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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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I wrote Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores for Jacobin (A magazine of culture and polemic) to reach a different audience, perhaps some left-leaning folks who don’t know it’s possible to talk about prostitution, sex work, trafficking and migration in interesting ways.

The piece was very hard to write, not only because I was shocked by the death of someone I knew but because I wanted to bring together many themes without going too deep into any. The exception was perhaps the idea of stigma. I said

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.

I won’t be creating a hierarchy of who suffers stigma most but do believe stigmas vary in how they manifest and feel to those involved as well. There are diverse views amongst people who study the subject. For me in studying the stigma that goes to women who sell sex, there is an extra element not present in other stigmas (HIV, homosexuality, drug use): the impulse to control women sexually, keep them in separate categories of Good and Bad based on their sexual behaviour. This doesn’t mean they ‘suffer more’, that’s not my point. I’m simply interested in the contribution a longtime social impulse makes to the belief amongst so many that women who sell sex are actually (and deplorably) different from women who don’t.

I also am interested in a consequence of stigmatisation more than the mark itself – the mechanism of disqualification. For those who believe the stigma is real, women who carry it are considered not able to speak for or even know themselves, which provides the excuse to disqualify anything they say about how they feel and what they want. Helpers, saviours and police choose to believe – not disqualify – statements that tally with their own views of what women (must) experience. It is distressing to watch so much disqualification of women’s words and deeds, and why I ended the piece with the call that we assume that what all women say is what they mean.

Salon ran the same piece under The sex worker stigma: How the law perpetuates our hatred (and fear) of prostitutes. Of course this title is catchier and better for a more mainstream audience. But I did not write either word, hatred or fear, in the piece itself, so for me the change is jarring. Under the title, Salon wrote Our society turns a blind eye to the murder of sex workers, deeming them less than human. Why is that? I never said stigma makes people less than human, so here we have an editor who may or may not have actually read the essay imposing ideas not held by the author herself. Fear-and-hatred are not a synonym for stigma; there are many more fears and hatreds in the world than stigmas.

The photo Salon ran shows a woman standing in a pose associated with street prostitution but not wearing the uniform that I called ‘the outward sign of an inner stain’. Perhaps that move is in line with their progressive use of sex workers in the title. But what about the caption underneath it? A worker in prostitution who goes by the name Violet in downtown San Francisco. I polled many people afterwards and all were unfamiliar with the term worker in prostitution. In the sex wars, those who denounce prostitution refuse to think of it as work and sex workers often reject the term prostitution.

One way to try to destroy the stigmatising distinction between Good and Bad women proclaims that all women are whores, which I like better than whores’ insisting they are Good, but I guess they come to the same thing. Here are two recent photos showing the first strategy, one in Germany (Wir sind alle prostitutas-We are all prostitutes, where the Spanish prostitutas indicates solidarity with migrant sex workers, and another in Perú (Todos tenemos algo de puta – We all have a bit of the whore in us).

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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A new film about staging La Traviata is using the most old-fashioned and clichéd image in its publicity: that of Violetta on the floor in the classic pose of Fallen Women. Yes, I know the opera and I know the novel it’s based on (La dame aux camélias 1848) and I am capable of appreciating romantic imagery and tradition. But to choose just this pathetic and highly charged pose to advertise a supposedly innovative film seems perverse and uncreative to me.

I’ve written before about the iconography of the Fallen Woman: her position on the ground, sometimes twisted, sometimes being reached out to by a kind person (usually a man). In La Traviata (1853) Violetta is dying of consumption, so she’s also seen in pathetic poses in bed, but using the floor image in publicity photos drives home the idea that her essence is this: morally low, a kept woman, demi-mondaine, courtesan or woman

who’s gone astray (traviata). At the beginning of the story Violetta is a happy-go-lucky good-time girl (though ill). Finding true love with Alfredo she is portrayed as morally redeemed and self-sacrificing.

Possibly the gay lady may come to the ‘bitter end’ some day, but at present, except from the moral point of view, she is not an object for commiseration. She at least has all that she deliberately bargains for—fine clothes, rich food, plenty of money, a carriage to ride in, the slave-like obedience of her ‘inferiors’, and the ful­some adulation of those who deal with her for her worth. Very often (though under the circumstances it is doubtful if from any aspect this is an advantage) she finds a fool with money who is willing to marry her; but whether she is content to accept the decent change, and to abide by it, of course depends on her nature. – James Greenwood, The Seven Curses of London, Curse IV: Fallen Women, 1869

Whether the staging is brought into the present or not, Violetta always has a scene on the floor to drive home her moral abjection. Why else would she be on the floor? People who fall get back up right away; if they can’t, they are too injured. In Violetta’s case the injury is moral. Of course people also play on the floor, but Violetta is not playing in these scenes.

A limp Violetta can signify death but also helplessness, unconsciousness, submissiveness, despite the fact that she is tremendously strong both before and after redemption through love. In the beginning she is so good at gaiety that everyone around her has fun. Later she remains faithful to Alfredo despite his father’s meanness and sacrifices her own happiness for her lover. I dislike this plot, but there is no doubt Violetta is not a limp rag of a woman.

Observe the similar pose used to portray a woman hypnotised by Charcot: drooping, weak, the passive object of every male student’s gaze. She was diagnosed as suffering from ‘hysteria’, considered to be a sexual dysfunction at the time (1885). If he were not holding her up, she would fall to the ground. I personally wish all these images of traditional passive femininity would stop being used by anyone in the present, especially someone making the film of an opera and story full of other possibilities.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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

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

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

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

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

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

So thank you Laura!

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

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

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

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

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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

Teen prostitutes hard to save, cop tells City Council

Alison Bowen, Metro, 19 October 2011

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Photo Jonathan Lorange

Ottawa sex venue Club Madellyn Jae is presented here as an agreeable feminist spot where ‘clients are friendly and respectful, and everybody goes home satisfied.’ I am the first to welcome such a place, where it seems customers spend their time enjoying intimacy that can end in a hand job. What I object to is the way the proprietor divides sex workers into two easily distinguishable types: the strong and enlightened versus the weak and neurotic. She characterises the latter category as ‘self-destructive’, mirroring the Rescue Industry’s obsession with the psychology of poorer people and the claim that only ‘elite’ women ever really choose to sell sex (see brainwashing and Stockholm Syndrome recently).

It is understandable that sex workers who are struggling to normalise the profession should wish to make this distinction, and, as usual, it holds if one focusses only on the two extremes on a continuum of choosing and unchoosing. But most people who sell sex lie somewhere between those two end-points, and if they are not perfectly conscious and unconfused neither do they deserve to be called ‘self-destructive.’ And although it’s more difficult to defend the rights of people who have mixed feelings about sex work, it’s important to try: understanding precarious employment can help.

Thanks and come again

Tony Martins, Guerrilla, Ottawa

“I believe there are two types of people in this business,” says proprietor Kennedy. “Sound, level-headed, strong women who are focused individuals. They are using their sexuality to get ahead in life.”

“The second type, unfortunately, is in the industry for the wrong reasons and is self-destructive,” Kennedy continues. “They are sometimes addicted to drugs, in abusive relationships, spend the money as quickly as they make it. Often, it’s all about the money and they always want more and more—they chase the dollar and end up starting as a dancer or masseuse and end up as an escort.”

“That to me is very sad about these women,” Kennedy adds. “If they make it past my training, they usually don’t last long at CMJ because I don’t want to be a part of their self-destruction.”
“At the time I started I was mature and experienced enough to make the choice for myself and it felt very empowering,” offers Simone. “I was not a girl, but a woman. I knew my boundaries from day one. I wasn’t comfortable stripping or doing full-service. Hostessing at CMJ was a
perfect fit for me.”


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Psychobabble as a means of social control. At the BBC World thing in Luxor I got publicly annoyed when other panellists wanted to talk about brainwashing of victims. Now Stockholm Syndrome is given as reason those rescued from trafficking situations may not react as rescuers want them to – as, for instance, in a case in India and another in Congo. It really does not get more sinister than this. This theory, utterly free from any cultural context and presented as a method for identifying victims of trafficking, is taken from The Model of Assistance for Women Victims of Human Trafficking in Lithuania, published by Klaipeda Social and Psychological Services Center, Women’s Issues Information Center and Ministry of Social Security and Labour of Lithuania. No ideas of individual agency or resistance are allowed here. No possibility that migrants or sex workers have any understandable or meaningful loyalty to people that assisted them to travel or get work. There is no allowance here for survivors’ having colluded in situations that ended up going bad.

