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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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The idea of a government outlawing activities accomplishes only one thing clearly: It tells citizens that government has decided something is Wrong and now outlaws doing it. Sending A Message is the principle act behind the Swedish state’s promotion of its law against buying sex, and it is the principle act behind all the other politicians and would-be policymakers who want the law for their countries. Everyone wants to be seen to be Taking a Stand against immoral behaviour. Try bringing evidence into the conversation and you will quickly learn how irrelevant it is; you can find Swedish promoters themselves saying things like We know it doesn’t work but we want to be in the forefront of Gender Justice. This is about standing up for how you think society should be and doing it publicly, and trying to save people from their own immoral selves by outlawing bad things that attract them.

Any other claim about what prohibitionist laws achieve when they outlaw social activities like sex, drinking and drugs is not supported by evidence. That’s because, after the law is passed and the message is sent, individuals deal with prohibition deviously. That is, social pressure is strong to go along with the moral stand taken, but on the private level folks don’t intend or aren’t able to stop taking their own pleasures. So buyers and sellers of drugs, alcohol and sex become creative, some of them maintaining a disapproving stance in public at the same time.

The main claim made by prohibitionism is its deterrent effect, which holds that people will be put off breaking the law a) simply because it is illegal; b) because they are afraid of being put in prison; c) because they do not want to be publicly shamed and lose social status, whether they go to prison or not. In Foucauldian terms a punishment has to be threatened that can rob the crime of all attraction, so the potential perpetrator stops. Shaming is thus proposed by those who would prohibit buying sex (names and photos published on a website, for instance). Heart-rending pictures of victims are distributed to add to the shame at wanting to participate. When those don’t seem to work, or when perpetrators go ahead and pay fines when they are caught instead of resisting charges, prohibitionists propose the ante be upped to obligatory jail sentences.

I wrote about deterrence early on in Sex Workers and Violence Against Women: Utopic Visions or Battle of the Sexes? The theory of deterrence sounds as though it might work to put people off getting punished, but people are not very logical or sensible when it comes to their bodily pleasures – eating, smoking, drinking, drug-taking, sex. I hope someone is documenting the techniques being used as part of a criminology project somewhere – let me know if you are! [Other uses of deterrence are more complicated, see Deterrence in Criminal Justice.] I do wish Foucault were here to talk with me about this.

The prohibition of alcohol in the USA provides insights, though we shouldn’t generalise about everything and everywhere on the basis of them. I only bring it up because Slate just published these elegant cards patrons could carry and show at the door of drinking clubs in midtown New York between 1920 and 1933, the years when making and selling alcohol was prohibited. Calling it a club didn’t make drinking there legal, but if drinkers belonged to insider networks they would get a card, and doormen felt safer letting them inside the venues (the theory being that police and their informants wouldn’t manage to get a card).

Slate says

These cards represent clubs both famous and obscure. The card on the upper right would have admitted a partygoer to the glamorous Stork Club in its second home, which it moved into after it had been “raided out” of its first on West 58th Street. . . All of these cards are for establishments located on roughly the same latitude in midtown Manhattan. In the Prohibition years, according to Irving L. Allen, the blocks between 40th and 60th streets in Manhattan were rife with speakeasies.

The cards show how deviance develops when a market exists for an outlawed activity. Buyers and sellers find each other, including in upper social registers where patrons obviously must include some of the very people who have Taken a Stand and voted in a prohibitionist law. The cards also show how little deterred alcohol-drinkers were.

Then, of course, and far more convincing: all kinds of buying and selling sex are prohibited by criminal law all over the US, except in those few rural counties of Nevada where brothels are allowed. How in the world anyone could propose prohibiting the buying of sex as a deterrent is beyond me.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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The increase in coverage of anti-trafficking operations and Rescue Industry rhetoric is such that I only blog about a tiny fraction of it. I post much much more on facebook, short commentary on media articles, and sometimes interesting conversations ensue. You can subscribe to my facebook posts (I don’t accept many friend requests now). You can also follow me on twitter.

As part of my thinking about how the sex industry fits within everyday cultures, here are photos showing how striptease and taxi dancing were traditionally wedged into the Times Square landscape. Some venues survived the clean-up of the 1990s, especially on upper floors, but few are left now. Jeremiah’s Vanishing New York records losses such as these. Both he and I are perfectly aware that developers as well as a lot of middle-class folks consider these places to be sleazy, the adjective usually invoked for such small sex-businesses run on shoe-strings and charging little to the clientele, crunched into small spaces on streets that get less public sweeping than they need. Some see beauty in them or just appreciate the individuality of the facades, so unlike the shopping-mall homogeneity now dominant in Times Square, often called Disneyfication.

We don’t have to be overly sentimental or ignore sexism and other injustices perpetrated inside these little businesses to appreciate that they look like individual places – workplaces for some, entertainment places for others. It’s appealing, too, that dance venues are sandwiched between lighting shops and delis – note Parisian dancing above Whelan’s Drugs.

Taxi-dancing, which some of these palaces offered, involves a lot of waiting around for the dancers, who must try not to look too bored. It’s a break in the emotional labour of flirting while at the same time keeping distance.

Images of taxi-dance girls as immoral seductresses abounded not so long ago.

Although it sounds charmingly antique, taxi-dancing lives on in other parts of New York. And here are some non-taxi dance pictures from an earlier Sunday: erotic, exotic, artistic, talented). Below, taxi-dancing far from Times Square, in the state of Montana.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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A German sex box: passenger side provides space for escape

Sex boxes are not boxes. And they are not Dutch-style prostitution windows, either, as a lazy reporter at Spain’s ABC egregiously wrote. In English these are called booths or boxes and even garages, but they are parking spaces with walls on three sides. Germany and the Netherlands have used these for sex-money transactions for years: This is not Big News.

