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I have attended more than one meeting where abolitionist protesters take over from the floor, grabbing the roving microphone or shouting down speakers whose ideas they find objectionable. Before my talk at the Vancouver Public Library last year I was warned that people from the Vancouver Rape Relief and Aboriginal Women’s Action Network might come and protest.

Saying I would handle any questions they chose to ask, if they waited until the end to ask them, I proposed we have a plan for disarming any more disruptive protest. All I wanted was a couple of people willing to go to the protesters and escort them out of the room. One of the organisers was upset at my suggestion, saying If they really want to protest then there’s nothing we can do, we’ll just have to close the event down. I was startled by that, and privately asked a couple of people if they would do this for me. One of them hesitated but acquiesced and the other didn’t reply.

The protesters that came, who were known to the organisers, left quietly after listening to about 40 minutes of my talk. The reasoning afterwards was The way you talk it’s not easy for them to find a place to launch an attack. One of my ways to disarm such attacks is to mention myself early on the upsetting issues and keywords that protesters are ready to say are omitted; in this case imperialism, genocide, indigenous rights, rape, the horrendous situation in the Downtown East Side of Vancouver, police negligence, racism.

France’s new Minister for Women, Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, was disarmed for several minutes the other day by protesters from ACT-UP and STRASS as she began to talk about her proposal to abolish prostitution. When this proposal was first presented in the Guardian, I wondered whether she might actually be unaware of the very long tradition her ‘idea’ belongs to, but it is being linked to some sort of new leaf turning over in France since all the DSK brouhaha.

My point is about something else here – how easy it was to disrupt an event dependent on middle-class norms of politeness that expect everyone to accept hierarchy and the authority of the speaker, the person with governmental power, no matter how banal her ideas are. Those in charge act completely unable to deal with the protest, send for security officers and wait passively until they arrive. To me this seems emblematic of how members of the Rescue Industry shamefully rely on the police to enforce their values.

The same norms of politeness say that disruptive protest is destructive to democratic debate, but in a situation where no debate is possible and authority figures continually disappear and dismiss the opinions of the people actually being talked about, disruption makes a different sort of point.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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ANTI-MALE RUBBISH! PROS & CALLGIRLS ARE MORE HONEST. POLICE SHOULD GET REAL CRIME.

Click twice on the photo to read the protest message stuck to a poster I wrote about last week as One London borough wants to End Demand: Clients of sex workers beware. I wonder how many posters got a sticker? This one’s on the tube escalator, surrounded by ads for musical shows and acne cures.

Thanks to Furry Girl and DrPizza for this photo.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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A friend took these photos of a parked van while having a drink in Brixton, in the London borough of Lambeth (where Waterloo Station is). Buy Sex – Pay the Price is the message, with a man’s silhouette as a sort of parody of the cliché prostitute silhouette. At first I thought this bad boy was smoking, but on closer inspection I see he is looking at a phone.

According to the sign, the consequences of getting caught buying sex are:

- be arrested
- be convicted
- receive an anti-social behaviour order
- lose your job

- lose respect from family and friends

However: No borough can unilaterally criminalise something just because they want to; they have to follow official law. Several laws prohibit particular client behaviours in the UK: paying for sex with someone found to be controlled for another person’s gainkerb-crawling and soliciting women for (sex) business. Perhaps the campaign means Lambeth police will be more aggressive in pursuing these laws. I wrote about the more drastic version of the legislation about gain when it was being considered, but all my arguments still apply to the watered-down version.

But the way the advert is worded does imply that End Demand has been imposed in a single London borough – and presumably some people will believe it, or feel too worried to do something they want to that is not actually illegal - pay for sex with an independent worker, for example, or tip a stripper or lap-dancer. This is what social-purity campaigns do: make at least some people feel worried and guilty so that they repress themselves. The advertisements were funded by Lambeth council’s Violence Against Women campaign, described in this press release.

Social Purity campaigns were linked to gender equality a hundred years ago, too – with a good deal more cause: women didn’t have the vote. That social purity as an ideal should be back in crude form in cosmopolitan Lambeth might derive from the abolitionist presence of Eaves Housing for Women, where the Poppy Project is sheltered, in the borough. Or will this idea spread to other boroughs?

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Pictures like this can cause ranting about Sex Tourism solely because an older white man is seen walking with a younger less-white woman. Their physical characteristics are presumed to determine fixed identities, by which I mean we are supposed to know who they are, fundamentally, simply because of how they look. I have always been very uncomfortable with such blanket categorisation, which reminds me of systems of racial segregation. Or if race is not the crux then age would seem to be, since according to today’s romantic narratives, proper relationships only occur between people of the same age. Anti-sex tourism campaigners who claim only to be concerned about the tourists’ financial power fail to account for the special repulsion they exhibit at age and ethnic/racial differences in these couples, a prejudice that blocks any curiosity about the people involved as people.

Soi Cowboy Photo by Matt Greenfield

Some of the men under scrutiny are tourists, while others call themselves ex-pats, but they all stand accused of having travelled for the purpose of using their money to buy sexual relationships. I bring this fraught topic up because a number of Christian Rescue Industry groups have identified places of sex tourism as a target of their mission, hoping to rescue women who sell sex and stop men who buy it: a species of End Demand project. The testimony below comes from The World Race: This unique mission trip is a challenging adventure for young adults to abandon worldly possessions and a traditional lifestyle in exchange for an understanding that it’s not about you; it’s about the Kingdom. The following are excerpts from a single participant’s description of one experience.

Bill and his 300 women, Laura Meyers, 28 December 2010

. . . One of the most dreadful days of my life was in Pattaya, Thailand. . . I was there on the human trafficking exploratory trip and Michelle and I had spent the day interviewing men and families on why they were in Pattaya. . . Bill was sitting around the table with some other western men. . . Bill was originally from Canada but had moved to Thailand a few years back. . . for “SEX” . . . he had BOUGHT OVER 300 women! Although somewhere in my gut I knew that response was coming, I sat shocked and horrified. . . He had no shame or inkling that what he was doing was wrong. It had never crossed his mind that the women and children that he was buying for sex were being held captive. It had never crossed his mind that . . these girls were . . . being forced to perform for him by their “owner”.

After this beginning, familiar from other Rescue narratives, there is a change.

The more I talked with Bill I heard his heart. . . He told me story after story of how he continually felt rejected . . . from his family, rejected from his friends, rejected from his old way of life, so he came to the one place where “love” is “guaranteed.” The truth was, Bill was not being satisfied and after years of chasing love and looking in all the wrong places he was becoming restless. Bill was hurting. Bill was alone. Bill was searching. . . . that dreadful night in Pattaya, Thailand, although it was brief, I was able just to shed some light on Bill’s life and tell him that there was more to the life that he was living. I was able to share HOPE and extend GRACE. If for no other reason, I may have been in Pattaya, Thailand, the nastiest place I have ever been, for Bill. It’s easy for me to walk into situations like the one with Bill and my heart immediately goes into conviction mode. Where all I see is this sin in Bill’s life, where I see where he is hurting people over and over again and the righteous justice rises within me and I get angry. But more often than not these days, my heart rises for justice for Bill; he is hurting. Obviously, I want the exploitation and abuse to end for the women and children, that’s my heart. But my deepest desire is for Bill’s life to be restored so he can be the end to the exploitation of women and children. If we can get to his heart than there would be no need to have prevention plans and recovery centers for women and children. If we could get to his heart there would be no Red Light District in Pattaya, Thailand.

The idea that commercial sex could disappear through ending demand for it is terribly naive, especially where it is economically and socially significant, as in Pattaya, as I discussed in a review of Sex Trafficking by Siddharth Kara. This Christian narrative of salvation and reform does improve on the usual secular and purely punitive proposal to put all men who buy sex in prison or on sex-offender lists. Otherwise, these missions of naive young Americans to other countries to interfere on religious grounds is just more colonialism, related to Reality Tourism - excuses to travel the world convinced that one’s own culture is best, that one knows how everyone else should live, that one has the right to barge in, judge and then feel good about it.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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In December of 2010 I met Siddharth Kara at the BBC World Debate on Human Trafficking. In fact, he was there because I gave his name to the producer, who was under pressure to find people without knowing anything about the field. The BBC held the debate programme at a sort of anti-trafficking revival meeting organised by Mrs Mubarak (not yet an international pariah). Just beforehand, panellists met with Zeinab Badawi (the presenter) in a crowded hotel Green Room. When I walked in Kara was in full cry with an Elevator Pitch so out of place I giggled, which seemed to puzzle him. Thus I found out that being poster boy for a movement had protected him from self-awareness. When I accepted the request to review his book, I did not know how inane it would turn out to be.

Siddharth Kara. Sex Trafficking: Inside the Business of Modern Slavery. New York: Columbia University Press, 2009. xviii + 298 pp.  (cloth), ISBN 978-0-231-13960-1;  (paper), ISBN 978-0-231-13961-8.

Reviewed by Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

Published on H-LatAm 14 February 2012

A Man of Moral Sentiments

Siddharth Kara’s Sex Trafficking is not a scholarly book. Neither based on methodological research nor reflecting knowledge of literature that could give context to the author’s experience, this reads like the diary of a poverty tourist or the bildungsroman of an unsophisticated man of moral sentiments demonstrating his pain at unfathomable injustices. This places Kara in the tradition of colonial writers who believed that they were called to testify to the suffering of those not lucky enough to be born into comfortable Western society.

Scholarship is virtually absent from his works cited, whether on migration, trafficking, slavery, feminism, sexualities, criminology, gender, informal-sector labor, or the sex industry and prostitution. Apparently unaware of over ten years of difficult debates, hundreds of scholarly articles, and investigative journalism, Kara is an MBA on a mission, using statistical sleight of hand to solve the problem of slavery. Because the book is touted by campaigners as presenting hard data and incisive analysis, H-Net requested this review.

A travelogue in six chapters is bracketed by arguments both high-minded and businesslike. Kara mentions his moral awakening while volunteering at a refugee camp, his business career, and his sporadic travels since 2000, interviewing 150 “victims” (term unexplained) and a variety of other people located by what he calls “word of mouth.” Because many people did not trust him, he could not enter most businesses and found it easier to interview victims in shelters. Chapter headings are regional, but my guess is his stays in most regions were brief (scholars in the field will recognize his contacts as predictable), with India a possible exception. Kara does not acknowledge these inevitable biases given his lack of method.

On the one hand, his freedom sounds heavenly to those planning fieldwork who have grubbed for funding, written and rewritten interview questions, toadied to gatekeepers, pacified ethics committees, and dealt with supervisors who fail to understand what one is trying to do. On the other hand, Kara reads like a bull in a china shop, bumbling into brothels, stressing and sometimes endangering young women, pressing them to provide him with conversation, annoying goons, and throwing money around. For a scholarly review, the salient point is the absence of academic supervision to control his preconceptions about what he would find, critique his lack of methodology, or control the spin he puts on his experiences. At times, he simply claims that informants did not “appear” to be coerced.

For a man setting out to report on sex as business he is priggish. Bothered by old men who ogle young girls, he admits “I felt ashamed to be male” and opines “I also believe that the preponderance of males do not condone these vulgarities” (pp. 71, 33). After escaping violence he declaims: “For so many years I had stepped into the fire pit and emerged unscathed…. That night, I suffered violent food poisoning from mushrooms and vomited thirty-four times. Justice was swift. I accepted my punishment” (p. 58). Exalted sensibility and anachronistic rhetoric further link Kara to nineteenth-century moral crusaders like Josephine Butler, famous for saying if she were a prostitute she would be crying all day.

Kara knows little about present-day migration and mobility. Meeting a Lithuanian woman in Italy and a Nigerian woman in Bangkok cause him to suspect they were trafficked, as though obtaining travel documents and tickets were too difficult for women to manage alone. Not finding slaves in the United States, he concludes there must be less demand and therefore less slavery, but also that the United States is “too far away” (from what?), as though airplanes and multiple technologies had not rendered distance almost irrelevant. Even a cursory check of current migration literature would have saved him such gaffes.

But Kara is not interested in migration (whether voluntary, ambivalent, or coerced) or in smuggling. He also rejects “trafficking” as a core concept, preferring slave trading for the movement of people and slavery for the jobs they get. His pitch is that slavery is back in a big way, but his is a cartoon version of master and slave, free of any social complexity and the ambiguities of human interaction. If he can contemplate this industry coolly for the purposes of financial calculations, then he should be able to consider potential human gains also. Finally forced to recognize that slavery could actually sometimes represent “a better life” (p. 199), he is nonetheless blind to the possibility that people in bad situations may be able to exploit them and seems ignorant of slavery studies far evolved from abolitionist reductionism. Slave narratives, slave archaeology, ethnobiology, and historical research all have illuminated social systems in which slaves were not wholly passive nor owners unidimensionally crushing. Coping, resisting, manipulating, strategizing, and creating culture form part of slaves’ lives.[1] But Kara, intent on discovering tales of sexual exploitation, has no idea how his informants spend most of their time.

He claims that “sex slaves” are the best earners for masters because they are sold “literally thousands of times before they are replaced” (p. 24), conflating an owner’s sale of a slave with a slave’s sale of sexual services to customers. Would he do this if another service were involved, like hairdressing? If a salon owner buys a slave to be a hairdresser who then sees many customers and produces money for her owner, would Kara say the hairdresser is sold thousands of times? Or would he see that her labor is sold, albeit unfairly? Questions to be asked about both cases would include: Is money earned credited toward the payment of a debt? Is the worker able to leave the workplace? Does the worker accept the character of the work but want more autonomy, different working conditions, or a (bigger) percentage of money earned? In the case of sex businesses, workplaces may actually be more comfortable and cleaner than they are in other available jobs, workers may feel safer locked in than on the streets, and they may like wearing pretty clothes and being admired. By reducing the entire world of his informants to the minutes of sex, Kara misses the big picture, whether we call it political economy, culture, or simply everyday life.

Kara proposes abolition through making slave trading and slave owning too costly. The most simplistic version of this thinking is seen in the current End Demand campaign in which complex social interactions and market theories are reduced to a truism: remove demand for commercial sex and supply must disappear. This panacea could apply only if all demand of every kind were eradicated permanently and simultaneously, as demand moves and metamorphoses to find supply. Since the sex industry is large and variegated, and since the supply side (people who sell sex as well as managers and owners of businesses) constantly adapts to new market forces, resists laws, and innovates, the fantasy that supply is 100 percent determined by demand is foolish.

We do not need to read the whole book to know that something fishy is afoot. In the first chapter, extrapolating from only four conversations with customers in one Indian brothel, Kara contends that “demand for sexual services” is highly elastic (p. 35). No responsible economist, academic or not, would dare to make claims on the basis of so little data, easily ascribed to interviewer misunderstanding, informant misinformation, both, and/or random events. But it does not stop there; Kara goes on to suggest that demand must have increased because of the “increased use of slaves” (p. 37). The absence of proof is breathtaking.

At the end of the book he presents tables purporting to show “slavery economics” (apparently unaware that others have reckoned slavery values before).[2] Within a typology of sex businesses that fails even to benefit from a sober International Labour Organization study of the sex sector [3], each table posits general assumptions that must be accepted to believe what is inferred from them. For example, Massage Parlor Economics, Kathmandu, assumes four slaves per parlor, averages ten sex acts per day, one of ten customers buys a condom, one slave is re-trafficked every six months, and 50 percent “tip” per thirty sex acts, going on to give an average price per sale of sex (table B.3). We have no idea where these figures came from, but scholars in the field will doubt Kara has much to base them on–especially since he produces thirteen other such tables, all requiring data that can only be obtained through long, repetitive, methodological research, whether in Queens or Chiang Mai (to mention two of many locations he claims to know). Kara did not do such research.

That Kara uses terms like “exploitation value” and “return on investment” should not distract us from data at best anecdotal and at worst garbage. As a Rescue Industry story, his is emblematic. Struggling to accept that not every woman who sells sex is a slave, he tries to convince a woman in Los Angeles to let him help her but finally sees that “it was not up to me to decide that Sunee’s life was more important than her father’s” (p. 182). The reader heaves a sigh of relief that Sunee was spared. The real message is moral: “The world had indeed degraded into a plague of lust, greed, deceit and violence. Untamed desire ran amok, governing the descent of man” (p. 82). Perhaps Kara reveals his underlying dream when he says “I felt like I was watching myself on a movie screen” (p. 63). Graham Greene would have known how to write about him.

Notes

[1]. John Fair, “The Georgia Slave Narratives: A Historical Conundrum,” Journal of The Historical Society 10, no. 3 (2010): 235-281; Julius Sensat, “Exploitation,” Noûs 18, no. 1 (1984): 21-38; Theresa Singleton, “The Archaeology of Slavery in North America,” Annual Review of Anthropology 24 (1995): 119-140; and Jessica Bowes, “Provisioned, Produced, Procured: Slave Subsistence Strategies and Social Relations at Thomas Jefferson’s Poplar Forest,” Journal of Ethnobiology 31, no. 1 (2011): 89-109.

[2]. Jim Marketti, “Black Equity in the Slave Industry,” The Review of Black Political Economy 2, no. 2 (1972): 43-66; and Robert Browne, “The Economic Basis for Reparations to Black America,” The Review of Black Political Economy 21 (1993): 99-110.

[3]. Lin Lean Lim, ed., The Sex Sector: The Economic and Social Bases of Prostitution in Southeast Asia (Geneva: International Labour Office, 1998).

PS: My title for H-Net, A Man of Moral Sentiments, is a reference to Adam Smith’s 1759 Theory of Moral Sentiments, which preceded his Wealth of Nations.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist, below with the friend who came as my entourage, since I told the BBC I didn’t want to go alone. Sitting close to the movie stars in the front row, she overheard one of them accuse me of resembling a holocaust denier and was the only person to applaud my comments, after which she was shunned.

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Now Mayor of Madrid, Ana Botella has long been a staunch member of the movement to abolish prostitution. Wife of former Prime Minister Aznar (Partido Popular, conservative), she promotes measures that discourage men from paying for sex, whether that means making it criminal or changing masculine culture - or mentality, as she put it recently. Botella suggests that this could come about if men who buy were to understand that women selling are not totally free. She means that they may be trafficked, but she also refers to many prostitutes’ general situation of debility and defends the idea that protection is the correct way to care for them.

Of course there are people selling sex who are in bad straits and would like some kind of help; the question is: What kind of help can they find? What is offered to them? I am tired of abolitionists speaking as though they had a monopoly on caring and the rest of us were cold and cruel. I would hardly spend my time writing about these issues if I thought there were no problems for the people involved. I am not paid by the sex industry, as silly attacks often allege.

The critical question is: Would penalising (criminalising) men who buy sex actually help women who sell, even if they are unhappy and want to get out? The answer to that depends on what else changes in sex workers’ lives, what new options they have in terms of economy and lifestyle. If the only alternative is moralistic rehabilitation, then many women who once had a way to make money now will not. So abolitionists need to show that they have had real conversations, uncoerced, with women they think should be rescued – not make ideological pronouncements about all of them – it is actually very rude to generalise like that.

Note that Botella’s mentality-changing proposal fits the End Demand mould, the one that is not simply about passing a law against buying sex. The End Demand movement under that name originated in the US, where both selling and buying are already illegal, so instituting the so-called Nordic model would actually be progressive there, since immediately women who sell sex would be decriminalised. Changing masculine culture – unfortunately construed here as monolithic, as though all men were alike, too – is obviously a much more ambitious project. This is what poor Ashton Kutcher was trying with his ill-fated Real Men Don’t Buy Sex videos.

Botella aboga por cambiar la mentalidad a los clientes de prostitución antes que multarlos

18 enero 2012, ABC.es

La regidora de la capital apuesta por hacer saber al cliente que posiblemente esas mujeres «no son totalmente libres»

La alcaldesa de Madrid, Ana Botella, ha abogado este miércoles por “cambiar la mentalidad” de los clientes de la prostitución antes que sancionarlos añadiendo, no obstante, que el modelo sueco, en el que los clientes son penalizados, “es adecuado y está teniendo resultado”, como ha expuesto en una entrevista en Telemadrid.

“No hace falta penalizar sino pensar que las mentalidades cambian, por lo que hay que hacer saber al cliente que posiblemente esas mujeres no son totalmente libres”, ha afirmado la primera edil, que cree que así podría darse un cambio de actitud para que no se empleasen esos servicios.

También ha defendido que las administraciones deben “proteger” a las víctimas, en este caso las mujeres que, por regla general, han caído en las redes de bandas dedicadas al tráfico de personas. La prostitución, como ha señalado, atenta “contra la dignidad del ser humano, en este caso de la mujer, que normalmente se encuentra en una situación de debilidad”.

Insiders in the sex worker rights movement may find it amusing that Botella was carrying a red umbrella the other day.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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The other day, discussing the recommendation that DNA should be taken from men who buy sex, I ended with a question: how can anyone maintain a utopic vision about gender equality that relies on punishing so many people as criminals? That reminded me I had asked the same question in an article published more than ten years ago.

Although I wouldn’t write it exactly the same way now, I stand by its basic ideas. If Gender Equality is one of feminism’s goals, how can we imagine it without reducing everything to black and white, perpetrator and victim, crime, crime, crime? Click for the pdf or keep reading here.

Sexworkers and Violence Against Women: Utopic Visions or Battle of the Sexes?

Laura Maria Agustín

Development, 44.3, 107-110 (2001)

Sexual exploitation and prostitution

In the movement to construct a discourse of ‘violence against women’, and thus to raise consciousness about kinds of mistreatment which before were invisible, the stage has been reached where defining crime and achieving punishment appears to be the goal. While it is progressive to raise consciousness about violence and exploitation in an attempt to deter the commitment of crimes, I hope to show that the present emphasis on discipline is very far from a utopic vision and that we should now begin to move toward other suggestions for solutions.

The following argument uses the example of prostitution or ‘sexual exploitation’ as an instance of ‘violence against women’, but the approach can apply to any attempt to deal with not only definitions of gender and sexual violence but with proposals to deal with them. When applied to adult prostitution, the term ‘sexual exploitation’ attempts to change language to make ‘voluntary’ prostitution impossible. For those who wish to ‘abolish’ prostitution, therefore, this change in terms represents progress, for now language itself will not be complicit with the violence involved. For those who may or may not want to ‘abolish’ prostitution but who in the present put the priority on improving the everyday lot of prostitutes, this language change totalizes a variety of situations involving different levels of personal will and makes it more difficult to propose practical solutions. When applied to the prostitution of children, the term ‘sexual exploitation’ represents a project to change perceptions about childhood. For those who believe that the current western model of childhood as a time of innocence should become the ‘right’ of all children in the world, this term is very important.

Criminalization of clients

Efforts to change sexist, racist and other discriminatory forms of language have long been a focus of projects of social justice in western societies, and the push to define ‘violence against women’ clearly forms part of this movement. Along with this, we see a strong move to have actions that fall within these new definitions proclaimed as crimes and their perpetrators punished. If prostitution is globally redefined as sexual exploitation (by ‘globally’ I mean that no distinctions are made according to whether prostitutes say they ‘chose’ sex work to any extent), therefore, all those who purchase sexual services, called usually ‘clients’, become ‘exploiters’.

Obviously, different terms function better or coincide more with different situations, but when social movements consciously work to change language they almost inevitably eliminate these differences. Since there are still plenty of places in the world where prostitutes are simplistically viewed as evil, contaminated, immoral and diseased, campaigns to change language so as to see the lack of choice and elements of exploitation in prostitutes’ situations are positive efforts to help them. Why, then, do these positive efforts have to be based on finding a different villain, to replace the old one?

I am referring to the discipline-and-punishment model that these efforts to change language and change perception inevitably use: in constructing a victim they also construct a victimizer—the ‘exploiter’, the bad person. After that, it is inevitable that punishment becomes the focus of efforts: passing laws against the offense and deciding what price the offender should pay. This model of ‘law and order’ is familiar to most of us as an oppressive, dysfunctional criminal justice system. We know that prisons rarely rehabilitate offenders against the law; we know that in some countries prison conditions are so bad that riots occur frequently, and if they don’t, perhaps they should. We also know that it is usually extremely difficult to prove sexual offenses (because of how the law is constructed, because of the difficulty of all these definitions of victimization, because legal advice can find ways out, etc.). Yet we continue to insist on better policing and more effective punishment, as though we didn’t know all of this.

International regulations on trafficking and sexual exploitation

My own work examines both the discourses and the practical programming surrounding the European phenomenon of migrant prostitution, the term used to describe non-Europeans working in the European sex industry (and, indeed, everyone who travels from one place to another in that vast network of diverse businesses). In most countries of the European Union, migrants appear now to constitute more than half of working prostitutes, and in some countries possibly up to 90 percent (Tampep, 1999). This situation has caused a change in the thinking on violence: now ‘traffickers’ of sex workers are discussed more than their clients. Because so many of the migrants come from ‘third world’ countries, ‘trafficking’ discourses have become a forum for addressing ‘development’ projects such as structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund. But the more active debates have concerned violence, in a way that constructs them as organized crime.

One of the fora of this highly conflictive discussion was the United Nations Commission for the Prevention of Crime and Penal Justice, which met various times in Vienna to elaborate protocols on the trafficking of migrant workers. Two distinct lobbying groups argued over definitions of words such as consent, obligation, force, coercion, deceit, abuse of power and exploitation. Two distinct protocols were produced, one which applies to the ‘trafficking of women and children’ while the other to ‘smuggling of migrants’. The gender distinction is clear, expressing a greater disposition of women –along with children– to be deceived (above all about sex work), and also expressing an apparently lesser disposition to migrate. Men, on the other hand, are seen as capable of migrating but of sometimes being handled like contraband, thus the word agreed on is not trafficking but smuggling. The resulting protocols now form part of the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UN, 2000), which member countries will debate individually and decide to sign or not.

What is the problem? In an effort to save as many victims as possible, the protocols totalize the experience of all women migrants working in the sex industry, and all those who help them migrate—a wide array of family, friends, lovers, agents and entrepreneurs, as well as small-time delinquents and (probably, but this is not proved) big-time criminal networks—are defined as traffickers. Every kind of help, from preparing false working papers, visas or passports to meeting migrants at the airport and finding them a place to stay, is defined as the crime of trafficking.

The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) specifically tries, both at the Vienna meetings and internationally, to fuse the two concepts of ‘trafficking’ and ‘prostitution’ and to define them both as crimes of violence against women. Not only everyone who helps people migrate and work in the sex industry but everyone who buys sexual services ends up defined as an exploiter, a rapist and a criminal. CATW favours legislation to penalize clients of prostitutes (CATW, 2000).

The booming sex market

The problem with proposing the penalization of sexual ‘exploiters’, or clients of prostitutes, comes from the magnitude of the phenomenon, which is almost never confronted. Statistics are unreliable for all sectors of an industry overwhelmingly unrecognized legally or in government accounting, and which operates informally and relies on bribes, legal loopholes and facades. However, we can understand from the many studies of different aspects of the sex industry that it is booming. Prostitution and exploitation sites are so numerous everywhere that customers cannot be exceptional cases (yet they are often spoken of as if they were ‘perverts’ or ‘deviants’). Rather it is clear that adult and adolescent men everywhere consider it permissible to buy sexual services, and some estimates calculate that most men do it at some time in their lives.

More than 20 years ago, one Roman prostitute calculated this way:

Rome was known to have 5,000 prostitutes. Let’s say that each one took home at least 50,000 liras a day. Men don’t go more than once a day. That means that for someone who asked 3,000 liras in a car, to arrive at 50,000 she had to do a lot, maybe twenty or so. Figure it out, 20 times 5,000 comes to 100,000 clients. Since it’s rare for them to go every day, maybe they go once or twice a week, the total comes to between 400,000 and 600,000 men going to whores every week. How many men live in Rome? A million and a half. Take away the old men, the children, the homosexuals and the impotent. I mean, definitely, more or less all men go. (Cutrufelli, 1988: 26, author’s translation)

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A few months ago, Melissa Farley published a story in Newsweek with a lot of dire comments about men who buy sex as the cause of prostitution and violence towards sex workers. The research paper behind that story is more scientific and less irresponsible than her previous work, thank goodness. I don’t believe there is some absolute real scientific vision we can bring to social research, but there are better and worse attempts, and this one is better. For one thing, it used the usually omitted mechanism of the control group, here comparing men who buy sex (her pathologised group) with men who don’t buy sex (belonging to the same demographic).

Farley does not like the oft-heard notion that such large numbers of men buy sex at some point in their life it becomes almost normal, since that might justify fatalistically accepting commercial sex as a timeless aspect of life impossible to eradicate. The research here concludes that men who buy sex are different from men who don’t, associated, for one thing, with other criminal activities. This leads Farley to recommend treating them more like criminals – specifically, like sex offenders. In Creating Monsters I warned that, the way things are going in the End Demand movement, clients could be conceptualised as a new category of sex offender, to be placed on the infamous registers that make living a conventional life nearly impossible for many. It turns out a few US states had already started thinking this way, and so had Farley.

She claims that non-sex-buying men are better men, based on their responses to her questions. But there is something not right in her logic, in how the supposed control group is conceived, so that she makes a point of relating what the non-buyers (the control) think about the buyers.

We asked both groups of men what words they would use to describe sex buyers. All (100%) of the sex buyers described themselves in terms of dominance (player, stud, powerful). There were differences in the descriptors they used, with more non-sex buyers labeling buyers as losers, unethical, or desperate. Fewer non-sex buyers labeled buyers as normal or as studs/players/powerful than did sex buyers (Table 12).

I am not sure why the opinions of one group of men about the other should have any bearing on the research, by the way, but, if it does, then the research needs to be balanced and tell us what the buyers said about the non-buyers. Right? I mean, maybe the buyers would say the non-buyers are losers or scaredy-cats. But the idea of control groups is not to ask one to comment on the other, and it seems to me that this asymmetry will have influenced how people responded and what the results appear to show. She doesn’t supply her questionnaire, so checking isn’t possible.

Another problem with interview technology is that the non-buyers might say nicer things about women, but we don’t know how they actually behave. Just as saying ugly things about women is disagreeable but does not in itself prove that those speaking are going to do anything bad.

Farley, however, aims to promote the idea that there is a particular type of man who buys sex, a sexist-pig type. So if we are dealing with a small, nasty group, it should be easier to wipe out prostitution. The trouble is this very view began to be debunked not so long ago in papers like The Sex Exploiter, which suggest instead that men buy sex opportunistically: not necessarily seeking out underage sex partners, for example, but rather not bothering to investigate their age. This means anyone can become a sex buyer, the way anyone can become a sex seller, given the right circumstances. And, by the way, not pathologising prostitutes as a special group (innately prone to vice) is considered everywhere an advance in our understanding of human behaviour, so why would we not do the same for clients?

In addition to placing clients on sex-offender lists, the report recommends mandatory DNA testing:

Given the criminal history of sex buyers documented in this research, one would anticipate that other criminal activity including sexual violence might occur in the future. Obtaining DNA samples from arrested johns may be useful to consider matches with evidence obtained in past and future crimes. DNA samples would be predicted to serve as a deterrent to buying sex since most people who commit crimes do not want their DNA taken.

They might do something bad later as justification for taking their DNA? Is this kind of policing really part of a utopic plan for equality of the sexes? Her Table 20. List of Esteemed Supporters for Taking DNA Samples From Arrested Sex Buyers does not help. Here we have the now well-known alliance of some feminists with Law and Order, or Discipline and Punishment, if you will.

–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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This piece was originally published in Good Vibrations Magazine 19 July 2011.

Newsweek has released a report on Melissa Farley’s nasty new study on men who buy sex of all kinds, which was financed by the Hunt Alternatives Fund as part of their 10-year plan to End Demand for buying sex. Now the latest Trafficking in Persons Report reveals that End Demand is also part of US government policy, which means that some of the big spending - $109 million last year – on anti-trafficking programmes is going to anti-client projects. US Trafficking magnate Luis CdeBaca attended the Hunt planning meetings, so this development is hardly a big surprise. I recently wrote about a World Gender War in the form of campaigns against male sexuality: desire, penetration and the penis itself: an international trend, but money from a rich philanthropist certainly puts the US in charge.

The theory that if men stopped buying sex no one would offer it anymore is a breath-taking over-simplification of the many different services and desires involving money and sex and the multitude of social and cultural conditions involved. How people now selling sex as a livelihood would earn their living if clients disappear is never mentioned – which is disturbing. I appreciate that campaigners are talking long-term and utopically, but to never address economic and employment issues seriously? I hope they do not feel that preventing women from selling sex means saving them from a fate worse than death.

This notion of demand fails to square with some well-known client types, such as the one Thomas Rowlandson portrayed here around 1800, described by the Wellcome Library as A prostitute leading an old man into the bedroom and taking money from him, implying that her services will act like a tonic and preserve his state of health. I guess Farley didn’t manage to find any men like this to talk to.

Here is the End Demand statement from this year’s TIP, ridiculously called a Fact Sheet, when it is only a moral aside revealing the government’s wish that culture would change. Yes, they wrote the phrase new innovations.

Prevention : Fighting Sex Trafficking by Curbing Demand for Prostitution

A growing understanding of the nature of trafficking in persons has led to new innovations in addressing demand. Corporate standards for monitoring supply chains and government policies for eliminating trafficking from procurement practices are making new inroads in the fight against modern slavery. But the fact remains: if there were no demand for commercial sex, trafficking in persons for commercial sexual exploitation would not exist in the form it does today. This reality underscores the need for continued strong efforts to reduce demand for sex trafficking by enacting policies and promoting cultural attitudes that reject the idea of paying for sex.

Policies to Address Demand for Commercial Sex

Governments can lead both in practice and by example by implementing zero-tolerance policies for employees, uniformed servicemembers, and contractors paying for sex. If paying for sex is prohibited for those who work for, or do business with, a government, the ripple effects could be farreaching. Through their massive procurement, governments have an impact on a wide range of private-sector actors, and policies banning the purchase of sex could in turn reach a significant part of the private sector as well. At the same time, governments have the capacity to raise awareness of the subtle and brutal nature of this crime by requiring training of employees, contractors, and subcontractors about how individuals subjected to sex trafficking are victimized through coercion. Too often, trafficking victims are wrongly discounted as “consenting” adults. The use of violence to enslave trafficking victims is pervasive, but there are other more subtle forms of fraud and coercion that also prevent a person from escaping compelled servitude. A prostituted person may have initially consented, may believe that she or he is in love with her or his trafficker, may not self-identify as a victim, may not be operating in the vicinity of the pimp, or may have been away from the pimp’s physical control with what seemed to be ample opportunity to ask for help or flee. None of these factors, taken alone or in sum, means that she or he is not a victim of a severe form of trafficking. Ensuring that these facts are part of the required training for every government employee and everyone who does business with or on behalf of a government is an important step in shifting attitudes about commercial sex.

Moral Leadership in the Future of this Struggle

Strong policies are critical for ridding countries of all forms of modern slavery, but ultimately for encouraging a broader cultural shift in order to make meaningful progress in reducing demand for sex trafficking. This can only be achieved by rejecting long-held notions that regard commercial sex as a “boys will be boys” phenomenon, and instead sending the clear message that buying sex is wrong. Lawmakers have the power to craft effective antitrafficking legislation, but they also have a responsibility to represent values that do not tolerate abuses of commercial sex. Business leaders need to cultivate a corporate culture that leaves behind outdated thinking that turns a blind eye to the sex trade, including the adoption of codes of conduct that prohibit purchasing sex. And leaders in civil society – from teachers to parents to ministers – must foster the belief that it is everyone’s responsibility to reduce the demand for sex trafficking. It is especially important to reach young men with a strong message of demand reduction to help them understand the exploitation involved with commercial sex and combat the glamorization of pimp culture. It is every person’s individual responsibility to think about their contributions to trafficking. Laws and policies, partnerships and activism will continue to be critical to the struggle against modern slavery, but it will also be the day-to-day decisions of individual men and women that will bring an end to sex trafficking and carry forth a message of freedom for all.

UNITED STATES DEPARTMENT OF STATE
Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons
Washington DC June 2011

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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