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

Getting tough on underage prostitution

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

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

Child sex trafficking seminar in Paris educates first responders

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

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

Who’s A Victim Of Human Sex Trafficking?

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

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

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

Teen prostitute leaves shelter to return to street life

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

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

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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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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This hiv-prevention sign (from Ghana) offers three options: don’t have any sex at all, have it with only one other person forever or have the sex you want but use condoms. The choice is in your hands, meaning no authority figure is proclaiming which choice is right; you have to decide for yourself. I know some people dislike this ABC strategy because they don’t want abstinence to be there at all; I also know some critics think this approach neglects the realities of sex workers, gays and drug users. And I am sure some people dislike Love Life as smarmy. It’s a slogan, that’s all, and I put it here because it represents a humanistic way to think about sex and risk. Note that if you opt out of choosing, police are not mandated to force or rescue you from whatever you are doing.

I remember when I first heard about AIDS, in a radio news report in 1982, and I remember when public-health entities began to offer programmes to help reduce the spread of the virus. I don’t remember when I first heard the term harm reduction, but the approach seemed obviously right. I particularly recall when it was realised that many people who really needed them were not showing up at public clinics to get condoms and tests. This might be when I started to understand what margins mean. Going out to where people hung out, at times good for them rather than for health workers, was a breakthrough idea: Outreach. Haranguing people about their promiscuity or bad habits was understood to be useless. This pragmatic worldview was in the air. Disease prevention was the goal – avoiding human suffering if it could be avoided. Reducing harms.

This once obvious way to view illness, suffering, harm and risk has been eroding for some time. Now we hear about zero tolerance and other hard-line policies that prohibit people from behaviours considered wrong. To choose to take risks is often considered suspicious behaviour. My own tolerant ideas about migrants who undertake undocumented travel and jobs, particularly if they sell sex, gets me called amoral: apparently believing what people say themselves about their lives is the act of a heartless bitch. To me it all seems quite illogical.

For a long time mainstream policymakers were only interested in sex workers as disease-spreaders, so AIDS conferences were places where they were talked about, as objects. The question was How can we get them to practice safer sex? That is still of course the prevalent view amongst doctors, pharmaceutical companies and policymakers: stigma towards prostitutes dies very, very hard. But in the last decade or so the presence of sex workers at these conferences has significantly strengthened (bolstered by outside funding), and the events become sites of activism to promote human, sexual and workers’ rights, empowerment and protagonism in hiv prevention. This coincides with the opening up of a space for considering sex-work policy within the harm-reduction movement, which I first thought about when asked to speak at a conference in Portugal a few years ago.

Condoms are the obvious protection for everyone involved in commercial sex – right? That’s the harm-reduction approach. Yet in the US, where prostitution is prohibited, police can use the carrying of multiple condoms as proof that people are prostitutes and arrest them. The result? People don’t carry them. That’s the harm-enhancement approach detailed in this video from Human Rights Watch.

For the next week the International AIDS Conference is going on in Washington DC, and because US immigration policy is hostile to drug users and prostitutes – even when they are sponsored visitors spending the whole time in a conference venue - a lot of international participants won’t be there. An alternative event taking place in Kolkata, the Sex Workers’ Freedom Festival, is being attended by workers from dozens of countries. I had expected to go myself but finally couldn’t make it. Here is a calendar of events on sex work at both conferences, which will be video-linked for certain sessions. Good luck to all.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

 

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If you are in London next Monday, come to the launch of the Stop the Arrests campaign. The event will be short and sweet and it would be good to see a lot of people not only turn up but also join the resistance to yet more policing and repression of sexual practices involving money. It’s also a good central location with numerous pubs nearby for socialising afterwards.

It’s not to late to put your signature on the list of supporters.

I will be speaking about the lack of evidence linking sporting events with trafficking. I wrote about the background to this initiative a while back.