The announcement from Switzerland was Zurich regulates sex industry: this is a story about regulation, city planning and social welfare. In the announcement on a new policy, Michael Herzig, whom I met when giving talks in Zurich, said:

We want to regulate prostitution because until now it was the law of the jungle. . . It was the pimps who decided the prices for instance. We want to as much as possible the city to regulate prostitution, the city to define what we have in Zurich. . .  but we are trying to go to a situation which is better for the prostitutes themselves, for their health and security and also for the population which lives in Zurich.

The purpose is to screen the sight of people having sex in cars; the pictures here show examples of boxes in other places; we haven’t seen the design for Zurich. The spaces will be located in an industrial area of the city. Herzig said

The big difference is that until now prostitution has been in the public space. Now we are going to change this, move it from the street to a private space in an old industrial area, which belongs to the city. This gives us the possibility to define the rules of prostitution in this area.

The policy is also about harm reduction, as the spaces/boxes include features intended to increase safety for sex workers and avoid condom rubbish in the street. Sex workers will be required to buy medical insurance and a licence to use them, and put five Swiss francs into a roadside ticket machine each night when they clock on.  This is pragmatism at the highest level; thus the absence of moral outrage on anyone’s part in the announcement – not about AIDS, trafficking, crime or victims.

What isn’t mentioned however is that, whenever this sort of plan arises, anywhere, numerous street workers simply refuse to transfer their activities to the regulated zones, which are always far away from bustling areas if not in downright deserted ones. Instead, they move into some other commercial/residential neighbourhood, where the cycle begins again. Clients in cars may well be willing to drive to the new zones; it’s the sex workers that don’t like them.

The other side of this regulation means prohibition of street walking on the Sihlquai, where residents have long been complaining for the usual reasons: too much noise and mess, too close to children. In this report from swissinfo.ch, an increase in numbers of sex workers is attributed to migrants from eastern Europe; in Zurich they have largely come from Hungary.

Note on the legality of selling sex in Switzerland: The official line is that only completely independent sex work is permitted (windows that look like this on ordinary houses are common). There are, of course, scads of businesses providing workplaces for workers, but the owners call the workers sub-contractors, which supposedly means the owners are not employers and thus not capable of ‘exploiting’ anyone. Typical city-father contradictoriness where commercial sex is concerned.

For anyone interested in the background to this policy-change, I published the following news story a couple of years ago, when sex boxes were also in the news.

Zurich ponders use of ‘sex boxes’ to control prostitution

by Marta Falconi, 3 September 2010, Swisster

After encouraging results in Germany, Zurich city officials are considering the installation of “sex boxes”, fenced parking areas, where prostitutes and their clients can conduct business away from the public eye. In a city where prostitution is on the rise, the measure could help protect residents and prostitutes alike. The drive-in “sex boxes” resemble makeshift parking spaces, surrounded by three tall metal fences to provide more privacy for prostitutes and their clients.

Already in use in some German cities, such as Cologne and Essen, the “sex boxes” are the latest idea suggested by Zurich city authorities after receiving thousands of complaints over the hordes of scantily clad prostitutes (and their actions) who patrol the main financial hub of Switzerland’s largest city.

Prostitution in Zurich increased by some 20 percent last year, according to some reports, which said that police had recorded more than 3,700 sex workers, mostly operating in the former red-light district in Zurich West, around Langstrasse, known as a busy multicultural melting pot and for occasional petty crime. The women generally gather on the artery of Sihlquai – a busy road along the river, behind Zurich’s main station – and wait in small groups for drivers to stop at pretty much any time of the day. The district is heavily populated and the area around the Sihlquai is also a common meeting point for students and families.

Reto Casanova, a spokesman for the Zurich police, told Swisster that the situation was “tolerable, but not as we want it”. He said the sex boxes have proved successful in Germany and could be an option for Zurich as well. “We are looking for an acceptable solution for everybody, with the goal of maintaining people’s safety and dignity,” he explained. Casanova said the ultimate decision on whether to adopt the boxes remains with the city council. However, he added, a police delegation is planning to travel to Germany in the fall to gather more first-hand details about the practice. In Cologne, social workers have reported encouraging results from the installation of the boxes. “In the past, the street girls were often chased by police. Now the officers are even protecting this legal street sex activity,” Sabine Reichard told Deutsche Press.

Further protection for sex workers is also built into the boxes’ design, which provides a handy alarm for the passenger within easy reach, while the parking set-up allows the prostitute an easy escape but blocks the driver’s door. So far it’s unclear whether using the enclosures will require a “parking” fee .

The rise of prostitution, with most women coming from Eastern European countries, is a worrisome problem for the city and its authorities who try to control the trafficking of women behind it, especially when individuals of 16 can legally sell their services in some parts of the country. Politician Luc Barthassat has called for the legal age to be raised to 18 and told Swissinfo recently that “Switzerland risks becoming a major sex tourism destination.” Zurich resident, Giuseppe Spina told Swisster he did not understand how big the phenomenon was until he found himself driving along the Sihlquai one recent night. ”It is a different world, somehow connected to ours, but still hidden in obscurity,” he said. “I had a problem with the car and had to stop one metre away from two prostitutes who were waiting there. I couldn’t help but pity them.”

Don’t ask me what his pity has to do with anything.

– Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

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