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The Naked Anthropologist · Dr Laura Agustín on Migration, Sex work, Trafficking and the Rescue Industry

See this perfectly ordinary building? Most sex is sold here, out of conventional flats and apartments, anywhere in the world. The photos of women on the street beloved of dull editors teach that sex work is in the street, and the other photos editors use, of women sitting on barstools, teach that whatever’s not in the street is in brothels or sex clubs. On the contrary, of the many millions worldwide who sell sex of all kinds, most undoubtedly operate discreetly via telephone from their own residence or someone else’s, in the conventional housing we all live in. The photos here are European examples because a conference I’m speaking at speculates about Europe. From the website:

Sexual Citizenship and Human Rights: What Can the US Learn from the EU and European Law?

22-24 November 2013
University of Texas at Austin Law School
Eidman Courtroom, Room 2.306
727 East Dean Keeton Street
Map

The conference will focus on several difficult issues at the intersection of sexual self-determination and human rights, including same-sex marriage and family, the potential and limits of anti-discrimination laws, transgender rights, sex work and trafficking, youth sexuality, pornography as it affects minors, and the regulation of sex offenders. Individual papers will explore European and American attitudes and practices on each of these issues, with the goal of presenting new conceptual paradigms for future reform efforts. The conference brings together academics, practicing attorneys and therapists, state policy makers, and activists from various points of view.

Attendance is free but registration is required. Full programme

Saturday 23 November
5:15-7:00 p.m. Session Six: Sex Work, Migration and Trafficking

Laura Agustín

Contentious and Contradictory: Prostitution-law Campaigns in Europe (30 min)

Despite the sex-industry’s proliferation into areas where prostitution laws hardly apply, Europeans quarrel tirelessly over which law is correct. Notions of how to protect and serve women compete: 1-the Swedish/Nordic model, which prohibits buying sex whilst allowing its sale, holding that prostitution is violence against women and an absolute impediment to gender equality; 2- regulationism (partial legalisation), which favours allowing middle-class commercial establishments (clubs, bars, brothels) and prohibits street prostitution; 3-decriminalistion, which demands removal of all laws that penalise sex work and favours independent work. Ill-informed campaigns about sex trafficking obstruct pragmatic discussion of now dysfunctional migration laws. Essentialist notions of national sexualities compete with Europeanist proposals, and academic claims about ‘evidence of harm’ muddy the waters. The result is a constant barrage of contradictory messages.

I am not a habitual conference-goer. I do not like to sit passively all day or listen to short versions of deep topics and I have never found the kind of socialising that happens enjoyable. I also hate flying in, living in a hotel and flying out, seeing and feeling nothing of the location but university halls, hotel salons and predictable tourist sights. (I’m going to this thing because I can stay a week, so if you are in Austin…) And now that the law penalising men who buy sex is going to pass in France, I’ll have even more to say than I planned when I wrote that abstract.

I reject reductionist ideas about national cultures and have long thought of myself as a sort of anthropologist of Europe. I believe the move of the law to continental Europe changes the game. I personally am not surprised, perhaps because I’ve lived and spent lots of time in France, Spain and Italy and experienced the same feelings and arguments on the subject of prostitution everywhere. Particularly I’ve experienced the same feminist battles in the same tedious war for coming on to 20 years, so I don’t subscribe to the idea that a few Swedes caused all this client-hating. Once in Valencia I was asked by a renowned Socialist lawyer if I was in favour of torture and arms-trafficking, given my opposition to the present sex-trafficking crusade. I moved away from Madrid because the abolitionist feminists there not only drove me round the bend but made me nervous for my own safety at one event. That was the one where a French woman boomed out We don’t have to talk to prostitutes to know what prostitution is. When I was evaluating anti-violence projects for the European Commission, a Belgian at the European Women’s Lobby denounced me to the director as morally inappropriate, losing me the job. All these attacks took place ten or more years ago, long before Sex at the Margins came out.

After Italian media picked up last week’s story about France, an Italian abolitionist published an attack on me and Thierry Schaffauser entitled Negazioniste della tratta e attori porno smemorati because, as Mira Sorvino’s pals said, I am a Holocaust Denier. Someone seeing the recent attack wrote Questa Augustin è una criminale, in poche parole. [Other Italians responded with defence immediately, more on that another time.] Some educated, feministically-inclined women and men have deplored sexworker-rights ideas in every culture, and others oppose them everywhere as well.

Swedes developed this particular law, but other laws, other ordinances, other police rules have attempted to destroy prostitution before, and not only because it is a social nuisance in the eyes of some but because it is considered wrong. Women who sell sex are often now talked of as victims rather than criminals, increasingly even in the USA, where they are actually criminals by law. The whole premise of the Rescue Industry is to save innocent people from sex-exploiters, with actions that make sense inside all sorts of religious traditions. Schools to re-educate and intimidate clients, fines for kerb-crawling, posting of men’s photos on websites to shame them are descendants of late 19th-century campaigns that had activists running after prostitutes and their clients in the streets. The law can win in the Irelands and France as well as Norway, Iceland and Sweden because the concepts being promoted resonate amongst moral crusaders in all these societies. When the law doesn’t win somewhere in one parliamentary vote it may win on another occasion, because campaigners certainly do not give up just because they did not win the first time.

Last week I mentioned feeling we were moving into a period of Social Purity, which some objected to. A week later I still feel that way and have gone back to re-reading some texts on the subject I first read more than ten years ago. Will report back.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Not so long ago the French would shrug and sigh about prudish societies where sex could still provoke scandal, scoffing at melodramas acted out in the USA by politicians caught doing something opposed to so-called family values. Dominique Strauss-Kahn used this tradition with his claim to be engaging in ‘libertine activity’ when he paid for sex at parties. Now this is changing, not only because of Strauss-Kahn’s continuing saga but because the French parliament is set to pass a law against buying sex that was previously associated with countries to the north.

A couple of years ago I wrote Europe’s anti-prostitution initiatives multiply, discussing France in the context of the European Women’s Lobby campaign for a Europe Free from Prostitution. UN Women National Committee Sweden recently called this ‘an issue that divides the world, and where the Northern European and the global women’s movement fight for recognition of fundamentally different values.’ Perhaps now France will feel more northern than southern Europe.

In networks of activism for sex workers’ rights and better commercial-sex laws, the bill set to pass in France has been a focus of campaigning for some time. Many unfamiliar with the subject cannot believe their ears when told about the contradictory law known as the Swedish or Nordic model, which prohibits the buying of sex while allowing it to be sold. In Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores I said:

Yes, it’s illogical. But the contradiction is not pointless; it is there because the goal of the law is to make prostitution disappear, by debilitating the market through absurd ignorance of how sex businesses work.

Although a lot of activism now takes place via social-media websites, sometimes an email is better. Thierry Schaffauser sent the following ideas in a message about the current situation in France to an activist list. I have added links he provided and edited so that outsiders to these conversations may understand. The full text of the proposed French law can be read here: Proposition de loi renforçant la lutte contre le système prostitutionnel.

Dear all,

I think what we fear is going to happen.

The Socialist party introduced the bill, which was co-signed by all other parties affiliated to the Socialists as well as the Communist and Left parties, so there is already a majority in favour of the law. The right wing might vote with them as well. Even MPs who are against the law will probably vote for it, out of party discipline and to avoid being labelled as sexist, pro-pimp and pro-prosti-killers by feminists (prosti-tueurs is the new name they give to men who buy sex).

