Category Archives: trafficking

smuggling refers to moving people without official permission across borders; trafficking is an over-used term that should mean abusive smuggling of undocumented migrants

What is Decrim? The many places of prostitution in law

Recently the short form decrim has appeared in the name of several groups campaigning for decriminalisation of prostitution: the removal of criminal penalties for selling and buying sex. But there is never one clear law that might be annulled in a fell swoop; it is not so simple. Rather there are everywhere multiple clauses within different laws and sections of penal codes, as well as regulations used to police many sorts of commercial-sex activities. Every jurisdiction, every city and town has its own bag of prohibitions, sometimes initiated locally and sometimes mandated by the state.

The frame has traditionally been prostitution, a general concept laws have prohibited and tried to suppress on the ground that it constitutes vice, perversion, immorality and social damage. Sometimes it is viewed in the old way as a social evil. This language is often heard in judges’ rhetoric when pronouncing sentences, in their supposed role of guardians of the moral flame. Much of the legislation, dating from previous centuries, uses archaic terms like houses of ill fame or bawdy houses to signify places where men can pay for sex. See how everyone talked when an Ontario high-court judge struck down prostitution laws in 2010.

The language remains vague and out-dated because it is convenient to the state, allowing police to charge miscreants for myriad activities under umbrellas of disorderliness, for example, or anti-social behaviour. The terms go in and out of use, but there’s always a handy, all-encompassing phrase to charge with, whether you’re in New York or Bangkok.

As an example, here is a list compiled for England and Wales, which share jurisdiction. (NB: It’s not a list for ‘Great Britain’ or ‘the UK’.) I made it thinking of all the kinds of laws sex workers get charged for, and then a lawyer provided the specific pieces of legislation involved. (This was on behalf of a decrim campaign). There are direct and indirect types of legislation. Common law derives from custom and judicial precedent rather than statutes, which means it weighs heavily even though you can never put your finger on it – also convenient to government.

Direct Legislation
-Soliciting. Street Offences Act 1959, S1(1) As amended by the PCA 2009.
-Brothel keeping. Sexual Offences Act 1956 S33.
-Prostitutes’ cautions. Home Office Circular No. 109/1959 and 20/2000.
-Causing or inciting prostitution for gain. Sexual Offences Act 2003 S52.
-Controlling prostitution for gain. Sexual Offences Act 2003 S53(1).
-Kerb crawling. Sexual Offences Act 2003 S51A.
-Paying for sexual services of a prostitute who has been forced. Policing and Crime Act 2009 modifying Sexual Offences Act 2009 S53A.
-Keeping a disorderly house. Common law.
-Allowing children in brothels. Children and Young Persons Act 1933 S3.
-Landlord knowingly allowing use of premises as a brothel. Sexual Offences Act 2003 S34.
-Tenant knowingly allowing use of premises as a brothel or for use by a single person for the purposes of prostitution. Sexual Offences Act 1956 S35 and S36.
-Brothel closure orders. Police and Crime Act 2009 S21 and Schedule 2.
-Carding (placing adverts relating to prostitution). Criminal Justice and Police Act 2001 S46(1).
-Sex in a public toilet. Sexual Offences Act 2003 S71.
-Indecent displays. Indecent Displays (Control) Act 1981 S1.

Indirect Legislation
-Proceeds of Crime Act 2002: Statutory scheme gives power to impose confiscation orders.
-Civil recovery orders. Proceeds of Crime Act 2002.
-ASBOs: 2014 ASBOs were replaced by new orders complementing civil injunction order.
-CBO: Criminal behaviour order, Part 2 Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 S22.
-Community Protection Notices: Anti-social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014 S43.
-Injunctions: remedy available to civil courts, no statutory basis. Principles for granting from American Cyanamid Co (No 1) v Ethicon Ltd [1975] UKHL 1.

That’s quite a lot of law and code that would need to be amended if any principle of decriminalisation were ever accepted. And even then the tentacles of criminalisation extend to other areas of law and practice. For example, the Crown Prosecution Service has guidelines on how to deal with prostitution that rest on notions of women’s exploitation and victimhood. And new criminalising laws could be proposed all the time despite a moment called decrim. Sexbuyer laws are the obvious new candidate for this.

