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The Naked Anthropologist · Americas

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vance11e-1-webIn the last couple of weeks, on twitter, I tore into a piece of research funded by the US National Institute of Justice entitled Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities. During that time every media outlet in the world reproduced the claimed findings as if they were facts, despite how ridiculous most of them are. I made a few punchy points in an interview:

Q+A: Why Pimps Can’t Be Trusted to Talk About Sex Economics

Lauretta Charlton, Complex City Guide, 17 March 2014

Last week, the Urban Institute released a landmark study called Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities. Its abstract states that “the underground commercial sex economy (UCSE) generates millions of dollars annually, yet investigation and data collection remain under resourced.”

The Institute’s research was focused on gathering information about the sex economy based on evidence in eight major cities across the US. The research relied heavily on interviews with pimps, traffickers, sex workers, child pornographers, and police. According to a quick recap of the study on the Urban Institute’s website, the major findings include:

  • Pimps claimed inaccuracy in media portrayals.
  • Pimps manipulate women into sex work.
  • Women, family, and friends facilitate entry into sex work.
  • Unexpected parties benefit from the commercial sex economy.
  • The Internet is changing the limitations of the trade.
  • Child pornography is escalating.
  • The underground sex economy is perceived as low risk. 

But critics say that the study is misleading and intentionally biased. It’s an oversimplification of what researchers like Laura Agustín, also known as the Naked Anthropologist, argue is a very complicated system. City Guide asked Agustín a few questions via email hoping to get a clearer picture.

In your words, how has this study misrepresented sex workers in America?

LA: It’s not a study about sex workers at all but rather an attempt to view particular sex economies through the highly limited lens offered by of convicted ‘pimps’. The study was designed in a way that assured bias from the start. Women who sell sex are seen as objects manipulated by Bad Men. There’s next to no information about sex workers.

The interview subjects were mostly black/minorities. How is this reflection of continued racism in America?

LA: Again, the bias was guaranteed when researchers chose to centre pimps, but the only pimps they could conveniently interview are incarcerated. Black men predominate in prisons and predominate in the kind of pimping researchers know about, so the study reproduces the usual racist idea that black men pimp white women. This then is made to seem to be the most important aspect of the sex industry, which is laughable.

How have reports of the study misconstrued the real issues at hand?

LA: Media reports uncritically accept and focus on the numbers provided in this study: which city has the biggest sex or drugs economy, how much money pimps earn. I haven’t seen any reporter ask why researchers accepted prisoners’ stories as fact. All interview research has to factor in the possibility that subjects lie; in this case that factor is very big indeed as prisoners can be expected to brag about their exploits.

Do you believe the issues of race and sex work are mutually exclusive?

LA: I’m not sure what you mean. People the world over take up sex work for thousands of reasons and are pulled into or attracted to it by their positions vis-à-vis class, race, ethnicity, gender. No single condition decrees how a sex worker will fare; to understand any individual you need to listen to their story.

Analyze this quote from the study, “They have a saying in the pimp game, ‘If it ain’t white, it ain’t right. If it ain’t snowing, I ain’t going.”

LA: Analyse? I’d say that’s a typical cocky man’s comment aimed at showing how in-control he is. Perhaps a black man said it to a white woman? In which case he was ‘snowing’ her.

***

Next Huffington Post Live did a brief show with four panelists using Google Hangout. The technology allows participants to interact verbally, but there’s no eye contact, which limits things. This was called Understanding The Modern Sex Work Industry

Most of the critical commentary after this event centred on Dennis Hof’s screwy comments about unregulated sex workers’ having AIDS and being sex-trafficked, as he single-mindedly promotes the model of commercial sex he understands – his own Nevada brothels. More to the point, the show was meant to be about the Urban Institute study, but I doubt Hof ever even looked at it. This meant the already brief show lost focus. Still, because of twitter this small critique took place, which is a good thing.

Someone would have to pay me to write up a real critique of the Urban Institute study. The bottom line is researchers were funded by a crime-oriented agency to confirm everything the US government already does. Even sell-out researchers could not find the kind of horrible connexions between sex-drugs-weapons they wanted, but they admitted the possibility that things could be much worse than study shows (the Weapons of Mass Destruction ploy). I can imagine the study’s results leading to proposal for national-US antiprostitution law – ‘to facilitate policing’. Here’s a selection of tweets from 12-20 March 2014 (from @LauraAgustin). More like raw data, in no special order, hashtags removed.

“Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in 8 Major US Cities” Ludicrously banal
Urban Institute report on US sex economy is obsessed with pimps. In fact the report is about pimping, not the sex industry, not sexwork
This will become the Bible for End Demand. pimps are their sole interest.
Today news items worldwide shout about a badly biased US govt-funded study of pimping. Bad Men- what everyone loves
Headlines include “US pimps can pull in $33 000 a week” & “Street Gangs Deeply Involved In Commercial Sex Trade”. No sexworkers visible.
“Commercial sex trade widely segmented, the report found” Really? They call this study a first but it’s the last to say the most basic stuff.
“The focus is through the lens of imprisoned pimps & traffickers & those who put them behind bars” Barefaced bias that should be dismissed. Read the rest of this entry »

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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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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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In Are Evangelicals Monopolizing, Misleading US Anti-Trafficking Efforts? Yvonne Zimmerman, author of Other Dreams of Freedom: Religion, Sex, and Human Trafficking, is asked if US anti-trafficking crusades could be called colonialist. She replies, ‘It’s an argument waiting to be made’. Since I’ve been making it for ten years, I had to write to her. It’s certainly true that the critique of colonialism is not often heard, despite the term Rescue Industry‘s spread.

Evangelical bloggers did not like hearing the word. John Mark Reynolds reacted scathingly in Surprise! Evangelical Efforts Against Sex-Trafficking are ‘Colonialist’! followed by Derek Rishmawy in Sex-Trafficking, Evangelical ‘Colonialism’ and the Blasphemy of the Holy Spirit. He gets prize for the most ignorant sarcastic crack: If that’s ‘colonialism’, then it’s the holy colonialism of God at work through his people. Welcome to the White Man’s Burden, shamelessly justified all over again, where the idea of colonialism is treated like a joke – or ‘joke’.

To make things worse, Reynolds used a flagrantly racist image to bias his own piece, showing a dark-skinned and/or dirty man handling an innocent white child. The shot is one of several someone created for campaigning purposes – whether they understood the inherent racism I don’t know.

I asked Yvonne to tell me what Other Dreams of Freedom is about and why she wrote it.

It is very popular for American Christians to be involved in anti-trafficking activism. Although some American Christians are interested in a broad understanding of trafficking that includes exploitative labor, usually they mean sex trafficking. And usually by sex trafficking they mean commercial sex – any exchange of sex or sexual services for money. They think that if people no longer sell sexual services they will be free from trafficking, so they favor programs that ‘fight trafficking’ by trying to get people to leave the sex industry. Means to this end vary from educational scholarships to job-training programs to brothel raids. In terms of law and policy, many American Christians support the abolitionist agenda to criminalize all sex-money exchanges.

I am a scholar of religious studies and ethics. I wrote Other Dreams of Freedom to examine why this anti-trafficking perspective feels so appealing and ‘right’ to many American Christians. When I was doing the research between 2005 and 2008, George W. Bush was president and his administration was constructing an international anti-trafficking agenda, often referring to God, God’s intent for human life and Good and Evil. I focused on anti-trafficking legislation (TVPA), the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons, the annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report, public policy statements and press releases. These were not trying to be religious, but I saw how they expressed a very particular religious and moral sensibility.

But Other Dreams of Freedom is about more than Bush. The understanding of human trafficking that his administration endorsed is wildly popular in the US; Americans who identify with a wide variety of other religious traditions defend this view. My book shows how Christian theology rooted in Reformed Protestantism infuses and shapes much American culture and moral sensibility, including the connections between sex, freedom and morality. My analysis of the theological sources clarifies why Americans are so quick to see commercial sex to be inherently degrading and immoral. The book discusses the unintended consequences of using a single religious perspective to build foreign policy in a multi-religious world.

Morgan Guyton at Mercy not Sacrifice also wrote about the original interview, and Yvonne left a comment that mentioned me, so I left something, too. Guyton replied:

What I have carried with me from my first job at a little NGO in DC called the Nicaragua Network is that any kind of real support we offer to people in disadvantaged situations anywhere must always have its terms dictated to us by the people we’re supposedly helping. We called it the solidarity model. In Christianese, I would call it ‘servanthood’ rather than ‘service’. It’ s great that young evangelicals are interested in social justice, but it seems like the way it’s often packaged makes it more like a form of tourism than anything else. I’m interested in reading more.

Yvonne Zimmerman is Assistant Professor of Christian Ethics at Methodist Theological School in Ohio.