In parliamentary hearings two former prostitutes were invited to speak, both affirming the shame, degradation and self-destruction of prostitution. Current sex workers were not asked to testify; one of us spoke along with the health organisations. We have held many demonstrations and shown all the evidence, but we are ignored. The sponsors use flawed evidence and anonymous testimonies; they don’t care about NGOs or research.

Sponsors of the bill claim all the time that 90% of prostitutes are victims of trafficking. This percentage may be their estimate for non-French sex workers, not trafficking victims, but abolitionists don’t distinguish between the two. No source is given for the figure. All migrants are defined as trafficked.

Sex workers who oppose the bill are accused of being a non-representative and privileged minority, so selfish that we defend our own interest and those of pimps and willing to sacrifice the majority of poor victims of trafficking and rape. They insist they will not pass a law on behalf of sex workers who claim to consent to prostitution. They say that our consent is flawed due to poverty and other constraints, and believe that if we were to leave prostitution and go into therapy we would recognise that we had lied to ourselves and that prostitution is, in fact, harmful.

Migrant sex workers from all parts of the world increasingly join the sexworker union STRASS, but they don’t participate in public debates because of the language barrier and the stigma. During our last demonstration there were many migrants, but they were ignored by mainstream media. The bill would make it possible for migrant sex workers to get a six months’ residence permit on condition they agree to stop prostitution.

Sponsors of the law don’t care that only 22% of the French population are in favour of fining clients 1500€, because they say in Sweden the law succeeded in changing people’s minds about prostitution. They share the same goal to educate people in France. The bill would mandate school programming to teach that buying sex is like rape and that prostitution is degrading.

The bill says street soliciting will be permitted, but local by-laws can be passed to maintain public order, so sex workers would not even be decriminalised.

The bill would instruct Internet Service Providers to alert authorities and give power to block access to websites suspected of profiting from prostitution, which means even escort advertising could be targeted. One MP said it would be possible for police to use our phone numbers, which we fear means they could listen to conversations in order to identify and arrest clients and lead to forced entry into our homes and workplaces.

Sponsors of the bill don’t even listen to police, who say criminalising clients would be too difficult to implement and would divert efforts to combat trafficking.

A few days ago a group of reactionary right-wing men started defending the right to buy sex in a very sexist manner. They are being widely reported in the media, and sex workers who oppose the bill are made to look as if we side with them, which is terrible for us.

I don’t know what to do now.

See La pénalisation contre-productive for more on the bill from Thierry Schaffauser.

Many of Thierry’s comments illustrate how certain social actors are disqualified from participating in debates, including when their own welfare is at stake. The most peculiar idea pushed by abolitionism is that there must be a single interpretation for the act of selling sex, that all who do it must agree about the experience. In the case of sex workers who do not want their clients penalised, crusaders give a range of excuses for why their opinions are not relevant, appropriate, serious or believable, allowing their exclusion from debate. Somehow prostitution has come to be a subject where disqualification and discrediting are major tactics for winning political campaigns, where crusaders aggressively dismiss women, men and transgender people from attempting to tell their experiences. The most extreme disqualification goes to the voice of anyone currently selling sex:

Aucune personne prostituée pendant qu’elle exerce la prostitution ne dira jamais qu’elle est contrainte, jamais. Tout le monde effectivement dit que ‘je le fais volontairement’. Ce n’est qu’au moment où la prostitution s’arrête que les personnes disent en fait ce n’était pas ce je disais. – Danielle Bosquet

This authoritarian trump card permits anyone claiming autonomy in selling sex to be dismissed on non-provable ‘brainwashing’ grounds. See Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores for more on how disqualification works.

The turning of all migrants who sell sex into victims of trafficking is what drove me into reading and research in the late 1990s. Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry is the result of that research, along with articles in academic journals that opened the door to a new field of study. Moral entrepreneurs disqualify this work, too, as exceptional and irrelevant.

The French legislation is highly repressive in many ways. That it is sold as morally righteous confirms my feeling that we have moved into a period of Social Purity, the name given to a movement in Anglo countries in the late 19th century, in which the pursuit of prostitutes and their clients was a principle activity. The difference now can be seen in clauses to the French bill that would increase police power by allowing more surveillance of telephones and possible blocking of Internet sites where sex is offered for sale. The Rescue Industry now propose to save us from even the sight of advertisements considered to foment prostitution; we are all to be re-educated and rehabilitated for our own good.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Social work, whether voluntary or paid, rests on an assumption that people with problems can be helped by outsiders who provide services that facilitate solutions. Hands predominate in icons used on social-work websites: holding hands, piles of hands, hands of different shapes and colours. I suppose these are meant to signify working together – mutuality – non-hierarchy – equality. But how many social-work situations involving a sex worker reflect those values? Take this news item from Los Angeles:

Getting tough on underage prostitution

LA County calls on legislators to toughen laws, while those who work with young prostitutes grapple with how to get them off the streets. “Children cannot give consent by definition,” said Supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas. McSweeney said there are times when deputies pick up an underage girl and take her to county social services. Often, he said, that girl will end up in a group home, flee the next day, and be back on the street that night. It’s a revolving door, he said, and the system could use some tweaking.

Rejection of help is widely known amongst people who sell sex of all ages, yet to question ideas about helping is frowned upon. It is said people who are at least trying to do good deserve credit. Do they have to be perfect? At any rate, they are not employed as soldiers or bankers, they are socially involved, at least they care. But for most social workers, the job is just a job. They don’t imagine themselves to be saints but do appreciate the security and respect associated with it. They would probably prefer to think their work is relevant and appreciated. Consider a news item from Texas:

Child sex trafficking seminar in Paris educates first responders

“You would think that if you ran across a child that was being used for sex trafficking that they would stand up and say help me and that’s not the case,” said Paris Regional Medical Emergency Director Doug LaMendola. “They are so mentally reprogrammed into submissiveness that they won’t speak up.”

It must be frustrating when help is rejected, but inventing psychological reasons is a dodge to avoid wondering if the projects could be improved. Some psy excuses used with women who sell sex are brainwashingStockholm Syndrome and acting out. Now consider a news item from Chicago:

Who’s A Victim Of Human Sex Trafficking?

One recent Friday morning in a stuffy, crowded classroom at the Cook County jail in Chicago, a few women shared stories at a meeting of a group called Prostitution Anonymous. If they agree to get help, the women usually are not charged with prostitution in Cook County, though they may face other charges, from drug use to disorderly conduct.

Coercing people to participate in programmes is where social work touches bottom.

The idea that it’s impossible to change the lives of those in need unless they want them changed reveals a key assumption: that those in helping positions by definition already know what everyone needs. What happens if the person to be helped doesn’t accede to the helper’s proposition? Help fails, as it so often does in the oldest and commonest attempts worldwide to help women who sell sex, known as Exit Strategies, Diversion Programs and Rehabilitation. Consider recent news from Oklahoma:

Teen prostitute leaves shelter to return to street life

“She was in protective custody and doesn’t want any help,” he said. “There is no indication of a drug history. That’s the life she preferred. There is no telling how much money she was making.”
Woodward said the teenager comes from a rough family in the Tulsa area. “She doesn’t like her family, and she didn’t want us to contact her family,” he said.

Most women and young people who sell sex are simply not attracted by the alternative occupations or ‘homes’ offered that provide no flexibility, no autonomy, no street life, no way to have fun and pitiful money. Social workers can always point to people they know who appreciated some such project, but mainstream media provide examples of failure every week. The significant refusal here is on the social-work side, where not believing what people say they need guarantees that the situation for sex workers stays the same, despite endless hand-wringing and rhetoric about the need to help them.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Months ago I was interviewed by NewScientist, a mainstream UK magazine. I don’t accept all requests for interviews so did a little research, finding the publication reaches an audience probably different from whatever I usually reach. I asked what kind of questions the interviewer wanted to ask and found them well-informed and interesting. The initial interview, by phone, took more than an hour and was fine.

