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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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ladywithaguncYou can now watch sessions from the University of Texas at Austin November 22-24 conference on Sexual Citizenship and Human Rights: What Can the US Learn from the EU and European Law? The panel called Sex Work, Migration and Trafficking was held on the 23rd, where my original talk was called ‘Contentious and contradictory: Prostitution-law campaigns in Europe‘.

But when I saw that the other two speakers on the panel were speaking on trafficking, one of them from a Rescue-Industry standpoint and the other juridical, I threw out that talk and gave another, hoping to give a humanist context to the other presentations. I called the new talk Denial of Consent, because consent had been mentioned frequently at this event in regard to adolescents’ right to have sex, which was even claimed to be a human-rights concept. I was struck that no one mentioned the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, which defines everyone under 18 as a child and is constantly used by anti-prostitution campaigners to claim that adolescents who sell sex cannot consent. One might think consent is easily granted to boys and not to girls.

It’s a mistake, in a three-day conference dedicated to the subtleties of sexual citizenship, to dump three deep topics – Sex Work, Migration and Trafficking- into a single panel. Each of those deserves a panel of its own, or alternatively a panel could be devoted to just one of those, making sure all the speakers address it. I ended up doing double work, and it was not easy to limit my introduction to only 30 minutes. A lot is omitted in what you hear below, so I hope it all makes sense. The event was held in a Law School, which explains the rather dramatic courtroom setting, with me a witness in the box.

The session is introduced at 01:30 in the below video by Gloria González López of the Center for Mexican American Studies. My talk begins a minute later and ends at 35:58. The third speaker (Janet Halley) was present via Skype, so you cannot see but perhaps you can hear her. Should the videos fail, you can watch on youtube.

Other conference sessions can be viewed here.

–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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Borgen Season 3 Episode 25

At a conference on Sexual Citizenship and Human Rights the other week, I binned the talk I had prepared and instead gave a version of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. It turned out both the other speakers on the panel were to address trafficking, one as a straightforward Rescue-Industry member, and I’m not capable of watching an innocent audience listen to that stuff without speaking up.

My new talk was called Denial of Consent, because previously at this event consent was mentioned continuously as a key human-rights concept in European sexuality law. How telling, then, that European specialists declaim adolescents’ right to consent to have sex at the same time that other Europeans declaim ever more often that most adult women and trans who sell sex have not consented. In anti-trafficking campaigns the claim is very often that these victims cannot speak/have no voice giving an excuse for others to ‘speak for’ them.

In Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores I focussed on the mechanism by which Rescuers – feminists, social workers, politicians, police – discredit what adult women say about their experiences of selling sex, thus disqualifying them as subjects in a discussion about their own fates. What they say varies widely, of course, but rather than engage in seeking policy that would allow individual experiences to become central and rather than listening with interest to what sexworker activists say and finding migrants to talk to, they claim to Know Better how they should think and feel. The mainstream television series Borgen included a scene in which the non-sexworker experts on a Copenhagen panel discussion of prostitution interrupt and scoff at the sole sexworker participant, demonstrating how well-known the mechanism of disqualification has become (photo above from Season 3, Episode 25). Refusal to believe in the consent of women who sell sex also contradicts widespread anti-rape campaigning that puts consent at the core of sexual relationships.

The law to be voted in France’s Assemblée today (4 December 2013) is the product of years of process and politicking, not only in France but in certain feminist networks in Europe. In April 2011 I wrote Europe’s anti-prostitution initiatives multiply: EU itself and now France, linking developments to the European Women’s Lobby campaign for A Europe Free from Prostitution. Last month I wrote, with Thierry Schaffauser, about how the testimony of sexworker activists have been deliberately disqualified from consideration by politicians and certain feminists in France. This is accomplished by claiming these activists are a privileged elite selfishly putting their own interests above those victims of sex trafficking said to be ‘voiceless’ and requiring others to speak for them. Alice Schwarzer, currently campaigning against Germany’s law regulating prostitution, referred to them recently as ‘a few cheerful prostitutes’, of no consequence compared to the miserable 95%.

It’s now 20 years since I first wondered how this refusal to listen operates, at a time when I lived far from Europe amongst very poor women, many of whom were thinking about travelling to Europe. Some already sold sex at home, many were thinking of doing it abroad, others did not want to sell sex but work as live-in maids. This means that my first thoughts and feelings were attached to a specific real-life situation in which I had no axe to grind, no interest one way or the other. In terms of research on women who sell sex I even had what can be called a control group – women of the same cohort who didn’t sell sex. I was unaware a conflict existed within feminism on the topic, I hadn’t read books about prostitution. I was just as interested in what women said about being maids, and I still am. I’ve commented frequently on how my original research question, before I knew what research was, really, concerned the presumption by middle-class women that they Knew Better than sex workers what they should do with their lives. When I studied for a Master’s and then a doctoral degree my focus was never on migrants but on people wanting to rescue them, and after some six or seven years I felt I had answered my original question in several ways. Read Sex at the Margins for details.

I have followed events closely in Europe now for 15 years, living in several different countries and visiting many others, sometimes for extended stays. France is a country I have known since a first school trip from London to Calais, maybe in 1961, and since then I have spent a lot of time there. So i closely watched the action in France’s Assemblée last Friday – not the rhetoric, which I know by heart, but the tones and nuances of speech by the proponents of the law. The auditorium was nearly empty, but all politicking was over; what happened on the floor was not debate but the formal rhetoric of presenting a proposition. Any suggestion from the opposition that the law was sloppily conceived was rebutted with arch-seriousness about how long and carefully proponents had worked on it. The media were accused of missing the point, said to be not penalising clients but protecting women who sell sex.

I do understand what Najat Vallaud-Belkacem, France’s Minister for Women’s Rights, wants to do. I’ve studied in depth what this one kind of feminism wants to achieve, i see how marvellous it sounds – a world without prostitution, a France in which State Feminism takes a daring step towards Gender Equality. Vallaud-Belkacem herself is a very different face for abolitionism from the more embittered and older radical feminists we’ve become used to: Gunilla Eckberg, Melissa Farley, Janice Raymond, Alice Schwarzer and others in every country. She is younger, prettier and was born in a colony, Morocco. French campaigneers have not leant on anti-trafficking rhetoric but on the classic idea that prostitution is a patriarchal institution that must be abolished – the arguments I read when I first started my formal studies in the late 90s. Unfounded numbers of trafficking victims are thrown out, yes, but I read the French effort as being more serious than that. The thing is neither slapdash nor hysterical but part of a sober attempt to change the European panorama, to shift the gaze from small-population Nordic countries never seen as important European players to the continent, to France – to the heart of real Europe. I see this shift as game-changing.

On the other hand, the reason i wrote Sex at the Margins still holds; nothing has improved for sex workers or for people called trafficked or for undocumented migrants in Europe. The anti-trafficking movement has diverted attention and money into everything but benefiting the women pitied in the first place. Campaigners have yet to comprehend how migrants, and a lot of other women, feel about doing high-stigma, risky, better-paying jobs – especially when the other options are practically non-existent. Rescuers’ fundamental project insists on the need to force people into leading lives considered better. It would appear they are incapable of imagining that others are different from themselves, that migrants perceive their options on the basis of their own life experiences and goals. The question is much bigger than Do you like selling sex? rather it is how the range of an individual’s needs, from sleeping patterns to children’s school schedules and the desire for consumer goods may lead them to prefer selling sex to everything else Rescuers can offer. In fact they offer little, which victims and non-victims alike understand.

Few sex workers are attracted by ‘exit strategies’ or ‘diversion programmes’. They hate being low-paid, disparaged, disrespected cleaners, nannies and maids. They don’t want to return to their countries as failed migrants. They don’t want to be poorer again. The sex act may be something they adapt to, learn to enjoy or close their eyes and endure, but if doing it provides more freedom, autonomy, flexibility or hope then it can be preferred, whether people were born in France, China, Nigeria or Brazil. The majority have consented to sell sex, somehow or other, to some degree. Insisting that they leave the milieu when there is so little to offer them is the opposite of kind. In the Rescue Industry protagonists are those who appoint themselves to ‘accompany’ victims out of the life, not those being saved. The consent of adult women is denied en masse.

The French law, apart from the fine of 1500€ for clients arrested the first time, is all about Rescue. The frame is France does not welcome prostitution, meaning prostitution must cease to exist there. It’s estimated at least 80% of sex workers in France moved there from somewhere else, some with the right to remain and look for other jobs. Other migrants are offered 336€ a month for six months if they promise to stop selling sex; since this is far from enough to live on it’s obviously hoped they will leave more quickly, moving to someone else’s country, putting the proposition in the NIMBY tradition – Not in My Back Yard. Street soliciting, outlawed by Sarkozy in 2003 but for many years tolerated or enforced unevenly in different cities, would be permitted again. The law’s backers claim this to be a kind step, but street sex workers say clients will only insist on going to less accessible, more dangerous places to have sex. Besides, local ordinances against street soliciting can be and have been passed at the city level; Lyon is an example.

Logistically the law was informally voted on last Friday. Today is the formal vote. If it passes it is sent to the Sénat, where two scenarios are possible: It passes and goes into effect or it is rejected and sent back to the Assemblée with amendments. In the latter case, the Assemblée vote on a new version that goes back to the Sénat. If the Sénat reject that, a commission paritaire would be named, half from the Sénat, half from the l’Assemblée. The version produced by this commission would then be voted on by the Assemblée, who have the last word. (Thanks to Morgane Merteuil of STRASS for clarifying this process. See their website for other information).

I have loads of links to videos and articles I’ll try to put up soon.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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See this perfectly ordinary building? Most sex is sold here, out of conventional flats and apartments, anywhere in the world. The photos of women on the street beloved of dull editors teach that sex work is in the street, and the other photos editors use, of women sitting on barstools, teach that whatever’s not in the street is in brothels or sex clubs. On the contrary, of the many millions worldwide who sell sex of all kinds, most undoubtedly operate discreetly via telephone from their own residence or someone else’s, in the conventional housing we all live in. The photos here are European examples because a conference I’m speaking at speculates about Europe. From the website:

Sexual Citizenship and Human Rights: What Can the US Learn from the EU and European Law?

22-24 November 2013
University of Texas at Austin Law School
Eidman Courtroom, Room 2.306
727 East Dean Keeton Street
Map

The conference will focus on several difficult issues at the intersection of sexual self-determination and human rights, including same-sex marriage and family, the potential and limits of anti-discrimination laws, transgender rights, sex work and trafficking, youth sexuality, pornography as it affects minors, and the regulation of sex offenders. Individual papers will explore European and American attitudes and practices on each of these issues, with the goal of presenting new conceptual paradigms for future reform efforts. The conference brings together academics, practicing attorneys and therapists, state policy makers, and activists from various points of view.

Attendance is free but registration is required. Full programme

Saturday 23 November
5:15-7:00 p.m. Session Six: Sex Work, Migration and Trafficking

Laura Agustín

Contentious and Contradictory: Prostitution-law Campaigns in Europe (30 min)

Despite the sex-industry’s proliferation into areas where prostitution laws hardly apply, Europeans quarrel tirelessly over which law is correct. Notions of how to protect and serve women compete: 1-the Swedish/Nordic model, which prohibits buying sex whilst allowing its sale, holding that prostitution is violence against women and an absolute impediment to gender equality; 2- regulationism (partial legalisation), which favours allowing middle-class commercial establishments (clubs, bars, brothels) and prohibits street prostitution; 3-decriminalistion, which demands removal of all laws that penalise sex work and favours independent work. Ill-informed campaigns about sex trafficking obstruct pragmatic discussion of now dysfunctional migration laws. Essentialist notions of national sexualities compete with Europeanist proposals, and academic claims about ‘evidence of harm’ muddy the waters. The result is a constant barrage of contradictory messages.

I am not a habitual conference-goer. I do not like to sit passively all day or listen to short versions of deep topics and I have never found the kind of socialising that happens enjoyable. I also hate flying in, living in a hotel and flying out, seeing and feeling nothing of the location but university halls, hotel salons and predictable tourist sights. (I’m going to this thing because I can stay a week, so if you are in Austin…) And now that the law penalising men who buy sex is going to pass in France, I’ll have even more to say than I planned when I wrote that abstract.

I reject reductionist ideas about national cultures and have long thought of myself as a sort of anthropologist of Europe. I believe the move of the law to continental Europe changes the game. I personally am not surprised, perhaps because I’ve lived and spent lots of time in France, Spain and Italy and experienced the same feelings and arguments on the subject of prostitution everywhere. Particularly I’ve experienced the same feminist battles in the same tedious war for coming on to 20 years, so I don’t subscribe to the idea that a few Swedes caused all this client-hating. Once in Valencia I was asked by a renowned Socialist lawyer if I was in favour of torture and arms-trafficking, given my opposition to the present sex-trafficking crusade. I moved away from Madrid because the abolitionist feminists there not only drove me round the bend but made me nervous for my own safety at one event. That was the one where a French woman boomed out We don’t have to talk to prostitutes to know what prostitution is. When I was evaluating anti-violence projects for the European Commission, a Belgian at the European Women’s Lobby denounced me to the director as morally inappropriate, losing me the job. All these attacks took place ten or more years ago, long before Sex at the Margins came out.

After Italian media picked up last week’s story about France, an Italian abolitionist published an attack on me and Thierry Schaffauser entitled Negazioniste della tratta e attori porno smemorati because, as Mira Sorvino’s pals said, I am a Holocaust Denier. Someone seeing the recent attack wrote Questa Augustin è una criminale, in poche parole. [Other Italians responded with defence immediately, more on that another time.] Some educated, feministically-inclined women and men have deplored sexworker-rights ideas in every culture, and others oppose them everywhere as well.

Swedes developed this particular law, but other laws, other ordinances, other police rules have attempted to destroy prostitution before, and not only because it is a social nuisance in the eyes of some but because it is considered wrong. Women who sell sex are often now talked of as victims rather than criminals, increasingly even in the USA, where they are actually criminals by law. The whole premise of the Rescue Industry is to save innocent people from sex-exploiters, with actions that make sense inside all sorts of religious traditions. Schools to re-educate and intimidate clients, fines for kerb-crawling, posting of men’s photos on websites to shame them are descendants of late 19th-century campaigns that had activists running after prostitutes and their clients in the streets. The law can win in the Irelands and France as well as Norway, Iceland and Sweden because the concepts being promoted resonate amongst moral crusaders in all these societies. When the law doesn’t win somewhere in one parliamentary vote it may win on another occasion, because campaigners certainly do not give up just because they did not win the first time.

Last week I mentioned feeling we were moving into a period of Social Purity, which some objected to. A week later I still feel that way and have gone back to re-reading some texts on the subject I first read more than ten years ago. Will report back.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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Not so long ago the French would shrug and sigh about prudish societies where sex could still provoke scandal, scoffing at melodramas acted out in the USA by politicians caught doing something opposed to so-called family values. Dominique Strauss-Kahn used this tradition with his claim to be engaging in ‘libertine activity’ when he paid for sex at parties. Now this is changing, not only because of Strauss-Kahn’s continuing saga but because the French parliament is set to pass a law against buying sex that was previously associated with countries to the north.

A couple of years ago I wrote Europe’s anti-prostitution initiatives multiply, discussing France in the context of the European Women’s Lobby campaign for a Europe Free from Prostitution. UN Women National Committee Sweden recently called this ‘an issue that divides the world, and where the Northern European and the global women’s movement fight for recognition of fundamentally different values.’ Perhaps now France will feel more northern than southern Europe.

In networks of activism for sex workers’ rights and better commercial-sex laws, the bill set to pass in France has been a focus of campaigning for some time. Many unfamiliar with the subject cannot believe their ears when told about the contradictory law known as the Swedish or Nordic model, which prohibits the buying of sex while allowing it to be sold. In Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores I said:

Yes, it’s illogical. But the contradiction is not pointless; it is there because the goal of the law is to make prostitution disappear, by debilitating the market through absurd ignorance of how sex businesses work.

Although a lot of activism now takes place via social-media websites, sometimes an email is better. Thierry Schaffauser sent the following ideas in a message about the current situation in France to an activist list. I have added links he provided and edited so that outsiders to these conversations may understand. The full text of the proposed French law can be read here: Proposition de loi renforçant la lutte contre le système prostitutionnel.

Dear all,

I think what we fear is going to happen.

The Socialist party introduced the bill, which was co-signed by all other parties affiliated to the Socialists as well as the Communist and Left parties, so there is already a majority in favour of the law. The right wing might vote with them as well. Even MPs who are against the law will probably vote for it, out of party discipline and to avoid being labelled as sexist, pro-pimp and pro-prosti-killers by feminists (prosti-tueurs is the new name they give to men who buy sex).

In parliamentary hearings two former prostitutes were invited to speak, both affirming the shame, degradation and self-destruction of prostitution. Current sex workers were not asked to testify; one of us spoke along with the health organisations. We have held many demonstrations and shown all the evidence, but we are ignored. The sponsors use flawed evidence and anonymous testimonies; they don’t care about NGOs or research.

