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This essay ran first in Jacobin and was picked up by Salon and given a different title. Comments on the different slants to come soon.

Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores

Laura Agustín, Jacobin, 15 August 2013

It doesn’t matter which political direction you come from: the topics of sex work, sexual exploitation, prostitution and sex trafficking seem like a veritable Gordian Knot. As long as you listen to one set of advocates and take their evidence in good faith, you are okay. But the minute you listen to another set of advocates with different arguments and evidence, everything falls apart. The way these subjects intersect leads to untenable contradictions that make progress seem impossible. Hand-wringing and ideological free-for-alls predominate.

Twenty years ago I first asked two questions that continue to unsettle me today. The first is answerable: What does a woman who sells sex accomplish that leads to her being treated as fallen, beyond the pale, incapable of speaking for herself, discountable if she does speak, invisible as a member of society? The answer is she carries a stigma. The second question is a corollary: Why do most public conversations focus on laws and regulations aimed at controlling these stigmatized women rather than recognizing their agency? To that the answer is not so straightforward.

I am moved to make this assessment after the murder of someone I knew, Eva-Maree Kullander Smith, known as Jasmine. Killed in Sweden by an enraged ex-partner, Eva-Maree was also a victim of the social death that befalls sex workers under any name you choose to call them. Immediately after the murder, rights activists cursed the Swedish prostitution law that is promoted everywhere as best for women. My own reaction was a terrible sinking feeling as I realized how the notion of a Rescue Industry, named during my research into the “saving” of women who sell sex, was more apt than even I had thought.

Murders of sex workers are appallingly frequent, including serial killings. In Vancouver, BC, Robert Pickton killed as many as 26 between 1996 and 2001 before police cared enough to do anything about it. Gary Ridgeway, convicted of killing 49 women in the 1980s-90s in the state of Washington, said, “I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.” Infamous statements from police and prosecutors include the Attorney General’s at Peter Sutcliffe’s 1981 trial for the murder of at least 13 women in the north of England: “Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of this case is that some were not.” He could say this because of a ubiquitous belief that the stigma attached to women who sell sex is real – that prostitutes really are different from other women.

My focus on the female is deliberate. All who propose prostitution policy are aware that men sell sex, but they are not concerned about men, who simply do not suffer the disgrace and shame that fall on women who do it.

Stigma and disqualification

Many people have only a vague idea what the word stigma means. It can be a mark on a person’s body – a physical trait, or a scarlet letter. It can result from a condition like leprosy, where the person afflicted could not avoid contagion. About his selection of victims Sutcliffe said he could tell by the way women walked whether or not they were sexually “innocent”.

Stigma can also result from behaviors seen to involve choice, like using drugs. For Erving Goffman, individuals’ identities are “spoiled” when stigma is revealed. Society proceeds to discredit the stigmatized – by calling them deviants or abnormal, for example. Branded with stigma, people may suffer social death – nonexistence in the eyes of society – if not physical death in gas chambers or serial killings.

In the late 1990s I wondered why a migrant group that often appeared in media reports and was well-known to me personally was absent from scholarly migration literature. I came to understand that migrant women who sell sex were disqualified as subjects of migration, in some perhaps unconscious process on the part of scholars and journal editors. Was the stigma attached to selling sex so serious that it was better not to mention these migrants at all? Or did people think that the selling of sex must transport anything written about it to another realm, such as feminism? When I submitted an article to a migration journal addressing this disqualification, The Disappearing of a Migration Category: Women Who Sell Sex, two and a half years passed before its publication, probably because the editor could locate no peer reviewers willing to deal with my ideas.

Of the many books on prostitution I read back then, most dismissed the possibility that women who sell sex can be rational, ordinary, pragmatic and autonomous. The excuses followed a pattern: The women didn’t understand what they were doing because they were uneducated. They suffered from false consciousness, the failure to recognize their own oppression. They were addicted to drugs that fogged their brains. They had been seduced by pimps. They were manipulated by families. They were psychologically damaged, so their judgements were faulty. If they were migrants they belonged to unenlightened cultures that gave them no choices. They were coerced and/or forced by bad people to travel, so they weren’t real migrants, and their experiences didn’t count. Because they were brainwashed by their exploiters, nothing they said could be relied on. This series of disqualifications led to large lacunae in social-scientific literature and mainstream media, showing the power of a stigma that has its very own name – whore stigma. Given these women’s spoiled identities, others feel called to speak for them.

Rescue Industry, legal regimes and stigma

The person in a helping profession or campaign is said to embody the good in humanity – benevolence, compassion, selflessness. But helpers assume positive identities far removed from those spoiled by stigma, and benefits accrue to them: prestige and influence for all and employment and security for many. Many believe that helpers always know how to help, even when they have no personal experience of the culture or political economy they intervene in. What I noted was how, despite the large number of people dedicated to saving prostitutes, the situation for women who sell sex never improves. The Construction of Benevolent Identities by Helping Women Who Sell Sex was the key that unlocked my understanding of the Rescue Industry.

Abolitionists talk continuously about prostitution as violence against women, set up projects to rescue sex workers and ignore the dysfunctionality of much that is conceived as “rehabilitation”. Contemporary abolitionism focuses largely on the rescue of women said to be victims of trafficking, targeting the mobile and migrant women I mentioned earlier, who are now completely disappeared in a narrative of female victimhood. Although much of this goes on under a feminist banner, colonialist maternalism describes it better.

In classic abolitionism, whore stigma is considered a consequence of patriarchy, a system in which men subjugate women and divide them into the good, who are marriageable, and the bad, who are promiscuous or sell sex. If prostitution were abolished, whore stigma would disappear, it is claimed. But contemporary movements against slut-shaming, victim-blaming and rape culture clearly show how whore stigma is applied to women who do not sell sex at all, so the claim is feeble. Instead, abolitionism’s aversion to prostitution probably strengthens the stigma, despite the prostitute’s demotion to the status of victim rather than the transgressor she once was.

Under prohibitionism, those involved in commercial sex are criminalized, which directly reproduces stigma. In this regime, the woman who sells sex is a deliberate outlaw, which oddly at least grants her some agency.

For advocates of the decriminalization of all commercial-sex activities, the disappearance of whore stigma would occur through recognizing and normalizing the selling of sex as labor. We don’t yet know how long it may take for stigma to die out in places where some forms of sex work are decriminalized and regulated: New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Holland. Given the stigma’s potency in all cultures one would expect it to diminish unevenly and slowly but steadily, as happened and continues to happen with the stigma of homosexuality around the world.

Prostitution law and national moralities

I explained my skepticism about prostitution law at length in an academic article, Sex and the Limits of Enlightenment: The Irrationality of Legal Regimes to Control Prostitution. All prostitution laws are conceived as methods to control women who, before ideas of victimhood took hold, were understood to be powerful, dangerous figures associated with rebellion, revolt, carnival, the world upside down, spiritual power and calculated wrongdoing. Conversations about prostitution law, no matter where they take place, argue about how to manage the women: Is it better to permit them to work out of doors or limit them to closed spaces? How many lap-dancing venues should get licenses and where should they be located? In brothels, how often should women be examined for sexually transmitted infections? The rhetoric of helping and saving that surrounds laws accedes with state efforts to control and punish; the first stop for women picked up in raids on brothels or rescues of trafficking victims is a police station. Prostitution law generalizes from worst-case scenarios, which leads directly to police abuse against the majority of cases, which are not so dire.

In theory, under prohibitionism prostitutes are arrested, fined, jailed. Under abolitionism, which permits the selling of sex, a farrago of laws, by-laws and regulations give police a myriad of pretexts for harrying sex workers. Regulationism, which wants to assuage social conflict by legalizing some sex-work forms, constructs non-regulated forms as illegal (and rarely grants labor rights to workers). But eccentricities abound everywhere, making a mockery of these theoretical laws. Even Japan’s wide-open, permissive sex industry prohibits “prostitution” defined as coital sex. And in recent years a hybrid law has arisen that makes paying for sex illegal while selling is permitted. Yes, it’s illogical. But the contradiction is not pointless; it is there because the goal of the law is to make prostitution disappear by debilitating the market through absurd ignorance of how sex businesses work

Discussion of prostitution law occurs in national contexts where rhetoric often harks back to essentialist notions of morality, as though in this highly-travelled, hybrid-culture world it were still possible to talk about authentic national character, or as though “founding father” values must define a country for all time. One intervenor at the recent Canadian Supreme Court hearing on prostitution law argued that decriminalization would defy founding values of “the Canadian community”: “that women required protection from immoral sexual activity generally and prostitution specifically” and “strong moral disapproval of prostitution itself, with a view to promoting gender equality”. The national focus clashes with anti-trafficking campaigns that not only claim to use international law but sponsor imperialist interventions by western NGOs into other countries, notably in Asia, with the United States assuming a familiar meddling role vis-à-vis Rest-of-World.

Gender Equality, State Feminism and intolerance

Gender Equality is now routinely accepted as a worthy principle, but the term is so broad and abstract that a host of varying, contradictory and even authoritarian ideas hide behind it. Gender Equality as a social goal derives from a bourgeois feminist tradition of values about what to strive for and how to behave, particularly regarding sex and family. In this tradition, loving committed couples living with their children in nuclear families are society’s ideal citizens, who should also go into debt to buy houses and get university educations, undertake lifetime “careers” and submit to elected governments. Although many of these values coincide with long-standing governmental measures to control women’s sexuality and reproduction, to question them is viewed with hostility. The assumption is that national governmental status quos would be acceptable if women only had equal power within them.

Gender Equality began to be measured by the UN in 1995 on the basis of indicators in three areas: reproductive health, empowerment and the labor market. Arguments are endless about all the concepts involved, many seeing them as favouring a western concept of “human development” that is tied to income. (How to define equality is also a vexed question.) Until a couple of years ago, the index was based on maternal mortality ratio and adolescent fertility rate (for health), share of parliamentary seats held by sex plus secondary/higher education attainment (for empowerment) and women’s participation in the work force (for labor). On these indicators, which focus on a narrow range of life experiences, northern European countries score highest, which leads the world to look there for progressive ideas about Gender Equality.

These countries manifest some degree of State Feminism: the existence of government posts with a remit to promote Gender Equality. I do not know if it is inevitable, but it is certainly universal that policy promoted from such posts ends up being intolerant of diverse feminisms. State Feminists simplify complex issues through pronouncements represented as the final and correct feminist way to understand whatever matter is at hand. Although those appointed to such posts must demonstrate experience and education, they must also be known to influential social networks. Unsurprisingly, many appointed to such posts come from generations for whom feminism meant the belief that all women everywhere share an essential identity and worldview. Sometimes this manifests as extremist, fundamentalist or authoritarian feminism. Sweden is an example.

Sweden and prostitution

Jämställdhet, Photo Malinka Persson

The population of only nine and a half million is scattered over a large area, and even the biggest city is small. In Sweden’s history, social inequality (class differences) was early targeted for obliteration; nowadays most people look and act middle-class. The mainstream is very wide, while social margins are narrow, most everyone being employed and/or supported by various government programmes. Although the Swedish utopia of Folkhemmet – the People’s Home – was never achieved, it survives as a powerful symbol and dream of consensus and peace. Most people believe the Swedish state is neutral if not actually benevolent, even if they recognize its imperfections.

After the demise of most class distinctions, inequality based on gender was targeted (racial/ethnic differences were a minor issue until recent migration increases). Prostitution became a topic of research and government publications from the 1970s onwards. By the 1990s, eradicating prostitution came to be seen as a necessary condition for the achievement of male-female equality and feasible in a small homogeneous society. The solution envisioned was to prohibit the purchase of sex, conceptualized as a male crime, while allowing the sale of sex (because women, as victims, must not be penalized). The main vehicle was not to consist of arrests and incarcerations but a simple message: In Sweden we don’t want prostitution. If you are involved in buying or selling sex, abandon this harmful behavior and come join us in an equitable society.

Since the idea that prostitution is harmful has infused political life for decades, to refuse to accept such an invitation can appear misguided and perverse. To end prostitution is not seen as a fiat of feminist dictators but, like the goal to end rape, an obvious necessity. To many, prostitution also seems incomprehensibly unnecessary in a state where poverty is so little known.

These are the everyday attitudes that social workers coming into contact with Eva-Maree probably shared. We do not know the details of the custody battle she had been locked in for several years with her ex-partner. We do not know how competent either was as a parent. She recounted that social workers told her she did not understand she was harming herself by selling sex. There are no written guidelines decreeing that prostitutes may not have custody of their children, but all parents undergo evaluations, and the whore stigma could not fail to affect their judgements. For the social workers, Eva-Maree’s identity was spoiled; she was discredited as a mother on psycho-social grounds. She had persisted in trying to gain mother’s rights and made headway with the authorities, but her ex-partner was enraged that an escort could gain any rights at all and did all he could to impede her. The drawn-out custody process broke down on the day she died, since standard procedures do not allow disputing parents to meet during supervised visits with children.

In a 2010 report evaluating the law criminalizing sex-purchase, stigma is mentioned in reference to feedback they received from some sex workers:

The people who are exploited in prostitution report that criminalization has reinforced the stigma of selling sex. They explain that they have chosen to prostitute themselves and feel they are not being involuntarily exposed to anything. Although it is not illegal to sell sex they perceive themselves to be hunted by the police. They perceive themselves to be disempowered in that their actions are tolerated but their will and choice are not respected.

The report concludes that these negative effects “must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution”. To those haunted by the death of Eva-Maree, the words sound cruel, but they were written for a document attempting to evaluate the law’s effects. Evaluators had been unable to produce reliable evidence of any kind of effect; an increase in stigma was at least a consequence.

Has this stigma discouraged some women from selling sex who might have wanted to and some men from buying? Maybe, but it is a result no evaluation could demonstrate. The report, in its original Swedish 295 pages, is instead composed of historical background, repetitious descriptions of the project and administrative detail. Claims made later that trafficking has diminished under the law are also impossible to prove, since there are no pre-law baseline statistics to compare to.

The lesson is not that Sweden’s law caused a murder or that any other law would have prevented it. Whore stigma exists everywhere under all prostitution laws. But Sweden’s law can be said to have given whore stigma a new rationality for social workers and judges, the stamp of government approval for age-old prejudice. The ex-partner’s fury at her becoming an escort may derive in part from his Ugandan background, but Sweden did not encourage him to view Eva-Maree more respectfully.

Some say her murder is simply another clear act of male violence and entitlement by a man who wanted her to be disqualified from seeing their children. According to that view, the law is deemed progressive because it combats male hegemony and promotes Gender Equality. This is what most infuriates advocates of sex workers’ rights: that the “Swedish model” is held up as virtuous solution to all of the old problems of prostitution, in the absence of any evidence. But for those who embrace anti-prostitution ideology, the presence or absence of evidence is unimportant.

When media are king

Media handling of these incidents reproduces stigma with variation according to local conditions. The mainstream Swedish press did not mention that Eva-Maree was an escort, because to do so would have seemed to blame her and blacken her name. In the case of a series of murders in Ipswich, England, the media’s relentless talk of prostitutes led the victims’ parents to request they use the term sex workers. A number of dead women on Long Island, NY, were discussed as almost “interchangeable – lost souls who were gone, in a sense, long before they actually disappeared” (Robert Kolker, New York Times, 29 June 2013). A woman murdered recently near Melbourne, Australia, was called “St Kilda prostitute” rather than “sex worker” or even, simply, “woman”, in a place where the concept of sex work is actually on its bumpy way to normalization. I’m talking here about the mainstream, whose online articles are reproduced over and over, hammering in the clichés.

Editors who append photos to articles on the sex industry use archetypes: women leaning into car windows, sitting on bar stools, standing amidst traffic – legs, stockings and high heels highlighted. Editors do this not because they are too lazy to find other pictures but to show, before you read a word, what the articles are really about: women whose uniform is the outward sign of an inner stain. Similarly, when writers and editors use the clichéd language of a “secret world”, “dark underbelly”, “stolen childhoods”, “seedy streets” and “forbidden fruit”, they are not simply being sensationalist but pointing to the stigma: Here’s what this news is really about – the disgusting and dangerous but also eternal and thrilling world of whores.

Cutting the Gordian Knot

Not long ago I was invited to speak at the Dublin Anarchist Bookfair on the topic of sex work as work. The announcement on Facebook provoked violent ranting: to have me was anti-feminist, against socialism and a betrayal of anarchism. I wrote Talking about sex work without isms to explain why I would not discuss feminist arguments in the short Dublin talk. I’m not personally interested in utopias and after 20 years in the field really only want to discuss how to improve things practically in the here and now. No prostitution law can comprehend the proliferation of businesses in today’s sex industry or account for the many degrees of volition and satisfaction among workers. Sexual relations cannot be “fixed” through Gender-Equality policy. If I were Alexander standing over the knot I would slice it thus: All conversations from this moment will begin from the premise that we will not all agree. We will look for a variety of solutions to suit the variety of beliefs, and we will not compete over which ideological position is best. Most important, we will assume that what all women say is what they mean.

LAURA AGUSTÍN is author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry (Zed Books). A researcher and analyst of human trafficking, undocumented migration and sex-industry research for the past 20 years, she blogs as The Naked Anthropologist.


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Who cares about the law against buying sex? City, a free newspaper like Metro, ran a page recently on sex laws in Sweden.

17 steps to a softer vision of sex
A lot has happened on the sex front in the past 100 years.
Follow City’s timeline to see how the vision of sex has changed.

The choice of landmarks to put on this timeline is interesting; obviously not all legal events concerning sex in Sweden in the past 100 years were included. Those chosen reflect familiar forms of liberalisation most people are now comfortable with: contraception, abortion, homosexuality, discrimination, partnerships.

The law criminalising the purchase of sex, sexköpslagen, is absent, as are other laws that contradict the headline that says everything’s become ‘softer’ (more permissive/less strict; soft and softer aren’t Swedish words). One friend said editors would omit the sex-buying law as insignificant to 90% of the readers – just one of those odd laws ordinary people don’t understand and have no opinion about. City is an unpretentious, popular paper commuters pick up outside train stations.

If you only look at news sources that consider themselves to be Important, keeping the record of what national government figures say and do, you get a different impression – that laws like sexköpslagen are symbols of Swedish policy on equality. Some people think this hegemonic news is more important. Some think it’s significant that only one MP actively opposes the law, but my guess is the others just want to avoid trouble from aggressive state feminists. Then there’s the fact that most people just don’t know there are normal sex workers in their lives, because everyone keeps quiet about it. That’s what stigma accomplishes, and it’s the opposite of normalisation.

Anti-prostitutionists exaggerate effects of the law constantly, and claim that a single survey on ‘attitudes’ about it proves its popularity amongst Swedes (Kuosmanen 2010). But the author himself cautioned against believing his results, given that ‘of the 2500 questionnaires that were distributed, 1134 were returned, providing a response rate of 45.4% and a missing rate of 54.6% from the entire sample.’ It turns out a large proportion of males receiving the survey failed to respond, meaning, Kuosmanen warned, ‘the results should be interpreted with a degree of caution, particularly as regards questions that concern experiences of the purchase and sale of sex, where there is, in addition, a degree of internally missing data.’

I doubt most people who received the survey knew much or had ever thought about the law. What does it matter, then, how they answered the questions? I don’t understand the significance of an attitude survey, as though the population were a marketing focus group asked to indicate whether a new flavour of yogurt has a future amongst consumers.

It would be interesting to see a parallel timeline of ‘harder’ or less permissive visions of sex during the same period: laws widening the definition of rape and women’s sexual vulnerability (which sexköpslagen is grounded in). The presence of both tendencies at the same time shows how society tries to ‘progress’ vis-a-vis sex, deciding which forms of sexual liberation and control to promote, which kinds of sex are good and bad. Politicians make hay of this stuff, while everyone else gets on with doing what they want, mostly – as discussed the other day under the rubric Prohibition.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Do you still think audiobooks are a minor format only used by people that can’t read print? Think again, I certainly have. When books like Sex at the Margins become audiobooks, something is afoot. People are now learning to learn and absorb and enjoy non-fiction while lying in baths, stuck in traffic, glued to exercise machines, cooking meals and trying to shut out everyone else on public transport.

Actually some people don’t have to learn, they already used radio this way.

Audible Editor-at-Large Susie Bright entitled her announcement

The Rescue Industry is Built on Migrant Sex Workers’ Backs:
Laura Agustín’s Rip Roaring Exposé.

Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, by Laura Agustín

Laura Agustín has almost singlehandedly changed the international debate about the definition and exploitation of the “sex trafficking” world as it is manipulated and exploited by NGOs, the Rescue Industry and major political players.

The corruption and dissembling that is going in the name of “saving victims” is truly shocking, and that’s why Sex at the Margins has been on every feminist, public policy, and migrant rights desk since its first appearance.

“This groundbreaking book explodes several myths: that selling sex is completely different from any other kind of work; that migrants who sell sex are passive victims; and that the multitude of people out to save them are without self-interest.”

The fact that Agustín is an international multi-lingual genius, who can appear in Sweden or Italy or Nairobi at a moment’s notice to speak truth to power, has turned the world on its ear when the usual liars come out to press their sanctimonious case on “fallen women.” She will not suffer fools gladly and she WILL demand evidence.  (Check out her debate with Mira Sorvino at the UN!)

Whatever Laura does next, Margins will remain as the classic that started the fireworks. As far as I’m concerned, this book is the vanguard of feminism and the bleeding edge of migration consciousness.

Narrated by Robert Blumenfeld, who we last heard reading Euclid’s Widow and Paul Bowles short stories!

-Susie Bright

Susie was one of the first to review Sex at the Margins, on Susie Bright’s Journal and she’s the editor responsible for its becoming an audiobook. I am very grateful for her loyal support.

Note: Amazon’s database is sprawling and incompletely integrated. So sometimes, according to how and when and where you happen to search, you may arrive at a page for Sex at the Margins which does not link to the Kindle or Audible edition (although both are subsidiaries of Amazon). In that case the easiest route is to go to the dedicated online shops for the non-paper versions.

Sex at the Margins at Audible.com, where you can listen to a sample. The whole book occupies 6 hours and 45 minutes.

Sex at the Margins at the Kindle Store.

Sex at the Margins on the Nook and Kobo too.

Sounds like a mantra.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Rose Alliance in Stockholm Pride Parade

A few weeks ago a flurry of Swedish media articles purported to ‘reveal’ that the national development agency, Sida, gives money (3,611,092 euros) to Mama Cash, a Dutch foundation that, among many women’s causes, supports sex workers’ rights and has funded Rose Alliance, a sex-worker group in Sweden. This wasn’t even new news, but some anti-prostitution folks tried to whip up indignation and manufacture a scandal.

The first story appeared on a news site hosted by Sida itself on 4 December. The same day, another article repeated the news, with a headline saying the money goes to lobbyists for commercial sex. Still on the same day one of Sweden’s delegates to the European Parliament, and a member of the abolitionist European Women’s Lobbydemanded excitedly that Sida stop giving the money (she’s holding up the Say No to Prostitution sign in her photo). The next day saw replies from RFSU (Sweden’s big sex-education organisation) and Louise Persson, defending the financing of groups supporting vulnerable women/prostitutes/sex workers. Then there was another piece from the parliamentarian, followed by another on the Sida site. Neither Mama Cash nor Sida made any reply.

At Rose Alliance we decided to write a short statement acknowledging the flurry and, instead of defending or counter-attacking, presenting the basic facts about the organisation on a news site called Newsmill. It got delayed in the pre-Christmas rush and was published 23 December as Vi sexarbetare kan föra vår egen talan. Here is the English version, just as dry and unexcited as the original Swedish.

Sex Workers Can Speak for Ourselves

Annelie Eriksson, Pye Jakobsson and Laura Agustín

Rose Alliance was recently in the news when it was reported at OmVärlden that Sida gives money to a foundation that has given us two grants. Rose Alliance (Riksorganisationen för sex- och erotikarbetare i Sverige) is an organisation for current and former sex workers in Sweden. We began in 2001 but started expanding about three years ago.

The most important things to know about Rose Alliance are:

We promote economic, labour and individual rights for people of any gender identity who sell sex.

  • We recognise that sex workers have a wide variety of experiences and value all of them.
  • We believe in the theory and practice of harm reduction.
  • We assist and advise each other on legal and self-employment issues and dealing with social and police authorities, on a voluntary basis.

Rose Alliance works on health-promotion projects with HIV-Sweden financed by Smittskyddsinstitutet, and participated in a project funded by the European Commission’s Leonardo da Vinci programme. We are members of the European Harm Reduction Network, an RFSL-coordinated network on male and trans sex work and the Global Network of Sex Work Projects (these do not involve receiving money). Last week we took part in the World Conference of ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) in Stockholm, and we have had our own float in Stockholm Pride for the past two years (video clips here).

We received our first core funding in 2011, from Mama Cash, to strengthen our internal organisation. We now have funding for two more years, which we will use to

Some Rose Alliance members blog and publish articles as individuals: Greta Svammel, Petite Jasmine, the Naked Anthropologist are examples. Some members receive invitations to visit, speak and consult both inside and outside Sweden. Host organisations reimburse the usual expenses for this travel.

Political lobbying is not our main focus. But for the record, we advocate self-determination and rights for sex workers – the right to sell sex as well as the right to stop selling sex. The law criminalising the purchase of sex aims to deprive sex workers of the right to run their own lives, so we oppose it.

Here’s the original Swedish

Vi sexarbetare kan föra vår egen talan

Annelie Eriksson, Pye Jakobsson och Laura Agustín för Rose Alliance

23 Dec 2012, Newsmill

Rose Alliance var nyligen uppmärksammade i media när det rapporterades på OmVärlden att Sida ger pengar till en stiftelse som har gett oss två verksamhetsbidrag. Riksorganisationen för sex- och erotikarbetare i Sverige (Rose Alliance) är en intresseorganisation för nuvarande och före detta sexarbetare i Sverige. Vi startade 2001 men började växa som organisation för ungefär tre år sedan.

De viktigaste att veta om Rose Alliance är:

  • Vi arbetar för att främja ekonomiska, arbetsrättsliga och individuella rättigheter för alla sexarbetare, oavsett könsidentitet.
  • Vi inser att sexarbetare har en stor variation av erfarenheter och värderar alla lika mycket.
  • Vi tror på skadereduktion, både i teori och praktik.
  • Vi stödjer och rådgör med varandra i juridiska frågor, frågor kring egenföretagande och hur man hanterar kontakt med sociala- och polisiära myndigheter. Allt på en volontär basis.

Rose Alliance arbetar med ett projekt om sexuell hälsa i samarbete med HIV-Sverige finansierat av Smittskyddsinstitutet, och deltar i ett projekt finansierat av Europeiska Kommissionens  Leonardo da Vinci programme. Vi är medlemmar i European Harm Reduction Network, i ett RFSL Stockholm koordinerat nätverk om manlig och transsexarbete och i Global Network of Sex Work Projects (dessa projekt ger inte organisationen något ekonomiskt bidrag utöver ersättning för eventuella kostnader).

Förra veckan deltog vi i World Conference of ILGA (International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association) i Stockholm, och vi har haft en egen lastbil i Stockholms prideparad under de senaste två åren.

Vi fick vårt första verksamhetsbidrag 2011, från Mama Cash, för att stärka vår interna organisation. Vi har sedan juli 2012 verksamhetsbidrag för ytterligare två år, som kommer att användas till att:

Vissa Rose Alliance medlemmar bloggar och publicerar artiklar som individer:Greta SvammelPetite Jasmine, the Naked Anthropologist är några exempel. Vissa medlemmar blir inbjudna att besöka, föreläsa och konsultera såväl inom som utanför Sverige. Värdorganisationerna ersätter då kostnader i samband med dessa resor.

Politisk lobbyverksamhet är inte vårt främsta fokus. Men för tydlighetens skull: vi förespråkar självbestämmande och rättigheter för sexarbetare – rätten att sälja sex såväl som rätten att sluta sälja sex. Sexköpslagen bidrar till beröva sexarbetare rätten att styra över sina egna liv, därför är vi emot den.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry has made into Ebook big-time.

Kindle for the USA at Amazon-US

Kindle for the UK at Amazon-UK

And it’s on the Nook at Barnes & Noble and on the Kobo.

Susie Bright’s reaction to the ebook news was

Laura Agustín’s revolutionary book Sex at the Margins which has changed the discussion of ‘trafficking’ and the Rescue industry forever… is now on Kindle! Finally!

The book was published five years ago but is not out of date – a testimony, I’m afraid, to the intransigence of the trafficking framework and the refusal everywhere to address migration policy. I can confidently say, unfortunately, that the situation is worse than ever no matter where you are – there’s real globalisation for you. Early reviews said

It is always refreshing to read a book that turns an issue on its head. Laura María Agustín’s trenchant and controversial critique of the anti-trafficking crusade goes a step further: it lays out the matter – in this case, ‘human trafficking – on the operating table, dissects it, unravels its innards, and shows the reader, in gory, sometimes eye-watering detail, why everything we think about it is Wrong with a capital W. It’s a jarring read; I imagine that those who make a living from campaigning against the scourge of human trafficking will throw it violently across the room, if not into an incinerator. Yet it may also be one of the most important books on migration published in recent years. – The New Statesman, Brendan O’Neill

Sex at the Margins rips apart distinctions between migrants, service work and sexual labour and reveals the utter complexity of the contemporary sex industry. This book is set to be a trailblazer in the study of sexuality. – Lisa Adkins, Professor of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London

Sex at the Margins elegantly demonstrates that what happens to poor immigrant working women from the Global South when they ‘leave home for sex’* is neither a tragedy nor the panacea of finding the promised land. Above all, Agustín shows that the moralizing bent of most government and NGO programs have little to do with these women’s experiences and wishes. This book questions some of our most cherished modern assumptions, and shows that a different ethics of concern is possible. – Arturo Escobar, University of North Carolina

Nineteen of the 20-some reviews in academic journals are available to read on this website, along with other articles and interviews about it: Reviews/Interviews. Most of the academic reviews are very positive; a few dismiss the book completely for reasons less than serious!

Sex at the Margins – Table of Contents

Acknowledgements
1. Sexual Commotion
2. Working to Travel, Travelling to Work
3. A World of Services
4. The Rise of the Social – and of ‘Prostitution’
5. Grasping the Thing Itself: Methodology
6. From Charity to Solidarity: In the Field with Helpers
7. Partial Truths
Works Cited
Primary Sources

I hope that the availability as a mainstream ebook will make it possible for more people thinking of becoming Rescuers to pause and reconsider. Give it to them!

*The book’s original title was Leaving Home for Sex, thus Escobar’s reference.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

 

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Numerous novels tell the story of attempts to rescue sad prostitutes or fallen women unconscious of their own degradation. It is a classic theme that took shape in the 19th century, signalling new beliefs in social reform: the possibility that those at the bottom of the social heap were not doomed to stay there but with help could rise up and better themselves. William Holman Hunt’s 1853 The Awakening Conscience, which depicts a fallen woman‘s moment of epiphany, is unusual in omitting any Rescue person showing the way, lifting her up, teaching her how to live.

One version of the prostitute’s saviour is a confused, melancholic man who ‘loves’ her and aims to remove her from the life. In Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, a naive meddler in Vietnamese politics also sets out to rescue Phuong, the young mistress of a jaded older journalist. This book from 1955 is recommended reading for those interested in the Rescue Industry, and I bring it up because the review of another book relates it to Greene’s work.The novel is Patrick Holland’s The Darkest Little Room, the setting is also Saigon and the reviewer’s insights into the main character’s Rescue complex are pointed.

The only off-note in the review is the cliché murky in the headline, as if every time sex goes on sale the moral lights have to go out.

Flawed saviour sucked into Saigon’s murky sex trade

Emily Maguire, The Australian 6 October 2012

“The nights I have spent with prostitutes have been some of the saddest nights of my life,” Joseph reveals near the beginning of the book. He goes on to explain that the sadness comes when the sex is done and he must see the “deep unfeeling blankness” on the face of the “pretty young prostitute”. It’s a telling moment; Joseph is terribly sentimental about sex work, and so unable to see the women who do it as anything other than more or less useful accomplices in his project to redeem himself via loving, and thereby saving, a fallen woman. . .

Joseph cannot see sex workers as fully human lest he be forced to admit that some don’t want saving and, thus, he cannot be the hero he so desperately needs to be.

Emily Maguire’s understanding of Joseph tallies with what I concluded much of Rescue is about after a long time wondering why people saying they wanted to help prostitutes did not listen to what they had to say. In Helping Women Who Sell Sex: The Construction of Benevolent Identities I laid out the foundation for theorising about a Rescue Industry.

Real-life characters like Nicholas Kristof and Siddharth Kara belong to the sentimental tradition of men who want to rescue fallen women and thereby construct for themselves an identity as virtuous Knights in Shining Armour – which is also a path to prestige and power.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropology

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Last week PBS ran Kristof’s documentary of his Half the Sky book. I’m not in the US so didn’t see it (and don’t have the option of seeing it at all), but publicity material abounds, including photos showing Hollywood stars, such as this one of Meg Ryan hugging a girl at a shelter for victims of trafficking. Some of the press-packaged stories discuss the techniques being used to manipulate viewers into joining a Half the Sky movement. It’s tempting to point to the maternalism inherent in the images, but the publicity makes it clear that this was conscious and deliberate – no one’s pretending real relationships are being portrayed. Ryan explained why ’privileged celebrities’ were used to tell the stories:

The actresses are the emotional conduits for the experience… Fame is such a perverse power when it comes to this type of advocacy. Celebrities bring attention to the problem, but they’re also resented… How we become sensitive to one another and less judgmental and more forgiving is what’s good. We’re all human. If we can increase compassion in the world, then we have a better place. Meg Ryan and Somaly Mam on Celebrity, Human Trafficking, and Compassion.

Emotional conduit is a pop-psychology notion I’m not sure serious media analysts would go along with here. It sounds more like Kristof’s wish about what would happen – that using attractive female actresses would magically make poor, dark, needy, less attractive women and children easier to care about. Or care about for longer than it takes to watch the documentary, long enough to sign up to do something further, like give money or volunteer on some project.

The publicity photographs have been set up to convey an intimacy disproportionate to the brief visits involved, as though Hollywood stars were gifted with an ability to bond deeply very fast. But in fact they are simply acting. The pictures are portraits of affection acted by people who’ve had training in how to do it. This has nothing to do with real feeling, and perhaps it needn’t. I am not accusing anyone of cynicism here, because the whole project has been calculated.

Eva Mendes is said to have embarked on a ‘life-changing’ visit to Sierra Leone. In this pose she seems to be physically touching a number of children at once, at the same time leaning toward the camera as though giving herself to it.

America Ferrera plays with children of sex workers in Kolkata, India. This shot plays on Ferrera’s more natural, less glamorous style but is equally contrived. The pose suggests she could be a sibling of all these children, playing on our knowledge that this actress is Latina.

Olivia Wilde in Kenya. The inclusion of a cameraperson in this shot underscores how posed and self-conscious it is. The children have obviously been told to hug her so close one might think they actually loved her. Wilde is good at acting genuine-looking emotion, but the children just look squashed and uncomfortable.

By merely standing beside two older women in Somalia (although one appears to be touching her back), Diane Lane’s set-up appears less effusive and intimate, more like people of equal status standing together. Does this mean less potential emotional conduit?

Kristof is hoping to catalyse his movement via CrowdriseTurning oppression into opportunity for women worldwide. Something’s going on in the world of so-called social movements, isn’t it? Remember the two boys with their Hope Boutique Bakery? That was part of Crowd-Fuelled Causes, and I still don’t know what that does.

What I am sure about is how sophisticated media techniques are being brought in to modernise traditional Rescue-Industry events and publicity. Kristof prides himself on being a with-it guy in terms of social media – remember when he live-tweeted that brothel raid? So what’s next – conversations with the camera personnel about how they set up those emotional conduits?

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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For everyone now suffering from Mr Smarm’s documentary – which I’ve only heard about – here’s The Soft Side of Imperialism again. When being irritated or outraged in a way that feels visceral and personal it is useful to be reminded of the structural issues propping up liberalism, and Kristof is an egregious example of apologist for US imperialism.

Numerous people have written to express particular outrage that Kristof’s Facebook game should be like FarmVille, with women taking the place of farm animals, to be looked after. Others wrote to say the word smarmy was just right to describe him. Rescue Industry magnate supreme, fond of bragging about his multiple Pulitzer Prizes – which are circulated amongst members of the same old white-boys’ club eternally – this unattractive man is also a mediocre writer. Is the movie version any good?

Kristof and the Rescue Industry:
The Soft Side of Imperialism

by LAURA AGUSTÍN, 25 January 2012, Counterpunch

Reasons abound to be turned off by New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof. He is too pleased with himself and demonstrates no capacity for self-reflection. He is too earnest. He claims to be in the vanguard of journalism because he tweets. He is said to be Doing Something about human suffering while the rest of us don’t care; he is smarmy. He doesn’t write particularly well. But most important, he is an apologist for a soft form of imperialism.

He poses for photos with the wretched of the earth and Hollywood celebrities in the same breath, and they are a perfect fit. Here he is squatting and grinning at black children, or trying to balance a basket on his head, and there he is with his arm over Mia Farrow’s shoulder in the desert. Here he is beaming down at obedient-looking Cambodian girls, or smiling broadly beside a dour, unclothed black man with a spear, whilst there he is with Ashton and Demi, Brad and Angelina, George Clooney. He professes humility, but his approach to journalistic advocacy makes himself a celebrity. He is the news story: Kristof is visiting, Kristof is doing something.

In interviews, he refers to the need to protect his humanitarian image, and he got one Pulitzer Prize because he “gave voice to the voiceless”. Can there be a more presumptuous claim? Educated at both Harvard and Oxford, he nevertheless appears ignorant of critiques of Empire and grassroots women’s movements alike. Instead, Kristof purports to speak for girls and women and then shows us how grateful they are. His Wikipedia entry reads like hagiography.

Keen to imply that he’s down with youth and hep to the jive, he lamely told one interviewer that “All of us in the news business are wondering what the future is going to be.” He is now venturing into the world of online games, the ones with a so-called moral conscience, like Darfur is Dying, in which players are invited to “Help stop the crisis in Darfur” by identifying with refugee characters and seeing how difficult their lives are. This experience, it is presumed, will teach players about suffering, but it could just as well make refugees seem like small brown toys for people to play with and then close that tab when they get bored. Moral conscience is a flexible term anyway: One click away from Darfur is Dying is a game aimed at helping the Pentagon improve their weapons.

Kristof says his game will be a Facebook app like FarmVille: “You’ll have a village, and in order to nurture this village, you’ll have to look after the women and girls in the village.” The paternalism couldn’t be clearer, and to show it’s all not just a game (because there’s actual money involved), schools and refugee camps get funds if you play well. A nice philanthropic touch.

Welcome to the Rescue Industry, where characters like Kristof get a free pass to act out fun imperialist interventions masked as humanitarianism. No longer claiming openly to carry the White Man’s Burden, rescuers nonetheless embrace the spectacle of themselves rushing in to save miserable victims, whether from famine, flood or the wrong kind of sex. Hollywood westerns lived off the image of white Europeans as civilizing force for decades, depicting the slaughter of redskins in the name of freedom. Their own freedom, that is, in the foundational American myth that settlers were courageous, ingenious, hard-working white men who risked everything and fought a revolution in the name of religious and political liberty.

Odd then, that so many Americans are blind when it comes to what they call humanitarianism, blissfully conscience-free about interfering in other countries’ affairs in order to impose their own way of life and moral standards. The Rescue Industry that has grown up in the past decade around US policy on human trafficking shows how imperialism can work in softer, more palatable ways than military intervention. Relying on a belief in social evolution, development and modernization as objective truths, contemporary rescuers, like John Stuart Mill 150 years ago, consider themselves free, self-governing individuals born in the most civilized lands and therefore entitled to rule people in more backward ones. (Mill required benevolence, but imperialists always claim to have the interests of the conquered at heart.) Here begins colonialism, the day-to-day imposition of value systems from outside, the permanent maintenance of the upper hand. Here is where the Rescue Industry finds its niche; here is where Kristof ingenuously refers to “changing culture”, smugly certain that his own is superior.

In the formation of the 21st-century anti-trafficking movement, a morally convenient exception is made, as it was made for military actions in Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan. The exception says This Time It’s Different. This time we have to go in. We have to step up and take the lead, show what real democracy is. In the name of freedom, of course. In the case of trafficking the exception says: We have achieved Equality. We abolished slavery, we had a civil-rights movement and a women’s liberation movement too and now everything is fine here.

With justification firmly in place, the US Rescue Industry imposes itself on the rest of the world through policies against prostitution, on the one hand, and against trafficking, on the other. In their book Half the Sky, Kristof and co-author Sheryl WuDunn liken the emancipation of women to the abolition of slavery, but his own actions –brothel raids, a game teaching players to protect village women – reflect only paternalism.

It may be easier to get away with this approach now than it was when W.T. Stead of London’s Pall Mall Gazette bought a young girl in 1885 to prove the existence of child prostitution. This event set off a panic that evil traders were systematically snatching young girls and carrying them to the continent – a fear that was disproved, although Stead was prosecuted and imprisoned for abduction.

In contrast, in 2004 when Kristof bought two young Cambodians out of a brothel, he took his cameraman to catch one girl’s weepy homecoming. A year later, revisiting the brothel and finding her back, Kristof again filmed a heartwarming reunion, this time between him and the girl. Presuming that being bought out by him was the best chance she could ever get, Kristof now reverted to a journalistic tone, citing hiv-infection rates and this girl’s probable death within a decade. She was not hiv-positive, but he felt fine about stigmatizing her anyway.

Then last November, Kristof live-tweeted a brothel raid in the company of ex-slave Somaly Mam. In “One Brothel Raid at a Time” he describes the excitement:

Riding beside Somaly in her car toward a brothel bristling with AK-47 assault rifles, it was scary. This town of Anlong Veng is in northern Cambodia near the Thai border, with a large military presence; it feels like something out of the Wild West. (New York Times)

There’s the cavalry moment again. A few days later Kristof boasted that six more brothels had closed as a result of the tweeted raid. Focused on out-of-work pimps, he failed to ask the most fundamental question: Where did the women inside those brothels go? The closures made them instantly vulnerable to trafficking, the very scenario Kristof would save them from.

Some Rescuers evoke the Christian mission directly, like Gary Haugen of the International Justice Mission, which accompanies police in raids on brothels. Or like Luis CdeBaca, the US Ambassador-at-Large for Trafficking, who unselfconsciously aligns himself with William Wilberforce, the evangelical Christian rescuers claim ended slavery – as though slaves and freed and escaped slaves had nothing to do with it. CdeBaca talks about the contemporary mission to save slaves as a responsibility uniquely belonging to Britain and the US.

Kristof positions himself as liberal Everyman, middle-class husband and father, rational journalist, transparent advocate for the underdog. But he likes what he calls the law-enforcement model to end slavery, showing no curiosity about police behavior toward victims during frightening raids. Ignoring reports of the negative effects these operations have on women, and the 19th-century model of moral regeneration forced on them after being rescued, he concentrates on a single well-funded program for his photo-opps, the one showing obedient-looking girls.

Kristof also fails to criticize US blackmail tactics. Issuing an annual report card to the world, the US Office on Trafficking presumes to judge, on evidence produced during investigations whose methodology has never been explained, each country according to its efforts to combat human trafficking. Reprisals follow – loss of aid – for countries not toeing the line. Kristof is an apologist for this manipulative policy.

To criticize the Rescue Industry is not to say that slavery, undocumented migration, human smuggling, trafficking and labor exploitation do not exist or involve egregious injustices. Yet Kristof supporters object to any critique with At least he is Doing Something. What are you doing to stop child rape? and so on. This sort of attempt to deflect all criticism is a hallmark of colonialism, which invokes class and race as reasons for clubbing together against savagery and terrorism. The Rescue Industry, like the war on terrorism, relies on an image of the barbaric Other.

It is important not to take at face value claims to be Helping, Saving or Rescuing just because people say that is what they are doing and feel emotional about it. Like many unreflective father figures, Kristof sees himself as fully benevolent. Claiming to give voice to the voiceless, he does not actually let them speak.

Instead, as we say nowadays, it’s all about Kristof: his experience, terror, angst, confusion, desire. Did anyone rescued in his recent brothel raid want to be saved like that, with the consequences that came afterwards, whatever they were? That is what we do not know and will not find out from Kristof.

Discussing Heart of Darkness, Chinua Achebe said Conrad used Africa

as a metaphysical battlefield devoid of all recognizable humanity, into which the wandering European enters at his peril… The real question is the dehumanization of Africa and Africans which this age-long attitude has fostered and continues to foster in the world. (Things Fall Apart)

The latest sahib in colonialism’s dismal parade, Kristof is the Rescue Industry at its well-intentioned worst.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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A National Geographic television special called 21st Century Sex Slaves employs the melodramatic voiceover common to all trite police documentaries, but it goes further. The ever-evolving Rescue Industry now has a large media branch, where camera crews film undercover operations and men act out hero fantasies (women get subordinate roles, usually as faceless victims).

The wannabe Special Agent in this story is Steve Galster, head of something called Freeland Foundation, which bizarrely seems to have been dedicated to preventing wildlife trafficking before jumping on the human gravytrain. I wonder if they found it an easy mental shift from pangolins to young women; the rhetoric is the same:

Freeland is dedicated to making the world free of human slavery and wildlife trafficking by increasing law enforcement capacity, supporting vulnerable communities and raising awareness.

Law enforcement is a Man’s game, right? So these men otherwise associated with saving animals and running NGOs now have an excuse not only to hobnob with real cops but also to play cops themselves. The camera spends a lot of time on Galster, whose features recall pretty-man Special Agents Gibbs and DiNozzo in NCIS, but Galster is a weak, non-charismatic character. National Geographic has taken television shows like NCIS as inspiration in all sorts of ways – but the excitement is conspicuously absent.

Notice the technique: the camera records crowded streets where lots of young women mill about. The narration mentions that many have gone into sex work on their own, but as the camera pans past, the voiceover talks about willing and unwilling women in the same breath, implying that everyone you see is a potential slave.

In this attempt at a thriller the Bad Guys are Uzbeks, in just the same way that Law & Order often singles out an ethnic group’s misbehaviour: Russians in Brighton Beach is a popular one. Here a Thai police chief laments how his country is being abused by foreigners (the trafficking Uzbeks). But it’s wildlife-saviour Galster who gets the main role, despite his inability to convey drama. The whole thing is, like the BBC series on Mexican sex slaves, infotainment, a misleading blend of facts, factoids and fantasies.

Unsurprisingly, Pattaya is one of the locations chosen for this cliché-ridden show, where one place offers Only European Girls. I doubt they pick up any of the irony.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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brothels_on_wheelsIn Trafficked: Sex slaves seduced and sold (BBC News, 22 May 2012), reader/viewers are presented with a series of short documentary videos. Cheesy ersatz reporting from The New York Times is now surpassed by the BBC, in one of those formats that makes you ask: Is this for children? Is it a video game? It resembles a trafficking theme park or carnival more than a serious report. If they did spend real money on investigative reporting they want us to take seriously, how did they miss running into anyone who knows about migration and sex work? Did they deliberately avoid talking to anyone who deviates from this party line? Real journalists ought to be intrigued by the realities of how people migrate and work in underground economies. The Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center is not difficult to locate, if you are a BBC journalist. I wonder whether they are avoiding anything with the term sex worker in it because they think such sources don’t deal with trafficking? Does the BBC not even consult its own archives to see that one of their World Debates addressed this problem of pretending the trafficking situation is black-and-white clear?

The video I draw attention to here is called Brothels on Wheels, whose punchy blurb reads:

Many trafficking victims are taken to New York, where they often work gruelling shifts of 10 hours or more. Some women live and work in a brothel, only leaving the building when their pimp moves them to a new location. Other women are advertised on “chica cards”, distributed in the street. Customers call the number on the card and women are delivered by car to a customer’s house or hotel room. The women live in fear, frequently assaulted by their pimps and customers.

  • Are ten-hour shifts gruelling by definition or only if sex is involved?
  • Sometimes people live in brothels to save money on rent – this is not a proof of trafficking.
  • Do Rescuers think it’s helpful to use language like women are delivered? Who’s doing the victimising here? Are they unaware that escort agencies may employ drivers without this meaning workers are trafficked?
  • Women who sell sex live in fear of the police, as much as of anyone else. This also doesn’t prove trafficking.

A politician who accompanies the BBC reporter along the street says Times Square has been cleaned up. Every illegal activity that used to be in Times Square has come over to Roosevelt Avenue. Really? Everything has moved directly to one place? How convenient, simple and unlikely, and what a good way for him to draw attention to his own constituency (the area of Queens where Roosevelt Avenue is located). Sounds as if he is emulating Kristof wandering around Times Square with a young black woman as if that were still the world’s most terrible sex-place.

Years ago I worked in Corona (Spanish literacy), and during my few weeks’ stay in Jackson Heights last winter, I walked Roosevelt Avenue again. If you start at the more international end, at the Jackson Heights/74th Street subway stop, the sensation of being in Latin America grows as you walk east. The elevated train clanks above you, and street level is a riot of small shops and other commercial action. There are many sexy-looking establishments with guys outside handing out cards to entice paying customers inside. I don’t think we have to use the word seedy in a moralistic way to characterise the kind of sex venues where photos of scantily-clad women adorn the windows and you can’t see inside without actually going in. I mean by this that the look of a business in an atmosphere of legal prohibition and repression of sexuality does not constitute evidence that what is inside is unclean, dangerous or inherently unjust. Everyone who works in seedy-looking places is not a victim of trafficking, for goodness’ sake.

The documentary makes fairly conventional-sounding agency work appear demonic (the existence of cards with telephone numbers, clients’ phone calls and rides for workers to meet clients). In other branches of business, these techniques would be viewed as ordinary. Without extensive research into how workers feel about these situations, reporters have no way to know whether something genuinely coerced or exploitative is going on.

The report also says someone’s put mattresses and workers in trucks that pick up clients who get services inside and then are dropped off – implying something particularly sleazy in this. This anecdote is related over the image of a ratty-looking truck, but no actual research into it is presented: talking to the person who runs this business and/or the workers (coerced or not) involved. Vans are used elsewhere in the world, one example being France, where brothels are forbidden: see this report from Lyons, in which Paola Tabet recounts:

I have been in the van when they were working, it was rather funny and sometimes even brilliant. There I actually had the illustration of what [sex workers] mean when they say ‘We give nothing to the client.’ Then at one point an habitual client, a man of a certain age, arrives. ‘Hello.’ ‘Hello, how are you?’ He gets in the van. I was seated in the front, I could hear everything. At the beginning, the girl says to him ‘Have you sold your old car?’ He replies ‘yes’. She asks him to lower or open his trousers and she gives him the condom, you could feel the truck move for a moment, then she continues ‘and how much did they give you for the car?’ They were practically the only words exchanged.

I asked the Sex Workers Project at the Urban Justice Center about the BBC video, and they replied:

Roosevelt Avenue is a place where human trafficking exists, but it is also is a site of extremely high numbers of arrests for prostitution. In particular, transgender immigrant women are often rounded up and arrested 4, 8, 12 at a time. So, while journalists, law enforcement and even city officials are talking about human trafficking on Roosevelt, people are being arrested in high numbers, some of whom may actually be victims of trafficking. Clearly we have a disconnect about who is a “victim” and who is a “prostitute.” Transgender women are almost always labeled as “prostitutes” even when they are not. No one is interested in their stories, the reasons they are here, or the extreme danger they face if arrested and deported.

When reporters go into the field without any desire to learn about the complications and base a documentary on conversations with a politician, a victims’ rights attorney and the police, it isn’t surprising they obliterate the realities of large numbers of people. The question is not Should we not care about victims of trafficking? but Should we not care about everyone being victimised in the sex industry, everyone being denied their rights, in all different sorts of ways? The second question is what the BBC showed cheesiness in ignoring.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

 

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