Tag Archives: violence

Pimping as a job: Blood on Snow and The Three-Headed Dog

Photo Jublio Haku

In the popular imaginary a pimp is a mean man engaged in pushing a few prostitutes around and taking their money. Usually portrayed as black or foreign, he is made out to thrive on dressing up and showing off. Pimping is sometimes placed as part of gang business and competition, again with racist and xenophobic overtones. In these stereotypes street prostitution is usually assumed, though that is changing.

In anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking crusades and policy the word pimp is used to cover every case of a man benefiting from prostitution, whether by taking a percentage of sex workers’ earnings for work done (as a driver, or web-page tech, for example) or for living with sex workers, giving advice, providing back-up.

HandDrawingHandSome want to distinguish clearly between those genuine helpers and the bad things ‘real pimps’ do, but I have learned over decades that trying to draw that line is a futile exercise. Sometimes sex workers love the men who push them around. Sometimes women pay men back in ways not visible to outsiders bent on seeing only one thing. Often the relationship is temporarily convenient and may be fluid, drifting back and forth between desired and consensual and not.

Rarely do we get a sense of pimping as a job in an organisation, the sort of ‘organised crime’ that anti-trafficking police forces and the UN go on about. As with so many aspects of the sex industry most people know absolutely nothing about how it can work. When I suggested a field called the Cultural Study of Commercial Sex I said policy (prostitution law, sex-venue licensing, red-light districting, employment rules) would benefit from knowing more instead of staying on the ignorant outskirts. Moralising is very often a form of ignorance. This applies to the world of mediators, facilitators, agents, smugglers, madams and pimps.

The narrator of Jo Nesbø’s Blood on Snow is explaining how he came to be a fixer (hit-man) for a villain. There were various jobs available, and he tried several: driving get-away cars, robbery, drugs-dealing and pimping. In the following story he was on a low rung in the pimping business where Hoffmann is the top boss and Pine his second man. The place is Oslo.

oslo-kjF--621x414@LiveMintProstitution. I don’t have a problem with women earning money whatever way they like, and the idea that a bloke – me, for instance – should get a third of the money for sorting things out so the women can concentrate on the actual work. A good pimp is worth every krone they pay him, I’ve always thought that. The problem is that I fall in love so quickly, and then I stop seeing it in terms of business. And I can’t handle shaking, hitting or threatening the women, whether or not I’m in love with them. Something to do with my mother, maybe, what do I know? That’s probably why I can’t stand seeing other people beating up women either. Something just snaps. Take Maria, for instance. Deaf and dumb, with a limp. I don’t know what those two things have got to do with each other – nothing probably – but it’s a bit like once you get started getting bad cards, they just keep coming. Which is probably why Maria ended up with an idiot junkie boyfriend as well. He had a fancy French name, Myriel, but owed Hoffman thirteen thousand for drugs. The first time I saw her was when Pine, Hoffmann’s head pimp, pointed out a girl in a home-made coat and with her hair up in a bun, looking like she’d just left church. She was sitting on the steps in front of Ridderhallen, crying, and Pine told me she was going to have to pay back her boyfriend’s drug debt in kind. I thought it best to give her a gentle start, just hand-jobs. But she jumped out of the first car she got into after barely ten seconds. She stood there in floods of tears while Pine yelled at her. Maybe he thought she’d hear him if he shouted loud enough. Maybe that was what did it. The yelling. And my mum. Either way, something snapped, and even if I could see what Pine was trying to get into her head I ended up decking him, my own boss. Then I took Maria to a flat I knew was empty, then went to tell Hoffmann that I was no use as a pimp either. Blood on Snow, pp 6-7, Jo Nesbø

In my own The Three-Headed Dog, a strongman working for an organisation is looking for a new job. Sarac’s career has included soldiering as a very young man and a range of jobs lumped together as Security, in different parts of Europe and in the Caribbean. He is told his next job will be in West Africa, but he doesn’t want to go, feels comfortable on the Costa del Sol and is now looking for a way to stay. He is approached by a man with a job offer.

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In this photo at least a man’s head and body are cut off, not only a woman’s (the usual practice).