Sponsors of the bill claim all the time that 90% of prostitutes are victims of trafficking. This percentage may be their estimate for non-French sex workers, not trafficking victims, but abolitionists don’t distinguish between the two. No source is given for the figure. All migrants are defined as trafficked.

Sex workers who oppose the bill are accused of being a non-representative and privileged minority, so selfish that we defend our own interest and those of pimps and willing to sacrifice the majority of poor victims of trafficking and rape. They insist they will not pass a law on behalf of sex workers who claim to consent to prostitution. They say that our consent is flawed due to poverty and other constraints, and believe that if we were to leave prostitution and go into therapy we would recognise that we had lied to ourselves and that prostitution is, in fact, harmful.

Migrant sex workers from all parts of the world increasingly join the sexworker union STRASS, but they don’t participate in public debates because of the language barrier and the stigma. During our last demonstration there were many migrants, but they were ignored by mainstream media. The bill would make it possible for migrant sex workers to get a six months’ residence permit on condition they agree to stop prostitution.

Sponsors of the law don’t care that only 22% of the French population are in favour of fining clients 1500€, because they say in Sweden the law succeeded in changing people’s minds about prostitution. They share the same goal to educate people in France. The bill would mandate school programming to teach that buying sex is like rape and that prostitution is degrading.

The bill says street soliciting will be permitted, but local by-laws can be passed to maintain public order, so sex workers would not even be decriminalised.

The bill would instruct Internet Service Providers to alert authorities and give power to block access to websites suspected of profiting from prostitution, which means even escort advertising could be targeted. One MP said it would be possible for police to use our phone numbers, which we fear means they could listen to conversations in order to identify and arrest clients and lead to forced entry into our homes and workplaces.

Sponsors of the bill don’t even listen to police, who say criminalising clients would be too difficult to implement and would divert efforts to combat trafficking.

A few days ago a group of reactionary right-wing men started defending the right to buy sex in a very sexist manner. They are being widely reported in the media, and sex workers who oppose the bill are made to look as if we side with them, which is terrible for us.

I don’t know what to do now.

See La pénalisation contre-productive for more on the bill from Thierry Schaffauser.

Many of Thierry’s comments illustrate how certain social actors are disqualified from participating in debates, including when their own welfare is at stake. The most peculiar idea pushed by abolitionism is that there must be a single interpretation for the act of selling sex, that all who do it must agree about the experience. In the case of sex workers who do not want their clients penalised, crusaders give a range of excuses for why their opinions are not relevant, appropriate, serious or believable, allowing their exclusion from debate. Somehow prostitution has come to be a subject where disqualification and discrediting are major tactics for winning political campaigns, where crusaders aggressively dismiss women, men and transgender people from attempting to tell their experiences. The most extreme disqualification goes to the voice of anyone currently selling sex:

Aucune personne prostituée pendant qu’elle exerce la prostitution ne dira jamais qu’elle est contrainte, jamais. Tout le monde effectivement dit que ‘je le fais volontairement’. Ce n’est qu’au moment où la prostitution s’arrête que les personnes disent en fait ce n’était pas ce je disais. – Danielle Bosquet

This authoritarian trump card permits anyone claiming autonomy in selling sex to be dismissed on non-provable ‘brainwashing’ grounds. See Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores for more on how disqualification works.

The turning of all migrants who sell sex into victims of trafficking is what drove me into reading and research in the late 1990s. Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry is the result of that research, along with articles in academic journals that opened the door to a new field of study. Moral entrepreneurs disqualify this work, too, as exceptional and irrelevant.

The French legislation is highly repressive in many ways. That it is sold as morally righteous confirms my feeling that we have moved into a period of Social Purity, the name given to a movement in Anglo countries in the late 19th century, in which the pursuit of prostitutes and their clients was a principle activity. The difference now can be seen in clauses to the French bill that would increase police power by allowing more surveillance of telephones and possible blocking of Internet sites where sex is offered for sale. The Rescue Industry now propose to save us from even the sight of advertisements considered to foment prostitution; we are all to be re-educated and rehabilitated for our own good.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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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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Months ago I was interviewed by NewScientist, a mainstream UK magazine. I don’t accept all requests for interviews so did a little research, finding the publication reaches an audience probably different from whatever I usually reach. I asked what kind of questions the interviewer wanted to ask and found them well-informed and interesting. The initial interview, by phone, took more than an hour and was fine.

