In Trafficked: Sex slaves seduced and sold (BBC News, 22 May 2012), reader/viewers are presented with a series of short documentary videos. Cheesy ersatz reporting from The New York Times is now surpassed by the BBC, in one of those formats that makes you ask: Is this for children? Is it a video game? It resembles a trafficking theme park or carnival more than a serious report. If they did spend real money on investigative reporting they want us to take seriously, how did they miss running into anyone who knows about migration and sex work? Did they deliberately avoid talking to anyone who deviates from this party line? Real journalists ought to be intrigued by the realities of how people migrate and work in underground economies. The Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center is not difficult to locate, if you are a BBC journalist. I wonder whether they are avoiding anything with the term sex worker in it because they think such sources don’t deal with trafficking? Does the BBC not even consult its own archives to see that one of their World Debates addressed this problem of pretending the trafficking situation is black-and-white clear?
The video I draw attention to here is called Brothels on Wheels, whose punchy blurb reads:
Many trafficking victims are taken to New York, where they often work gruelling shifts of 10 hours or more. Some women live and work in a brothel, only leaving the building when their pimp moves them to a new location. Other women are advertised on “chica cards”, distributed in the street. Customers call the number on the card and women are delivered by car to a customer’s house or hotel room. The women live in fear, frequently assaulted by their pimps and customers.
- Are ten-hour shifts gruelling by definition or only if sex is involved?
- Sometimes people live in brothels to save money on rent – this is not a proof of trafficking.
- Do Rescuers think it’s helpful to use language like women are delivered? Who’s doing the victimising here? Are they unaware that escort agencies may employ drivers without this meaning workers are trafficked?
- Women who sell sex live in fear of the police, as much as of anyone else. This also doesn’t prove trafficking.
A politician who accompanies the BBC reporter along the street says Times Square has been cleaned up. Every illegal activity that used to be in Times Square has come over to Roosevelt Avenue. Really? Everything has moved directly to one place? How convenient, simple and unlikely, and what a good way for him to draw attention to his own constituency (the area of Queens where Roosevelt Avenue is located). Sounds as if he is emulating Kristof wandering around Times Square with a young black woman as if that were still the world’s most terrible sex-place.
Years ago I worked in Corona (Spanish literacy), and during my few weeks’ stay in Jackson Heights last winter, I walked Roosevelt Avenue again. If you start at the more international end, at the Jackson Heights/74th Street subway stop, the sensation of being in Latin America grows as you walk east. The elevated train clanks above you, and street level is a riot of small shops and other commercial action. There are many sexy-looking establishments with guys outside handing out cards to entice paying customers inside. I don’t think we have to use the word seedy in a moralistic way to characterise the kind of sex venues where photos of scantily-clad women adorn the windows and you can’t see inside without actually going in. I mean by this that the look of a business in an atmosphere of legal prohibition and repression of sexuality does not constitute evidence that what is inside is unclean, dangerous or inherently unjust. Everyone who works in seedy-looking places is not a victim of trafficking, for goodness’ sake.
The documentary makes fairly conventional-sounding agency work appear demonic (the existence of cards with telephone numbers, clients’ phone calls and rides for workers to meet clients). In other branches of business, these techniques would be viewed as ordinary. Without extensive research into how workers feel about these situations, reporters have no way to know whether something genuinely coerced or exploitative is going on.
The report also says someone’s put mattresses and workers in trucks that pick up clients who get services inside and then are dropped off – implying something particularly sleazy in this. This anecdote is related over the image of a ratty-looking truck, but no actual research into it is presented: talking to the person who runs this business and/or the workers (coerced or not) involved. Vans are used elsewhere in the world, one example being France, where brothels are forbidden: see this report from Lyons, in which Paola Tabet recounts:
I have been in the van when they were working, it was rather funny and sometimes even brilliant. There I actually had the illustration of what [sex workers] mean when they say ‘We give nothing to the client.’ Then at one point an habitual client, a man of a certain age, arrives. ‘Hello.’ ‘Hello, how are you?’ He gets in the van. I was seated in the front, I could hear everything. At the beginning, the girl says to him ‘Have you sold your old car?’ He replies ‘yes’. She asks him to lower or open his trousers and she gives him the condom, you could feel the truck move for a moment, then she continues ‘and how much did they give you for the car?’ They were practically the only words exchanged.
I asked the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center about the BBC video, and they replied:
Roosevelt Avenue is a place where human trafficking exists, but it is also is a site of extremely high numbers of arrests for prostitution. In particular, transgender immigrant women are often rounded up and arrested 4, 8, 12 at a time. So, while journalists, law enforcement and even city officials are talking about human trafficking on Roosevelt, people are being arrested in high numbers, some of whom may actually be victims of trafficking. Clearly we have a disconnect about who is a “victim” and who is a “prostitute.” Transgender women are almost always labeled as “prostitutes” even when they are not. No one is interested in their stories, the reasons they are here, or the extreme danger they face if arrested and deported.
When reporters go into the field without any desire to learn about the complications and base a documentary on conversations with a politician, a victims’ rights attorney and the police, it isn’t surprising they obliterate the realities of large numbers of people. The question is not Should we not care about victims of trafficking? but Should we not care about everyone being victimised in the sex industry, everyone being denied their rights, in all different sorts of ways? The second question is what the BBC showed cheesiness in ignoring.
—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist