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vance11e-1-webIn the last couple of weeks, on twitter, I tore into a piece of research funded by the US National Institute of Justice entitled Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities. During that time every media outlet in the world reproduced the claimed findings as if they were facts, despite how ridiculous most of them are. I made a few punchy points in an interview:

Q+A: Why Pimps Can’t Be Trusted to Talk About Sex Economics

Lauretta Charlton, Complex City Guide, 17 March 2014

Last week, the Urban Institute released a landmark study called Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in Eight Major US Cities. Its abstract states that “the underground commercial sex economy (UCSE) generates millions of dollars annually, yet investigation and data collection remain under resourced.”

The Institute’s research was focused on gathering information about the sex economy based on evidence in eight major cities across the US. The research relied heavily on interviews with pimps, traffickers, sex workers, child pornographers, and police. According to a quick recap of the study on the Urban Institute’s website, the major findings include:

  • Pimps claimed inaccuracy in media portrayals.
  • Pimps manipulate women into sex work.
  • Women, family, and friends facilitate entry into sex work.
  • Unexpected parties benefit from the commercial sex economy.
  • The Internet is changing the limitations of the trade.
  • Child pornography is escalating.
  • The underground sex economy is perceived as low risk. 

But critics say that the study is misleading and intentionally biased. It’s an oversimplification of what researchers like Laura Agustín, also known as the Naked Anthropologist, argue is a very complicated system. City Guide asked Agustín a few questions via email hoping to get a clearer picture.

In your words, how has this study misrepresented sex workers in America?

LA: It’s not a study about sex workers at all but rather an attempt to view particular sex economies through the highly limited lens offered by of convicted ‘pimps’. The study was designed in a way that assured bias from the start. Women who sell sex are seen as objects manipulated by Bad Men. There’s next to no information about sex workers.

The interview subjects were mostly black/minorities. How is this reflection of continued racism in America?

LA: Again, the bias was guaranteed when researchers chose to centre pimps, but the only pimps they could conveniently interview are incarcerated. Black men predominate in prisons and predominate in the kind of pimping researchers know about, so the study reproduces the usual racist idea that black men pimp white women. This then is made to seem to be the most important aspect of the sex industry, which is laughable.

How have reports of the study misconstrued the real issues at hand?

LA: Media reports uncritically accept and focus on the numbers provided in this study: which city has the biggest sex or drugs economy, how much money pimps earn. I haven’t seen any reporter ask why researchers accepted prisoners’ stories as fact. All interview research has to factor in the possibility that subjects lie; in this case that factor is very big indeed as prisoners can be expected to brag about their exploits.

Do you believe the issues of race and sex work are mutually exclusive?

LA: I’m not sure what you mean. People the world over take up sex work for thousands of reasons and are pulled into or attracted to it by their positions vis-à-vis class, race, ethnicity, gender. No single condition decrees how a sex worker will fare; to understand any individual you need to listen to their story.

Analyze this quote from the study, “They have a saying in the pimp game, ‘If it ain’t white, it ain’t right. If it ain’t snowing, I ain’t going.”

LA: Analyse? I’d say that’s a typical cocky man’s comment aimed at showing how in-control he is. Perhaps a black man said it to a white woman? In which case he was ‘snowing’ her.

***

Next Huffington Post Live did a brief show with four panelists using Google Hangout. The technology allows participants to interact verbally, but there’s no eye contact, which limits things. This was called Understanding The Modern Sex Work Industry

Most of the critical commentary after this event centred on Dennis Hof’s screwy comments about unregulated sex workers’ having AIDS and being sex-trafficked, as he single-mindedly promotes the model of commercial sex he understands – his own Nevada brothels. More to the point, the show was meant to be about the Urban Institute study, but I doubt Hof ever even looked at it. This meant the already brief show lost focus. Still, because of twitter this small critique took place, which is a good thing.

Someone would have to pay me to write up a real critique of the Urban Institute study. The bottom line is researchers were funded by a crime-oriented agency to confirm everything the US government already does. Even sell-out researchers could not find the kind of horrible connexions between sex-drugs-weapons they wanted, but they admitted the possibility that things could be much worse than study shows (the Weapons of Mass Destruction ploy). I can imagine the study’s results leading to proposal for national-US antiprostitution law – ‘to facilitate policing’. Here’s a selection of tweets from 12-20 March 2014 (from @LauraAgustin). More like raw data, in no special order, hashtags removed.

“Estimating the Size and Structure of the Underground Commercial Sex Economy in 8 Major US Cities” Ludicrously banal
Urban Institute report on US sex economy is obsessed with pimps. In fact the report is about pimping, not the sex industry, not sexwork
This will become the Bible for End Demand. pimps are their sole interest.
Today news items worldwide shout about a badly biased US govt-funded study of pimping. Bad Men- what everyone loves
Headlines include “US pimps can pull in $33 000 a week” & “Street Gangs Deeply Involved In Commercial Sex Trade”. No sexworkers visible.
“Commercial sex trade widely segmented, the report found” Really? They call this study a first but it’s the last to say the most basic stuff.
“The focus is through the lens of imprisoned pimps & traffickers & those who put them behind bars” Barefaced bias that should be dismissed. Read the rest of this entry »

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1927-edward-hopper-automatI’ve been doing some renovation here on the website. No new look, but some structural features Google is said to like. When I first set the site up in 2008 (thanks to Texas Golden Girl for all the Las Vegas coffee dates) there were not 800 000 websites blathering on about sex trafficking, so when I wrote about migration and sex work my material actually came up high in ordinary searches. That ceased long ago, with hundreds (or maybe thousands?) of institutional and governmental websites devoting pages to anti-trafficking campaigns. Minority voices do manage to get through, however, whether they win in Google searches or not. People find this website, by trying or by happenstance. The word spreads, despite the wishes of so many that it would Go Away.

I’ve published nearly 600 blog posts since beginning, and the renovation required me to skim back through them. There are now eight categories on the site: Sex Work, TraffickingMigrationColonialismFeminismsLawsSexualities, Rescue Industry.

BrassaiThe most-used category is Sex Work, since the very fact that people sell sex provokes so many reactions and counter-reactions. This category appears on the main menu at the top of the website, and the page explaining it says

Most rights activists – but not all – prefer the term sex worker as non-stigmatising, placing emphasis on the labour rather than the moral status of what they do. Anti-prostitution campaigners, who insist that all women who sell sex are victims no matter what they themselves say, use terms like prostituted woman and oppose the term sex worker. Some who sell sex proudly call themselves prostitutes, while others hate the term. I try to use whatever term people use about themselves. If you tell me you experience exchanging sex for money (or benefits) to be a job, I accept what you say. If you tell me you experience it as rape or abuse, I accept that. When I’m talking about a business I name it: peep show, brothel, phone sex. When I’m talking about the person working in that business I try to be specific: stripper, cam girl, rent boy.

The list of categories appears in the right-hand column. Topics ranging from more specific to general are found in the tag cloud in the right-hand column. There’s lots of overlap, because people search and read in different ways. This is no great exercise in hierarchical classification, but maybe a little organising will help newcomers navigate these compelling, complex fields.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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redup2The idea of criminalising the purchase of sex continues to be promoted round the world, usually as part of some politician’s campaign against immoral sex and the exploitation of children, with a subtext aimed at keeping women at home and migrants out. Sweden’s law is thrown out as the model, along with claims that prostitution is practically absent and trafficking nearly non-existent there. Neither of these has been proven. To explore this sort of claim, see tags to the right of this post (sweden, nordic model, laws, gender equality, for example.)

The banning-sex-purchase proposal has been made in countries as far away from Sweden as Brazil and India. Presented abstractly it sounds clear, simple and righteous. But local context and history make a big difference in how a proposed law can come to pass and operate on the ground (as opposed to in starry rhetoric). The Swedish context is unusual in the world, the conditions making this law (sexköpslagen) possible difficult to imagine outside the Nordic region. Nothing slapdash nor sudden was involved but rather deep history in a particular culture. This is not true of other countries that jump on the bandwagon because some politicians see their chance to make names based on simplistic moralising.

The following is an excerpt from a longer article I published a few months ago on the dysfunction of prostitution laws, the idea of whore stigma and the disqualification and actual murder of sex workers. For those who ask Where did the Swedish model come from? How could feminism have led to it? this provides a short version of what might be called an épistème – the epistemological field forming the conditions of possibility for knowledge in a given time and place.

Sweden and prostitution (from Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores, Jacobin, 15 August 2013)

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 and did all he could to impede her seeing them. 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.

***

Some of the immediate questions you might have, for instance on Gender Equality and State Feminism, are addressed in the full essay Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores. This kind of background is, of course, not interesting to everyone, and most of what I see on the topic talks about the law as Bad or Good. Discussions typical in parliamentary committees like the Irish are silly because they opt to accept banal lists of supposed successes in Sweden without acknowledging the difficulties of knowing effects at all. Activists on both sides tend to over-state their cases – practically the definition of much activism in social movements. For anyone interested in history, though, the background is crucial, and it can be seen as good news that it’s not so easy to simply transfer the logic of a law from one country to another: that kind of homogenised culture is not here yet.