‘You have to specialise according to what work the people travelling are going to do. You have to use contacts specific to the sector. For instance, it might sound strange, but I have no good contacts in construction on the coast, or in property development. Those are competitive areas it would be stupid to try to get into. But I do know someone with long experience in the flats. Apartments where women work. You understand. And that’s just here. In the region we can call home I have a few powerful names. The operation would be high-quality, and there are different directions to take. A wide range of businesses, no need to deal with the low end.’ He paused. Sarac betrayed no reaction. Tarts, he thought. Bloody pimp-ing. The very last thing he was looking for. The Three-Headed Dog, Laura Agustín

If you’re interested in fiction’s genre labels: Nesbø’s book is placed as Nordic Noir; the Dog as Mediterranean Noir. Noir is about moral ambiguity, as when a pimp can’t stand abusing women so becomes a hard-boiled killer instead. Sarac is looking for something else to do, and has to get there using strong arms. What else does he have, after all? When police and moral entrepreneurs rant about putting criminal men in prison I often think: What jobs do they imagine to be available for men and boys cut out of the mainstream, with no access to anything but the lowest-class, worst-paid work, no expectation of social mobility or respect? Perhaps those thinking about ‘root-causes’ of prostitution and trafficking might consider that, rather than figuring them all as evildoers to be imprisoned for long terms, in prisons that only teach them better techniques for crime.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Prostitution Law & the Death of Whores in Jacobin Magazine

This essay ran first in Jacobin and was picked up by Salon and given a different title. Comments on the different slants to come soon.

Prostitution Law and the Death of Whores

Laura Agustín, Jacobin, 15 August 2013

It doesn’t matter which political direction you come from: the topics of sex work, sexual exploitation, prostitution and sex trafficking seem like a veritable Gordian Knot. As long as you listen to one set of advocates and take their evidence in good faith, you are okay. But the minute you listen to another set of advocates with different arguments and evidence, everything falls apart. The way these subjects intersect leads to untenable contradictions that make progress seem impossible. Hand-wringing and ideological free-for-alls predominate.

Twenty years ago I first asked two questions that continue to unsettle me today. The first is answerable: What does a woman who sells sex accomplish that leads to her being treated as fallen, beyond the pale, incapable of speaking for herself, discountable if she does speak, invisible as a member of society? The answer is she carries a stigma. The second question is a corollary: Why do most public conversations focus on laws and regulations aimed at controlling these stigmatized women rather than recognizing their agency? To that the answer is not so straightforward.

I am moved to make this assessment after the murder of someone I knew, Eva-Maree Kullander Smith, known as Jasmine. Killed in Sweden by an enraged ex-partner, Eva-Maree was also a victim of the social death that befalls sex workers under any name you choose to call them. Immediately after the murder, rights activists cursed the Swedish prostitution law that is promoted everywhere as best for women. My own reaction was a terrible sinking feeling as I realized how the notion of a Rescue Industry, named during my research into the “saving” of women who sell sex, was more apt than even I had thought.

Murders of sex workers are appallingly frequent, including serial killings. In Vancouver, BC, Robert Pickton killed as many as 26 between 1996 and 2001 before police cared enough to do anything about it. Gary Ridgeway, convicted of killing 49 women in the 1980s-90s in the state of Washington, said, “I picked prostitutes because I thought I could kill as many of them as I wanted without getting caught.” Infamous statements from police and prosecutors include the Attorney General’s at Peter Sutcliffe’s 1981 trial for the murder of at least 13 women in the north of England: “Some were prostitutes, but perhaps the saddest part of this case is that some were not.” He could say this because of a ubiquitous belief that the stigma attached to women who sell sex is real – that prostitutes really are different from other women.

My focus on the female is deliberate. All who propose prostitution policy are aware that men sell sex, but they are not concerned about men, who simply do not suffer the disgrace and shame that fall on women who do it.

Stigma and disqualification

Many people have only a vague idea what the word stigma means. It can be a mark on a person’s body – a physical trait, or a scarlet letter. It can result from a condition like leprosy, where the person afflicted could not avoid contagion. About his selection of victims Sutcliffe said he could tell by the way women walked whether or not they were sexually “innocent”.

Stigma can also result from behaviors seen to involve choice, like using drugs. For Erving Goffman, individuals’ identities are “spoiled” when stigma is revealed. Society proceeds to discredit the stigmatized – by calling them deviants or abnormal, for example. Branded with stigma, people may suffer social death – nonexistence in the eyes of society – if not physical death in gas chambers or serial killings.

In the late 1990s I wondered why a migrant group that often appeared in media reports and was well-known to me personally was absent from scholarly migration literature. I came to understand that migrant women who sell sex were disqualified as subjects of migration, in some perhaps unconscious process on the part of scholars and journal editors. Was the stigma attached to selling sex so serious that it was better not to mention these migrants at all? Or did people think that the selling of sex must transport anything written about it to another realm, such as feminism? When I submitted an article to a migration journal addressing this disqualification, The Disappearing of a Migration Category: Women Who Sell Sex, two and a half years passed before its publication, probably because the editor could locate no peer reviewers willing to deal with my ideas.

Of the many books on prostitution I read back then, most dismissed the possibility that women who sell sex can be rational, ordinary, pragmatic and autonomous. The excuses followed a pattern: The women didn’t understand what they were doing because they were uneducated. They suffered from false consciousness, the failure to recognize their own oppression. They were addicted to drugs that fogged their brains. They had been seduced by pimps. They were manipulated by families. They were psychologically damaged, so their judgements were faulty. If they were migrants they belonged to unenlightened cultures that gave them no choices. They were coerced and/or forced by bad people to travel, so they weren’t real migrants, and their experiences didn’t count. Because they were brainwashed by their exploiters, nothing they said could be relied on. This series of disqualifications led to large lacunae in social-scientific literature and mainstream media, showing the power of a stigma that has its very own name – whore stigma. Given these women’s spoiled identities, others feel called to speak for them.

Rescue Industry, legal regimes and stigma

The person in a helping profession or campaign is said to embody the good in humanity – benevolence, compassion, selflessness. But helpers assume positive identities far removed from those spoiled by stigma, and benefits accrue to them: prestige and influence for all and employment and security for many. Many believe that helpers always know how to help, even when they have no personal experience of the culture or political economy they intervene in. What I noted was how, despite the large number of people dedicated to saving prostitutes, the situation for women who sell sex never improves. The Construction of Benevolent Identities by Helping Women Who Sell Sex was the key that unlocked my understanding of the Rescue Industry.

Abolitionists talk continuously about prostitution as violence against women, set up projects to rescue sex workers and ignore the dysfunctionality of much that is conceived as “rehabilitation”. Contemporary abolitionism focuses largely on the rescue of women said to be victims of trafficking, targeting the mobile and migrant women I mentioned earlier, who are now completely disappeared in a narrative of female victimhood. Although much of this goes on under a feminist banner, colonialist maternalism describes it better.

In classic abolitionism, whore stigma is considered a consequence of patriarchy, a system in which men subjugate women and divide them into the good, who are marriageable, and the bad, who are promiscuous or sell sex. If prostitution were abolished, whore stigma would disappear, it is claimed. But contemporary movements against slut-shaming, victim-blaming and rape culture clearly show how whore stigma is applied to women who do not sell sex at all, so the claim is feeble. Instead, abolitionism’s aversion to prostitution probably strengthens the stigma, despite the prostitute’s demotion to the status of victim rather than the transgressor she once was.

Under prohibitionism, those involved in commercial sex are criminalized, which directly reproduces stigma. In this regime, the woman who sells sex is a deliberate outlaw, which oddly at least grants her some agency.

For advocates of the decriminalization of all commercial-sex activities, the disappearance of whore stigma would occur through recognizing and normalizing the selling of sex as labor. We don’t yet know how long it may take for stigma to die out in places where some forms of sex work are decriminalized and regulated: New Zealand, Australia, Germany, Holland. Given the stigma’s potency in all cultures one would expect it to diminish unevenly and slowly but steadily, as happened and continues to happen with the stigma of homosexuality around the world.

Prostitution law and national moralities

I explained my skepticism about prostitution law at length in an academic article, Sex and the Limits of Enlightenment: The Irrationality of Legal Regimes to Control Prostitution. All prostitution laws are conceived as methods to control women who, before ideas of victimhood took hold, were understood to be powerful, dangerous figures associated with rebellion, revolt, carnival, the world upside down, spiritual power and calculated wrongdoing. Conversations about prostitution law, no matter where they take place, argue about how to manage the women: Is it better to permit them to work out of doors or limit them to closed spaces? How many lap-dancing venues should get licenses and where should they be located? In brothels, how often should women be examined for sexually transmitted infections? The rhetoric of helping and saving that surrounds laws accedes with state efforts to control and punish; the first stop for women picked up in raids on brothels or rescues of trafficking victims is a police station. Prostitution law generalizes from worst-case scenarios, which leads directly to police abuse against the majority of cases, which are not so dire.

In theory, under prohibitionism prostitutes are arrested, fined, jailed. Under abolitionism, which permits the selling of sex, a farrago of laws, by-laws and regulations give police a myriad of pretexts for harrying sex workers. Regulationism, which wants to assuage social conflict by legalizing some sex-work forms, constructs non-regulated forms as illegal (and rarely grants labor rights to workers). But eccentricities abound everywhere, making a mockery of these theoretical laws. Even Japan’s wide-open, permissive sex industry prohibits “prostitution” defined as coital sex. And in recent years a hybrid law has arisen that makes paying for sex illegal while selling is permitted. Yes, it’s illogical. But the contradiction is not pointless; it is there because the goal of the law is to make prostitution disappear by debilitating the market through absurd ignorance of how sex businesses work

Discussion of prostitution law occurs in national contexts where rhetoric often harks back to essentialist notions of morality, as though in this highly-travelled, hybrid-culture world it were still possible to talk about authentic national character, or as though “founding father” values must define a country for all time. One intervenor at the recent Canadian Supreme Court hearing on prostitution law argued that decriminalization would defy founding values of “the Canadian community”: “that women required protection from immoral sexual activity generally and prostitution specifically” and “strong moral disapproval of prostitution itself, with a view to promoting gender equality”. The national focus clashes with anti-trafficking campaigns that not only claim to use international law but sponsor imperialist interventions by western NGOs into other countries, notably in Asia, with the United States assuming a familiar meddling role vis-à-vis Rest-of-World.