After some delay I was sent a first draft that required a lot of my time to correct and included an editor’s requests for data (How many prostitutes are there in the UK? What proportion work in the street? What is the correct figure for victims of trafficking?) I had explained during the interview why data on undocumented migrants and sex workers where so many aspects of prostitution are illegal cannot exist except in very partial bits, but I took time to explain again. There was then a back-and-forth in which I resisted the number-trap but tried to provide solutions we could all live with. At that time, the piece was 800 words, already drastically less than the interview transcript’s 9070. Months after the interview had taken place, I received a version to be published shortly. At 300 words it bore no resemblance to the original interview. Statements I had made had been culled from all over the article and then cobbled together in a new order that fit questions I had never exactly been asked (including the title question). I corrected a couple of points and let the thing go, at that point only hoping to prevent any egregious errors getting out. That was 8 July, and after the awful events of the 11th I forgot to write about it here.

I do think the title question is a smart way to interest readers new to the whole dense, messy field, and Banning is a much more honest word to use than Abolishing.

Does banning prostitution make women safer?

08 July 2013, by Clare Wilson, NewScientist issue 2924 (also in print)

Most of what we think we know about sex trafficking is wrong, says Laura Agustín, who has spent 20 years investigating the sex industry

There is a proposal in the UK to clamp down on prostitution by criminalising the purchase of sex. Why do you object?
Millions of people around the world make a living selling sex, for many different reasons. What are they expected to do? This would take away their livelihoods. Selling sex may be their preference out of a limited range of options. In the UK, migrants may have paid thousands of pounds to get here. This debt has to be paid off somehow, whether it is by working in the back of a restaurant or selling sex. Migrants who sell sex can pay off the debt much faster.

But prostitution is dangerous, especially for those who work on the street…
Women who work on the street are a small proportion of all the people who sell sex. Many more work through escort agencies, brothels or independently from home. It is disrespectful to treat them all like victims who have been duped into what they are doing. In the UK, there are thousands of articulate sex workers who say, “Leave me alone, I did know what I was getting into and I’m okay doing it.”

Isn’t the “happy hooker” a myth? Doesn’t research show it is a miserable existence?
Given the millions of people selling sex in the world, generalisations are impossible. Much research has been done at medical clinics or shelters for victims. If you go to a trauma centre, you meet traumatised people. When people tell me they have never met anyone who wanted to be selling sex, I ask where they did their research.

Why do you think anti-prostitution laws can make life more dangerous for sex workers?
If you think what sex workers do is dangerous, why insist they do it alone? It is legal in the UK for individuals to sell sex, but they may not work with companions or employ security guards. Brothels are illegal. If you prohibit businesses but people run them anyway – which they do – then workers must please bosses no matter what they ask. That is why this is a labour issue. Also, targeting kerb-crawlers makes things more dangerous since sex workers may have to jump in cars without getting a good sense of the driver.

What about trafficking of unwilling victims?
The numbers of trafficking victims reproduced by the media have no basis in fact. There is no way to count undocumented people working in underground economies. Investigations showed that one big UK police operation failed to find any traffickers who had forced people into prostitution. Most migrants who sell sex know a good deal about what they are getting into.

If there is no proof it is common, why is there widespread belief in sex-slave trafficking?
Why do moral panics take off? Focusing on trafficking gives governments excuses to keep borders closed. Perhaps it is easier to campaign moralistically against prostitution than to deal with the real problems: dysfunctional migration and labour policies that keep large numbers of people in precarious situations.

This article appeared in print under the headline “One minute with… Laura Agustín”

Profile
Laura Agustín studies gender, migration and trafficking. She is the author of Sex at the Margins (Zed Books, 2007) and blogs as The Naked Anthropologist.

The initial reactions I saw from NewScientist readers were angry: this was not ‘science’ and should not be in the magazine at all. One commenter said I was an idiot since he knew ‘missonaries in Sri Lanka’ who had rescued thousands of prostitutes. I stopped looking at the comments. The piece was picked up by some other sites, but I did not keep track.

It is hard for me to recognise myself at all in the piece, and it’s a shame the editor decided finally to shorten it so drastically. But many have told me that to get even this much of the non-mainstream story into a mainstream magazine is significant. So if you know anyone who usually cannot begin to think about these topics, send them this brief primer – maybe they will read it.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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I spent one hour and 20 minutes in the queue at Stansted’s UK Border recently. There were probably 1000 people in the hall, divided into the usual EU passports versus Rest of World. Signs saying Tougher Controls Mean a Longer Wait are dotted around. In fact, tougher controls do not have to mean outrageously long waits, even if more questions are asked of each traveller. Some interrogations last several or more minutes, but if enough agents were allotted, waits could still be reasonable. If, however, management allot only two agents to the 200 people on the non-EU side and interviews take at least a minute – well, things get bad.

On top of this, however, some policy had particular groups of people jumping the queue automatically: not only a disabled person but the five people associated with her, not only the small child holding a flight attendant’s hand but the seven teenagers associated with him. Four such groups occupied one of the agents for half the hour and a half I waited, leaving only one agent to work the 200 in the queue. It was not the eve of a significant tourist event but a Friday evening when ordinary city-break tourists arrive for a London weekend.

The ‘transition’ Home Office website says functions of the UK Border Agency (abolished earlier this year) will be split in two.

On 1 April 2013 the UK Border Agency was split into two separate units within the Home Office: a visa and immigration service and an immigration law enforcement division. By creating two entities instead of one, we will be able to create distinct cultures. First, a high-volume service that makes high-quality decisions about who comes here, with a culture of customer satisfaction for business-people and visitors who want to come here legally. And second, an organisation that has law enforcement at its heart and gets tough on those who break our immigration laws.a high-volume service that makes high-quality decisions about who comes here, with a culture of customer satisfaction for business-people and visitors who want to come here legally.

The claim of distinct cultures sounds ridiculous to me, but on their own terms they failed miserably the other night. No one came out to apologise to the throng, which, if you want to be nationalistic about it, included several families where one partner had a British passport but the other did not, plus their small children. No one came to explain the delay, or offer cups of water or smiles to demonstrate that a ‘distinct culture’ exists to welcome the majority of travellers to the UK.

When one of the agents closed up and left, I sighed loudly and began talking to the woman next to me. Discussing the length of interviews I mentioned how an official wanted to know the nationality of my friends in Britain. The woman said I thought it was just Asians who were treated like that. The landing card gives the impression that crossing is a formality, but the oral questions make it clear that we in the queue are thought liable to be liars, cheats or worse. If this belief is really at the heart of UK border policy then I would like them to make such a closed, imperialist attitude overt on the landing card.

All who travel often can tell anecdotes about long waits and stupid questions at borders. The UK border is a bad one getting worse all the time but not unique. My object here is not to evoke a stream of crazy anecdotes about worse border-encounters. Instead, I am pointing out how my frequent long sessions at UK airport-borders add up to evidence of the field-work kind. It’s not just well-known journalists and their mates that get detained and delayed and ill-treated at airport borders; officials do not have to imagine you have interesting data on electronic devices to begin invasive questioning. The segregation into separate queues is not based on colour or ethnicity though that comes into play. No, it’s a separation by passports that grant different degrees of citizenship. If you don’t have the right kind you can be mistreated for hours with no way to complain or escape. You cannot go backwards or opt out; you are trapped. And given the situation, the longer you wait the more likely you are to be meek and mollifying when your turn arrives – which is a form of coercion.