Note that Christian Evangelism exists outside the US and behaves similarly when it comes to trafficking: here is a recent note about CARE in the UK.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Note: This post was first published in May 2011.

Feminist Satanism. No, that’s not right. Satanic Feminists. To be fair, no, it should be Feminists Who Believe Men are Pedophilic Satanists (or Satanist Pedophiles). No matter how you look at it, these words don’t immediately make sense together. This is the Rescue Industry with a vengeance – and Extremist Feminism indeed.*

Gunilla Ekberg has not appeared in public in Sweden in quite a while, I believe, but she has been giving anti-prostitution talks in Canada in support of a campaign to defeat Judge Himel’s decision to decriminalise many aspects of sex work in Ontario (Ekberg is apparently a citizen of Canada now). Admirers in Canada are billing her as a famous international lawyer, but she was publicly criticised in Sweden for calling herself a lawyer – does anyone know about Canada?  Her notoriety derives from her unyielding attitude as a campaigner, so authoritarian even some Swedes with similar ideas stopped wanting to be associated with her.

In 2005 she worked for Sweden’s Ministry of Industry as an expert on prostitution and was closely allied with ROKS, an organisation that runs shelters for women in trouble. At the time, ROKS’s management claimed Swedish patriarchy could usefully be compared to Afghanistan’s and advocated separatism: women living apart from men. As if this were not enough, ROKS management came to believe that pedophilic satanism was a real threat to girls and women in Sweden. Phew.

Other European countries have suffered mad bouts of belief in satanic cults in history, and the US is famous for its Satanic Panic all through the 1980s, but the oddity with Sweden is how such extremism can dwell so very close to mainstream government: get funding, have prestige, function as if ordinary and unremarkable.

The story of Ekberg’s embarrassing moment and public disgrace occurred in 2005, when journalist Evin Rubar (a woman) was making a programme about ROKS for Swedish Television, Könskriget (Sex War – link to first part),  in which the story of the satanic pedophiles is told, including the testimony of a young woman supposedly saved by ROKS who complains about her treatment by the rescuers. You will see in the clip below that Rubar, assuming Ekberg to have been closely involved, asks questions Ekberg refuses to answer. Leaving the room, Ekberg, assuming the microphone is off, threatens Rubar: Don’t count on any help from the shelters. The whole Sex War programme is two hours long; this is the clip in which Ekberg threatens Rubar:

Ekberg did not lose her job over this, but she did eventually leave it. The affair generated much criticism of her behaviour and that of the ROKS people, who come across as maniacs (at least one writer calling their thought patterns feminist fundamentalism, with which I concur, here on the blog and in Sex at the Margins). Numerous Swedish bloggers followed the disgraceful affair, reported here in the newspaper Aftonbladet. The ROKS manager was replaced.

Here is Part One of Sex War in Swedish, and here is a website that does a summary in English. After which, you will need a laugh.

Today, 25 June 2012, numerous people wrote to me to say, about another blogger’s post: Didn’t you write about this already? The answer is yes, in May 2011. Oh blogs, so easy to ‘absorb’. Sometimes the absorber says ‘but I only used the links you gave!’ Not good enough, say I, as defence against parasitism.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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I am not a social evil, Victorian London prostitution

This 1865 print by CJ Culliford illustrates an eternal frustration for police and rescuers: how to identify the real prostitute/sex worker? The man here, called Philanthropic Divine, offers the woman a tract to discourage her from selling sex because she is standing in the street and because of how she looks. We can’t read the signs now, but a bit of petticoat showing, the style of a sleeve or hat would have been enough to mislead a clueless clergyman. But, she says, she is not a prostitute – social evil – but waiting for a bus.

In the early 20th century a policeman complained about his task to stop prostitutes:

The way women dress today they all look like prostitutes. Charity Girls and City Pleasures: Historical Notes on Working-Class Sexuality, 1880-1920, Kathy Peiss.

For over a month stories have been coming out of New York City about an anti-trafficking programme for taxi drivers. Not only are cabbies to be penalised if they drive victims of trafficking but they are supposed to counsel women they think might be victims, after taking classes to learn how.