Gender Equality, State Feminism and intolerance

Gender Equality is now routinely accepted as a worthy principle, but the term is so broad and abstract that a host of varying, contradictory and even authoritarian ideas hide behind it. Gender Equality as a social goal derives from a bourgeois feminist tradition of values about what to strive for and how to behave, particularly regarding sex and family. In this tradition, loving committed couples living with their children in nuclear families are society’s ideal citizens, who should also go into debt to buy houses and get university educations, undertake lifetime “careers” and submit to elected governments. Although many of these values coincide with long-standing governmental measures to control women’s sexuality and reproduction, to question them is viewed with hostility. The assumption is that national governmental status quos would be acceptable if women only had equal power within them.

Gender Equality began to be measured by the UN in 1995 on the basis of indicators in three areas: reproductive health, empowerment and the labor market. Arguments are endless about all the concepts involved, many seeing them as favouring a western concept of “human development” that is tied to income. (How to define equality is also a vexed question.) Until a couple of years ago, the index was based on maternal mortality ratio and adolescent fertility rate (for health), share of parliamentary seats held by sex plus secondary/higher education attainment (for empowerment) and women’s participation in the work force (for labor). On these indicators, which focus on a narrow range of life experiences, northern European countries score highest, which leads the world to look there for progressive ideas about Gender Equality.

These countries manifest some degree of State Feminism: the existence of government posts with a remit to promote Gender Equality. I do not know if it is inevitable, but it is certainly universal that policy promoted from such posts ends up being intolerant of diverse feminisms. State Feminists simplify complex issues through pronouncements represented as the final and correct feminist way to understand whatever matter is at hand. Although those appointed to such posts must demonstrate experience and education, they must also be known to influential social networks. Unsurprisingly, many appointed to such posts come from generations for whom feminism meant the belief that all women everywhere share an essential identity and worldview. Sometimes this manifests as extremist, fundamentalist or authoritarian feminism. Sweden is an example.

Sweden and prostitution

Jämställdhet, Photo Malinka Persson

The population of only nine and a half million is scattered over a large area, and even the biggest city is small. In Sweden’s history, social inequality (class differences) was early targeted for obliteration; nowadays most people look and act middle-class. The mainstream is very wide, while social margins are narrow, most everyone being employed and/or supported by various government programmes. Although the Swedish utopia of Folkhemmet – the People’s Home – was never achieved, it survives as a powerful symbol and dream of consensus and peace. Most people believe the Swedish state is neutral if not actually benevolent, even if they recognize its imperfections.

After the demise of most class distinctions, inequality based on gender was targeted (racial/ethnic differences were a minor issue until recent migration increases). Prostitution became a topic of research and government publications from the 1970s onwards. By the 1990s, eradicating prostitution came to be seen as a necessary condition for the achievement of male-female equality and feasible in a small homogeneous society. The solution envisioned was to prohibit the purchase of sex, conceptualized as a male crime, while allowing the sale of sex (because women, as victims, must not be penalized). The main vehicle was not to consist of arrests and incarcerations but a simple message: In Sweden we don’t want prostitution. If you are involved in buying or selling sex, abandon this harmful behavior and come join us in an equitable society.

Since the idea that prostitution is harmful has infused political life for decades, to refuse to accept such an invitation can appear misguided and perverse. To end prostitution is not seen as a fiat of feminist dictators but, like the goal to end rape, an obvious necessity. To many, prostitution also seems incomprehensibly unnecessary in a state where poverty is so little known.

These are the everyday attitudes that social workers coming into contact with Eva-Maree probably shared. We do not know the details of the custody battle she had been locked in for several years with her ex-partner. We do not know how competent either was as a parent. She recounted that social workers told her she did not understand she was harming herself by selling sex. There are no written guidelines decreeing that prostitutes may not have custody of their children, but all parents undergo evaluations, and the whore stigma could not fail to affect their judgements. For the social workers, Eva-Maree’s identity was spoiled; she was discredited as a mother on psycho-social grounds. She had persisted in trying to gain mother’s rights and made headway with the authorities, but her ex-partner was enraged that an escort could gain any rights at all and did all he could to impede her. The drawn-out custody process broke down on the day she died, since standard procedures do not allow disputing parents to meet during supervised visits with children.