Activists often complain the term legalisation is wrongly used to describe what they want. Legalisation is such a vague term I never use it. To a lesser extent you may see definitions of decriminalisation that don’t match. All of the laws in the above list aren’t strictly ‘prostitution laws’, but they are used to penalise prostitutes. You may see wording such as decriminalisation of exchanges between sex workers and clients, phrasing that evades the difficulty of defining third-party exploitation. My list includes laws that prohibit businesses where prostitutes, bargirls and dancers get jobs. A lot of workers don’t want to run their own businesses; they want to clock in for shifts in workplaces where management takes care of most things, getting a cut of fees earned by sex workers (and maybe a lot more than that). Separately, in England and Wales there is law to license and regulate sexual entertainment venues (live performances with nudity as in strip clubs and gentleman’s clubs). The existence of this kind of regulation will make something similar seem logical for sex work of other kinds.

Decrim advocates say they want ordinary labour law to cover the sex industry, but which labour law would be used as the pattern for the different kinds of sex work? Decrim, if attained, would lead immediately to a raft of characters’ stepping forward with proposals for how to regulate (which some will call legalisation). Consider the following:

The overwhelming majority of “sex work,” as its backers call it, is done in Las Vegas and Reno completely illegally, just like in the rest of the country. The reasons for this are fairly obvious: the regulatory regime in place is constricting and expensive, so most of the activity remains in the black market. One could argue that Nevada could expand its legalization of prostitution — to cover escort services and individual operators, for example — but under what regulatory framework? Would the work be licensed? Would inspectors ensure that healthy practices were in use, as they would with any other product or service on the market? Would consumer protections exist? If so, what kind? – The Federalist

So were individual sex-for-money exchanges to become legal, proposals would instantly proliferate as to where to allow businesses to operate, how to handle workplace health and safety, whether to register workers and mandate health-checks and how to calm neighbours who don’t want sex work near them: note the above writer doesn’t even want individuals selling from their homes. And then guidelines would need to be produced telling police and others how to proceed about everything, particularly when third parties are involved, in flats, massage parlours, spas, clubs, bars and saunas. So immediately after decrim, regulation would be on the table, there’s no way around it except to be prepared as sexworkers with proposals for how to proceed.

Note that none of these laws, annulled or not, affect the status of migrants without permission to work. They continue to benefit from the opportunities of underground economies and to need the help of smugglers and bosses who operate outside migration and employment law. Also beware: trafficking fears won’t be going away, and those laws have been written so that any kind of autonomous sex work is thrown in doubt, whether workers have permission to work or not.

I’m on record opposing activism that attempts to clearly distinguish between migrant sex workers who pay smugglers and hypothetically free native workers. Claiming to believe in the avalanche of trafficking victims throws migrants under the bus – and not only migrants, because to distinguish between free and unfree leads to doubts about every single poorer woman who doesn’t like what she does and can thus be labelled ‘forced’. It’s true ‘sex work is not trafficking’, but neither is migrant sex work: the difference is visa status. The above photo shows migrant sex workers queueing for health services and/or legal counselling offered in mobile units by groups such as Médicos del Mundo in Spain.

Perversely, anti-prostitutionists now routinely claim to be in favour of decriminalisation when they back sexbuyer laws. In the USA, where all is prohibited, this manages to sound like progress. Their argument is victimising: no woman can possibly ‘consent freely’ to selling sex, so having no clients to exploit them is doing them a favour. How they will pay bills is never addressed.

Caveat about naming New Zealand’s Prostitution Reform Act as the model for desired decriminalisation. The PRA specifically excludes migrant workers from selling sex, and while you may think that’s a detail, consider that in some jurisdictions the majority of women selling sex are not natives of the place but incomers (visitors, students, tourists, migrants). They have travelled from somewhere else, because they wanted to or felt obliged to, and they judge selling sex to be the best of their limited money-producing options. In New Zealand, they are deported. Decrim itself has no effect on migrants without permission to live and work; they remain in underground economies.