INVITATION: Stop the Arrests Campaign Launch

WHEN: 1830 Monday 18 June 2012

WHERE: Centre for Possible Studies, 21 Gloucester Place, London W1U 8HR (nearest tube: Marble Arch)

Campaign group Stop the Arrests will hold a public launch in central London this Monday to outline its call for a moratorium on sex worker arrests during the London 2012 Olympic Games. The panel includes Laura Agustín, trafficking expert and author of Sex at the Margins, Georgina Perry, manager of Open Doors, a sex worker health project operating in Hackney and a video link up with Brooke Magnanti, aka Belle de Jour and author of The Sex Myth. Stop the Arrests is concerned that the policing of sex work and sex establishments in the lead-up to the Olympics threatens to compromise the safety and autonomy of sex workers.

The launch will also feature voices from workers in the sex industry.

The Met have recently been in touch with Stop the Arrests to inform that they have developed ”an alternative system of dealing with sex workers during the Olympic period”. This protocol, which will be made public on Monday 18 June,  has been developed without any input from sex worker organisations or other specialist services working with sex workers, such as health and harm minimisation organisations.

Ava Caradonna, Spokesperson for x:talk said: Stop the Arrests has tried for months to get an audience with the Met to discuss policing protocol during the Olympics. A senior Met officer has assured us that that the relevant department is aware of xtalk and the proposal for a Moratorium and yet we have not been consulted. The current laws and policing around sex work have been criticised from many different quarters for the lack of consultation with sex workers and sex worker-led organisations, and the failure of these policies to take into account the realities of the sex industry. It is deeply worrying that the Met continues to develop policies that ignore these criticisms and the views of those affected.

Media Enquires:

Xanthe Whittaker: 07901335613
Katie Cruz: 07917732990

NOTES

1. Campaign group Stop the Arrests issued the Mayor of London with a letter on June 6 calling upon him to use his powers, in co-operation with the police and UK Border Agency, to stop the arrest, detention and deportation of sex workers during the Olympics. Signatories to the letter, which was initiated by the xtalk project, include John McDonnell MP and chair of the Green Party, Jenny Jones, author Brooke Magnanti (Belle de Jour), Jane Ayres, manager of The Praed Street Project – a sex worker health project operating in London, and the UK Harm Reduction Alliance. Full details of campaign and list of signatories here.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Olympics Sex Workers

Now you can sign up by clicking a button on the website for Stop the Arrests, either as a group (best, if you can do it) or as an individual. Here’s the list of those who’ve signed so far. You can be located anywhere in the world, but if you are a UK group it’s really important your name is there! The letter will go to Mayor Boris Johnson soon. I discussed this campaign a while back, including a list of all the laws that criminalise sex workers in England and Wales.

One menu tab on the site is called Evidence, and it says:

No research has proved an increase in human trafficking caused by large sporting events.

Three research projects have been conducted specifically to assess cases of trafficking associated with major sporting events after those events were over.

Germany: 2006 World Cup

  • SIDA/IOM report: The first significant attempt to assess whether women were trafficked (forced) to sell sex at a major sporting event was financed by the Swedish Development Agency (SIDA) and published by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM). Despite predictions that 40 000 women would be trafficked, only 5 cases of trafficking were found to be linked to the World Cup. Report published in 2006.
  • German government report: Subsequently, the German Federal Government produced a report for the Council of the European Union, finding no increase in cases of trafficking related to the World Cup. Report published in 2007.

South Africa: 2010 World Cup

Research was carried out by the Sex Work Education and Advocacy Taskforce (SWEAT) and the African Centre for for Migration & Society, commissioned by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA). This investigation included a survey of local sex workers; no cases of trafficking were found associated with the World Cup. Report published in 2010.

Other major sporting events have been speculated about: the 2004 Olympics in Athens, the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and several US Super Bowls. A report from GAATW (the Global Alliance Against Trafficking in Women) gathers together existing data. Many other reports deconstruct and debunk the idea that trafficking increases when major sporting events take place, but only the two on Germany and one on South Africa contain data gathered in the relevant places, after the events.