In a 2010 report evaluating the law criminalizing sex-purchase, stigma is mentioned in reference to feedback they received from some sex workers:

The people who are exploited in prostitution report that criminalization has reinforced the stigma of selling sex. They explain that they have chosen to prostitute themselves and feel they are not being involuntarily exposed to anything. Although it is not illegal to sell sex they perceive themselves to be hunted by the police. They perceive themselves to be disempowered in that their actions are tolerated but their will and choice are not respected.

The report concludes that these negative effects “must be viewed as positive from the perspective that the purpose of the law is indeed to combat prostitution”. To those haunted by the death of Eva-Maree, the words sound cruel, but they were written for a document attempting to evaluate the law’s effects. Evaluators had been unable to produce reliable evidence of any kind of effect; an increase in stigma was at least a consequence.

Has this stigma discouraged some women from selling sex who might have wanted to and some men from buying? Maybe, but it is a result no evaluation could demonstrate. The report, in its original Swedish 295 pages, is instead composed of historical background, repetitious descriptions of the project and administrative detail. Claims made later that trafficking has diminished under the law are also impossible to prove, since there are no pre-law baseline statistics to compare to.

The lesson is not that Sweden’s law caused a murder or that any other law would have prevented it. Whore stigma exists everywhere under all prostitution laws. But Sweden’s law can be said to have given whore stigma a new rationality for social workers and judges, the stamp of government approval for age-old prejudice. The ex-partner’s fury at her becoming an escort may derive in part from his Ugandan background, but Sweden did not encourage him to view Eva-Maree more respectfully.

Some say her murder is simply another clear act of male violence and entitlement by a man who wanted her to be disqualified from seeing their children. According to that view, the law is deemed progressive because it combats male hegemony and promotes Gender Equality. This is what most infuriates advocates of sex workers’ rights: that the “Swedish model” is held up as virtuous solution to all of the old problems of prostitution, in the absence of any evidence. But for those who embrace anti-prostitution ideology, the presence or absence of evidence is unimportant.

When media are king

Media handling of these incidents reproduces stigma with variation according to local conditions. The mainstream Swedish press did not mention that Eva-Maree was an escort, because to do so would have seemed to blame her and blacken her name. In the case of a series of murders in Ipswich, England, the media’s relentless talk of prostitutes led the victims’ parents to request they use the term sex workers. A number of dead women on Long Island, NY, were discussed as almost “interchangeable – lost souls who were gone, in a sense, long before they actually disappeared” (Robert Kolker, New York Times, 29 June 2013). A woman murdered recently near Melbourne, Australia, was called “St Kilda prostitute” rather than “sex worker” or even, simply, “woman”, in a place where the concept of sex work is actually on its bumpy way to normalization. I’m talking here about the mainstream, whose online articles are reproduced over and over, hammering in the clichés.

Editors who append photos to articles on the sex industry use archetypes: women leaning into car windows, sitting on bar stools, standing amidst traffic – legs, stockings and high heels highlighted. Editors do this not because they are too lazy to find other pictures but to show, before you read a word, what the articles are really about: women whose uniform is the outward sign of an inner stain. Similarly, when writers and editors use the clichéd language of a “secret world”, “dark underbelly”, “stolen childhoods”, “seedy streets” and “forbidden fruit”, they are not simply being sensationalist but pointing to the stigma: Here’s what this news is really about – the disgusting and dangerous but also eternal and thrilling world of whores.

Cutting the Gordian Knot

Not long ago I was invited to speak at the Dublin Anarchist Bookfair on the topic of sex work as work. The announcement on Facebook provoked violent ranting: to have me was anti-feminist, against socialism and a betrayal of anarchism. I wrote Talking about sex work without isms to explain why I would not discuss feminist arguments in the short Dublin talk. I’m not personally interested in utopias and after 20 years in the field really only want to discuss how to improve things practically in the here and now. No prostitution law can comprehend the proliferation of businesses in today’s sex industry or account for the many degrees of volition and satisfaction among workers. Sexual relations cannot be “fixed” through Gender-Equality policy. If I were Alexander standing over the knot I would slice it thus: All conversations from this moment will begin from the premise that we will not all agree. We will look for a variety of solutions to suit the variety of beliefs, and we will not compete over which ideological position is best. Most important, we will assume that what all women say is what they mean.

LAURA AGUSTÍN is author of Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry (Zed Books). A researcher and analyst of human trafficking, undocumented migration and sex-industry research for the past 20 years, she blogs as The Naked Anthropologist.


Remembering Judge Himel: Bold assertions and inflammatory language not useful to the court

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

Sex workers and Violence against Women: Utopic Visions or Battle of the Sexes?

The other day, discussing the recommendation that DNA should be taken from men who buy sex, I ended with a question: how can anyone maintain a utopic vision about gender equality that relies on punishing so many people as criminals? That reminded me I had asked the same question in an article published more than ten years ago.

Although I wouldn’t write it exactly the same way now, I stand by its basic ideas. If Gender Equality is one of feminism’s goals, how can we imagine it without reducing everything to black and white, perpetrator and victim, crime, crime, crime? Click for the pdf or keep reading here.

Sexworkers and Violence Against Women: Utopic Visions or Battle of the Sexes?

Laura Maria Agustín

Development, 44.3, 107-110 (2001)

Sexual exploitation and prostitution

In the movement to construct a discourse of ‘violence against women’, and thus to raise consciousness about kinds of mistreatment which before were invisible, the stage has been reached where defining crime and achieving punishment appears to be the goal. While it is progressive to raise consciousness about violence and exploitation in an attempt to deter the commitment of crimes, I hope to show that the present emphasis on discipline is very far from a utopic vision and that we should now begin to move toward other suggestions for solutions.

The following argument uses the example of prostitution or ‘sexual exploitation’ as an instance of ‘violence against women’, but the approach can apply to any attempt to deal with not only definitions of gender and sexual violence but with proposals to deal with them. When applied to adult prostitution, the term ‘sexual exploitation’ attempts to change language to make ‘voluntary’ prostitution impossible. For those who wish to ‘abolish’ prostitution, therefore, this change in terms represents progress, for now language itself will not be complicit with the violence involved. For those who may or may not want to ‘abolish’ prostitution but who in the present put the priority on improving the everyday lot of prostitutes, this language change totalizes a variety of situations involving different levels of personal will and makes it more difficult to propose practical solutions. When applied to the prostitution of children, the term ‘sexual exploitation’ represents a project to change perceptions about childhood. For those who believe that the current western model of childhood as a time of innocence should become the ‘right’ of all children in the world, this term is very important.

Criminalization of clients

Efforts to change sexist, racist and other discriminatory forms of language have long been a focus of projects of social justice in western societies, and the push to define ‘violence against women’ clearly forms part of this movement. Along with this, we see a strong move to have actions that fall within these new definitions proclaimed as crimes and their perpetrators punished. If prostitution is globally redefined as sexual exploitation (by ‘globally’ I mean that no distinctions are made according to whether prostitutes say they ‘chose’ sex work to any extent), therefore, all those who purchase sexual services, called usually ‘clients’, become ‘exploiters’.

Obviously, different terms function better or coincide more with different situations, but when social movements consciously work to change language they almost inevitably eliminate these differences. Since there are still plenty of places in the world where prostitutes are simplistically viewed as evil, contaminated, immoral and diseased, campaigns to change language so as to see the lack of choice and elements of exploitation in prostitutes’ situations are positive efforts to help them. Why, then, do these positive efforts have to be based on finding a different villain, to replace the old one?

I am referring to the discipline-and-punishment model that these efforts to change language and change perception inevitably use: in constructing a victim they also construct a victimizer—the ‘exploiter’, the bad person. After that, it is inevitable that punishment becomes the focus of efforts: passing laws against the offense and deciding what price the offender should pay. This model of ‘law and order’ is familiar to most of us as an oppressive, dysfunctional criminal justice system. We know that prisons rarely rehabilitate offenders against the law; we know that in some countries prison conditions are so bad that riots occur frequently, and if they don’t, perhaps they should. We also know that it is usually extremely difficult to prove sexual offenses (because of how the law is constructed, because of the difficulty of all these definitions of victimization, because legal advice can find ways out, etc.). Yet we continue to insist on better policing and more effective punishment, as though we didn’t know all of this.

International regulations on trafficking and sexual exploitation

My own work examines both the discourses and the practical programming surrounding the European phenomenon of migrant prostitution, the term used to describe non-Europeans working in the European sex industry (and, indeed, everyone who travels from one place to another in that vast network of diverse businesses). In most countries of the European Union, migrants appear now to constitute more than half of working prostitutes, and in some countries possibly up to 90 percent (Tampep, 1999). This situation has caused a change in the thinking on violence: now ‘traffickers’ of sex workers are discussed more than their clients. Because so many of the migrants come from ‘third world’ countries, ‘trafficking’ discourses have become a forum for addressing ‘development’ projects such as structural adjustment policies of the International Monetary Fund. But the more active debates have concerned violence, in a way that constructs them as organized crime.

One of the fora of this highly conflictive discussion was the United Nations Commission for the Prevention of Crime and Penal Justice, which met various times in Vienna to elaborate protocols on the trafficking of migrant workers. Two distinct lobbying groups argued over definitions of words such as consent, obligation, force, coercion, deceit, abuse of power and exploitation. Two distinct protocols were produced, one which applies to the ‘trafficking of women and children’ while the other to ‘smuggling of migrants’. The gender distinction is clear, expressing a greater disposition of women –along with children– to be deceived (above all about sex work), and also expressing an apparently lesser disposition to migrate. Men, on the other hand, are seen as capable of migrating but of sometimes being handled like contraband, thus the word agreed on is not trafficking but smuggling. The resulting protocols now form part of the UN Convention Against Transnational Organized Crime (UN, 2000), which member countries will debate individually and decide to sign or not.