These places are closed to reporters and photographers; I have no idea what protection one has, or rights. I do not know what happens if someone falls ill in the queue. Chinese visitors are targeted with an absurd and costly process to come as tourists, which can quite properly be called colonialist.

I believe the British government has an outdated view of Chinese visitors, perhaps rooted in colonial times. They wrongly fear many Chinese will overstay. We have to respect our borders, but such unfounded fears are harming the UK economy. – Chief Executive at London’s Hippodrome Casino

Some estimate the UK is already losing billions of tourist pounds. Why bother to apply if through the easy process of obtaining a Schengen visa you can visit lots of other European countries? Sure the UK has a popular brand, but for most of the world it is neither indispensable nor better than the same cliché-level brand of France or Italy.

Having arrived efficiently on a short flight from Copenhagen, I reached my central London destination three full hours after landing at Stansted. This is really outrageous. Usually I manage to maintain a curious attitude, like in Border Thinking. Sometimes I fail.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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“Let the jury consider their verdict,” the King said.
“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first—verdict afterward.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!”
“Hold your tongue!” said the Queen, turning purple.
“I won’t!” said Alice.
“Off with her head!” the Queen shouted at the top of her voice.

In the world of anti-prostitution campaigning, the Queen’s upside-down thinking is commonplace.
- Sentence first – Verdict afterward
- Verdict first – Skip the evidence
- Sentence first in case anyone is guilty, which we cannot prove but that does not mean they didn’t Do It.
Self-defined experts abound who profess to know everything important about prostitution and sex trafficking, especially who should be shamed and imprisoned.

Admirers will recall Judge Susan Himel’s assessment of expert witnesses at 2009 trial of Bedford v Canada.

I was struck by the fact that many of those proffered as experts to provide international evidence to this court had entered the realm of advocacy and had given evidence in a manner that was designed to persuade rather than assist the court.

Other details on why Judge Himel dismissed the ‘evidence’ of Melissa Farley, Janice Raymond and Richard Poulin can be read here.

In December 2011, Judge D F Baltman of the Ontario Superior Court refused to allow one expert witness to give testimony in sex-trafficking case R v McPherson. The Crown had requested that Benjamin Perrin, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, be allowed to testify as an expert. Here is Baltman’s decision.

HELD: Application dismissed. The Crown failed to establish the necessity of the proposed evidence. The proposed evidence was not unique or difficult for a jury to understand. The themes and dynamics associated with the world of prostitution, living off the avails thereof, and human trafficking were common human experiences. Juries did not need experts to understand them. Pimping had been a longstanding offence under the Criminal Code and juries had been deciding such cases for decades without the assistance of expert evidence or the assertion that it was required. Even if the proposed evidence satisfied all criteria for admission, it should be excluded because its probative value was outweighed by the ensuing prejudice. Much of the professor’s observations were one sided and second hand. The professor was career advocate, and did not provide the appearance of objectivity. The proposed evidence had the obvious potential, in placing the accused in the framework suggested by the professor, of generating moral disgust and anger within the jury, which might in turn result in considerable moral prejudice to the complainant.

My heart is warmed and some faith restored by such rational thinking. The perils of expert-witnessing are routinely discussed in law-and-order television shows in which experts brought by prosecution and defence simply contradict each other. But I am interested in the proliferation of people, with academic qualifications or not, who claim expertise gives them the right to speak in grand universal terms on subjects they observe and abhor but have not lived themselves. Even worse, they claim to be able to speak for those others, implying that the people in question are not able to. When sexworkers speak for themselves, moral entrepreneurs often dismiss them, engaging in the disqualification I addressed recently. This mechanism of disqualifying people’s own words offends me as much as anything else in anti-prostitution/anti-trafficking campaigns.

For those interested in Judge Baltman’s decision here are some excerpts from background provided.

6 Professor Perrin has no expertise or formal training in the fields of criminology, psychology or sociology. However, he has involved himself in the issue of human trafficking since 2000, in a number of capacities. This includes volunteer work with a charitable organization that assists victims and advocates to improve Canada’s response to human trafficking; work as a senior policy advisor to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration where he counselled on human trafficking issues; and the research he has conducted on this topic as a faculty member at UBC. His primary output in that regard is his published book entitled “Invisible Chains: Canada’s Underground World of Human Trafficking”, which he describes as an “empirical study” on the nature and extent of Canada’s involvement in the area.

7 The findings from his study have been presented at conferences and published in various journals. Neither that study nor any of his publications on domestic sex trafficking have been peer reviewed before publication.

9 Professor Perrin openly advocates a more aggressive approach to the prosecution and sentencing of those who live off the avails of prostitution, and takes a very sharp view of those who think otherwise; in his recent article, published in the Globe and Mail, he stated that Himel J.’s decision declaring federal prostitution laws unconstitutional “is a striking example of judicial activism run amok.”

11 The Crown seeks to qualify Professor Perrin as an expert in human trafficking, so as to permit him to testify on the following areas:
(i) Patterns of interaction between traffickers and their prey; and
(ii) Methods of recruitment and retention used by traffickers against their victims;
In order to assess the necessity of the proposed evidence, one must first discern the trial issues upon which the evidence will bear. Based on the submissions from the Crown, these are:
(a) Methods used by traffickers to identify and recruit young women to work for them;
(b) Methods used by traffickers to control their young women and ensure their compliance; and
(c) The dynamics and conditions of sex trafficking which prevent the young women from leaving the relationship.

19 The Crown notes that the credibility of the complainants will come under sharp scrutiny, and in particular their reluctance to leave the relationship with the Respondent despite the alleged abuse. For the jury to properly understand this dynamic, argues the Crown, Professor Perrin should be permitted to explain the methodologies used by sex traffickers, and how those methodologies would have prevented the complainants from leaving the relationship.

20 Based on Professor Perrin’s report, those methodologies and his conclusions about them can be summarized as follows:
A. Sex traffickers seek out women who are young and vulnerable; many of the women are poor, prone to substance abuse, and either homeless or coming from a dysfunctional home;
B. Traffickers prey on the desire of these young women for love, money, shelter, and acceptance;
C. Traffickers may use threats, violence, the imposition of rules, economic control, drugs, guilt, manipulation or social isolation to lower the women’s self esteem and cause them to remain dependent upon their traffickers;
D. Women who are subjected to this treatment may not leave the relationship when given the chance because they fear reprisals or violence; or because they suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, low self esteem, anxiety, or depression, or because they lack the economic resources to leave; or because they may blame themselves for their treatment or see no better alternatives.

22 In my view, the proposed evidence is not unique or difficult for a jury to understand, for several reasons. First, although the subject matter of this case – prostitution, living off the avails thereof, and human trafficking – may not be personally familiar to the jury, it is clear from Professor Perrin’s report that the themes and dynamics associated with this world are common human experiences . The tendency of men to prey on young women who are vulnerable or needy; the use of violence by men against women in a domestic relationship; and the reasons why many women cannot easily extricate themselves from abusive relationships are not complicated technical issues but themes which juries and judges encounter on a daily basis in Canadian courts. In Professor Perrin’s own words, “Poverty, the desire for love, and the desire for money, in that order, are the key vulnerabilities that permit domestic sex traffickers to recruit and control victims,” These motivations are not rare, and juries do not need experts to understand them.

23 Second, it is anticipated in this case that each complainant will testify about her treatment during her relationship with the Respondent. This will include how they met, how he persuaded her to enter the sex trade, and why she stayed in it as long as she did. There is no suggestion that any of the women are intellectually or emotionally unable to articulate their experience. Each complainant provides an explanation for why she stayed in the relationship. The explanations are based on common motivations: the belief that the Respondent loved her; fear of reprisals; and not having the means to leave. Again, these are all basic human emotions that a jury can understand.

31 Further, Professor Perrin is a career advocate, and does not provide the appearance of objectivity. While his efforts to end human trafficking and raise consciousness about this issue are doubtless laudable, his professional life is anchored in his role as advocate for the victims of sex trafficking and lobbyist for policy change in government. He has publicly stated that in his view sex work should not be decriminalized. His testimony would not be that of an objective academic but rather a dedicated lobbyist. Even if, as the Crown proposes, his evidence could be edited to exclude his personal opinions, it will nonetheless be guided by his highly prosecutorial perspective.

32 Moreover, and as already noted, the evidence does not add much to what jurors already know about human behaviour. As Professor Perrin is not a psychologist and has minimal if any contact with women directly involved in the sex trade, he is no more qualified than the average person to explain the psychology which may lead them to remain in abusive relationships.

33 On the other side of the coin, considerable prejudice could result from this testimony. Expert evidence about the means or methods that other sex traffickers use to lure young women into slave labour in the sex trade, and the force used to prevent them from leaving, may well cast the Respondent as part of an epidemic of human trafficking hidden in the underbelly of Canadian society. The Respondent will then need to diffuse not only with the allegations of the individual complainants, but also the acts of all other sex traffickers described by Professor Perrin in his research.

34 The idea of sexual victimization of young people is understandably repellent to many people; the proposed evidence has the obvious potential, in placing the Respondent in the framework suggested by Professor Perrin, of generating moral disgust and anger within the jury, which may in turn result in considerable moral prejudice to the complainant.

35 That sex trafficking is a nasty business is not in question. But the time to factor that in is on sentencing, should there be a conviction. The sordidness of that world should not, on its own, be a reason for the jury to hear all of its Ills at the same time that it is deciding whether the Respondent committed a crime in the first place.

38 For those reasons I dismissed the application.

D.F. BALTMAN J.

A friend passed me this document; I cannot find it online. If you want the whole thing, consult a legal library/database.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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I wrote Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores for Jacobin (A magazine of culture and polemic) to reach a different audience, perhaps some left-leaning folks who don’t know it’s possible to talk about prostitution, sex work, trafficking and migration in interesting ways.

The piece was very hard to write, not only because I was shocked by the death of someone I knew but because I wanted to bring together many themes without going too deep into any. The exception was perhaps the idea of stigma. I said

Many people have only a vague idea what the word stigma means. It can be a mark on a person’s body – a physical trait, or a scarlet letter. It can result from a condition like leprosy, where the person afflicted could not avoid contagion. About his selection of victims Sutcliffe said he could tell by the way women walked whether or not they were sexually “innocent”.

Stigma can also result from behaviors seen to involve choice, like using drugs. For Erving Goffman, individuals’ identities are “spoiled” when stigma is revealed. Society proceeds to discredit the stigmatized – by calling them deviants or abnormal, for example. Branded with stigma, people may suffer social death – nonexistence in the eyes of society – if not physical death in gas chambers or serial killings.

I won’t be creating a hierarchy of who suffers stigma most but do believe stigmas vary in how they manifest and feel to those involved as well. There are diverse views amongst people who study the subject. For me in studying the stigma that goes to women who sell sex, there is an extra element not present in other stigmas (HIV, homosexuality, drug use): the impulse to control women sexually, keep them in separate categories of Good and Bad based on their sexual behaviour. This doesn’t mean they ‘suffer more’, that’s not my point. I’m simply interested in the contribution a longtime social impulse makes to the belief amongst so many that women who sell sex are actually (and deplorably) different from women who don’t.

I also am interested in a consequence of stigmatisation more than the mark itself – the mechanism of disqualification. For those who believe the stigma is real, women who carry it are considered not able to speak for or even know themselves, which provides the excuse to disqualify anything they say about how they feel and what they want. Helpers, saviours and police choose to believe – not disqualify – statements that tally with their own views of what women (must) experience. It is distressing to watch so much disqualification of women’s words and deeds, and why I ended the piece with the call that we assume that what all women say is what they mean.

Salon ran the same piece under The sex worker stigma: How the law perpetuates our hatred (and fear) of prostitutes. Of course this title is catchier and better for a more mainstream audience. But I did not write either word, hatred or fear, in the piece itself, so for me the change is jarring. Under the title, Salon wrote Our society turns a blind eye to the murder of sex workers, deeming them less than human. Why is that? I never said stigma makes people less than human, so here we have an editor who may or may not have actually read the essay imposing ideas not held by the author herself. Fear-and-hatred are not a synonym for stigma; there are many more fears and hatreds in the world than stigmas.

The photo Salon ran shows a woman standing in a pose associated with street prostitution but not wearing the uniform that I called ‘the outward sign of an inner stain’. Perhaps that move is in line with their progressive use of sex workers in the title. But what about the caption underneath it? A worker in prostitution who goes by the name Violet in downtown San Francisco. I polled many people afterwards and all were unfamiliar with the term worker in prostitution. In the sex wars, those who denounce prostitution refuse to think of it as work and sex workers often reject the term prostitution.

One way to try to destroy the stigmatising distinction between Good and Bad women proclaims that all women are whores, which I like better than whores’ insisting they are Good, but I guess they come to the same thing. Here are two recent photos showing the first strategy, one in Germany (Wir sind alle prostitutas-We are all prostitutes, where the Spanish prostitutas indicates solidarity with migrant sex workers, and another in Perú (Todos tenemos algo de puta – We all have a bit of the whore in us).

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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This essay ran first in Jacobin and was picked up by Salon and given a different title. Comments on the different slants to come soon.

Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores

Laura Agustín, Jacobin, 15 August 2013

It doesn’t matter which political direction you come from: the topics of sex work, sexual exploitation, prostitution and sex trafficking seem like a veritable Gordian Knot. As long as you listen to one set of advocates and take their evidence in good faith, you are okay. But the minute you listen to another set of advocates with different arguments and evidence, everything falls apart. The way these subjects intersect leads to untenable contradictions that make progress seem impossible. Hand-wringing and ideological free-for-alls predominate.

Twenty years ago I first asked two questions that continue to unsettle me today. The first is answerable: What does a woman who sells sex accomplish that leads to her being treated as fallen, beyond the pale, incapable of speaking for herself, discountable if she does speak, invisible as a member of society? The answer is she carries a stigma. The second question is a corollary: Why do most public conversations focus on laws and regulations aimed at controlling these stigmatized women rather than recognizing their agency? To that the answer is not so straightforward.

I am moved to make this assessment after the murder of someone I knew, Eva-Maree Kullander Smith, known as Jasmine. Killed in Sweden by an enraged ex-partner, Eva-Maree was also a victim of the social death that befalls sex workers under any name you choose to call them. Immediately after the murder, rights activists cursed the Swedish prostitution law that is promoted everywhere as best for women. My own reaction was a terrible sinking feeling as I realized how the notion of a Rescue Industry, named during my research into the “saving” of women who sell sex, was more apt than even I had thought.

Murders of sex workers are appallingly frequent, including serial killings. In Vancouver, BC, Robert Pickton killed as many as 26 between 1996 and 2001 before police cared enough to do anything about it. Gary Ridgeway, convicted of killing 49 women in the 1980s-90s in the state of Washington, said, “I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.” Infamous statements from police and prosecutors include the Attorney General’s at Peter Sutcliffe’s 1981 trial for the murder of at least 13 women in the north of England: “Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of this case is that some were not.” He could say this because of a ubiquitous belief that the stigma attached to women who sell sex is real – that prostitutes really are different from other women.

My focus on the female is deliberate. All who propose prostitution policy are aware that men sell sex, but they are not concerned about men, who simply do not suffer the disgrace and shame that fall on women who do it.

Stigma and disqualification

Many people have only a vague idea what the word stigma means. It can be a mark on a person’s body – a physical trait, or a scarlet letter. It can result from a condition like leprosy, where the person afflicted could not avoid contagion. About his selection of victims Sutcliffe said he could tell by the way women walked whether or not they were sexually “innocent”.

Stigma can also result from behaviors seen to involve choice, like using drugs. For Erving Goffman, individuals’ identities are “spoiled” when stigma is revealed. Society proceeds to discredit the stigmatized – by calling them deviants or abnormal, for example. Branded with stigma, people may suffer social death – nonexistence in the eyes of society – if not physical death in gas chambers or serial killings.

In the late 1990s I wondered why a migrant group that often appeared in media reports and was well-known to me personally was absent from scholarly migration literature. I came to understand that migrant women who sell sex were disqualified as subjects of migration, in some perhaps unconscious process on the part of scholars and journal editors. Was the stigma attached to selling sex so serious that it was better not to mention these migrants at all? Or did people think that the selling of sex must transport anything written about it to another realm, such as feminism? When I submitted an article to a migration journal addressing this disqualification, The Disappearing of a Migration Category: Women Who Sell Sex, two and a half years passed before its publication, probably because the editor could locate no peer reviewers willing to deal with my ideas.

Of the many books on prostitution I read back then, most dismissed the possibility that women who sell sex can be rational, ordinary, pragmatic and autonomous. The excuses followed a pattern: The women didn’t understand what they were doing because they were uneducated. They suffered from false consciousness, the failure to recognize their own oppression. They were addicted to drugs that fogged their brains. They had been seduced by pimps. They were manipulated by families. They were psychologically damaged, so their judgements were faulty. If they were migrants they belonged to unenlightened cultures that gave them no choices. They were coerced and/or forced by bad people to travel, so they weren’t real migrants, and their experiences didn’t count. Because they were brainwashed by their exploiters, nothing they said could be relied on. This series of disqualifications led to large lacunae in social-scientific literature and mainstream media, showing the power of a stigma that has its very own name – whore stigma. Given these women’s spoiled identities, others feel called to speak for them.

Rescue Industry, legal regimes and stigma

The person in a helping profession or campaign is said to embody the good in humanity – benevolence, compassion, selflessness. But helpers assume positive identities far removed from those spoiled by stigma, and benefits accrue to them: prestige and influence for all and employment and security for many. Many believe that helpers always know how to help, even when they have no personal experience of the culture or political economy they intervene in. What I noted was how, despite the large number of people dedicated to saving prostitutes, the situation for women who sell sex never improves. The Construction of Benevolent Identities by Helping Women Who Sell Sex was the key that unlocked my understanding of the Rescue Industry.

Abolitionists talk continuously about prostitution as violence against women, set up projects to rescue sex workers and ignore the dysfunctionality of much that is conceived as “rehabilitation”. Contemporary abolitionism focuses largely on the rescue of women said to be victims of trafficking, targeting the mobile and migrant women I mentioned earlier, who are now completely disappeared in a narrative of female victimhood. Although much of this goes on under a feminist banner, colonialist maternalism describes it better.

In classic abolitionism, whore stigma is considered a consequence of patriarchy, a system in which men subjugate women and divide them into the good, who are marriageable, and the bad, who are promiscuous or sell sex. If prostitution were abolished, whore stigma would disappear, it is claimed. But contemporary movements against slut-shaming, victim-blaming and rape culture clearly show how whore stigma is applied to women who do not sell sex at all, so the claim is feeble. Instead, abolitionism’s aversion to prostitution probably strengthens the stigma, despite the prostitute’s demotion to the status of victim rather than the transgressor she once was.

Under prohibitionism, those involved in commercial sex are criminalized, which directly reproduces stigma. In this regime, the woman who sells sex is a deliberate outlaw, which oddly at least grants her some agency.

For advocates of the decriminalization of all commercial-sex activities, the disappearance of whore stigma would occur through recognizing and normalizing the selling of sex as labor. We don’t yet know how long it may take for stigma to die out in places where some forms of sex work are decriminalized and regulated: New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Holland. Given the stigma’s potency in all cultures one would expect it to diminish unevenly and slowly but steadily, as happened and continues to happen with the stigma of homosexuality around the world.

Prostitution law and national moralities

I explained my skepticism about prostitution law at length in an academic article, Sex and the Limits of Enlightenment: The Irrationality of Legal Regimes to Control Prostitution. All prostitution laws are conceived as methods to control women who, before ideas of victimhood took hold, were understood to be powerful, dangerous figures associated with rebellion, revolt, carnival, the world upside down, spiritual power and calculated wrongdoing. Conversations about prostitution law, no matter where they take place, argue about how to manage the women: Is it better to permit them to work out of doors or limit them to closed spaces? How many lap-dancing venues should get licenses and where should they be located? In brothels, how often should women be examined for sexually transmitted infections? The rhetoric of helping and saving that surrounds laws accedes with state efforts to control and punish; the first stop for women picked up in raids on brothels or rescues of trafficking victims is a police station. Prostitution law generalizes from worst-case scenarios, which leads directly to police abuse against the majority of cases, which are not so dire.

In theory, under prohibitionism prostitutes are arrested, fined, jailed. Under abolitionism, which permits the selling of sex, a farrago of laws, by-laws and regulations give police a myriad of pretexts for harrying sex workers. Regulationism, which wants to assuage social conflict by legalizing some sex-work forms, constructs non-regulated forms as illegal (and rarely grants labor rights to workers). But eccentricities abound everywhere, making a mockery of these theoretical laws. Even Japan’s wide-open, permissive sex industry prohibits “prostitution” defined as coital sex. And in recent years a hybrid law has arisen that makes paying for sex illegal while selling is permitted. Yes, it’s illogical. But the contradiction is not pointless; it is there because the goal of the law is to make prostitution disappear by debilitating the market through absurd ignorance of how sex businesses work

Discussion of prostitution law occurs in national contexts where rhetoric often harks back to essentialist notions of morality, as though in this highly-travelled, hybrid-culture world it were still possible to talk about authentic national character, or as though “founding father” values must define a country for all time. One intervenor at the recent Canadian Supreme Court hearing on prostitution law argued that decriminalization would defy founding values of “the Canadian community”: “that women required protection from immoral sexual activity generally and prostitution specifically” and “strong moral disapproval of prostitution itself, with a view to promoting gender equality”. The national focus clashes with anti-trafficking campaigns that not only claim to use international law but sponsor imperialist interventions by western NGOs into other countries, notably in Asia, with the United States assuming a familiar meddling role vis-à-vis Rest-of-World.