This campaign was initiated by x:talk (I am a member).

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

 

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x:talk, a workers’ collective in London, is calling for a stop to all arrests of sex workers as a way to reduce the harm associated with police handling of ‘trafficking’ associated (erroneously) with large sporting events. London is another place where selling sex is legal but surrounded by many vaguely defined activities that can cause arrest, notably the prohibition on working alongside someone else (even if they serve as your receptionist or security guard). Adverts like these in public phone boxes are also prohibited but continue to proliferate. Just about every prohibition is now justified as a way to stop trafficking, when most of the offences date back to efforts to limit the nuisance caused by prostitution.

Note the call is for a cessation of arrests of workers, not clients. Criminalisation of purchasing sex (an anti-client law) exists in a diluted form here that makes it an offence to pay for sex with a person controlled for another person’s gain, which clients may be charged for whether they knew about the control or not (what’s known as a strict liability clause). Yes, it’s a very vague idea and difficult to prosecute.

x:talk will be sending a letter to the Mayor of London requesting the moratorium. Get in touch if you are willing to be a signatory to the letter or if there is any other way you can support the campaign: moratorium2012 [at] gmail.com.

Sex Work and the Olympics: The Case for a Moratorium

1. x:talk and its supporters are calling for a moratorium on arrests of sex workers in London with immediate effect until the end of the Olympic Games.

2. Governments, charity organisations and campaign groups have argued that large sporting events lead to an increase in trafficking for prostitution. These claims, often repeated by the media, are usually based on misinformation, poor data and a tendency to sensationalise. There is no evidence that large sporting events cause an increase in trafficking for prostitution.[1]

3. These claims can lead to anti-trafficking policies and policing practices that target sex workers. In London, anti-trafficking practices have resulted in raids on brothels, closures and arbitrary arrests of people working in the sex industry. This creates a climate of fear among workers, leaving them less likely to report crimes against them and more vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.[2] This is an inadequate response to sex work and to trafficking.

4. x:talk is aware of “clean-up efforts” already underway in London, particularly east London, in the run up to the Olympics. These include multiple raids and closure of premises. We anticipate that until the end of the Olympic games there will be a continued rise in the numbers of raids, arrests and level of harassment of sex workers.

5. A series of violent robberies on brothels by a gang in December in Barking & Dagenham demonstrates the effect that this climate of fear can have on the safety of sex workers. The effect of raids on brothels and closures in the area had eroded relations between sex workers and the Police with the result that the sex workers targeted by the gang were unwilling to report the attacks for fear of arrest. The gang were able to attack at least three venues in December 2011.[3]

6. In light of this, x:talk and its supporters are calling on the Mayor of London and London Metropolitan Police to suspend arrests and convictions of sex workers under the criminal laws laid out in Appendix 1.

APPENDIX 1: OFFENCES TO BE INCLUDED UNDER MORATORIUM

Suspension of offences that refer directly to sex workers:

-  Soliciting (this should include soliciting penalties: rehabilitation orders and Anti-Social Behavioural Orders), s.1 (1) Street Offences Act, s.16, s.17 Policing and Crime Act 2009, s.1 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998.

-  Keeping a brothel, where the person deemed to be “keeping a brothel” is one or more of the people selling sexual services. Effectively, this means we are calling for a suspension of any arrests of sex workers who work collectively.

Soliciting

 

S. 1 (1) of the Street Offences Act 1959 makes loitering or soliciting for purposes of prostitution an offence. Section 16 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009 amended s.1 of the Street Offences Act 1959 inserting the requirement that soliciting be “persistent”, defined as occurring twice within a three-month period.

A logical corollary of the suspension of laws relating to persistent soliciting would be the suspension of any new rehabilitation orders, as defined by s.17 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009, and Anti-Social Behavioural Orders, as defined by s.1 of the Crime and Disorder Act 1998, that may follow breach of a rehabilitation order.

Keeping a brothel

 

S.33A of the Sexual Offences Act 1956, as inserted by s. 55(1) and (2) of the Sexual Offences Act 2003, creates an offence of keeping, managing, acting or assisting in the management of a brothel to which people resort for practices involving prostitution (whether or not also for other practices). Prostitution is defined by section 51(2) of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 as follows: a person (A) who, on at least one occasion and whether or not compelled to do so, offers or provides sexual services to another person in return for payment or a promise of payment to A or a third person.

S.33A therefore covers premises where two or more people provide sexual services at the same time. Where one or more person (who may or may not be offering sexual services) are found to be keeping, managing, acting or assisting in the management of that brothel they will be charged under s.33A. The required level of control over brothel activities varies but will be satisfied where there is evidence of a person seeing customers onto the premises, handling payments from customers, paying bills, placing advertisements in local papers (R v Alexsander Sochaki (2010) EWCA Crim 2708). However, we draw attention to the recent case of Claire Finch, who was unanimously acquitted of brothel keeping. Finch had accepted that she worked collectively from her own home providing sexual services and gave evidence it would be too dangerous for her to work alone. Finch’s barrister, relying on evidence that there had been numerous serious violent attacks on solitary street sex workers in Bedfordshire in recent years. successfully argued that Finch was entitled to rely on the defence of necessity.

Suspension of arrests of sex workers, administrative detainment and / or removal, during the enforcement of offences relating to third parties:

-  Sections 52-53 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 make it an offence to cause, incite or control a prostitute for gain. Section 54 defines gain as ‘any financial advantage, including the discharge of an obligation to pay or the provision of goods or services (including sexual services) gratuitously or at a discount, or the goodwill of any person which is or appears likely, in time, to bring financial advantage.’

Causing, inciting, controlling for gain

These offences, particularly s.53 controlling a prostitute for gain, are often the basis of raids[4] and will be accompanied by the arrest of sex workers for immigration offences.

During the enforcement of these offences we are calling for a suspension of all arrests of sex workers, including arrests and deportation procedures for immigration offences.

Suspension of the closure of premises:

 

-  S.21 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009, which allows the closure of premises for up to three months where the police have reasonable suspicion that prostitution related offences (as defined by ss.52-53 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003) are being committed.

-  Brothel keeping charges make it an offence keep, manage or assist in the management of a brothel and for a landlord or tenant to let or permit their premises for the purposes of prostitution: s.33A-36 Sexual Offences Act 1956. Those keeping a brothel, landlords and tenants might be informed that if the behaviour does not desist, and the premises close, they will be liable for prosecution.[5]

Closure Notices and Orders

A Freedom of Information request issued by x:talk to the MET has revealed that in four of the five London Olympic boroughs only one closure order and notice has been applied for pursuant to s.21 of the Policing and Crime Act. However, the FOI states that “this response does not mean that no premises were closed, instead it confirms that no premises were closed in these four boroughs as a result of a notice issued under Section 21, Schedule 2 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009 … premises usually respond to requests from Police to close and often other legitimate means of closing them are adopted, such as consultation with the landlord & follow through action resulting from that. Barriers to use of closure notices include civil court fees and consultation process.”

We therefore call for a suspension of police efforts to serve notices and close premises where they suspect prostitution offences are being carried out, whether in the pursuance of a closure order / notice under s.21 of the Policing and Crime Act 2009, ss.33A-36 of the Sexual Offences Act 1956, or any other legal measure. However, it is important to note that our call for suspension does not apply to premises where child related prostitution or pornography offences are suspected (ss.47-50 Sexual Offences Act 2003). Our call relates solely to premises where prostitution offences under s.52-53 of the Sexual Offences Act 2003 are suspected.


