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

Getting tough on underage prostitution

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

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

Child sex trafficking seminar in Paris educates first responders

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

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

Who’s A Victim Of Human Sex Trafficking?

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

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

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

Teen prostitute leaves shelter to return to street life

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

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

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Recently I was accused of ‘academic grooming’ by someone disappointed that everyone who writes and talks about sex does not agree with her. The idea of grooming isn’t developed but interests me. It means preparing someone for a specific purpose, but in the world of concern about sexual abuse grooming is the process by which a victim is manipulated into a sexual relationship. To use the word about teachers or writers and students, university students have to be seen as so passive and gullible they unquestioningly accept everything they hear and read (only on the subject of sex?) and then become – what? practitioners of the perversion? This is puzzling, since no amount of narrow-mindedness can prevent students from hearing contradictory opinions about every topic all the time. Well, maybe it isn’t like that in some religious schools, I don’t know.

After I published Dear Students of Sex Work and Trafficking, one student wrote to me:

I was moved by your recent post regarding students. I am studying for a masters degree in sociology at the university of Copenhagen. For a couple of years i have followed your blog with great interest.

Last semester i did a project where we interviewed migrant women selling sexual services in Denmark. Your blog, articles and of course your book was a great inspiration as to how we approached the subject.
Because of your work, we were inspired to use feminist standpoint epistemology as a starting point. You also inspired us to be critical to our own positions.

If it was not for your expertise and work, we would probably have produced a boring paper repeating nasty stereotypes and neglecting the voices of women in marginalized positions. Actually, i really doubt we could have produced a paper without you. I doubt we would have been able to arrange interviews without being aware of various issues which you have highlighted in your book.

I am basically writing in order to thank you, and to let you know, that there are some students who do not expect you to do our work or anwer stupid questions.

So thank you Laura!

I wrote and thanked him for this message of support and got his permission to publish it here.

Remember those students in Basel that heard Catharine MacKinnon on prostitution one day and me the next? They may have felt quite disoriented or confused but then perhaps had to think for themselves and make up their own minds about the issues – a good thing, on my view. I’m optimistic about people’s ability to figure things out, including girls and young women like those a man is possibly observing closely in the Lewis Hine photo. I also take a conservative view about the power of my words to affect those who hear or read them. I remember, however, the gender-studies expert at Sussex who told me it was irresponsible of me to talk the way I do.

Anyway, the idea of academic grooming seems to be another example of psy concepts twisted and imposed to suit the needs of campaigners – like justifying resistance to rescue or rehabilitation as Stockholm syndrome or brainwashing.

The complaint ends I really do despair for young people today. Heavens, as long as amateur psychobabble is allowed, I’d like to suggest that such a statement is paranoid, seeing demons and dragons where only opinions exist – not to mention a failure to believe in university students to think and make judgements.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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The other day someone asked if I believe what Nicholas Kristof wrote about sex slaves in Half the Sky or do I think he is lying. In the book he tells a story of being taken into Sonagachi, a red-light district in Kolkata, where he saw unhappy young women said to be under the control of exploiters. At least one of the women told him she wanted to get away. Do I believe he visited Sonagachi and talked to a couple of unwilling workers? Yes, because I am sure his guides to this very large area took him specifically to meet them.

Based on that one experience and what his guides said, he characterised the DMSC, an organisation that supports sex-worker rights in Sonagachi, as corrupt promoters of child prostitution. More than 10,000 people work in Sonagachi, so although DMSC try to prevent children and unwilling people working there through Self-Regulatory Boards, it would be impossible to know what is going on all the time.

Many of those worried about trafficking express special horror about children, by which they sometimes mean anyone under 18. You will recall how Kristof’s use of the tag seventh grader annoyed me, when he tweeted about accompanying a Somaly-Mam brothel raid in Cambodia. A campaigner harassing Craig of Craigslist flourished pictures of women in classifieds who are said to look too young.

Recently a scandal erupted in Singapore because some supposedly respectable men paid for sex with a female under 18. Whether she was or not, photos showed her dressing childishly. Kristof might look at the Thai sex worker and researcher who spoke at Don’t Talk to Me About Sewing Machines and think she is too young. Kristof is sentimental about children, romantic about women and comes from a culture where a lot of young people dress up convincingly to look older than they are. He is a total outsider to the sex industry, ignorant of the possibility that workers commonly try to look younger than they are (to attract clients).