Proof of the law’s effects are mostly unknowable so far. The state’s evaluation of the law in 2010 admitted ignorance of how to investigate commercial sex online and gave numbers only for street prostitution. This was a tiny number to begin with describing an activity that is diminishing. Claims that sex trafficking have decreased are meaningless since no baseline statistics were kept on this before the law was passed. The claims of eradicating either phenomenon are public-relations trivia. That politicians in other countries reproduce these claims in supposedly serious hearings demonstrates mediocrity and lack of interest in the subject. As I said above, the principle effect we can be sure of is

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.

Increases in stigma, social death and excuses to disqualify women who sell sex as autonomous beings are dire effects to a piece of legislation that emerged from a goal to achieve Gender Equality. Utopian visions can backfire, and this one has.

For another of my views of Sweden’s present State Feminists see Extremist Feminism in Swedish government: Something Dark

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry was published by Zed Books in London in 2007 and is distributed in the US through Palgrave Macmillan. I blog often about issues covered in the book, and many of my published articles are available on this website, but to get the full picture, to see how the different topics join up, you need to read the book. As I said in Dear Students of Sex Work and Trafficking, my ideas can’t easily be boiled down to bullet points or a FAQ.

This book is not out of date. Listening to recent arguments against allowing women to sell sex in France it struck me I would be making the same analysis as the one I made ten years ago if I were doing the research now in Europe. Abolitionists and other Rescue Industry folks fail to comprehend what motivates migrants just as hard-headedly as they did 20 years ago, when my attention was first caught by them. It would seem that middle-class Rescuers are blind to the lack of options available to so many migrants and refuse to believe they have learned about life through experience, instead projecting their own feelings without even a pretense of listening to them.

What study after study has found all over the world is that migrants often prefer to take up riskier, better-paying jobs when the alternatives also offer low prestige and much less money. In the course of my wanderings to try to understand, before it could be called research, I learned that many women not migrating look at the world and their places in it in the same way, and that has not changed either. The margins in this book are occupied not only by migrants but lots of people who haven’t travelled anywhere.

Although Sex at the Margins sells steadily without getting any real promotion and is on many university reading lists, you are unlikely to find it in bookstores. But it is easily available to buy online in several formats:

Happy reading or listening!

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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“Let the jury consider their verdict,” the King said.
“No, no!” said the Queen. “Sentence first—verdict afterward.”
“Stuff and nonsense!” said Alice loudly. “The idea of having the sentence first!”
“Hold your tongue!” said the Queen, turning purple.
“I won’t!” said Alice.
“Off with her head!” the Queen shouted at the top of her voice.

In the world of anti-prostitution campaigning, the Queen’s upside-down thinking is commonplace.
- Sentence first – Verdict afterward
- Verdict first – Skip the evidence
- Sentence first in case anyone is guilty, which we cannot prove but that does not mean they didn’t Do It.
Self-defined experts abound who profess to know everything important about prostitution and sex trafficking, especially who should be shamed and imprisoned.

Admirers will recall Judge Susan Himel’s assessment of expert witnesses at 2009 trial of Bedford v Canada.

I was struck by the fact that many of those proffered as experts to provide international evidence to this court had entered the realm of advocacy and had given evidence in a manner that was designed to persuade rather than assist the court.

Other details on why Judge Himel dismissed the ‘evidence’ of Melissa Farley, Janice Raymond and Richard Poulin can be read here.

In December 2011, Judge D F Baltman of the Ontario Superior Court refused to allow one expert witness to give testimony in sex-trafficking case R v McPherson. The Crown had requested that Benjamin Perrin, a law professor at the University of British Columbia, be allowed to testify as an expert. Here is Baltman’s decision.

HELD: Application dismissed. The Crown failed to establish the necessity of the proposed evidence. The proposed evidence was not unique or difficult for a jury to understand. The themes and dynamics associated with the world of prostitution, living off the avails thereof, and human trafficking were common human experiences. Juries did not need experts to understand them. Pimping had been a longstanding offence under the Criminal Code and juries had been deciding such cases for decades without the assistance of expert evidence or the assertion that it was required. Even if the proposed evidence satisfied all criteria for admission, it should be excluded because its probative value was outweighed by the ensuing prejudice. Much of the professor’s observations were one sided and second hand. The professor was career advocate, and did not provide the appearance of objectivity. The proposed evidence had the obvious potential, in placing the accused in the framework suggested by the professor, of generating moral disgust and anger within the jury, which might in turn result in considerable moral prejudice to the complainant.