Gender Equality, State Feminism and intolerance

Gender Equality is now routinely accepted as a worthy principle, but the term is so broad and abstract that a host of varying, contradictory and even authoritarian ideas hide behind it. Gender Equality as a social goal derives from a bourgeois feminist tradition of values about what to strive for and how to behave, particularly regarding sex and family. In this tradition, loving committed couples living with their children in nuclear families are society’s ideal citizens, who should also go into debt to buy houses and get university educations, undertake lifetime “careers” and submit to elected governments. Although many of these values coincide with long-standing governmental measures to control women’s sexuality and reproduction, to question them is viewed with hostility. The assumption is that national governmental status quos would be acceptable if women only had equal power within them.

Gender Equality began to be measured by the UN in 1995 on the basis of indicators in three areas: reproductive health, empowerment and the labor market. Arguments are endless about all the concepts involved, many seeing them as favouring a western concept of “human development” that is tied to income. (How to define equality is also a vexed question.) Until a couple of years ago, the index was based on maternal mortality ratio and adolescent fertility rate (for health), share of parliamentary seats held by sex plus secondary/higher education attainment (for empowerment) and women’s participation in the work force (for labor). On these indicators, which focus on a narrow range of life experiences, northern European countries score highest, which leads the world to look there for progressive ideas about Gender Equality.

These countries manifest some degree of State Feminism: the existence of government posts with a remit to promote Gender Equality. I do not know if it is inevitable, but it is certainly universal that policy promoted from such posts ends up being intolerant of diverse feminisms. State Feminists simplify complex issues through pronouncements represented as the final and correct feminist way to understand whatever matter is at hand. Although those appointed to such posts must demonstrate experience and education, they must also be known to influential social networks. Unsurprisingly, many appointed to such posts come from generations for whom feminism meant the belief that all women everywhere share an essential identity and worldview. Sometimes this manifests as extremist, fundamentalist or authoritarian feminism. Sweden is an example.

Sweden and prostitution

Jämställdhet, Photo Malinka Persson

The population of only nine and a half million is scattered over a large area, and even the biggest city is small. In Sweden’s history, social inequality (class differences) was early targeted for obliteration; nowadays most people look and act middle-class. The mainstream is very wide, while social margins are narrow, most everyone being employed and/or supported by various government programmes. Although the Swedish utopia of Folkhemmet – the People’s Home – was never achieved, it survives as a powerful symbol and dream of consensus and peace. Most people believe the Swedish state is neutral if not actually benevolent, even if they recognize its imperfections.

After the demise of most class distinctions, inequality based on gender was targeted (racial/ethnic differences were a minor issue until recent migration increases). Prostitution became a topic of research and government publications from the 1970s onwards. By the 1990s, eradicating prostitution came to be seen as a necessary condition for the achievement of male-female equality and feasible in a small homogeneous society. The solution envisioned was to prohibit the purchase of sex, conceptualized as a male crime, while allowing the sale of sex (because women, as victims, must not be penalized). The main vehicle was not to consist of arrests and incarcerations but a simple message: In Sweden we don’t want prostitution. If you are involved in buying or selling sex, abandon this harmful behavior and come join us in an equitable society.

Since the idea that prostitution is harmful has infused political life for decades, to refuse to accept such an invitation can appear misguided and perverse. To end prostitution is not seen as a fiat of feminist dictators but, like the goal to end rape, an obvious necessity. To many, prostitution also seems incomprehensibly unnecessary in a state where poverty is so little known.

These are the everyday attitudes that social workers coming into contact with Eva-Maree probably shared. We do not know the details of the custody battle she had been locked in for several years with her ex-partner. We do not know how competent either was as a parent. She recounted that social workers told her she did not understand she was harming herself by selling sex. There are no written guidelines decreeing that prostitutes may not have custody of their children, but all parents undergo evaluations, and the whore stigma could not fail to affect their judgements. For the social workers, Eva-Maree’s identity was spoiled; she was discredited as a mother on psycho-social grounds. She had persisted in trying to gain mother’s rights and made headway with the authorities, but her ex-partner was enraged that an escort could gain any rights at all and did all he could to impede her. The drawn-out custody process broke down on the day she died, since standard procedures do not allow disputing parents to meet during supervised visits with children.

In a 2010 report evaluating the law criminalizing sex-purchase, stigma is mentioned in reference to feedback they received from some sex workers:

The people who are exploited in prostitution report that criminalization has reinforced the stigma of selling sex. They explain that they have chosen to prostitute themselves and feel they are not being involuntarily exposed to anything. Although it is not illegal to sell sex they perceive themselves to be hunted by the police. They perceive themselves to be disempowered in that their actions are tolerated but their will and choice are not respected.

The report concludes that these negative effects “must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution”. To those haunted by the death of Eva-Maree, the words sound cruel, but they were written for a document attempting to evaluate the law’s effects. Evaluators had been unable to produce reliable evidence of any kind of effect; an increase in stigma was at least a consequence.

Has this stigma discouraged some women from selling sex who might have wanted to and some men from buying? Maybe, but it is a result no evaluation could demonstrate. The report, in its original Swedish 295 pages, is instead composed of historical background, repetitious descriptions of the project and administrative detail. Claims made later that trafficking has diminished under the law are also impossible to prove, since there are no pre-law baseline statistics to compare to.

The lesson is not that Sweden’s law caused a murder or that any other law would have prevented it. Whore stigma exists everywhere under all prostitution laws. But Sweden’s law can be said to have given whore stigma a new rationality for social workers and judges, the stamp of government approval for age-old prejudice. The ex-partner’s fury at her becoming an escort may derive in part from his Ugandan background, but Sweden did not encourage him to view Eva-Maree more respectfully.

Some say her murder is simply another clear act of male violence and entitlement by a man who wanted her to be disqualified from seeing their children. According to that view, the law is deemed progressive because it combats male hegemony and promotes Gender Equality. This is what most infuriates advocates of sex workers’ rights: that the “Swedish model” is held up as virtuous solution to all of the old problems of prostitution, in the absence of any evidence. But for those who embrace anti-prostitution ideology, the presence or absence of evidence is unimportant.

When media are king

Media handling of these incidents reproduces stigma with variation according to local conditions. The mainstream Swedish press did not mention that Eva-Maree was an escort, because to do so would have seemed to blame her and blacken her name. In the case of a series of murders in Ipswich, England, the media’s relentless talk of prostitutes led the victims’ parents to request they use the term sex workers. A number of dead women on Long Island, NY, were discussed as almost “interchangeable – lost souls who were gone, in a sense, long before they actually disappeared” (Robert Kolker, New York Times, 29 June 2013). A woman murdered recently near Melbourne, Australia, was called “St Kilda prostitute” rather than “sex worker” or even, simply, “woman”, in a place where the concept of sex work is actually on its bumpy way to normalization. I’m talking here about the mainstream, whose online articles are reproduced over and over, hammering in the clichés.

Editors who append photos to articles on the sex industry use archetypes: women leaning into car windows, sitting on bar stools, standing amidst traffic – legs, stockings and high heels highlighted. Editors do this not because they are too lazy to find other pictures but to show, before you read a word, what the articles are really about: women whose uniform is the outward sign of an inner stain. Similarly, when writers and editors use the clichéd language of a “secret world”, “dark underbelly”, “stolen childhoods”, “seedy streets” and “forbidden fruit”, they are not simply being sensationalist but pointing to the stigma: Here’s what this news is really about – the disgusting and dangerous but also eternal and thrilling world of whores.