What hasn’t yet been determined, however, is what happens when a cab driver gives a non ‘working girl’ some pamphlets on how to avoid hooking. Awkward! Huffington Post, 16 May 2012

Women working  as bartenders and shot girls protested at City Hall:

‘They don’t even know who is a prostitute or not’ said Diana Estrada, 27, a Sofrito bartender wearing a cleavage-baring spaghetti-strap dress. ‘You don’t have a shirt on that tells if you’re a prostitute or not. New York Posti, 17 June 2012

New York Mayor Bloomberg’s comment was peculiar and whorephobic:

If I were a young lady and I dressed in a ‘sporty way’—or however you want to phrase it…I would not want somebody thinking that I’m a prostitute. Gothamist, 16 June 2012

Then there was DSK, who used the impossibility of knowing whether nude women were sex workers or not as a defence. About the parties attended his lawyer said

He could easily not have known, because, as you can imagine, at these kinds of parties you’re not always dressed, and I challenge you to distinguish a naked prostitute from any other naked woman. New York Times, 22 February 2012

Anti-trafficking projects spend a lot of time trying to teach police, border agents and the general public how to recognise a victim of trafficking. You would hardly believe the number of brochures that have been produced with tips such as this list from the Royal Canadian Mounted Police that does not describe clothing but is just as bad:

~ Speak neither English nor French, or may not speak on their own behalf;
~ Originate from foreign countries;
~ Unaware of local surroundings even though they have been in the area for an extended period of time;
~ Show evidence of control, intimidation or abnormal psychological fear;
~ Not be able to move or leave job;
~ Have bruises or show other signs of abuse;
~ Show signs of malnourishment;
~ Be frequently accompanied by their trafficker;
~ Be frequently moved by their trafficker.

The first three describe the majority of ordinary tourists – forget about migrants! The reference to foreign countries sounds xenophobic. Then consider how close one would have to be to someone to be able to detect ‘evidence of control‘ and how easy it would be to imagine ‘fear‘. You’d also have to be very familiar with a situation to know whether people cannot leave a job. And about the idea that someone might be ‘frequently accompanied by their trafficker‘, how much of someone’s company is too much? And how do you know the companion is a ‘trafficker‘ – are you going to first assume what kind of people someone is supposed to be socialising with? This is terribly circular, self-fulfilling reasoning, dealing in stereotypes about how ‘normal people’ are meant to be spending their time.

The obvious point is no one can tell who is a sex worker by looking at them the way no one can tell who is an office manager or social worker – clothed or nude.  Although bouncers at a well-known Shanghai hang-out are prepared to advise you if you do not yourself know whether or not you are a prostitute!

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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brothels_on_wheelsIn 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

 

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The term moral panic appears constantly in critical discussions of sex trafficking, but trafficking hardly figures in an interesting book about sex panics. In this review requested by H-Net I ask why classic prostitution – women who sell sex to men – is disqualified from the author’s thesis and point out ways that some well-known panics, especially about sex trafficking, don’t fit the author’s argument, not what I expected when I wrote about Lancaster’s piece in The New York Times a while back.

Roger N. Lancaster. Sex Panic and the Punitive State. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2011.
Reviewed by Laura Agustín (The Naked Anthropologist)
Published on H-Histsex (April 2012)
Commissioned by Timothy W. Jones

The Specialness of (Some) Sexual Crimes

In Law & Order: Special Victims Unit’s familiar opening, a voice intones, In the criminal justice system, sexually based offenses are considered especially heinous. This television franchise has since 1999 reified the notion that sexual experiences are different from all others. So long as plots revolve around torture, erotic asphyxiation, gang rape, cannibalism, and slavery, preferably committed by psychotic serial killers, that fundamental notion about sex may seem undeniable. Yet plots that revolve around an otherwise conventional adult’s sexual interest in teenagers causes the unit the same appalled revulsion, censure that now causes men to avoid giving children a friendly hug. A narrative has certainly developed in the United States holding that sex is dangerous, that sexual suffering is unique, that sexual damage is permanent, and that those who commit crimes involving sex are near-monsters.

Roger Lancaster acknowledges that sex panics existed throughout the long Jim Crow period of United States history, including the Progressive Era, into the 1950s. His detailed history of panics since then will be useful to students who have heretofore seen individual outbreaks as separable, from Joseph McCarthy’s demonization of homosexuals to pornography scares, AIDS hysteria, recovered memory syndrome, and the fantasy of satanic ritual abuse. One might conclude that such panic is a constant, its focus shifting from one type of behavior to another but always expressing a sex-related fear, as though a certain quotient must always be present. But Lancaster argues that there has been a sea change since the 1960s, when received ideas about race, age, and sexuality began fundamentally to shift, and that panics of the last few decades are more far-reaching and significant, ultimately leading to a model of governance he calls the punitive state.