My heart is warmed and some faith restored by such rational thinking. The perils of expert-witnessing are routinely discussed in law-and-order television shows in which experts brought by prosecution and defence simply contradict each other. But I am interested in the proliferation of people, with academic qualifications or not, who claim expertise gives them the right to speak in grand universal terms on subjects they observe and abhor but have not lived themselves. Even worse, they claim to be able to speak for those others, implying that the people in question are not able to. When sexworkers speak for themselves, moral entrepreneurs often dismiss them, engaging in the disqualification I addressed recently. This mechanism of disqualifying people’s own words offends me as much as anything else in anti-prostitution/anti-trafficking campaigns.

For those interested in Judge Baltman’s decision here are some excerpts from background provided.

6 Professor Perrin has no expertise or formal training in the fields of criminology, psychology or sociology. However, he has involved himself in the issue of human trafficking since 2000, in a number of capacities. This includes volunteer work with a charitable organization that assists victims and advocates to improve Canada’s response to human trafficking; work as a senior policy advisor to the Minister of Citizenship and Immigration where he counselled on human trafficking issues; and the research he has conducted on this topic as a faculty member at UBC. His primary output in that regard is his published book entitled “Invisible Chains: Canada’s Underground World of Human Trafficking”, which he describes as an “empirical study” on the nature and extent of Canada’s involvement in the area.

7 The findings from his study have been presented at conferences and published in various journals. Neither that study nor any of his publications on domestic sex trafficking have been peer reviewed before publication.

9 Professor Perrin openly advocates a more aggressive approach to the prosecution and sentencing of those who live off the avails of prostitution, and takes a very sharp view of those who think otherwise; in his recent article, published in the Globe and Mail, he stated that Himel J.’s decision declaring federal prostitution laws unconstitutional “is a striking example of judicial activism run amok.”

11 The Crown seeks to qualify Professor Perrin as an expert in human trafficking, so as to permit him to testify on the following areas:
(i) Patterns of interaction between traffickers and their prey; and
(ii) Methods of recruitment and retention used by traffickers against their victims;
In order to assess the necessity of the proposed evidence, one must first discern the trial issues upon which the evidence will bear. Based on the submissions from the Crown, these are:
(a) Methods used by traffickers to identify and recruit young women to work for them;
(b) Methods used by traffickers to control their young women and ensure their compliance; and
(c) The dynamics and conditions of sex trafficking which prevent the young women from leaving the relationship.

19 The Crown notes that the credibility of the complainants will come under sharp scrutiny, and in particular their reluctance to leave the relationship with the Respondent despite the alleged abuse. For the jury to properly understand this dynamic, argues the Crown, Professor Perrin should be permitted to explain the methodologies used by sex traffickers, and how those methodologies would have prevented the complainants from leaving the relationship.

20 Based on Professor Perrin’s report, those methodologies and his conclusions about them can be summarized as follows:
A. Sex traffickers seek out women who are young and vulnerable; many of the women are poor, prone to substance abuse, and either homeless or coming from a dysfunctional home;
B. Traffickers prey on the desire of these young women for love, money, shelter, and acceptance;
C. Traffickers may use threats, violence, the imposition of rules, economic control, drugs, guilt, manipulation or social isolation to lower the women’s self esteem and cause them to remain dependent upon their traffickers;
D. Women who are subjected to this treatment may not leave the relationship when given the chance because they fear reprisals or violence; or because they suffer from post traumatic stress disorder, low self esteem, anxiety, or depression, or because they lack the economic resources to leave; or because they may blame themselves for their treatment or see no better alternatives.

22 In my view, the proposed evidence is not unique or difficult for a jury to understand, for several reasons. First, although the subject matter of this case – prostitution, living off the avails thereof, and human trafficking – may not be personally familiar to the jury, it is clear from Professor Perrin’s report that the themes and dynamics associated with this world are common human experiences . The tendency of men to prey on young women who are vulnerable or needy; the use of violence by men against women in a domestic relationship; and the reasons why many women cannot easily extricate themselves from abusive relationships are not complicated technical issues but themes which juries and judges encounter on a daily basis in Canadian courts. In Professor Perrin’s own words, “Poverty, the desire for love, and the desire for money, in that order, are the key vulnerabilities that permit domestic sex traffickers to recruit and control victims,” These motivations are not rare, and juries do not need experts to understand them.

23 Second, it is anticipated in this case that each complainant will testify about her treatment during her relationship with the Respondent. This will include how they met, how he persuaded her to enter the sex trade, and why she stayed in it as long as she did. There is no suggestion that any of the women are intellectually or emotionally unable to articulate their experience. Each complainant provides an explanation for why she stayed in the relationship. The explanations are based on common motivations: the belief that the Respondent loved her; fear of reprisals; and not having the means to leave. Again, these are all basic human emotions that a jury can understand.