Cutting the Gordian Knot

Not long ago I was invited to speak at the Dublin Anarchist Bookfair on the topic of sex work as work. The announcement on Facebook provoked violent ranting: to have me was anti-feminist, against socialism and a betrayal of anarchism. I wrote Talking about sex work without isms to explain why I would not discuss feminist arguments in the short Dublin talk. I’m not personally interested in utopias and after 20 years in the field really only want to discuss how to improve things practically in the here and now. No prostitution law can comprehend the proliferation of businesses in today’s sex industry or account for the many degrees of volition and satisfaction among workers. Sexual relations cannot be “fixed” through Gender-Equality policy. If I were Alexander standing over the knot I would slice it thus: All conversations from this moment will begin from the premise that we will not all agree. We will look for a variety of solutions to suit the variety of beliefs, and we will not compete over which ideological position is best. Most important, we will assume that what all women say is what they mean.

LAURA AGUSTÍN is author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry (Zed Books). A researcher and analyst of human trafficking, undocumented migration and sex-industry research for the past 20 years, she blogs as The Naked Anthropologist.


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A new film about staging La Traviata is using the most old-fashioned and clichéd image in its publicity: that of Violetta on the floor in the classic pose of Fallen Women. Yes, I know the opera and I know the novel it’s based on (La dame aux camélias 1848) and I am capable of appreciating romantic imagery and tradition. But to choose just this pathetic and highly charged pose to advertise a supposedly innovative film seems perverse and uncreative to me.

I’ve written before about the iconography of the Fallen Woman: her position on the ground, sometimes twisted, sometimes being reached out to by a kind person (usually a man). In La Traviata (1853) Violetta is dying of consumption, so she’s also seen in pathetic poses in bed, but using the floor image in publicity photos drives home the idea that her essence is this: morally low, a kept woman, demi-mondaine, courtesan or woman who’s gone astray (traviata). At the beginning of the story Violetta is a happy-go-lucky good-time girl (though ill). Finding true love with Alfredo she is portrayed as morally redeemed and self-sacrificing.

Possibly the gay lady may come to the ‘bitter end’ some day, but at present, except from the moral point of view, she is not an object for commiseration. She at least has all that she deliberately bargains for—fine clothes, rich food, plenty of money, a carriage to ride in, the slave-like obedience of her ‘inferiors’, and the ful­some adulation of those who deal with her for her worth. Very often (though under the circumstances it is doubtful if from any aspect this is an advantage) she finds a fool with money who is willing to marry her; but whether she is content to accept the decent change, and to abide by it, of course depends on her nature. – James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, Curse IV: Fallen Women, 1869

Whether the staging is brought into the present or not, Violetta always has a scene on the floor to drive home her moral abjection. Why else would she be on the floor? People who fall get back up right away; if they can’t, they are too injured. In Violetta’s case the injury is moral. Of course people also play on the floor, but Violetta is not playing in these scenes.

A limp Violetta can signify death but also helplessness, unconsciousness, submissiveness, despite the fact that she is tremendously strong both before and after redemption through love. In the beginning she is so good at gaiety that everyone around her has fun. Later she remains faithful to Alfredo despite his father’s meanness and sacrifices her own happiness for her lover. I dislike this plot, but there is no doubt Violetta is not a limp rag of a woman.

Observe the similar pose used to portray a woman hypnotised by Charcot: drooping, weak, the passive object of every male student’s gaze. She was diagnosed as suffering from ‘hysteria’, considered to be a sexual dysfunction at the time (1885). If he were not holding her up, she would fall to the ground. I personally wish all these images of traditional passive femininity would stop being used by anyone in the present, especially someone making the film of an opera and story full of other possibilities.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Brothel, Turkey, circa 1950s

Everyone thinks they know what prostitution is, but conversations quickly break down over what gets included and what doesn’t. Is it prostitution if you only do hand jobs? Phone sex? Webcam performances? Peep-shows, stripping, lap-dancing? Some people include everything, others are very specific. To me, all the hullaballoo about which prostitution law is best is bizarre, given how many different kinds of commercial sex exist. Some of these appear in photos on this page: consider which you think should be called prostitution if you like, or note when you start placing conditions such as ‘If so-and-so exists, then thus-and-such, but if it’s only this-and-that, then…’

Pinks Theater, Times Square, G Alessandrini, 1995

In 2008 I published an academic article that tears into the ground on which prostitution laws are written: Sex and the Limits of Enlightenment The Irrationality of Legal Regimes to Control Prostitution, in Vol 5, No 4 of Sexuality Research & Social Policy. Its language is academic, though I always tried to avoid the worst, most pretentious and opaque language. The references cited are, I see, quite extensive and not the usual stuff in this odd field – and nothing from law journals, which I generally find unhelpful and self-serving, by which I mean they refer only to themselves and pieces of existing law, rarely with any insight into why the laws exist in the first place.

Barbershop, China

Abstract: To assess the reasonableness of projects to improve the governance of commercial sex, the author explores how rationality in its current hegemonic Western sense is a cultural construction, perceived differently across time and space within Europe. The author examines some aspects of how varying conclusions are reached about which legal prostitution regime to impose, taking into account the role of cultures, worldviews, and interpretation. The author avoids the conventional classification of policy by country that results in unsubtle and overdetermined nationalistic explanations. Current projects to govern prostitution show how the traditional Western idea of rationality fails to lead to social betterment. Worldwide, social policy on prostitution tends to follow Western cues, in seeming acceptance that West is the best, with the most progressive, most enlightened approach. The rational project is, therefore, not limited to European geography.

Key words: rationality; licensing; trafficking; evidence; interpretation

Massage parlour, Kathmandu

It begins: In this article, I examine concepts of rationality and social progress (in their hegemonic Western sense) as cultural constructions so as to assess the reasonableness of projects to improve the governance of commercial sex. Such projects take the form of legal regimes to control prostitution. The word prostitutionis neither a precise job description nor the designation of unequivocal or definite acts but rather an idea loaded with ambiguities and moral judgments. Social and feminist debates on this idea repeat themselves fruitlessly because there is no agreement on a single definition of prostitution; in fact, profoundly opposed worldviews come into play, with the result that participants talk at cross-purposes. The situation is even less viable when debates pretend to arrive at a system to govern prostitution.

I reveal how rationality is perceived differently across time and space by examining a few different European sites and cultural contexts. To look at some aspects of how varying and conflicting conclusions are reached regarding what to do about prostitution, I focus particularly on two concepts, trafficking and sex, taking into account the role of culture, worldviews, and interpretation in explaining varying perceptions.

I avoid the conventional approach that treats countries as wholly separable entities—an approach that results in unsubtle, overdetermined nationalistic explanations. I discuss the fact that many of those to be regulated avoid participating in regulatory projects (if they even know about them), rather prioritizing their personal convenience, goals, and financial advantage (apparently preferring to be marginalized, pitied, vilified, and criminalized). Finally, I reflect on how current projects to rationalize the governance of prostitution show the ways that rationality fails to lead to social betterment.

Local European phenomena provide the case study here, but these so-called systems are debated, and in theory applied, all over the world. The fact that the projects do not work in European contexts is suggestive. A strong panEuropean tradition holds that enlightenment rules social policymaking and that, once the right policy is identified, problems will be solved, at least for all supposedly reasonable members of society. Continue reading here.

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As it happens, I did not know this article, difficult for ordinary mortals to even know about, has been hanging on a Columbia Law School website since 2009. It is very odd to think of people discussing my work who knows where, without my knowing about it. I’ve proposed other ways to think about things under the concept of The Cultural Study of Commercial Sex. More ambiguous pictures there and by following links.

Anyway, please share and cite the original article – there’s little like it out there, that’s for sure.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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