Also note that a law that seems to be working nicely in a very small country might need rethinking for bigger places and more complex social contexts. I hope someone is studying that.

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Highways as sexwork-places, with chairs

When the topic is selling sex outdoors, mainstream media stick to the same photos over and over. Generally now posed, the shots show young female bodies chopped off at the head or feet or waist, standing in dark city streets. I don’t need to give an example because you’ve instantly visualised what I’m talking about. So when I posted an item on facebook from The Local that carried this photo with pink and green chairs, many people sounded surprised.

If you don’t bring a chair, sometimes there’s a kerb to sit on. If there’s not, you might lean on metal barriers. But chairs of all portable types are common along highways in Cataluña, despite longtime attempts by local communities and police to stop the whole activity. Gavà, Castelldefels, Viladecans, Les Filipines – not far from the beach or downtown Barcelona. Places where traffic slows down, where there’s a place to pull over.

These are workplaces to which workers bring staple items: a rucksack with food, makeup, clothes, towels. A parasol, wastebasket, extra plastic bags. A book to read, a thermos of coffee, sunscreen. I mention all this because anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution campaigns focus exclusively on the question of choice: whether any of these women really knew what selling sex would be like when they came to these highways from Rumania, Bulgaria or anywhere else. Whether they can be granted any agency at all, whether prostitution carries a transcendent meaning for feminism. Abstract questions rather than everyday culture in which individuals experience their own workaday lives. Looked at from this other viewpoint, it’s clear women treat these sites as workplaces, and that’s whether the person coming to pick them up after their shift is a friend or some kind of controller.

This isn’t a merely ethnographic value to be pooh-poohed by hard-hitting ideologues. To know about sex work you need to do more than think in the abstract. You need to look at what there is to look at, listen to the music and read more than tweets and policy-papers. Observing the workplace, even if you feel appalled that it’s out on a highway in the hot sun, allows you to see that the women are not only waiting passively as if with a whip over their heads but exercising small choices about their comfort.

The most ethereal of these pictures come from Txema Salvans, whose project The Waiting Game shows many more shots of sex workers along these highways.

Some of the chairs are not so portable after all, but I really like the empire-style fringed one above. The pictures also show that some workplaces are shared – and some chairs.

I’ve written about sexwork-places in Spain many times before, including:

Who are migrant sex workers?

The Sex Industry in Spain: Sex clubs, flats, agriculture, tourism

Sexwork and migration fiction, part 2: Jobs in the sex industry

—Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Report from Macedonia: Balkan Noir

Last December I was in Skopje, the capital of Macedonia, on the occasion of International Day To End Violence against Sex Workers. This is what the sex workers’ march looked like on a wintry day. (2 Photos Credit: МИА, see Star Sexwork for more).

Macedonia isn’t a member of the EU because Greece objects to the name: political men’s clubs, eh? For myself, when asked if I’d been to the Balkans before I had to say Does it count if it was in the 70s? Obviously it doesn’t in terms of knowing anything except what a few places looked like to a young hitchiker down the Yugoslav coast. Then I was on my way to Greece and Egypt and points further south and east, and now I did recognise traces of the Ottoman in Skopje.

The sex workers of STAR gave a red-light performance for hours on the evening of 16 December, and Vanco Dzambaski took four pages of gorgeous photos of the event. In this one I’m outside looking up in company of Slavco Dimitrov of the Coalition Sexual and Health Rights of Marginalized Communities, who invited me to Macedonia.

This kind of venue – window prostitution – has never been part of Macedonian culture, which for a long time had regulated brothels typical in European history. As the time passed I began to feel we were watching a performance of modernity – the message to passers-by See what our profession looks like farther north. STAR’s live-stream of the event can be watched.

The performance went on for hours with breaks, and I moved from inside to outside, including across the large street to get a faraway view. I’m in the long coat.