Is the term panic the right one to apply every time there is a social uproar about something sexual? How long does a specific occurrence have to last to qualify as a panic? Is a sex scandal different? These questions are legitimate because Lancaster’s arguments sweep a very wide path in social history, constructing a grand narrative on the culture of fear.

On all the important points I am with him. Ever more offenses are named and new, more repressive punishments meted out. Mechanisms like sex-offender lists keep those convicted of sexual crimes doomed to pariah lifestyles. A whiff of misbehavior–like the false claim of a resentful teenager–can lead to drastic police measures. The figure of the innocent child always vulnerable to victimization hovers permanently over every conversation. Government sometimes appears to exist for the purpose of protecting this child figure from all conceivable risk, with the result that middle-class parents are afraid to allow their children to play on their own. While the Right may be blamed for constant paranoia about lower-class criminality and an intransigent focus on law and order, the Left is guilty of promoting grievance as identity marker and celebrating victims of oppression as heroes. Certainly, the nurture of resentment and injury has become a viable path to fame, and the public is invited to identify with traumatized victims–all the better if they appear young and innocent. Empathy with the outraged victim has come to outweigh the presumption of innocence for those accused of crime. Individual stories of injury are valued over analyses of systemic inequality. Most starkly, incarceration rates are higher in the United States than anywhere else in the world, including totalitarian states.

In the contemporary panic about abuse of children, Lancaster shows how the figure of the white man has moved into prime suspect position, and how the pedophile is often glossed as homosexual. One chapter is an ethnographic account of a teenager’s presumably false accusation of touching by a gay schoolteacher, law enforcement’s predisposition to find him guilty, and the teacher’s inability to defend himself despite a lack of actual evidence against him. The deplorable story does a strong job of demonstrating how panic plays out and how close to fascism the law brushes in this field. It is also a great read, strengthened by Lancaster’s own involvement in the story.

Lancaster’s strongest case concerns panic over the figure of the sex offender, a label encompassing an array of offenses, not all of which are actually sexual (peeing in public, for example) and some of which are quite minor. Even more striking than the vague definition of these crimes is the draconian punishment meted out indiscriminately to the criminals: disproportionately long prison sentences followed by placement on public lists that cause their banishment from normal living situations and egregious difficulty in finding employment. The unproven notion that they will inevitably ‘re-offend’ is used to justify permanent surveillance.

The surveillance issue of course leads to how 9/11 intensified all suspicion towards everyone in the United States, with the corollary that everyone is seen as a potential terrorist. Are sexual miscreants viewed more easily as terrorists, however? I did balk at the suggestion that all crime is being infused or conflated with sex and that the manner of talking about terrorists has become sexualized in a new way. Militarism is a form of machismo, after all, and soldiers are called on to prove their virility continually.

For all Lancaster’s broad inclusivity in his thesis and in his construction of a narrative of sexual crime, he fails to account for the single most widespread sexual-crime issue in the United States: the persecution of prostitutes/sex workers, treated as anti-social offenders, in virulently punitive, long-infamous legal policy. Where are the figures on arrests of prostitutes in the panoply of ills Lancaster reveals? Is this egregious injustice deemed somehow different, and if so, why? If a sex crime is so enduring as to seem permanent, almost a natural feature of social life, is it disqualified as a sex panic? That would be odd since the term moral panic has been applied by students of prostitution for donkey’s years, and not only when syphilis and AIDS were the excuse.

In the current anti-trafficking hysteria in the United States, lawmakers and activists alike conflate trafficking with prostitution as a tactic to promote abolitionism. Women who sell sex are divested of will and figured as helpless children in a deliberate attempt to provoke further panic. Does this scenario not fit into Lancaster’s narrative, or how does it fit? The predatory figures accused of menacing women here are not necessarily white men but rather darkly alluded to in statements about security, illegal immigration, and organized crime.

Leaving aside adults, child sex trafficking surely constitutes the most vibrant panic of the last few years, despite a lack of evidence that it actually exists (what does exist are teens who leave home). When the runaway child is a male teenager, the predator usually imagined to be exploiting him is likely the gay white man Lancaster describes. But when the runaway is a female teenager, the predator is likely to be imagined as a black man or youth–the classic pimp figure.

