The AF3IRM Agenda: The Real Controversy Behind AF3IRM

Colonization teaches us to identify with oppressive systems and engage in oppressor behavior to defend them.

Several paid activists seeking to deregulate the sex industry (lobbyists), known cyber stalkers, and people posing as AF3IRM members including the anonymous “Purple Rose 666” account have been spreading false information about and engaging in targeted harassment of women in Hawaiʻi organizing to remove patriarchal institutions on Native Hawaiian land.

This group of bad faith actors appropriates the language of police abolition to frame AF3IRM as “carceral,” but then argues that deregulation of profiteers and sex buyers is necessary because will allow ‘sex workers’ equal access to the very carceral systems they claim to denounce. Ironically, many of these slanderers know that local law enforcement on multiple islands (Honolulu Police Department and Hawaiʻi Police Department) has targeted AF3IRM members and the Hawaiʻi State Commission on the Status of Women in a defamatory manner for exposing police abuse of sex workers, police participation in sex trafficking, and police brutality against women.

One of their targets, Yvonne Mahelona, Coordinator of AF3IRM Hawaiʻi and a Native Hawaiian birth worker proclaimed, “Fuck the police and fuck the patriarchy go hand in hand.” This captures the spirit of the entire organization.

None of the individuals making false statements about AF3IRM have ever been members of AF3IRM. This is clear because they claim that AF3IRM is “a Filipina anti-trafficking organization.” AF3IRM has always been a multi-ethnic, multi-issue organization dedicated to reducing the most amount of harm for the most amount of people until capitalism falls. On the issue of the global sex trade, the only policy model aligned with our harm reduction principle is full abolition. We take a similar stance on prisons and police at the service of capitalism.

Our opposition tries to erase the fact that many AF3IRM chapters are led by sex workers, prostitutes, survivors and working class women. We do not tokenize or unilaterally ‘out’ our members although we are under constant pressure to do so. Anybody who does not know that knows nothing about AF3IRM except for their own fantasy of the organization.

Here is fact checking about AF3IRM and the movement to end the global commodification of land and women:

AF3IRM Hawaiʻi is an anti-imperialist, transnational feminist all-volunteer organization. We have zero paid staff.

While the activist wing of the prostitution lobby is literally funded by white male billionaires and European governments like the Netherlands, AF3IRM is unstaffed and has no regular funding. We do however raise small dollar donations to assist people exit the sex industry.

AF3IRM Hawaiʻi launched just over three years ago. Here is our record of victories to advance the decriminalization of ‘sex workers’ and transition away from the sex industry:

  • AF3IRM Hawaiʻi led a successful legislative campaign that resulted in the greatest progress on relief from criminalization for sex workers in any state. In Hawaiʻi, the law now says that sex workers can vacate a prostitution conviction and shorten the time for expunging prostitution charges, even if they are not a victim of sex trafficking. The Honolulu Prosecutor fought AF3IRM and the Hawaiʻi State Commission on the Status of Women arguing that the proposed law would “remove an important tool for law enforcement to curb prostitution in Waikiki” and to target street-based sex workers because it would allow relief for “actual prostitution offenders,” rather than proven sex trafficking victims. Haters — and they are haters — have tried to trivialize this victory as “grossly inflated” but HPD’s testimony to the Legislature underlies its significance: “Why would we even have a law against prostitution if this bill passes? There will be no point. Prostituting will be virtually decriminalized because they can just turn around and vacate.” AF3IRM and the Hawaiʻi State Commission on the Status of Women fought to remove all qualifications to vacatur but unfortunately pro-prostitution lobbyists succumbed to pettiness and concentrated their efforts on attempting to undermine our organizations rather than working with us to ensure the bill was amended into an even stronger version.
  • AF3IRM Hawaiʻi created and manages the only sex worker emergency relief fund in Hawaiʻi during COVID-19, and where sex workers decide how to use the money. The financial assistance has been utilized by women to supplement lost income, stay out of the sex trade, support pregnancy expenses, pay for medication and remain housed. This fund is part of a larger project to create real options for women to survive beyond selling access to their bodies to men.
  • AF3IRM Hawaiʻi led a successful legislative campaign to counteract Betsy DeVos’ gutting of the federal Title IX law by passing a state-level Title IX law. We also extended sex discrimination protections to gender identity and sexual orientation because transgender and queer students are especially vulnerable to sexual violence on Hawaiʻi’s campus.
  • AF3IRM Hawaiʻi organized to support transgender advocates, our own gender diverse membership , the Hawaiʻi State Commission on the Status of Women, and LAMBDA to help pass a landmark law that removed the gender binary from Hawaiʻi’s state identification and driver’s licenses, and ended the requirement for medical documentation to prove your gender identity. This intends to undermine discrimination and animus faced by transgender people applying for jobs, housing and benefits, and when interacting with state agents.

AF3IRM Hawaiʻi combines outside game with inside strategy to dismantle settler colonial systems that limit our agency. Unfortunately, this puts AF3IRM — and really any organization — in the unenviable position of navigating the squalling waters of local and federal law enforcement, the U.S. Department of Defense, Christian anti-trafficking advocates, moralizing misogynists, STEF (sex trade expansionist feminists), Libertarians, conservative legislators, elitist academics and also some genuinely compassionate people who just aren’t quite so “woke.” The current wave of attackers is trying to conflate us with some of the sectors/actors who we work to push Left.

In the words of Esperanza Fonseca, a transgender sex trade survivor and member of AF3IRM:

“AF3IRM is the only transnational feminist organization based in the U.S. fighting for the right to not be prostituted. This fight is not waged because of hypocritical moralism or an allegiance with police but from a transnational anti-imperialist stance, informed by indigenous women, fighting to tell the world that ‘land back’ means ‘NO’ to patriarchal institutions on their land and ‘NO’ to exporting the bodies of women and girls from their homelands for sexual servitude and profit extraction.”

The proof is in the praxis. AF3IRM Hawaiʻi consistently works to comprehensively end the conditions that drive women and nonbinary people into the sex trade. AF3IRM fights land theft and desecration of Native land, affordable housing loss from the vacation rental industry, illegal landlord evictions, LGBTQ discrimination in all spheres, sexual harassment in the hospitality industry, and labor trafficking in Honolulu’s longline fishing industry. Our members organize every day for universal health care, living wages, affordable housing regulations, and a fortified social safety net. The prostitution lobby in Hawaiʻi is consistently missing in action during these battles, even though they have more time and resources to engage than AF3IRM.

For example, sex trade expansionist organizations SWOP Hawaii and Harm Reduction Hawaii [sic] organized to defund the Hawaiʻi State Commission on the Status of Women — the state’s only resource center for women and femmes— but did nothing to advance legislation to protect tenants’ rights, increase the minimum wage, and end transgender discrimination during the same Legislative period (all of which the Commission was actively organizing for). These groups drove down to the Legislative, waited for hours in hearings, orally testified to defund the Commission, and organized against the Commission and AF3IRM round-the-clock. They did not exert this level of energy for legislation that would have improved living conditions and ensured the agency needed to refuse unwanted sex.

No amount of rhetoric around free speech, overreaching government and individual rights can hide their primary commitment to expand the sex trade. Their undisciplined and destructive behavior demonstrates that they would rather see sex workers harmed than answer AF3IRM’s invitation to join our fight for a broad social revolution.

One of the main pieces of “evidence” that AF3IRM is “carceral” is Project Rose — an alternative to arrest program that occurred in another state (Arizona) where no AF3IRM chapter is located, before AF3IRM Hawaiʻi was even in existence, and years before any contact between Dr. Dominique Roe-Sepowitz and the Hawaiʻi State Commission on the Status of Women. The Commission is directed by Khara Jabola-Carolus, a co-founder of AF3IRM Hawaiʻi.

No AF3IRM members or Khara Jabola-Carolus had any involvement with the Arizona diversion program Project Rose. What we are able to discern is that the program appears to have been an attempt by sex trafficking survivor-advocates to divert people in the sex trade from arrest into support programs. This model is called “law enforcement assisted diversion” and is a favored approach by pro-prostitution advocates in Hawaiʻi. SWOP Phoenix organized against the diversion program as “nanny-state-ish” and “paternalistic” when one of their members was unjustly arrested for prostitution — unfortunately this would have happened regardless of Project Rose due to existing state laws against prostitution. SWOP sued to end the diversion program. Today, Phoenix police have resumed their previous practice of arresting and charging sex workers with no option of diversion from arrest. That is the extent of our knowledge about Arizona’s Project Rose.

What we do know more intimately is that police-based intervention programs are currently led by the main prostitution proponents in Hawaiʻi. To be very clear, this is not an attack on these organizations but rather a rebuttal to illustrate the absurdity and hypocrisy of the argument that AF3IRM and the Hawaiʻi State Commission on the Status of Women are “carceral” because at one point co-authored research with someone involved with a discontinued diversion program in Arizona.

Hawaiʻi-based prostitution proponents are part of the national coalition attacking AF3IRM as “carceral.” Here is the irony:

SWOP works with Harm Reduction Hawaii and the CHOW Project, which run the police-based diversion program LEAD in Honolulu. Yet SWOP founded and is a steering committee member of DecrimNY, the sex trade expansion coalition that regularly attacks AF3IRM members as “carceral.”

Some critics say the LEAD program led by SWOP and DecrimNY affiliates in Hawaiʻi is problematic because rather than actually just provide services to people experiencing homelessness, Harm Reduction Hawaii leadership built a program that solidified homeless criminalization. Critics say that LEAD is a homeless program that says it’s okay to criminalize sex workers and drug users on the streets. To our knowledge, their leadership has never spoken publicly against homeless criminalization except for a recent mass letter signed by over seventy organizations to stop homeless sweeps *but only during the COVID-19 pandemic.* In Honolulu, most sex workers are targeted, arrested and charged for other “offenses” like drug possession and homelessness, not prostitution. This program increases rather than reduces police interaction with sex workers.

While this example is merely a counterpoint, we reserve the right to vocally criticize the way SWOP, DecrimNY members, and their local affiliates in Hawaiʻi engage in highly personalized, sexist attacks against us. This is colonizer behavior. Yes, even if it is coming from BIPOC.

Here, SWOP’s Hawaiʻi chapter distributed a ‘zine during a street festival throughout downtown Honolulu to attack Khara Jabola-Carolus and her partner:

Ironically, SWOP members in Hawaiʻi claim that Jabola-Carolus is motivated by moralizing and moral Puritanism yet they publicly refer to Jabola-Carolus as “breeder” and “baby mama” to shame, stigmatize, and discredit her in conservative Honolulu for eschewing state marriage.

In 2019, Jabola-Carolus and the Hawaiʻi State Commission on the Status of Women introduced legislation to create a sex trafficking database that would include metadata of prostitution arrests to monitor and expose the unacceptable practice of police arresting sex workers and sex trafficking victims. In her testimony, Jabola-Carolus excoriated law enforcement for disproportionately arresting sex workers and argued that the practice should end immediately. In an effort to smear Jabola-Carolus, SWOP knowingly misled legislators by opposing this measure on the grounds that Jabola-Carolus was attempting to “track sex workers.” SWOP and sex trade expansionists also argued that law enforcement — the Attorney General — not the Commission on the Status of Women should oversee the database. This important measure would have created a layer of oversight on police but was undermined by sex trade expansionists.

The same year, Jabola-Carolus and the Commission on the Status of Women introduced legislation to mandate statewide training for all criminal justice personnel in order to disrupt their stigmatizing views of sex workers and sex trafficking victims, teach trauma-informed care, and create the political will to end the criminalization of people in the sex trade. Again, SWOP Hawaiʻi organized against this measure and in written testimony argued that law enforcement and pro-prostitution academics, not the Commission on the Status of Women, should house the training program because they “have positive connections to HPD.” Here is an example of their online effort to attack this important measure for sex trafficking victims and sex workers:

One of their most disingenuous talking points from SWOP and Harm Reduction Hawaii is that Khara Jabola-Carolus “conflates sex work and sex trafficking.” SWOP members continued to peddle this lie even after attending public trainings facilitated by Jabola-Carolus on the legal and practical differences between sex trafficking and prostitution.

Another piece of “evidence” presented by sex trade expansionists to prove Jabola-Carolus and AF3IRM are “carceral” is a quip that she made at a filmed rally a number of years ago. In the video, Jabola-Carolus jokes about the experience of working in government and the classic sexist insult for outspoken women as “feminist police.” The retrieval of this footage is equal parts creepy and laughable.

The ultimate irony; however, is that Khara Jabola-Carolus is the only government official in Hawaiʻi actively working to hold Honolulu Police Department accountable for violence against BIWOC, especially sex workers. Jabola-Carolus has come under fire in the media from the Chief of Police for exposing police brutality against sex workers. Both HPD and prostitution proponents work to discredit her findings and their attacks are often indistinguishable.

Jabola-Carolus sought to support peer-reviewed empirical research on the role of HPD and other institutions in sex trafficking and sex buying in Hawaiʻi when anecdotal evidence was dismissed. To do this, she co-authored research with Dominique Roe-Sepowitz and Arizona State University (ASU), which is the nearest sex trafficking research center to Hawaiʻi. ASU worked with the Commission in a research-only capacity. Prostitution proponents distorted their methodology and findings out of opposition to Jabola-Carolus’ political stance on the sex trade — not because the research was actually flawed. More ironic still, bourgeois academics who are staunch advocates of sex trade expansion claimed the research was “biased.” And instead of approaching Jabola-Carolus to discuss their criticisms, these “professionals” immediately published smears in the statewide newspaper attacking her professional credibility.

Shortly after the first report measuring sex buyer demand was published, advocates contacted Khara Jabola-Carolus to warn the Commission of a “credible threat of imminent physical violence” against her that coincided with the launch of a campaign for her firing led by sex trade expansionists. The Commission office was forced to evacuate. HPD investigated the threat and later concluded that it was not credible. HPD’s conclusion was then used by sex trade expansionists to again attack Khara Jabola-Carolus as lacking credibility. These traumatic incidents are only a sliver of the attacks she endures against her job and her family, which continue to this day.

Most people do not know about the abuse shouldered by Khara Jabola-Carolus because she is fearless and unapologetic in the pursuit of genuine liberation for women and non-binary folks, and, like many outspoken women of color, is often painted as aggressive and divisive. In reality, Jabola-Carolus is only ever hostile to power structures that oppress BIWOC and people who seek to uphold said structures. Those who paint our sister as divisive are the very people who directly benefit from oppressive systems maintaining an underclass of vulnerable BIWOC devoid of real choices.

Her story is just one example of countless members of AF3IRM who tirelessly fight to dismantle the vast structure of male supremacy. In the words of AF3IRM founder and former political prisoner Ninotchka Rosca, “Controversy becomes us.”

So if AF3IRM assists sex workers and is beloved by many sex workers in our community, isn’t “carceral,” doesn’t make any money, has sex workers, transwomen and gender diverse folx in our membership, and is one of only a few organizations fighting the police in Hawaiʻi why are certain people resorting to lies to attack us?

The sex trade in Hawaiʻi and the Philippines was forcibly introduced by white men and benefits male supremacy, so why do some of our very own BIPOC defend it?

The answers to both questions are the same: internalized colonization. No one is immune.

Repeated violence, abuse, and oppression can cause BIWOC to view our oppression as “normal.” Most of us suffer from various degrees of internalized colonization and may perceive attacks on colonial systems like prostitution as attacks on our very identities. It can become difficult to see that support of the sex trade is still dictated within male terms and within the male gaze. We can try to live within it but we are not allowed to destroy it. We cannot imagine a world outside of a world with prostitution. We stop believing that we deserve a world outside of colonialism, capitalism, and patriarchy. Yet within these systems, women and gender diverse people will always be relegated to the worst roles. You can find empowerment within patriarchy and within these roles, but you are still participating in your own oppression. Male supremacy thrives from our participation in it.

Fighting for our lives can put some people in permanent fight mode against others and ultimately their own interests. We have to leave behind these oppressor behaviors in order to build a unified, effective movement. AF3IRM will protect and hold our members close, but we will continue to extend open arms to anyone who wants to join the movement for a world where all lands and bodies are truly free. The battle is not easy, but it is necessary. And we will prevail together.