31 Further, Professor Perrin is a career advocate, and does not provide the appearance of objectivity. While his efforts to end human trafficking and raise consciousness about this issue are doubtless laudable, his professional life is anchored in his role as advocate for the victims of sex trafficking and lobbyist for policy change in government. He has publicly stated that in his view sex work should not be decriminalized. His testimony would not be that of an objective academic but rather a dedicated lobbyist. Even if, as the Crown proposes, his evidence could be edited to exclude his personal opinions, it will nonetheless be guided by his highly prosecutorial perspective.

32 Moreover, and as already noted, the evidence does not add much to what jurors already know about human behaviour. As Professor Perrin is not a psychologist and has minimal if any contact with women directly involved in the sex trade, he is no more qualified than the average person to explain the psychology which may lead them to remain in abusive relationships.

33 On the other side of the coin, considerable prejudice could result from this testimony. Expert evidence about the means or methods that other sex traffickers use to lure young women into slave labour in the sex trade, and the force used to prevent them from leaving, may well cast the Respondent as part of an epidemic of human trafficking hidden in the underbelly of Canadian society. The Respondent will then need to diffuse not only with the allegations of the individual complainants, but also the acts of all other sex traffickers described by Professor Perrin in his research.

34 The idea of sexual victimization of young people is understandably repellent to many people; the proposed evidence has the obvious potential, in placing the Respondent in the framework suggested by Professor Perrin, of generating moral disgust and anger within the jury, which may in turn result in considerable moral prejudice to the complainant.

35 That sex trafficking is a nasty business is not in question. But the time to factor that in is on sentencing, should there be a conviction. The sordidness of that world should not, on its own, be a reason for the jury to hear all of its Ills at the same time that it is deciding whether the Respondent committed a crime in the first place.

38 For those reasons I dismissed the application.

D.F. BALTMAN J.

A friend passed me this document; I cannot find it online. If you want the whole thing, consult a legal library/database.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Last week I spent most of a day watching the Supreme Court’s hearing of arguments on Canadian prostitution law, the upshot of four years of legal battling since the Ontario Superior Court of Justice’s 2010 decision that it was unconstitutional. (I tweeted the event, look here on 13 June). While studies of different kinds were sometimes mentioned at the Supreme Court, no so-called experts (on the basis of academic-style research) spoke. This contrasts with what happened at the original trial.

In October 2010 I ran excerpts from Judge Himel’s decision on her experience and understanding of opposing expert opinions about the harm of prostitution on society and the harm of the law on those who sell sex. I have the impression Judge Himel was appalled by some of the declaiming she heard, and I am surprised the anti-prostitution witnesses did not think about moderating their strident tone before appearing in a High Court. Before I write about the Supreme Court hearing, here again are the excerpts. Himel’s thinking is interesting to people interested in the idea of evidence – what qualifies, how it’s evaluated. Or read her full decision. Before discussing experts’ views she addresses conflicting evidence from women who sell sex.

Evidence from Prostitutes and Former Prostitutes

[85] The applicants submitted affidavits from eight witnesses who described their perceptions and experiences of working as prostitutes. During oral argument, the applicants’ counsel submitted that the purpose of these witnesses was to provide “corroborative voices” . . . [86] The affiants came from varied backgrounds and from across Canada, but largely shared the experience of finding prostitution in indoor venues generally safer than street prostitution (indeed, a few experienced no violence at all working indoors). . . they entered into prostitution without coercion (although financial constraints were a large factor) and most reported being addiction-free and working without a pimp.

[87] The respondent tendered nine affidavits from prostitutes and former prostitutes, whose stories painted a much different picture. The respondent’s witnesses gave detailed accounts of horrific violence in indoor locations and on the street, controlling and abusive pimps, and the rampant use of drugs and alcohol.

[88] While this evidence provided helpful background information, it is clear that there is no one person who can be said to be representative of prostitutes in Canada; the affiants are an extremely diverse group of people whose reasons for entry into prostitution, lifestyles, and experiences differ.

Expert Evidence

[99] While neither party disputed that the other party’s witnesses were, in fact, experts, a great deal of argument and evidence was devoted to criticizing these witnesses. Both parties alleged that certain experts were biased, that conclusions were generalized beyond the sample studied, that studies were methodologically flawed . . .  [114] The following factors are relevant to the consideration of the weight to be given to expert evidence:

  • a) Unwillingness of the expert to qualify an opinion or update it in the face of new facts provided (often in cross-examination);
  • b) Bold assertions without a properly outlined basis for the claim;
  • c) Refusal to restrict opinions to expertise or the expertise demarked by the judge as required by the court;
  • d) Lack of sufficient independence from the party proffering the expert; and
  • e) Prior history as an advocate on the topic.

[182] In reviewing the extensive record presented, I was struck by the fact that many of those proffered as experts to provide international evidence to this court had entered the realm of advocacy and had given evidence in a manner that was designed to persuade rather than assist the court. For example, some experts made bold assertions without properly outlined bases for their claims and were unwilling to qualify their opinions in the face of new facts provided. While it is natural for persons immersed in a field of study to begin to take positions as a result of their research over time, where these witnesses act primarily as advocates, their opinions are of lesser value to the court.

[183] The evidence from some of these witnesses tended to focus upon issues that are, in my view, incidental to the case at bar, including human trafficking, sex tourism, and child prostitution. While important, none of these issues are directly relevant to assessing potential violations of the Charter rights of the applicants.

[352] I find that some of the evidence tendered on this application did not meet the standards set by Canadian courts for the admission of expert evidence. The parties did not challenge the admissibility of evidence tendered but asked the court to afford little weight to the evidence of the other party.

[353] I found the evidence of Dr. Melissa Farley to be problematic. Although Dr. Farley has conducted a great deal of research on prostitution, her advocacy appears to have permeated her opinions. For example, Dr. Farley’s unqualified assertion in her affidavit that prostitution is inherently violent appears to contradict her own findings that prostitutes who work from indoor locations generally experience less violence. Furthermore, in her affidavit, she failed to qualify her opinion regarding the causal relationship between post-traumatic stress disorder and prostitution, namely that it could be caused by events unrelated to prostitution.

[354] Dr. Farley’s choice of language is at times inflammatory and detracts from her conclusions. For example, comments such as, “prostitution is to the community what incest is to the family,” and “just as pedophiles justify sexual assault of children….men who use prostitutes develop elaborate cognitive schemes to justify purchase and use of women” make her opinions less persuasive.

[355] Dr. Farley stated during cross-examination that some of her opinions on prostitution were formed prior to her research, including, “that prostitution is a terrible harm to women, that prostitution is abusive in its very nature, and that prostitution amounts to men paying a woman for the right to rape her.” [356] Accordingly, for these reasons, I assign less weight to Dr. Farley’s evidence.

[357] Similarly, I find that Drs. Raymond and Poulin were more like advocates than experts offering independent opinions to the court. At times, they made bold, sweeping statements that were not reflected in their research. For example, some of Dr. Raymond’s statements on prostitutes were based on her research on trafficked women. As well, during cross-examination, it was revealed that some of Dr. Poulin’s citations for his claim that the average age of recruitment into prostitution is 14 years old were misleading or incorrect. In his affidavit, Dr. Poulin suggested that there have been instances of serial killers targeting prostitutes who worked at indoor locations; however, his sources do not appear to support his assertion. I found it troubling that Dr. Poulin stated during cross-examination that it is not important for scholars to present information that contradicts their own findings (or findings which they support).

[358] The applicants’ witnesses are not immune to criticism. . . During cross-examination, Dr. Lowman expressed discontent with portions of his affidavit, citing “careless” language and “poorly reasoned argument.” Dr. Lowman rightly takes responsibility for the content of his affidavit, which was drafted for him by law students. In his affidavit, Dr. Lowman made a direct causal link between the Criminal Code provisions at issue and violence against prostitutes; however, during cross-examination he gave the opinion that there was, rather, an indirect causal relationship. Such inattentiveness on such a crucial issue is indeed concerning. During cross-examination, Dr. Lowman gave nuanced and qualified opinions, which more accurately reflect his research.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Since I’ll be talking about sex work as a labour issue at the Anarchist Bookfair, I thought I would re-run an early academic publication of mine, A Migrant World of Services. In my quest to understand why so many people disqualify selling sex as a potential job, I looked critically at traditional economic concepts such as the distinctions between productive and unproductive labour and between formal and informal employment sectors. I discovered these concepts are entirely arbitrary and out-dated and produce oppression for no good reason. For example, the majority of women’s work inside homes is labelled unproductive, and probably the majority of women’s jobs outside the home are also disqualified as real and productive by relegating them to the informal sector of the economy. I couldn’t see, and still cannot, how an economic sector  named Services, which takes in a raft of jobs, could exclude so many women’s jobs, so I also investigated ideas about emotional and caring work. Not only migrants are ripped off by these disqualifications – all are, and when men do these jobs they are as well.

A Migrant World of Services (pdf)

Social Politics, 10, 3, 377-96 (2003)

Laura Maria Agustín

Abstract: There is a strong demand for women’s domestic, caring and sexual labour in Europe which promotes migrations from many parts of the world. This paper examines the history of concepts that marginalise these as unproductive services (and not really ‘work’) and questions why the west accepts the semi-feudal conditions and lack of regulations pertaining to this sector. The moral panic on ‘trafficking’ and the limited feminist debate on ‘prostitution’ contribute to a climate that ignores the social problems of the majority of women migrants.