What is the problem? In an effort to save as many victims as possible, the protocols totalize the experience of all women migrants working in the sex industry, and all those who help them migrate—a wide array of family, friends, lovers, agents and entrepreneurs, as well as small-time delinquents and (probably, but this is not proved) big-time criminal networks—are defined as traffickers. Every kind of help, from preparing false working papers, visas or passports to meeting migrants at the airport and finding them a place to stay, is defined as the crime of trafficking.

The Coalition Against Trafficking in Women (CATW) specifically tries, both at the Vienna meetings and internationally, to fuse the two concepts of ‘trafficking’ and ‘prostitution’ and to define them both as crimes of violence against women. Not only everyone who helps people migrate and work in the sex industry but everyone who buys sexual services ends up defined as an exploiter, a rapist and a criminal. CATW favours legislation to penalize clients of prostitutes (CATW, 2000).

The booming sex market

The problem with proposing the penalization of sexual ‘exploiters’, or clients of prostitutes, comes from the magnitude of the phenomenon, which is almost never confronted. Statistics are unreliable for all sectors of an industry overwhelmingly unrecognized legally or in government accounting, and which operates informally and relies on bribes, legal loopholes and facades. However, we can understand from the many studies of different aspects of the sex industry that it is booming. Prostitution and exploitation sites are so numerous everywhere that customers cannot be exceptional cases (yet they are often spoken of as if they were ‘perverts’ or ‘deviants’). Rather it is clear that adult and adolescent men everywhere consider it permissible to buy sexual services, and some estimates calculate that most men do it at some time in their lives.

More than 20 years ago, one Roman prostitute calculated this way:

Rome was known to have 5,000 prostitutes. Let’s say that each one took home at least 50,000 liras a day. Men don’t go more than once a day. That means that for someone who asked 3,000 liras in a car, to arrive at 50,000 she had to do a lot, maybe twenty or so. Figure it out, 20 times 5,000 comes to 100,000 clients. Since it’s rare for them to go every day, maybe they go once or twice a week, the total comes to between 400,000 and 600,000 men going to whores every week. How many men live in Rome? A million and a half. Take away the old men, the children, the homosexuals and the impotent. I mean, definitely, more or less all men go. (Cutrufelli, 1988: 26, author’s translation)

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Sex work, danger and law in Canada: Xtra!

I have not turned my back but have been travelling too steadily for the past five weeks to keep the blog up properly – although the Kristof kerfuffle was intriguing (follow-up here). The Canada tour was incredibly interesting, and I have many people to thank and follow up. First let me republish this article from Xtra!, Canada’s gay and lesbian news site, that puts a transgender sex worker first and goes on to discuss Bedford v Canada, the planet’s most significant contemporary legal case on the meaning and status of prostitution. The government is bizarrely arguing

that the purpose of the prostitution-related provisions in the Criminal Code was to eradicate prostitution by discouraging sex work.

In other words, that selling sex is inherently dangerous and therefore prostitutes are asking for it. See bolded section below, as well as the section with me in it.

The dangers of sex work in Canada

Andrea Houston, Xtra! 12 December 2011

Every night Lexi Tronic risks her life at work. If she gets beaten or raped, she feels she can’t call police to report the attack because – at least for now – Tronic is also a criminal. “What happens when you’re trapped in someone’s car with the doors locked? You don’t have any options. It’s fight or flight,” she says. Tronic is a 10-year veteran in the sex trade who has worked both on the streets and from her home, as many sex workers have, she says.

On Dec 17, the transgender and sex-workers-rights activist will join others to mark the ninth annual International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Such violence is a pervasive problem that is largely preventable and often ignored, she says, noting that most violent crimes against sex workers go underreported, unaddressed and unpunished. Tronic started as a sex worker in Winnipeg at Higgins Ave and Waterfront Dr, a notorious spot known for transgender sex trade workers, she says. “One of those hardcore areas where girls turn up dead or missing.”

Canadians are still haunted by the name Robert Pickton, who brutally murdered as many as 49 women, most of whom were sex workers from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.Toronto is no different, says Tronic. “Women are getting attacked and abused daily. Sex workers are easy targets. And because sex-trade work is not legal, many of these women are afraid to go to the police because they’ve had negative experiences, especially trans women. Police not only berate them for being a sex worker, they bully them for being a trans sex worker.”

