was twelve. Her vulnerability creates an immediate connection with the listener: we are horrified and shocked, yet we can’t help but keep listening. She says that this experience, “the fear of being touched by a stranger, or the fear of violence,” is the foundation of her series. Her work in journalism has been largely focused on violence against women, and the ultimate goal of her podcast is to figure out how exploitation and sex trafficking exists in the United States today. However, Tagouri doesn’t attempt to come up with a single answer, nor does she approach the journey as a straight line. Instead, with the same authenticity established in the first episode, she explains how her own perceptions of the sex industry have shifted throughout the course of her research.
The series follows Tagouri all over the country, to places such as Kentucky, Nevada, and Washington, D.C., as she interviews people with varying degrees of involvement in the sex industry. These people include members of law enforcement, sex workers, former trafficking victims, and doctors — all of whom bring a different perspective to this complicated conversation. Notably, Tagouri focuses on societal factors that influence the sex industry, and she walks her audience through intricate issues such as the rampant drug epidemic in Kentucky, the failures of child welfare programs, and short-sighted attempts by lawmakers to “save” sex workers.
Tagouri’s power lies in her ability to subvert the traditional narrative surrounding the sex industry. One such moment presents itself when she analyzes how well-intentioned laws actually further endanger sex workers. Through discussions with sex workers and lawmakers, Tagouri examines the passage of the Stop Enabling Sex Traffickers Act and Allow States and Victims to Fight Online Sex Trafficking Act, and the negative repercussions of these laws. The FOSTA-SESTA package makes it illegal for websites to knowingly support any form of sex work, so sites like Backpage can no longer publish ads for escort or erotic services. While these laws are meant to eradicate online child trafficking, police officers say that these websites can actually help locate victims, so lawmakers may in fact put victims further in the dark. FOSTA-SESTA also has detrimental effects for sex workers. The laws erase forums made by sex worker communities where they review clients and give tips in order to promote safety. While Tagouri is careful to not place blame on the laws themselves, she does point out that this ignores and further criminalizes sex workers who have no other options. The passage of these laws approaches the sex industry with tunnel vision, focusing on one goal without considering all of the other factors involved.
The most compelling part of Tagouri’s subversive narrative, however, is the evolving definitions of victim and villain. It’s important to note that defining these terms is a difficult feat, and the podcast does tread carefully. Through interviews with victims of sex trafficking and current sex workers, Tagouri shows her own progression as she realizes that neither she nor anybody else has the right to label someone else’s experience. One woman whom Tagouri interviews shares a story that seems to be a clear-cut example of sex trafficking, but through her interview she explains that she refuses to accept the label of a victim of trafficking. She states that she was making a choice, no matter how limited that choice may seem to listeners. Tagouri reflects on this and considers the benefits of a binary labeling system such as “victim and villain.” She admits her own flawed perceptions of this nuanced concept, and she nudges rather than pushes her listeners to think more critically and abandon such strict definitions. Through this exchange, she encourages her audience to realize, as she has, that assuming all sex workers are victims of trafficking not only diminishes the experiences of survivors, but also ignores the larger societal issues at play.
There are real victims, real people being trafficked in this country, but there is a fine line between help and harm. Arresting sex workers is harmful. Assuming all of these women are being forced by other people to engage in sex work is harmful. However, complacency with the existence of sex work is also incredibly harmful. Tagouri shows that misplacing all of the blame on traffickers hiding in the shadows misses an entire piece of this puzzle, and she plants questions in the minds of her listeners without explicitly trying to guide anyone’s journey. What about the broken government systems we continue to perpetuate? What about the stigma and obsession in our society surrounding sex?
Tagouri uses the term “survival sex” to describe the necessity of sex work to some of her interviewees. One woman states that if she doesn’t have sex for money, she won’t have a place to stay. And she won’t have food to eat. It doesn’t take much thought to see that this is unacceptable. Tagouri vows to put her energy into helping homeless youths in hopes of ending the cycle of homelessness and sex work, and this feels like a genuine goal, an actual way of helping that doesn’t involve a hashtag. She doesn’t claim to have all of the answers, and this makes for both an educational and engaging series that never veers off into preaching. This podcast shows exactly what America is selling, because it’s not just sex. It’s vulnerability, negligence, marginalization, among a host of other things, and Tagouri leaves it to us to decide when we will stop buying.
Image courtesy of soldinamericapodcast.com