In a variety of scenarios in different parts of Europe, non-Europeans are arriving with the intention to work; these are largely migrant women and transgender people from the ‘third world’ or from Central and Eastern Europe and countries of the former Soviet Union. The jobs available to these women in the labour market are overwhelmingly limited to three basic types: domestic work (cleaning, cooking and general housekeeping), ‘caring’ for people in their homes (children, the elderly, the sick and disabled) and providing sexual experiences in a wide range of venues known as the sex industry. All these jobs are generally said to be services.

In the majority of press accounts, migrant women are presented as selling sex in the street, while in public forums and academic writing, they are constructed as ‘victims of trafficking.’ The obsession with ‘trafficking’ obliterates not only all the human agency necessary to undertake migrations but the experiences of migrants who do not engage in sex work. Many thousands of women who more or less chose to sell sex as well as all women working in domestic or caring service are ‘disappeared’ when moralistic and often sensationalistic topics are the only ones discussed. One of the many erased subjects concerns the labour market—the demand—for the services of all these women. The context to which migrants arrive is not less important than the context from which they leave, often carelessly described as ‘poverty’ or ‘violence.’ This article addresses the European context for women migrants’ employment in these occupations. Though domestic and caring work are usually treated as two separate jobs, very often workers do both, and these jobs also often require sexual labour, though this is seldom recognised. All this confusion and ambiguity occurs within a frame that so far has escaped definition.

For the rest, get the pdf.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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I receive ever more messages from students doing advanced degrees. Almost invariably they request that I answer their personal questions – usually fundamental, 101-level questions I have written about many times and that one could probably find the answer to by googling (including my name if the question is what would I say). The messages sent me also tell where writers have been on my website before arriving at the contact form, and most often they haven’t been anywhere at all.

I used to reply by pointing them to the various kinds of resources on my website:

But I have grown tired of sending such obvious messages; this website is clear and easy to navigate. Someone suggested I write a FAQ, and I was once asked for a list of bullet points summarising my knowledge. I will never provide either of those. Not on principle, no, but because pretty much the whole thrust of what I do is refuse to reduce complex questions to easy summaries or snappy slogans. What would bullet points say, anyway?

  • The average age of entry into prostitution is not 13.
  • There are not 27 million slaves in the world.
  • Some people like selling sex, some dislike it and some don’t mind much.
  • Poorer people are also capable of deciding what to do with their own lives.

You see? Ridiculous. I’ve heard numerous theories about what this need for spoon-feeding means: the Internet makes it too easy to write and ask, these are elitist kids with a huge sense of entitlement, people think it’s part of an academic’s job to help all students, reading is dead, helicopter-parenting teaches students to expect continual mentoring, people think women are born to serve, kids are just arrogant or impolite, it’s a type of intellectual exploitation or plagiarism, they think answering questions is part of every activist’s job. Since I’m not an academic and work freelance, I’m specially bothered when it’s assumed I should take time to do unpaid work on their behalf (for example, and I’m not kidding, act as their supervisor during their phd).

Suggestions of how to handle these queries include delete instantly, send a standard reply, give a price for the consultation. Here is the delightful form-letter author Robert Heinlein sent out 35 years ago. Like Heinlein, I do engage with people who show they have been reading me, who express gratitude and who offer an interesting insight – even one in question-form. In an attempt to fend off the usual ‘Talk with me about trafficking’ messages, I recently placed this notice on the form for contacting me on this website:

Laura Agustín regrets that she cannot help students with papers or theses or act as a sounding-board for ideas and doubts, no matter how interesting they may be. If your enquiry relates to migration, labour markets, trafficking or sex work then use this website and you’ll find answers.

That was before I went to bed; when I awoke and opened my mail the next day alas, there was a fresh message someone had just written directly underneath the disclaimer.

l am a graduate student at… I am studying trafficking and the sex industry. I realize you are busy, but would you answer my questions about sex work? I could really use some help in making sense of it.

Conclusion? Some people don’t read. This would be banal except that they are supposed to be reading for a living, as (post)graduate students, teaching assistants, would-be professors. I suppose a lot of them have no sense of vocation but hope doing a degree will facilitate getting a good job (. . . ). The contradiction here is that if I do send an answer they have to read it. Perhaps they are more willing to if they have been spoon-fed.

