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

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.

Free sex after the 9th wash

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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I’ve been ill a great deal this year and for the past month bowed down by a death, but the imminence of August cranked me up sufficiently to vent my now annual disgust at tours from the US that take well-paying travellers to gawk at and pity poorer people in Other Countries (who always smile in the photos taken, of course). If there is anything I hate it’s this. In 2011 I wrote Have fun, take a tour to meet victims of sex trafficking, learn to be a saviour, illustrating it with the egregious Kristof, who has not a jot of shame about looking like a Teddy Roosevelt Rough Rider. Given the sexual aspect, the word prurience came to mind: socially-sanctioned permission to be a voyeur, to go to bars abroad you wouldn’t set foot in at home as part of a do-gooding ‘social justice’ trip. To my mind, this is sex tourism.

This year’s tour to Thailand Delegation to End Modern Slavery and Human Trafficking is aimed at aspiring individuals. What might they mean by that? And why do they call this a delegation to end trafficking rather than, if not pure tourism, a first step towards understanding trafficking? The pretension is obviously meant to provide something to add to CVs, the way internships in impressive-sounding organisations do, though at least those last some months, whereas this tour takes a week (5 -12 August). Look at the rhetoric:

Global Exchange Reality Tours is facilitating this delegation to Thailand geared specifically to confronting the realities of the global trade in human beings. Participants will receive a comprehensive education in the mechanics of human trafficking, as well an understanding of its underlying causes. Participants will meet with those who have been freed from slavery and learn what it means to rebuild one’s life after having been a victim of trafficking, and will also engage directly with groups and individuals on the frontlines of the struggle to expose and ultimately end the trade in human lives.

This is B-movie-type public-relations prose: facilitating – delegation – geared – confronting – realities – global trade – human beings – comprehensive education – mechanics – human trafficking – participants – comprehensive education – mechanics – underlying causes – freed from slavery – rebuild one’s life – frontlines of the struggle – expose – end the trade – human lives. Nothing concrete, nothing real.

For those who aren’t clear as to why I call this colonialism, note the clear differentiation between Subject (tourist) and Object (exotic other). I believe this is the first time they claim tourists will talk with people who have been freed from slavery – an obvious pitch to the cheapest of sentiments. I am appalled that Global Exchange maintains any credibility. Last year I wrote the following in Summertime Imperialism: Meet sex-trafficking victims and other sad folk, because online sales of folkloric and supposedly authentic third-worldish objects is how GE started:

Gift-buying and helping projects wrapped together: One can see how the founders leapt to the idea of taking people on tours. Global Exchange says We are an international human rights organization dedicated to promoting social, economic and environmental justice around the world. Easily said. A list of current tours includes Caring for Cuba’s Cats and New Journey of a Lifetime to India with Vandana Shiva. Sound harmless?

I had doubts back then and still do, but those in favour argue the tours are a way for folks who know something is wrong with what they read in the media to see the truth. That’s in theory; the question is how easy is it to provide the truth with anything called a tour? Who decides where to go, what the focus of tours will be and which natives will provide entertainment? Is the idea that all middle-class people have to do is arrive in a poor country and set their eyes upon poverty and suffering in order to experience enlightenment? It’s a short jump from that lack of politics to becoming an Expert who knows What To Do about other people’s lives. Imperialist projects to interfere follow quickly.

Although individual tourists may learn good things from conscientious tour guides, a tour is a holiday, a vacation, whether you set out to see the temples of Bangkok or the bargirls or the trafficking victims. You take a tour for your own benefit and pleasure, even if your pleasure consists in feeling angry and sorry and guilty about what your own government does to people in poorer countries. You go to look at exotic others, and you can’t help drawing conclusions about whole cultures based on what you see – just as tourists and business travellers do. If you happen to talk with someone not on the tour agenda – on a bus, in a bar – then you probably feel chuffed that you saw real people and experienced authentic culture. This is all relatively harmless unless you happen to add this experience to your CV, claiming temples, bar girls or sex trafficking are subjects you are expert in.