Kristof is a colonialist; he imposes his own narrow cultural attitudes on people he looks at and interprets their lives according to his values. A thin body dressed in t-shirt and shorts says child to him. This mindset makes it impossible for him to read what’s going on in a bar he stumbles into – including, probably, in the United States. To see these people while invading a bar with armed police, where events move fast, many are frightened and impressions are fleeting, exacerbates the problem. I wouldn’t believe anyone’s assertion about other people’s age glimpsed in those conditions.

The Singapore situation illustrates another kind of confusion:

While the local age of consent is 16, the age for commercial sexual transactions – prostitution is legal in Singapore — was raised in 2007 by two additional years. The government acknowledged at the time that there was little need for the new law. “Although there is no evidence to suggest that we have a problem with 16- and 17-year-olds engaging in commercial sex in Singapore, we decided to set the age of protection at 18 years so as to protect a higher proportion of minors,” said senior home affairs minister Ho Peng Kee on the floor of Parliament when the bill was introduced. “Young persons, because they are immature and vulnerable and can be exploited, therefore should be protected from providing sexual services.”

Only when they get money for it, however. Sixteen-year olds can ‘provide sexual services’ for free in Singapore with no problem.

After my talks about migration, sex work, gender perspectives, culture and rights, someone in the audience usually brings up age. The  format goes like this: What about the 12-year-old girl sold by her parents to a pimp? Lately, I have taken to pointing out that this is a rhetorical ploy (maybe unconscious) aimed at pushing discussion of a complex topic to its extreme edge, to the case we can all deplore, the ‘obvious’ case of misery. The point is to expose the fallacy of the speaker’s (my) ideas.

The other day I said no one should be making decisions about other people’s degree of will or acceptance of their situations and then generalising to huge groups of people. One response was: No one should be making any assumptions about the degree of will for a 10- year-old girl or boy in the sex trades? After pointing out the rhetoric (used by abolitionists and anti-trafficking people all the time), I answered yes, no one should be making assumptions about 10-year-olds either. How do we know what led to her selling sex? What choices was she faced with? What might happen if she were suddenly extracted from her situation? It is easy to take heroic positions at the extreme of a continuum, but the vast majority of cases lie along its middle, whether people are young or old. To make the extreme the case all policy should be based on – as well as all emotion and compassion – is irresponsible, an infantilising Rescue Industry strategy to be avoided whether you like the idea of kids selling sex or not.

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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Real Men Don't Buy GirlsAshton Kutcher is branching out from child sex trafficking and child sex slavery to child pornography, undoubtedly on the advice of publicists who want him associated with all things scarily sexy about children.

This guaranteed-to-win project contributes to the blurring of distinctions amongst people who sell sex, no matter what age they are. Distinctions are necessary if one would like as many different people as possible to enjoy autonomy and rights, and one would think most people would like that, but alas they don’t when exchanging money for sex is concerned. Does Ashton care? He once said (on David Letterman’s show) that strippers and porn stars are not sex trafficking victims, for which he was slammed by the anti-prostitution people at Change.org, so maybe his team has abandoned that ship.

Being part of police raids is clearly the In Thing for Rescuers. Nicholas Kristof went giddy over the AK-47s he saw at Somaly Mam’s raid, and Mira Sorvino said playing a New York cop-turned-Border-Patrol-agent in a TV mini-series called Human Trafficking gave her the ‘opportunity to combine my social work with my acting’. Social work? So I am hardly surprised that Ashton asked to tag along on a police raid of pedophile homes in California (if that is really what they were, which is not proven).

But something creepy is getting normalised here: Celebrities now routinely side with police in order to show their seriousness about trafficking, and, in a circular move, get their knowledge about trafficking from the police. Ashton won’t have known anything about the people whose homes were invaded except what the cops told him (he wasn’t allowed inside). But he doesn’t have to know more, because this is a publicity stunt – a show that is showier if done with an agency pretentiously called The Silicon Valley Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. What happened to Hollywood’s historic liberal slant that caused actors and writers to stand up against big government? Gone with the wind of trafficking.

Ashton Kutcher Rides Along During DOJ Child Porn Bust

Sajid Farooq, 24 February 2012, NBC Bay Area

The Silicon Valley Internet Crimes Against Children task force had a special guest riding along with them when the agency arrested five people Thursday on suspicion of downloading child pornography. The task force, which is run by the Department of Justice and is made up of both federal and local law enforcement officers, was joined by actor Ashton Kutcher during the crackdown. The “Two and a Half Men” star founded the DNA Foundation with Demi Moore, which aims to help end child sex slavery.