Anyway I’ve decided: I won’t worry about and will now delete questions of this kind. Thanks to all others, including students, who write to me with interesting tit-bits, suggestions, encouragement and even the occasional job. I love getting mail.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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When I first began reading about people who sell sex and people who want them to stop, in the late 1990s, I was struck by the repetitive nature of the majority of books and articles, both academic and non-academic. When research was done, it produced the same knowledge over and over, generally about women who sell sex in streets – which was odd since many were already pointing out the diminution and even dying out of most street prostitution. The Internet is the New Street, it was said – and that was 15 years ago.

When what I read was ideological, it centred on an abstract term, prostitution, but it soon became obvious that this term has no stable meaning, signifying a raft of different things to different people of different social classes and cultures. A great deal of academic research did exactly what had been done before but now in a new city – or country – or part of town! Identities tended to be essentialised, particularly regarding race, drug use and low income.

In 2005 I proposed that researchers use a broader framework to take in all exchanges of sex for money, presents or other benefits, anywhere and anytime (historical research included, in other words). I followed this up in 2007 when invited to edit a special journal issue for Sexualities that contained eight articles using the cultural framework. Given that so much research – not to mention campaigning for better laws and policies – relies on scanty knowledge of what is actually going on, this is more relevant than ever. Otherwise, you get collateral damage, penalising people and activities unintentionally (I am assuming most people do not approve of collateral damage, but some actually claim it is ‘necessary’ for the Greater Good).

The Cultural Study of Commercial Sex- Sexualities, 8, 5, 618-631 (2005). Click the title to get the pdf.

The article begins like this:
Why create this framework

Societies’ twin reactions to commercial sex – moral revulsion and resigned tolerance – have paradoxically permitted its uncontrolled development in the underground economy and impeded cultural research on the phenomena involved. Affirmations that the global sex industry is growing and its forms proliferating are conventional in government and non-governmental fora, in the communications media and in scholarly writing. Commercial sex businesses and trafficking for sexual exploitation are blamed for massive violations of human rights, but the supporting information is unreliable, given the lack of agreement on basic definitions, the difficulty of counting clandestine objects and the fact that much of this stigmatized activity forms part of conventional social life.

Little work exists in a sex-industry framework, but if we agree that it refers to all commercial goods and services of an erotic and sexual kind, then a rich field of human activities is involved. And every one of these activities operates in a complex socio-cultural context in which the meaning of buying and selling sex is not always the same. The cultural study of commercial sex would use a cultural-studies, interdisciplinary approach to fill gaps in knowledge about commercial sex and relate the findings to other social and cultural concepts. Recent work has demonstrated how people who sell sex are excluded from studies of migration, of service work and of informal economies, and are instead examined only in terms of ‘prostitution’, a concept that focuses on transactions between individuals, especially their personal motivations. With the academic, media and ‘helping’ gaze fixed almost exclusively on women who sell sex, the great majority of phenomena that make up the sex industry are ignored, and this in itself contributes to the intransigent stigmatization of these women. While the sexual cultures of lesbian/gay/ bisexual/ transgender people are being slowly integrated into general concepts of culture, commercial sex is usually disqualified and treated only as a moral issue. This means that a wide range of ways of study are excluded. A cultural-studies approach, on the contrary, would look at commercial sex in its widest sense, examining its intersections with art, ethics, consumption, family life, entertainment, sport, economics, urban space, sexuality, tourism and criminality, not omitting issues of race, class, gender, identity and citizenship. An approach that considers commercial sex as culture would look for the everyday practices involved and try to reveal how our societies distinguish between activities considered normatively ‘social’ and activities denounced as morally wrong. This means examining a range of activities that take in both commerce and sex.

The purpose of this article is to point out the scarcity of research in these areas and reveal the kinds of issue that are up for study. Although public debate and academic theory on commercial sex abound, few participants are familiar with the wide variety of forms and sites involved; most are dealing with stereotypes and interested solely in street prostitution. This is an area where more information and images need to be disseminated, a project for which I make a small beginning here with some descriptive material from Spanish sex venues.

Since this is the beginning of what I hope will become a new field, I do not here offer any solutions to what is too often characterized as a ‘social problem’. Rather, I hope to interest others in taking up the call to study not ‘prostitution’ but the sex industry in new ways and to gather much more information on the object of governance before offering blanket solutions. This does not mean that important moral and ethical issues are not at stake nor that there is not widespread injustice in the industry. On the contrary, my proposal takes these injustices very seriously, laments the absence of workable solutions up to now and hopes that with better research these may be found.

Further headings are How study has proceeded so far, Definitions of the sex industry in general, Local particulars: examples from Spain, Elements of culture and researcher positionality and a raft of good References.

More examples of writing on sex-industry cultures outside the well-worn paths:

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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