After some delay I was sent a first draft that required a lot of my time to correct and included an editor’s requests for data (How many prostitutes are there in the UK? What proportion work in the street? What is the correct figure for victims of trafficking?) I had explained during the interview why data on undocumented migrants and sex workers where so many aspects of prostitution are illegal cannot exist except in very partial bits, but I took time to explain again. There was then a back-and-forth in which I resisted the number-trap but tried to provide solutions we could all live with. At that time, the piece was 800 words, already drastically less than the interview transcript’s 9070. Months after the interview had taken place, I received a version to be published shortly. At 300 words it bore no resemblance to the original interview. Statements I had made had been culled from all over the article and then cobbled together in a new order that fit questions I had never exactly been asked (including the title question). I corrected a couple of points and let the thing go, at that point only hoping to prevent any egregious errors getting out. That was 8 July, and after the awful events of the 11th I forgot to write about it here.

I do think the title question is a smart way to interest readers new to the whole dense, messy field, and Banning is a much more honest word to use than Abolishing.

Does banning prostitution make women safer?

08 July 2013, by Clare Wilson, NewScientist issue 2924 (also in print)

Most of what we think we know about sex trafficking is wrong, says Laura Agustín, who has spent 20 years investigating the sex industry

There is a proposal in the UK to clamp down on prostitution by criminalising the purchase of sex. Why do you object?
Millions of people around the world make a living selling sex, for many different reasons. What are they expected to do? This would take away their livelihoods. Selling sex may be their preference out of a limited range of options. In the UK, migrants may have paid thousands of pounds to get here. This debt has to be paid off somehow, whether it is by working in the back of a restaurant or selling sex. Migrants who sell sex can pay off the debt much faster.

But prostitution is dangerous, especially for those who work on the street…
Women who work on the street are a small proportion of all the people who sell sex. Many more work through escort agencies, brothels or independently from home. It is disrespectful to treat them all like victims who have been duped into what they are doing. In the UK, there are thousands of articulate sex workers who say, “Leave me alone, I did know what I was getting into and I’m okay doing it.”

Isn’t the “happy hooker” a myth? Doesn’t research show it is a miserable existence?
Given the millions of people selling sex in the world, generalisations are impossible. Much research has been done at medical clinics or shelters for victims. If you go to a trauma centre, you meet traumatised people. When people tell me they have never met anyone who wanted to be selling sex, I ask where they did their research.

Why do you think anti-prostitution laws can make life more dangerous for sex workers?
If you think what sex workers do is dangerous, why insist they do it alone? It is legal in the UK for individuals to sell sex, but they may not work with companions or employ security guards. Brothels are illegal. If you prohibit businesses but people run them anyway – which they do – then workers must please bosses no matter what they ask. That is why this is a labour issue. Also, targeting kerb-crawlers makes things more dangerous since sex workers may have to jump in cars without getting a good sense of the driver.

What about trafficking of unwilling victims?
The numbers of trafficking victims reproduced by the media have no basis in fact. There is no way to count undocumented people working in underground economies. Investigations showed that one big UK police operation failed to find any traffickers who had forced people into prostitution. Most migrants who sell sex know a good deal about what they are getting into.

If there is no proof it is common, why is there widespread belief in sex-slave trafficking?
Why do moral panics take off? Focusing on trafficking gives governments excuses to keep borders closed. Perhaps it is easier to campaign moralistically against prostitution than to deal with the real problems: dysfunctional migration and labour policies that keep large numbers of people in precarious situations.

This article appeared in print under the headline “One minute with… Laura Agustín”

Profile
Laura Agustín studies gender, migration and trafficking. She is the author of Sex at the Margins (Zed Books, 2007) and blogs as The Naked Anthropologist.

The initial reactions I saw from NewScientist readers were angry: this was not ‘science’ and should not be in the magazine at all. One commenter said I was an idiot since he knew ‘missonaries in Sri Lanka’ who had rescued thousands of prostitutes. I stopped looking at the comments. The piece was picked up by some other sites, but I did not keep track.

It is hard for me to recognise myself at all in the piece, and it’s a shame the editor decided finally to shorten it so drastically. But many have told me that to get even this much of the non-mainstream story into a mainstream magazine is significant. So if you know anyone who usually cannot begin to think about these topics, send them this brief primer – maybe they will read it.

–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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