Jose Garcia, the public information officer for the San Jose Police Department, confirmed that Kutcher was part of the ride along, which involved more than 70 detectives from 23 different law enforcement agencies. “Mr. Kutcher observed the operation on behalf of the DNA Foundation,” he said. “Current case law and San Jose Police Department policy prohibits civilian ride along and observers from entering residences during search warrants or other police enforcement action. Mr. Kutcher did not enter any residences and was not involved in any enforcement action.” He refused to elaborate on why the actor chose to do the ride along. A request for a comment from the foundation was not immediately answered.

But Kutcher’s organization initiated the request for the ride along and he was joined by the foundation’s director, according to Garcia. “The DNA Foundation reached out to SVICAC on the recommendation of a Silicon Valley company that is already working with federal law enforcement on similar investigations,” Garcia said.

The officers searched seven homes in Larkspur, Novato, Fairfax, San Rafael and unincorporated Marin County and seized a number of computers and other evidence as Kutcher awaited their return. In all, four men and one 16-year-old were arrested on suspicion of possessing child pornography.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Those who want to save women and children from sex trafficking have a ready-made excuse every time research shows people have taken up selling sex for their own reasons: Whatever methodology was used for the study could have missed the really enslaved people, the ones in chains in a back bedroom or cellar.

This idea is not informed by quantities of research carried out with migrants who sell sex, including my own, and fails to see how difficult it would be to hide people for long who, by definition, are meeting and interacting with members of the public (as clients) every day, and who cannot provide sexual services while chained up or tied down. Moral crusaders promote the idea that all possible customers are monsters who don’t mind violating slaves, but the majority of those buying sex are not demons and are likely to be disturbed by miserable-looking women and sometimes willing to carry distress messages to the world outside.

The Rescue Industry always transfers the conversation to a discussion of the Worst Cases, avoiding the ambiguous, ambivalent, everyday majority who sell sex – which is the large group of people I insist need more attention. It’s not a question of who’s happy or whether life is fair but of what kinds of proposals are useful to those selling sex, or, if Rescuers are not interested in them, what interventions have a chance of ameliorating injustice and social conflict.

The study discussed by the Village Voice last week is not new but was published in 2008; these are the relevant excerpts commenting on the research methodology.

Lost Boys
Kristen Hinman, The Village Voice, 2 November 2011

. . . Finkelhor’s single caveat: While RDS is efficient in circulating through a broad range of social networks, certain scenarios might elude detection—specifically, foreign children who might be held captive and forbidden to socialize.

. . . “It turns out that the boys were the more effective recruiter of pimped girls than anybody else,” Curtis says. “It’s interesting, because this myth that the pimps have such tight control over the girls, that no one can talk to them, is destroyed by the fact that these boys can talk to them and recruit them and bring them to us. Obviously the pimps couldn’t have that much of a stranglehold on them.”

The same, of course, might be true of the elusive foreign-born contingent Finkelhor mentions.

Curtis and Dank believe there is indeed a foreign subpopulation RDS could not reach. But with no data to draw on, it’s impossible to gauge whether it’s statistically significant or yet another overblown stereotype. . .

So, no evidence means the possibility is still open, but how likely is it that this possibility will involve large numbers of people after years and years now of Rescuers and researchers trying diligently to find them? Not very likely, is the answer. The old cliche about hidden populations is abused easily.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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So a bunch of clergypeople want to stop sex trafficking. Well, their expensive move against Backpage and The Village Voice is silly, and how much does a full-page ad in the New York Times cost these days anyway?

There are no rules of the moral universe because there is no moral universe, even about children and sex, not to mention about the exchange of money for sex. The idea that there is some absolute place where everyone will agree on morality is an illusion held by some people with little imagination, who universalise their own experiences. On top of that fantasy they build campaigns in which all other moral senses are turned into crime, sin and perversity. Shame on these members of the clergy for taking such a cheap shot, for ignoring the subtleties of what many people say about their own experiences with money and sex and for spending precious money on such promotional self-congratulation. Ashton Kutcher is clueless, okay, it is understandable. But the clergy?

There is no universal clergy either, for that matter, so I imagine there are plenty of people employed by institutionalised religions that do not appreciate this advertisement.