They define Stockholm Syndrome as a ‘psychological mechanism of self-protection when a victim attempts to protect herself from more traumatic psychological experiences’ (Carver, 2001-2007). Excerpts:

. . . The characteristics of Stockholm syndrome confirm the common indicators of female sexual exploitation and female victims of trafficking. Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response, in which the victim shows signs of loyalty, sympathy to the exploiter, regardless of the danger (or at least risk) in which the victim has been placed (Carver, 2001-2007).

• Emotional bonding with the captor/abuser
• Seeking approval from the captor/abuser
• Depending on the captor/abuser for security and purpose of existence
• Befriending and caring for the captor/abuser
• Resenting police and authorities for their rescue attempts
• Losing one’s own identity in order to identify with the captor/abuser
• Seeing things from the perspective of the captor/abuser
• Valuing every small gesture of kindness, such as letting them live
• Refusing freedom even when given the opportunity

They give sub-categories that allow them to disbelieve a victim-survivor’s refusal of help:

Learnt hopelessness attributes (Seligman, 1995)

• Disability to organise one’s own private life.
Victim can avoid being helped, refuse offers of a supporting organization, and de-evaluate provided support.

Traumatic factors (Finkelhor, 1986)

• Traumatic sexuality (disorder of sexual identity development)
• Betrayal (distrust in all people around, playing with feeling of trust)
• Stigmatization (feelings of guilt and shame, behaviour according common scheme of stigma)
• Hopelessness (incapability and avoidance of support)

This makes my blood boil.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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Before you can rescue victims of trafficking you have to find them. Everyone likes to talk about the cowboy raids in which police storm a brothel and arrest/rescue everyone. But less exciting procedures are necessary, as described below in an abbreviated version of guidelines included in a 2008 UN report, Identifying Cambodian Victims of Human Trafficking Among Deportees from Thailand.

Note the use of profiling, according to which looking like a prostitute gets you an interview. Lady Gaga, Madonna and many other women are said to look like prostitutes, on and off – it is a grand sexist tradition. Therefore I am not sure how far such stereotyping will get those trying to distinguish the real victims from the ordinary, everyday migrants. The profiling also names a type called women who act out. This psychotherapeutic (or psychobabble) term means something like

expressing unconscious feelings and fantasies in behaviour; reacting to present situations as if they were the original situation that gave rise to the feelings and fantasies.

Women who are not submissive, docile and quiet, then. Many readers of this blog, and its writer, are undoubtedly women who act out – at least I hope so.

Victim Identification Procedures

. . . It is clear from the research findings that . . . many victims of human trafficking and exploitation have been treated and identified as irregular migrants and deported.

. . . An interview at the Immigration Detention Center (IDC) in Suan Plu, Bangkok revealed that approximately 200-500 individuals arrive per day for deportation, from countries including Cambodia and Myanmar. After processing, which includes fingerprinting, photos, and general background information, approximately 10-20 of them are selected to be screened for human trafficking victim identification. Whether or not a person is selected to be screened is determined by certain profiling cues such as: women whose dress suggests that they were prostitutes, men with lashes on their back, women who act out, or children who do not look like their mothers or fathers, such as with different skin tone.

The IDC police officer on duty at the time of the survey reported that no one had ever self-identified as a trafficking victim. The IDC officer also believed that many deportees do not expose the full truth of their experiences or exploitation during these initial screenings. It was alleged that deportees fear that being identified as a trafficking victim would delay their trip home. This view has been echoed by the Cambodian NGOs who work with deportees.

The police who do the screening try to help bring out the truth by showing the deportees a video about human trafficking that was developed by IOM, with complete screenings including a second form used by NGOs and IDC officers. Changes in the trafficking law have resulted in both men and women being screened; detainees who are identified as victims are sent to a shelter, while those detainees who are not identified are deported within a two-day turnaround.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist


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