This year they provide an itinerary, which includes:

In the morning drive to Chiang Mai: Check into Guesthouse
Visit local project
At night visit nightclubs and bars to observe night activities

It’s been made clear to me that ordinary people in the US have no understanding of what colonialism means and how they themselves perpetuate it. That needs work. Perhaps having broken the spell of not writing I’ll begin again now, even if it is August.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Last week I spent most of a day watching the Supreme Court’s hearing of arguments on Canadian prostitution law, the upshot of four years of legal battling since the Ontario Superior Court of Justice’s 2010 decision that it was unconstitutional. (I tweeted the event, look here on 13 June). While studies of different kinds were sometimes mentioned at the Supreme Court, no so-called experts (on the basis of academic-style research) spoke. This contrasts with what happened at the original trial.

In October 2010 I ran excerpts from Judge Himel’s decision on her experience and understanding of opposing expert opinions about the harm of prostitution on society and the harm of the law on those who sell sex. I have the impression Judge Himel was appalled by some of the declaiming she heard, and I am surprised the anti-prostitution witnesses did not think about moderating their strident tone before appearing in a High Court. Before I write about the Supreme Court hearing, here again are the excerpts. Himel’s thinking is interesting to people interested in the idea of evidence – what qualifies, how it’s evaluated. Or read her full decision. Before discussing experts’ views she addresses conflicting evidence from women who sell sex.

Evidence from Prostitutes and Former Prostitutes

[85] The applicants submitted affidavits from eight witnesses who described their perceptions and experiences of working as prostitutes. During oral argument, the applicants’ counsel submitted that the purpose of these witnesses was to provide “corroborative voices” . . . [86] The affiants came from varied backgrounds and from across Canada, but largely shared the experience of finding prostitution in indoor venues generally safer than street prostitution (indeed, a few experienced no violence at all working indoors). . . they entered into prostitution without coercion (although financial constraints were a large factor) and most reported being addiction-free and working without a pimp.

[87] The respondent tendered nine affidavits from prostitutes and former prostitutes, whose stories painted a much different picture. The respondent’s witnesses gave detailed accounts of horrific violence in indoor locations and on the street, controlling and abusive pimps, and the rampant use of drugs and alcohol.

[88] While this evidence provided helpful background information, it is clear that there is no one person who can be said to be representative of prostitutes in Canada; the affiants are an extremely diverse group of people whose reasons for entry into prostitution, lifestyles, and experiences differ.

Expert Evidence

[99] While neither party disputed that the other party’s witnesses were, in fact, experts, a great deal of argument and evidence was devoted to criticizing these witnesses. Both parties alleged that certain experts were biased, that conclusions were generalized beyond the sample studied, that studies were methodologically flawed . . .  [114] The following factors are relevant to the consideration of the weight to be given to expert evidence:

  • a) Unwillingness of the expert to qualify an opinion or update it in the face of new facts provided (often in cross-examination);
  • b) Bold assertions without a properly outlined basis for the claim;
  • c) Refusal to restrict opinions to expertise or the expertise demarked by the judge as required by the court;
  • d) Lack of sufficient independence from the party proffering the expert; and
  • e) Prior history as an advocate on the topic.

[182] In reviewing the extensive record presented, 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. For example, some experts made bold assertions without properly outlined bases for their claims and were unwilling to qualify their opinions in the face of new facts provided. While it is natural for persons immersed in a field of study to begin to take positions as a result of their research over time, where these witnesses act primarily as advocates, their opinions are of lesser value to the court.

[183] The evidence from some of these witnesses tended to focus upon issues that are, in my view, incidental to the case at bar, including human trafficking, sex tourism, and child prostitution. While important, none of these issues are directly relevant to assessing potential violations of the Charter rights of the applicants.

[352] I find that some of the evidence tendered on this application did not meet the standards set by Canadian courts for the admission of expert evidence. The parties did not challenge the admissibility of evidence tendered but asked the court to afford little weight to the evidence of the other party.

[353] I found the evidence of Dr. Melissa Farley to be problematic. Although Dr. Farley has conducted a great deal of research on prostitution, her advocacy appears to have permeated her opinions. For example, Dr. Farley’s unqualified assertion in her affidavit that prostitution is inherently violent appears to contradict her own findings that prostitutes who work from indoor locations generally experience less violence. Furthermore, in her affidavit, she failed to qualify her opinion regarding the causal relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder and prostitution, namely that it could be caused by events unrelated to prostitution.

[354] Dr. Farley’s choice of language is at times inflammatory and detracts from her conclusions. For example, comments such as, “prostitution is to the community what incest is to the family,” and “just as pedophiles justify sexual assault of children….men who use prostitutes develop elaborate cognitive schemes to justify purchase and use of women” make her opinions less persuasive.

[355] Dr. Farley stated during cross-examination that some of her opinions on prostitution were formed prior to her research, including, “that prostitution is a terrible harm to women, that prostitution is abusive in its very nature, and that prostitution amounts to men paying a woman for the right to rape her.” [356] Accordingly, for these reasons, I assign less weight to Dr. Farley’s evidence.

[357] Similarly, I find that Drs. Raymond and Poulin were more like advocates than experts offering independent opinions to the court. At times, they made bold, sweeping statements that were not reflected in their research. For example, some of Dr. Raymond’s statements on prostitutes were based on her research on trafficked women. As well, during cross-examination, it was revealed that some of Dr. Poulin’s citations for his claim that the average age of recruitment into prostitution is 14 years old were misleading or incorrect. In his affidavit, Dr. Poulin suggested that there have been instances of serial killers targeting prostitutes who worked at indoor locations; however, his sources do not appear to support his assertion. I found it troubling that Dr. Poulin stated during cross-examination that it is not important for scholars to present information that contradicts their own findings (or findings which they support).

[358] The applicants’ witnesses are not immune to criticism. . . During cross-examination, Dr. Lowman expressed discontent with portions of his affidavit, citing “careless” language and “poorly reasoned argument.” Dr. Lowman rightly takes responsibility for the content of his affidavit, which was drafted for him by law students. In his affidavit, Dr. Lowman made a direct causal link between the Criminal Code provisions at issue and violence against prostitutes; however, during cross-examination he gave the opinion that there was, rather, an indirect causal relationship. Such inattentiveness on such a crucial issue is indeed concerning. During cross-examination, Dr. Lowman gave nuanced and qualified opinions, which more accurately reflect his research.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Award to Laura Agustín, Photo by Charlotte Cooper

In the evening’s opening act a woman emerges from a plastic Chinese bag – those big plaid ones, but still, not easy to fold oneself into. With her head only showing she expels a ping-pong ball from her mouth, a sex-tourism joke that gets a huge laugh. Fully emerged, she holds up a series of signs indicating she is Lilly from Thailand, looking for a husband, wanting a British passport. The audience love it.

What a pleasure, that these jokes could be the cheery opening to the night’s events, unaccompanied by politically correct disclaimers like Remember there is a lot of misery and oppression in this horrible patriarchal world of capitalism. Just hijinks from Lilly, who keeps grinning and bowing. Instead, the audience is assumed capable of appreciating ironies. The event was the Erotic Awards taking place at the Night of the Senses, the 26th year of a kinky charity ball held to benefit Outsiders, which raises awareness about sex and disability.

I have never once thought of myself as a campaigner: mostly I just talk and write about ideas that are considered shocking by a lot of people who are campaigning for something: tighter migration controls, the abolition of prostitution, criminal penalties for people who engage in sex-money transactions. Campaigns have a clearly stated goal, like the slogans in this photo, whereas my work can be described as encouraging critical thinking about sex, money and migration and public policies affecting them. I require people to think for themselves rather than swallow a neatly digestible slogan. Campaigns are assumed to be energetic, focussed and goal-oriented, whereas I’m more meditative and reflexive.

Nonetheless, as I watch Lilly onstage I do feel I’ve contributed to the possibility that her act could be appreciated in this place at this time. I understand my win of the 2013 Erotic Award for Campaigner as the win of a point of view: that anti-trafficking rhetoric and policymaking have strayed too far from what most ordinary people know about their own friends, neighbours and communities, wherever they live in the world. Marriages of convenience, sex shows with ping-pong balls, exchanging sex for benefits, ‘help’ needed to get visas and passports are now widely understood to be part of ordinary and undemonic everyday life – not narratives of horror or slavery.

If you don’t know why I might have won as Campaigner, here are a few links:
My book Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry
Other publications of mine
Videos of some of my talks

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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