To add insult to injury, the Huffington Post, which is rabid on the subject of sex trafficking, has illustrated their story on this clergical error with a repellent photo of Demi Moore, an archtypal white saviour-lady, patronising a brown Indian lady. Rank colonialism, ghastly. Words fail.

–Laura Agustin, the Naked Anthropologist


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Psy theories brought to people exchanging sex for money (again) – child prostitution, so-called. We have already seen ludicrous psychologising in reports on Lithuania, and police confusion when migrant sex workers refuse rescue in India and China. Here it’s New York, and a new anti-sex-trafficking division, heaven help us. Law & Order will start a new series for this, mark my words (subcategory of Special Victims). My comments in green.

Teen prostitutes hard to save, cop tells City Council

Alison Bowen, Metro, 19 October 2011

New York City police say they are trying to rescue teens forced into prostitution, only to find that the girls often don’t want their help. A state law enacted last year considers prostitutes under the age of 18 victims, not criminals, and police are encouraged not to charge them with a crime.

But according to Inspector James Capaldo, head of the NYPD’s new anti-sex trafficking division, their efforts to help girls forced into prostitution are often spurned, he told the City Council at a hearing on sex trafficking yesterday.

So far so good, we know this happens all the time. But where do they go with this? To the cheap psychology department.

The teens are often terrified of being punished by their pimp, or they’re brainwashed into thinking he is a boyfriend, said Capaldo. They also often lie and say they are 19. “Sometimes they refuse to talk,” he said. “If it takes a man six weeks to put this woman in a situation, how do we undo that in 46 hours?”

Lots of people refuse to talk to the police all the time, but here we see how Rescuers use that fact to explain their failures. Brainwashing was the explanation heard at the BBC debate in Luxor, and terror-by-pimp is the idea proposed by social workers on an NPR show on child sex trafficking in Nevada. Not to say it never happens but you need to be suspicious when Rescuers need to justify their own jobs. See, this is a new unit on sex trafficking. They even imply that slowness is not their faults because they are undoing brainwashing. And in an age of cuts and Occupy Wall Street – shameful.

The teen prostitutes often advertise their illegal services on Backpage.com, according to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. Earlier this year, in Brooklyn, a tip led police to “Jennifer,” 18, who refused to testify against her pimp. Instead, prosecutors found him through a prostitution website. He was charged with sex trafficking.

Is the assumption that a female under 18 is not capable of placing an online ad? Pure infantilisation of women, inexcusable. Check out recent comments from a lot of men assuming that women would be incapable of flying budget airlines to Amsterdam to sell sex and go home again. Excuse me?

Anyway ‘Jennifer’ was 18, so what is this detail doing here? Did Backpage.com force her to place the ad? Gah!

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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With all the End Demand rhetoric around, it’s hard to remember that the word demand actually means many things. Hunt Alternatives Fund and people like Melissa Farley have put most of their eggs into a basket that makes men who pay money for any kind of sex the single important cause for all injustices and unhappinesses associated with sex work, child prostitution and sexual exploitation.

The issue of young people on the street who have a home somewhere they don’t want to live in – runaways – is always charged because of a widespread refusal to accept that everyone has a sexuality – babies, toddlers, children, teenagers, old people. In a recent discussion about End Demand campaigns in the United States, Johannah Westmacott made an interesting comment about the whole idea of demand. I first met Johannah when we were interviewed for an NPR show in Nevada last year on the topic of child sex trafficking. She is Coordinator for Trafficked Minors at Safe Horizon Streetwork Project in New York.

There are real demands out there that are forcing people (of all ages and genders) into the sex trade and if these demands weren’t there the people would be free to make other choices, and studies show that many people in the commercial sex trade say that if not for these demands they would leave the sex trade tomorrow. The three biggest demands that coerce people unwillingly into trading sex are the demand for safe shelters, affordable housing, and living wage jobs. Also low-threshold and supportive substance abuse treatment, but I’m not aware of that one being included in studies. Almost everyone I know who has participated in any way in the commercial sex trade has listed at least one of these things as the force that pressured them into the sex trade. The whole men demanding sex thing seems like a red herring to me. I’m not saying it doesn’t happen, but it certainly doesn’t happen at the same rate as poverty and homelessness. Why aren’t we trying to impact those demands since they have a much larger influence?