[1] Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW), (2011) What’s the Cost of a Rumour? A Guide to Sorting Out the Myths and Facts about Sporting Events and Trafficking. http://www.gaatw.org/publications/What’s_the_Cost_of_a_Rumour-GAATW2011.pdf

[2] x:talk (2010), Human rights, Sex Work and the Challenge of Trafficking

[3] Owen Bowcott, “Call for change in law to protect prostitutes from violent crime”, Guardian 6/01/12, http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2012/jan/16/change-law-prostitutes-crime-violent

[4] Crown Prosecution Service guidance for enforcement of s.53: “In investigating cases of controlling prostitution, the police may raid and disrupt brothels where local police policy previously had been one of toleration of off street prostitution.” http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/p_to_r/prostitution_and_exploitation_of_prostitution/

[5] Ibid 3, Owen Bancroft, Guardian 6/01/12

Quote from Metropolitan Police: “a notice has been served to the registered owner of the venue in Victoria Road under the auspices of section 33a of the Sexual Offences Act 1956. The notice formally notified the recipient that they were liable to prosecution should the premises in Victoria Road remain in use as a brothel.”

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Sex-slave charity head quits amid row was the alternate title to this disgraceful story that reminds us that the United States is not alone in playing Rescue Industry hardball. A claim to have saved very young girls from sexual slavery (supposedly shown in this photo) has been repudiated by police in Thailand. The charity’s name, Grey Man, suggests some sort of paramilitary identity; their mission, according to their website, is the rescue of children from traffickers.

This news story can hardly be counted on for the final facts of this matter, and it may be that the charity is locked in some kind of struggle for power or money with Thai police. But it is creepy enough that an Australian charity should, as they proclaim, promote the use of former Australian soldiers and police in daring missions to rescue victims of sex trafficking in Asia. Daring? Why? If any brothels have become dangerous places, rescue raids are surely the reason. The gall! And anyone who describe himself as daring is already being ridiculous.

Rescue boss out over claims of fake ‘victims’

Lindsay Murdoch, 26 March 2012, smh.com.au (Sydney Morning Herald)

THE head of an Australian charity that has been accused of faking the rescue of Thai hill tribe children from sexual slavery has resigned. Former Australian army commando Sean McBride stepped down from the Grey Man charity at the weekend following new claims about the organisation and an investigation into the hill tribes children by Thailand’s Department of Special Investigation.

Mr McBride, who also uses the name John Curtis, told The Age the Grey Man’s board decided he should step down because ‘‘personal issues’’ between him and people in Thailand were interfering with the organisation’s operations. Funded by Australian donations, the high-profile charity promotes the use of former Australian soldiers and police in daring missions to rescue victims of sex trafficking in Asia.

Police in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai have cut ties with the charity amid claims and counter-claims about the organisation pending the outcome of the departmental investigation. In a new claim, the Grey Man’s former head of investigations in Thailand said the charity’s website had exaggerated the success of its operations, including changing the ages of victims.

‘‘Sean [Mr McBride] told me younger girls are most interesting for donors,’’ said the Thailand-born man, who asked that his name not be published because of his undercover work. The charity’s website often claimed that victims as young as 12 were rescued.

Responding by email to questions from The Age sent before he stepped down, Mr McBride said he never changed reports ‘‘except to make them more readable and media-orientated’’. He said the charity, which last year had about 25 field operatives and was training 20 more, would not put ‘‘people on the ground in Thailand until we get the all-clear from the DSI’’, although its website continues to appeal for donations to support its main objective of ‘‘assist[ing] the police in Thailand in locating and rescuing children from trafficking and sexual abuse’’. He told The Age that much of the controversy about the charity he founded in 2007 was about ‘‘corruption and vested interests’’.

The charity says it has rescued dozens of children from prostitution in Asia, the youngest aged 10. It also works on prevention measures such as supporting employment and education programs in an attempt to stop children being trafficked for sexual exploitation. But the charity has had acrimonious disputes with its operatives in Thailand, including police provided with costs to support its operations.

Referring to the hill-tribe-children investigation and the Grey Man’s critics, Mr McBride said: ‘‘Did we rescue 22 children and did we scam the Australian public? They know they are about to lose that one, so they are using half-truths now to try and discredit us in other ways and they will keep trying.’’

Police from the Chiang Mai-based transnational crime unit told The Age that 21 hill tribe children from a village in northern Chiang Rai province were not rescued from prostitution as the charity claimed on its website along with appeals for funds. The Department of Special Investigation is investigating claims that the children had never left their homes, had continued to attend school and had suffered as a result of the publicity.

Mr McBride said the Grey Man had provided the department with a comprehensive response to the allegations. ‘‘We are fully co-operating with the inquiry,’’ he said. Police also told The Age the department is investigating the Grey Man’s alleged use of a fake address in Chiang Mai. Mr McBride said the address ‘‘was a temporary address when we first started’’.

In responses to questions from The Age, Mr McBride defended the use of photographs of hill tribe children on its website above references to children being taken to a brothel. ‘‘There don’t seem to be many photos of hill tribe kids. If they were sex trade victims they would have their eyes blacked out,’’ he said. ‘‘I suppose people could make a connection between those kids and brothels but it was not our intention. I will discuss it with our people, but I think people realise a site like ours will have photos of kids on it.’’

The former head of Grey Man’s 10-person Thai investigation unit said Australian volunteers who travelled to Thailand to support operations could provide little assistance because they could not speak Thai and had little knowledge of Thai culture. Mr McBride said the man did not like working with foreigners ‘‘so we had to send our volunteers off to do their own tasks’’.

Operations to rescue sex trade workers in Thailand have become highly contentious. The Empower Foundation, which represents sex workers, said in a report released this month that ‘‘we have now reached a point where there are more women in the Thai sex industry being abused by anti-trafficking practice than there are women exploited by traffickers’’. [that story here]

The foundation was not referring specifically to the Grey Man, which is based in Brisbane and has been strongly supported by Australia’s legal profession, including judges. The Grey Man board has appointed former Australian Federal Police agent Colin Rowley to replace Mr McBride, who said he will no longer be involved with or comment further on the charity.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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To those inundated by the same crude message about sex trafficking over and over, two news stories may surprise. In the first, Chinese women who travel to Malaysia are considered interesting not because of any scandal or scourge but because of culture. Not long ago, this story would not have seemed quite so odd – before all women who travel to sell sex were transformed by the Rescue Industry into pathetic victims.

Malaysia just like home for prostitutes from China
28 February 2012, Borneo Post

Kuala Lumpur . . .influx of ‘freelance’ prostitutes from China. . . they liked the climate here which was not far different from China’s. . . They speak Mandarin, which makes it easy for them to mix with the local Chinese community and their food back home is almost similar to the Chinese food here. The availability of budget flights and Internet access are also catalysts for them to come to this country. . . preliminary investigation found that these women who worked through syndicates would return to Malaysia [after being sent home] on student visas and resume working as freelance prostitutes as the earnings were lucrative. . . most of the Chinese nationals interrogated used student visas to enable them to enter the country unimpeded.

. . .Chinese nationals made up the most number of people arrested for prostitution at 653 from January to February 15. This was followed by those from Vietnam (367), Thailand (300), Indonesia (177), the Philippines (55), Uzbekistan (19), Myanmar (14), Cambodia (10), Bangladesh (nine), Mongolia (six), Nigeria and Sri Langka (four each), and India (one). The highest number of arrests involved Chinese nationals at 5,753 in 2009, 6,378 in 2010 and 5,922 in 2011.

That’s a lot of arrests, so it’s not a good story, but notable that the women are not described as trafficking victims. The reference to a syndicate may be to agencies who process visas for students, including students who do not intend to study.

Why would women from China travel to Malaysia to sell sex, given this arrest rate? Consider how they are treated in China.

The oldest profession seeks respect
9 September 2011, The 4th Media

Lin is just 17 . .  Although she knows nothing about cutting hair, she’s employed by a hair salon that can be spotted from the street by a sparkling pink barber pole that glows through the windows at night . . .she has already suffered the humiliation of being handcuffed and detained by police several times.