Law enforcement chiefs from numerous states have joined the targeting of online classified advertising services like Craigslist and Backpage, with the justification that minors are being sold there by traffickers. Simultaneously, everyone ignores the palpable harm for adult female sex workers caused by these campaigns; apparently no one is bothered. The absence in Lancaster’s account of the adult woman who sells sex reproduces the social death society inflicts continually on this group, as though prostitution were obviously different, separate, real, or intransigent–having nothing to do with the history of panic at hand.

Could this be because the concept of victim is so ambiguous in prostitution law? In the United States, where both parties to the commercial act are criminalized, neither is legally a victim. The persecution of prostitutes is carried out in the name of a moral society, but while both parties to this crime are technically offenders, only the women are persecuted by law enforcement. How does this fit Lancaster’s narrative of the punitive state? And how does society’s disinterest in the male prostitute fit, the fact that gay men who sell sex are largely pardoned or ignored? Currently, abolitionists are seeking to end demand from men who buy sex, proposing punitive devices such as sex-offender lists and forced taking of their DNA, which would seem to fit Lancaster’s subject to a T. Here are contradictions involving gender, particularly, that deserve inclusion in his theorizing.

On that topic, it is interesting to learn that the birth of the sex-offender register may be found in rape crisis centers that early on posted names and photos of known assailants in order to warn women. To jump from there, as Lancaster does, to a certain contemporary alliance of fundamentalist feminists with conservative lawmakers and police does no justice to the history of a movement to end systemic violence against women. In fact, and this is related to my concern about the absence of an account of prostitution in this book, one might ask why there was never a sex panic about wife-beating? The question of which sexual and gender crimes lead to panic and which do not seems important to address.

Lancaster contrasts the punitive turn in the United States with European states said to have humanitarian assumptions and norms of civility integrated into their social contract. In the American liberal tradition, he says, well-being is a private matter — the pursuit of happiness. If this is happiness, Freud’s wish that patients achieve ordinary unhappiness begins to sound idyllic.

Printable version

Citation: Laura Agustín. Review of Lancaster, Roger N., Sex Panic and the Punitive State. H-Histsex, H-Net Reviews. April, 2012. http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=33954

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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I rarely comment on news stories immediately and certainly not when I first need to understand a long legal text. Now I have digested the Ontario Court of Appeal’s decision to uphold the 2010 decision of Superior Court Judge Susan Himel. Representatives of the government appealed her decision last June, and it has taken all this time for the Court of Appeal to make their own decision, which upholds Himel’s only in part. All five judges did agree with Himel that key prohibitions should be struck from prostitution law: operating a brothel, working together with others and the old idea of ‘living off’ someone else’s sex work (except in genuinely coercive situations). But the court didn’t uphold one of Himel’s decisions, to allow solicitation – or ‘communication’ – in the street. This is a backward step.

Canadian law before Himel was typical in allowing the sale of sex but surrounding the act with prohibitions, making it easy for workers to be arrested and harassed by police (as I discussed the other day in reference to London and the Olympic Games).

The recent decision removing obstructions from the act of selling sex in indoors, organised places, but not outdoors, is just what many business owners want and some patriarchally-inclined commentators recommend, the argument being that street prostitution is too much of a nuisance in neighbourhoods where it happens, and is overly associated with drug use and violence. This special treatment shows class, race, ethnicity, age and gender-identity bias, specially penalising those who already suffer worse marginalisation. These cards for a Mayfair venue show the image businesses love to project.

The court reasoned that if sex work is made legal in businesses and groups indoors, street workers can move inside – which the judges must know isn’t true even if they don’t admit it. Many street workers won’t be able to pass the hiring process; for instance, if employers want the prettiest people by mainstream standards, the youngest-looking people, the stereotypically feminine-looking people, those that don’t use drugs or whatever other prejudice they have. And to work in a group without such a boss requires belonging to a social network where at least one person has the organisational skills to set the group up, which also excludes many.

Quantitatively street prostitution occupies a minor position within the sex industry; researchers everywhere have been estimating it’s not greater than 10% of the whole for decades. But that doesn’t mean it is dying out: some people prefer the flexibility of working in the street and others fall into it as a way to survive. But is there a right to sell in the street? Urban planners, upwardly mobile home owners, politicians and numerous others think there is not; they want inner cities to look more middle-class. Those who spend time with street sex workers sometimes wind up as abolitionists and sometimes as proponents of harm reduction. Tolerance zones for street-walking are proposed and opposed constantly, everywhere.

The Court of Appeal judges were split on this issue: the majority (three) saying soliciting should not be allowed and the minority (two) saying it should.