In example, in NYC there are approximately 4,000 unaccompanied homeless youth every single night. The city funds approximately 200 youth shelter beds. We are providing safe, age-appropriate shelter to less than 10% of the youth in our city who need it. When these young people have no safe way of sleeping indoors, and when they have already experienced violence from being on the streets, or when the weather outside is nasty, what choice do we give them for taking care of themselves and sleeping indoors? Maybe the young person is making a choice to go home with someone for the night, but until we actually offer them another option, we can’t judge them for making a forced choice. Decisions are really only as empowered as the options available.

If there were safe, low-threshold, voluntary youth shelters available on demand in NYC to everyone who requested them, without a waiting list involved, it would absolutely impact the number of youth involved in the commercial sex trade. I’m not saying that funding youth shelters would 100% eliminate youth involved in the commercial sex trade, but I am saying that it would be a game-changer. It would probably also be the most cost-effective and efficient way to impact the most number of youth either at-risk for coercion into the sex trade or who are already in the sex trade and want to exit or even take a break. Funding shelters would not only provide an alternative for youth currently in the commercial sex trade, it would also prevent a huge number of youth from feeling pressured to be involved in the first place. Again, I’m not saying 100%, but I really would guess that this impacts the majority of young people trading sex in NYC right now.

It may be noted also that a recent study in Massachusetts found a trend towards greater numbers of homeless among lgbtq youth. One sort of marginalised sexuality can contribute to another, unfortunately. Doesn’t the suggestion that shelters would make a huge difference make sense?

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist



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After the other day’s question about Ashton Kutcher’s ability to count, I received messages from people who probably had not visited me before. One person lamented that we are all squabbling. The Daily Beast calls it a feud. Both words minimise, or even belittle, the issue at stake – numbers claimed as victims of child sex trafficking in the US. Someone said Can’t we just all work together to rid the world of this scourge? ‘Together’ is the difficult keyword here, since working on a common cause requires a common understanding of just what constitutes the problem.

But a consultant who earns a fee choosing social causes for celebrities to sponsor and then runs their campaigns feels no such scruples, writing emotively There are a few things in life I know in that ‘beyond a shadow of a doubt’ way. One is that children shouldn’t be sold for sex. Dismissing the idea of getting ‘perfect data’, Maggie Neilson asks Who is supposed to monitor, collect, analyze and disseminate it? Cash-strapped governments? Nonprofit organizations that work their hearts out every day and spend every last penny helping people?

Which sounds lovely and smarmy but misses a couple of key points: 1) Since the US government already plows very large sums into denouncing trafficking and attempting to catch traffickers and to rescue victims, some of the money could be spent on well-run research, in order to make the whole operation more efficient; and 2) Organisations may be ‘non-profit’ but those that run and work in them make salaries, receive employee benefits and enjoy social prestige and the possibility of long careers. They cannot be considered self-sacrificing, and the pennies they are spending don’t come out of their own pockets.

Not to mention that they often don’t help people, whether they spend all their pennies on it or not, which is why I entered this field in the first place long ago and wrote Sex at the Margins and keep up this blog questioning the Rescue Industry.  So I left the following comment on Ms Neilson’s piece (misleadingly titled Setting the Record Straight):

Posted: 7/6/11 by Laura Agustín

If facts don’t matter, if we only guess about the extent of a problem, then we have a good chance of attacking that problem the wrong way. What about the frightened guesses from spies for the US government on those non-existent weapons of mass destruction? How many people have died in that pointless cause?

Helping people in danger is not easy. They don’t all want the same things, or to be saved the same way. That is why a lot of children run away from home in the first place and run away from helping projects, too.

The original estimate said 100,000 to 300,000 children in the US ‘could be at risk’. Everything about the statement is so vague as to be meaningles­s. If you want to Do Something about the risk, then you have to get better informatio­n about exactly which people are at risk and how. And you have to be very careful not to undertake actions that smash up the lives of a lot of people that don’t need the help you are offering – collateral damage, if you will.

Referring to critical thinking as ‘inaction’­, as Neilson does, is a cheap shot. Some of us work hard to get closer to the truth and base ‘helping’ projects on that: it is not inaction, it is not a lack of caring, and I object to its being called that by someone making a good living from the ‘actions’ of clueless crusades.

Do you suppose these writers read the comments people bother to make? I doubt it, but I read mine, and was gratified the other day to receive this one from an anti-trafficking activist:

I like your writing. It is interesting and I think you are after the truth, not whatever will support your point of view. I admire that. nikki junker

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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