Sex workers deserve the same rights as everyone else, she says. The profession is perceived to be dangerous, and it is, Tronic notes, because the laws make it so.”The police victimize the victim by saying it’s their fault,” she says. “[Sex work] is no more dangerous than working a midnight shift in a 7/11. It becomes dangerous because it’s not legal and we don’t have the safeguards for resources that the rest of the public do, like being able to go to police and seek help and safety. ”Regardless how many laws governments write, nothing will ever eradicate sex work. It is always going to be here,” Tronic says. Therefore, the working conditions need to change.

Last year, Ontario Justice Susan Himel struck down three key anti-prostitution laws that create hazardous working conditions — laws against communicating for the purposes of prostitution, keeping a common bawdy house and living on the avails of the trade. Himel ruled that the laws make prostitution more dangerous.

The federal and Ontario governments are now appealing that landmark ruling, arguing that there is no obligation to maximize the safety of sex workers because it is not a constitutionally protected right to engage in the sex trade.

For the past four years, lawyer and Osgoode Hall professor Alan Young has represented sex workers Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott, who are challenging the laws that criminalize sex work in Canada. He argued the appeal in June in front of five judges. “I had a good time in the Ontario Court of Appeal,” he says, with boyish excitement. “I just got to sit back and watch the government squirm as they tried to overturn this decision.” The appeal court’s decision could be released tomorrow or months from now, Young says.

Likely contributing to the delay is the recent Supreme Court of Canada decision that upheld British Columbia’s right to operate a supervised drug injection site. The court ordered the federal government to abandon its attempts to close Vancouver’s Insite facility, agreeing with scientific evidence that the site saves lives without increasing crime.

The Insite decision offers a parallel situation for the case against Canada’s prostitution laws, Young says. “It’s a constitutional violation from a government action that is increasing a risk of harm.” “The thrust of the decision is very strongly in support of what we argued for sex work,” he says. “[Insite] has to be considered. It would be senseless not to.” Young expected the decision by November. “So I believe they are struggling with this.” The case will eventually end up in the Supreme Court of Canada sometime next year; that court’s decision will be the final word. If the laws are struck down, Young says, they must be replaced with appropriate regulation. “I still think we shouldn’t put a brothel next to a junior high school.” Ultimately, sex workers should drive reform, he says.

But, even once sex work is made legal, there will always be some sex workers who choose or are forced to work outside the margins. It’s called “survival sex work,” Young says. “Look at cigarettes. They are legal, but there is a huge black market for people who want to avoid tax. That has been a big problem in other countries. Legal regimes are set up for sex workers, but people don’t enter into them. They stay underground . . . So it’s not solving problems for everybody. What it is doing is giving sex workers who choose to be sex workers some autonomy to take care of themselves.”

There is already a black market within the black market, fuelled largely by human trafficking across borders, something Maggie’s: The Toronto Sex Workers Action Project, says is not the same as sex work. Sex work is a job that sells some form of sexual service. Trafficking is coerced or forced labour and sex slavery. That distinction is important because the decision Canada makes will have a ripple effect internationally.

Laura Agustín, a sex-workers-rights advocate and an expert on undocumented migration, visited Toronto Nov 24 to discuss her book Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry. She says the criminalization of sex work in North America contributes to international human trafficking and enslavement.

For migrants trying to get to countries like Canada, the sex trade is sometimes the only option, especially for women and trans women who may not, for whatever reason, get work as maids. “For some it’s a chance at a better life,” she says. “But because it’s invisible and happening in an underground economy, there’s lots of opportunity for exploitation or abuse.”Agustín says the sexual liberation movement is not over yet, and it won’t be until sex work is viewed widely as any other profession. “Why do people get so excited? In a capitalist society people can buy and sell anything they want, even motherhood, by hiring a nanny, but not sex. Why? ”Rather than look at sex workers as victims in need of rescuing out of the trade, she says, sex workers should be empowered from within the community to make the trade safe.

“When legalization happens, you will see a lot of women leave the streets and be able to come work indoors,” Tronic adds. Regulation, such as occupational health and safety, will be created at the local level, and hopefully, sex workers will be at the table making decisions like any other taxpaying industry stakeholder. “Wouldn’t it be great to one day see us so evolved that sex workers are given rights and treated like people? They could form unions, pay into benefits, a pension plan. That’s my dream,” Tronic says.

Changing the laws means Canada must stop looking at sex work through a moralistic lens. Maggie’s says selling sex is a pragmatic and sensible response for someone with a limited range of options. If a person is doing sex work but would rather not be, it is the lack of available options that is the real problem – not sex work. Queer youth, trans women, people of colour and indigenous people often face limited economic options and discrimination. “For many, sex work is the best or only option for work, and we work to improve the conditions of work.”

–Laura Agustin, the Naked Anthropologist