In between sessions in the rainy streets we repaired to a bar where this Balkan Noir shot was taken. Slavco and Stefan Bogeski at the centre, me in the back head in hand, Dragana, Simona and Virginia at the edges. Thanks to all who showed me around (including Marija from HOPS), occasionally translated an alphabet I’d mostly forgotten, waited outside while I visited churches and peered at things. Especially thanks to those who responded when I insisted I needed Real Tea by taking me to a (conventionally) men-only café in the old bazaar. A big high-ceilinged room, no decor on the walls, no food, no games, just two screens showing different football matches, tea and cigarettes for men at wooden tables. It was heaven and made me feel I had ‘been there’ before.

As for my own invited talk, it looked like this, though none of the shots show how many folks were there. They had to bring in extra chairs, quieten partying children and all because there I was, waving my hands around as usual in front of a well-chosen photo from my collections of Women In Motion. It was said to be the first time anyone had talked like that in Macedonia – in terms of the ‘trafficking’ narrative, I take that to mean. One questioner said he assumed I myself had been a ‘sex-slave worker’ which shows how the media have confused things.

Thanks to Irena the moderator and Anna in the simultaneous translation box in the back. Lots more pictures were sent me, thanks to everyone who helped. I’m looking forward to my next trip out of Europe and into the Balkans. My only complaint about the whole thing were border-shenanigans leaving and entering Schengen at Vienna airport: once was already too many times.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Sex at the Margins: Beyond Binaries in Trafficking & Sex Work

I’ve been invited to speak at the Human Trafficking Center of the Josef Korbel School of International Studies at the University of Denver, Colorado. The talk is called Sex at the Margins: Beyond Binaries in Trafficking & Sex Work. In the 10th-anniversary year of Sex at the Margins I’ll be reflecting on the oceanic changes that have taken place since I first thought about the issues. Beyond Binaries is right: Flee from all attempts to reduce migration and sex-work questions to black and white. What I say is pretty much the opposite of everything seen and said now on the subjects in the media, by politicians and by Rescue Industry participants.

The event, entitled the Monica Petersen Memorial Lecture, is open to the public, taking place on Wednesday 10 January 2018 from 12-2pm at Sie Center Maglione Hall (5th Floor), on the campus at 2201 South Gaylord Street: further details and a link to RSVP here on eventbrite . There is also a facebook page.

Later that day I’ll be reading from Sex at the Margins and The Three-Headed Dog at the University Library, Anderson Academic Commons Room 290, 2150 East Evans Avenue from 17:00-18:00. There’ll be a discussion and Q&A afterwards.

I’d love to meet anyone in person I’ve chatted to online, so do identify yourselves. And I’ve got a couple of days partially free to wander the town, so let me know if anything interesting is happening.

-Laura Agustín, The Naked Anthropologist

International Day To End Violence against Sex Workers

On the International Day to End Violence against Sex Workers, 17 December, I’ll be in Skopje, Macedonia, invited to speak and march by the Coalition ‘Sexual and Health Rights of Marginalized Communities’ in association with the Institute for Ethnology and Antropology at Saints Cyril and Methodius University.

My public talk Sex at the Margins will be held at Public Room, which describes itself like this:

PUBLIC ROOM – Centre for design and innovation: Mezze bar, music, free co–working space for freelancers, concept store, prototyping room, library, commercial bazaars, fine arts and photo exhibitions, professional presentations, workshops for children and adults, business meetings, seminars and celebrations. Public Room is urban, multifunctional place open for all companies, organizations and enthusiasts from all generations… It is a pure hybrid space that abounds with opportunities, creative potential, programme for all tastes and people with positive attitude. You are welcome to realize your ideas in Public Room.

Pure hybrid – sounds like my sort of space. Mixed use, open to all, I’m in favour.

Here’s the facebook post for the event, which will be held at 1800 at 50 Divizija 22, 1000 Skopje: map to Public Room:

On Saturday 16 December, STAR STAR, a sex workers organisation, will do a Red Light District performance in Skopje city centre at 1700-1900 and 2000-2200 (Boulevard St Kliment Ohridski).

On 17 December at noon there is a march on Macedonia Street to mark the Day to End Violence against Sex Workers. Many sex worker groups hold events around the world on this day, and I’m happy to be in Southeast Europe, perhaps even in some sunshine.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist