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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