The salon owner surnamed Wang and an employee surnamed Li get worked up as they rant about the treatment they receive from the police. Li said police have raided her shop twice in the last four months. . . Wang jumps in with angry tales of frequent visits by the police that cost her 600 to 800 yuan in fines to retrieve her employees from the police station. . . A day or two after the raid Wang’s salon is back in business. Wang said she would rather pay for a license, get legal protection and follow required health regulations. “I offer a service that I’m not forcing anyone to take. I’m doing a good thing. It’s not easy making money these days,” she said, adding that one of her four employees was abandoned by her husband, and another has several children to feed. Wang takes a 20 percent commission from the women who average little more than 100 yuan per day [12 euros].

. . .The ubiquitous salons mainly employ women from the countryside, who have little education, few opportunities at home and little chance of doing well in a cosmopolitan city. . . many of the salons operate on the fringe of the law and provide sex services to some of the millions of migrant men who leave home for many months at a time. . .

Young teen Lin resisted becoming a full-time sex worker. She felt disgraced and uncomfortable with her coquettish colleagues. She went home to her village but there was nothing for her to do and soon returned to Yulin and sex work and now supports herself and her family. She moved to another salon that treats her better and says she actually enjoys the job.

. . .A xiaojie, which is a euphemism for sex worker, is treated with disdain by open society. . .the police who often publicly humiliate the xiaojie in hopes of deterring others from entering the profession or in an effort to be seen to be cleaning up a neighborhood. The main targets of the police are the migrant xiaojie who work in small salons or massage parlors. The high-end call girls working out of big nightclubs and luxury hotels are seldom harassed. Prostitution in China is punishable by a maximum 15 days in detention and a fine of 5,000 yuan [600 euros].

For more information see Migrant sex workers in China: massage parlours, hair salons, hotel rooms.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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

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

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

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

Ashton Kutcher Rides Along During DOJ Child Porn Bust

Sajid Farooq, 24 February 2012, NBC Bay Area

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

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

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

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

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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From where we stand now, it seems obvious: people begin selling sex for a variety of reasons, none of them being they were born destined to do it. As I mentioned the other day discussing research on clients, social scientists and the Rescue Industry alike now disbelieve the notion that a prostitute type exists amongst women.

The book Sisters of the Night: The confidential story of Big-City Prostitution, published in 1956, goes some way toward explaining a question I’ve had, to wit: why has there been such a large quantity of research attempting to find out why women sell sex? When I first started reading this material in 1997, as a complete outsider to academic research, I could not understand why book after book and article after article asked the same questions: why did you start selling sex? when? were you abused as a child? and so on.

Sisters of the Night is based on an investigation by Jess Stearn, a New York journalist and author of many books. He was assigned to research not the what of prostitution but the why - in his words.

‘The more I explore,’ I told Chief Magistrate John Murtagh, head of New York’s famed Women’s Court, ‘the more I realize how little I understand these women.’

The Chief Magistrate smiled sympathetically. ‘They call it the Oldest Profession,’ he said drily, ‘and yet nobody really knows what makes these girls tick. The prostitute has never been understand by our courts. Indeed, she is still an enigma to science itself. Because of this lack of scientific knowledge, the degree of moral responsibility is essentially a matter that must be left to the Lord himself.

There were other official indications of the complexities of prostitution. Dorris Clarke, chief probation officer of the Magistrates Courts, who has interviewed more than ten thousand prostitutes, observed with a shrug:  ”’Psychiatry has been a help, but six different psychiatrists, handling the same case, may still come up with six different answers.’

From our present perspective, two things stand out: 1) the assumption that selling sex means having a terrible life for all women who do it and 2) a confidence that psychology can explain what’s going on – ie, why women start to do it. Stearn continues:

. . . prostitution is one of the damning paradoxes of our time. It is a social problem which cannot be understood apart from other social problems – a postwar deterioration of morality, the alarming increase of dope addiction among teenagers, political corruption and the double standard which makes it a crime for a women to prostitute herself, where her partner in prostitution goes scot-free.

Which seems more or less contemporary: it can’t be extracted from socioeconomic issues. And note in 1956 he already mentions the asymmetrical nature of punishment. Jumping a few lines, though, Stearn says:

The move to control prostitution legally has been losing ground. . . Long experience has shown that legalization is no remedy. The International Venereal Disease Congress, which voted overwhelmingly thirty years ago for legalized prostitution, recently voted just as overwhelmingly against it. It was no safeguard, the group found, against VD, for the simple reason that five minutes after she was examined a girl might be infected again. And the licensing of brothels, the American Social Hygiene Association discovered, makes it easier for girls to begin their careers and forms a convenient center of operations for racketeers and dope pushers. No, legalization was not the answer, and neither were jails, which became practically schools for prostitutes, where young offenders learned about perversion and dope and became further indoctrinated in the tricks of the trade.

Which leaves Stearn where? Somehow he manages to ignore his socioeconomic links a page later when he says:

It became obvious to me . . .that only a real understanding of these women, of their relationships from childhood, and of their outlook on society and on life in general could lead us to a solution. Other scourges of Biblical times have been extirpated by modern science – why not prostitution? But first must come understanding of the girl and her problem.

Back to psychology, then – in the 50s considered more scientific than it is today. Find out which experiences cause which perverse behaviours and you know who becomes a prostitute. Stearn now lists some of the apparent conundrums:

  • What makes a teenage girl say sullenly to a probattion officer who is trying to help her: ‘It’s my body. Why can’t I do with it what I want?’
  • Or why does another observe slyly: ‘If it weren’t for us, no woman would be safe on the streets. We’re the great outlet.’
  • Why does a girl, able to shift for herself, become attached to a procurer, who mistreats her and takes her money?
  • And why does still another pin on the wall of her cell a portrait of a muscled brute in loincloth, a whip in one hand, and kneeling behind him in chains a nude girl, arms raised in adoration?
  • And why does a girl, while bitterly justifying her own prostitution, say with a gleam of hate in her eyes: ‘I’d kill the man who’d make a prostitute of my sister.’
  • Or why does a pretty teenager, given  separate suite by doting parents, convert her flat into a brothel and the, impenitently, view it all as an ironic joke on her parents?
  • Why did Anna Swift, one of the most notorious of madams, boast of her virginity and savagely declare she was seeking revenge?
  • And why does a former prostitute, comfortable married for years, revert to her old trade at the first crisis in her marriage?

Wouldn’t you think he’d realise himself that there isn’t going to be a single determining cause for such a wealth of situations and behaviours? Well, maybe he did realise it perfectly well, but asking the question was his assignment: the why of prostitution. I now turn back to the preface by Peter Terranova, a police inspector in charge of the Narcotics Squad at the time:

Secrecy has a queer way of adding glamor and mystery to a subject. Rip away the Hypocrites’ Curtain surrounding prostitution and the whole community will finally recognize that it’s just another social evil which may be tackled with intelligence and perhaps cut down, if not completely eliminated.

In the 50s possibly only a vice cop would have used the term social evil unselfconsciously. What can be seen here clearly is the justification for the kind of research that has predominated on the subject of commercial sex for all these decades: the focus on why women sell. The idea is find the reason(s) and eradicate them, despite everyone’s realisation that the reasons are going to turn out to be widely diverging, if not downright contradictory. Still, the idea of the bad girl is very much still alive here, with the badness (or evil) seen to be a matter of character, something that psychology can elucidate. For the psychologists amongst my readers, I am not saying that psychological theories are useless, or that Stockholm Syndrome never exists, or brainwashing, or denial, to explain individual cases. As in the past, my critique goes to the wholesale explaining of hundreds of thousands of people as suffering from these syndromes, by default.

So far no interest has been shown in men who sell sex, despite equally well-known scenes like Los Angeles’s cruising as described by John Rechy. I will advise on this and other matters as I advance in the book.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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