Tag Archives: campaigns

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

The New Abolitionist Model

The New Abolitionist Model

By Laura Agustín, was published in Jacobin Magazine 6 December 2017. I wrote this after reading Julie Bindel’s new book but my thoughts are about the whole anti-prostitution movement as it stands today, whether formulated by so-called radical feminists, Christian missionaries, lawmakers or Rescue Industry social workers. Many others have commented on specific falsehoods and distortions in this book: especially see social media. Links were added by Jacobin. I begin with

__________________________________________________________
Entry for an encyclopedia of feminism: The Sex Work Wars: Decades of acrimonious debate about the meaning of exchanging sex for money. Near-total disagreement about terms, definitions, causes, and effects, and how to measure the involved phenomena. Mutual incomprehension on cultural meanings of sex, sexual identity, and gender relations. Laws backed by politicians based on the supposed truth of one or the other view. Little improvement for those being discussed. Outgrowth of the Lesbian/Feminist Sex Wars of the 1980s.
_________________________________________________________

A new shot has been fired in the Sex Work Wars. Julie Bindel’s The Pimping of Prostitution calls for a return to more authentic beginnings, when, as she tells it, everyone involved in the 1960s women’s liberation movement was in thrall to a few shining leaders.

This version rings no bells for me. We were revolting against 1950s domestic ideology that told women to be quiet, feminine, and satisfied with making homes for men. The meaning of liberation was to figure out how to live on our own terms, and if we did read mimeographed newsletters from activists, we didn’t think we had to agree with them. We didn’t feel anyone was our leader. We talked together on the streets, in classrooms, in cafés. Everyone’s experiences counted.

In those conversations, prostitution was considered neither a central issue nor a terrible thing — or not more terrible than everything else we were coming to recognize as oppressive. We wanted to know why housework wasn’t paid and women were supposed to do all the childrearing. We wanted to define our own ways to enjoy sex. We used a new word, ”sexist.” I don’t recall attending a single formal meeting, but I have identified since that time as a feminist.

In this book, Bindel offers two things: cheers and brickbats. Those who agree with her get cheers, everyone else gets brickbats. Less subtle than boxing commentary that recognizes all good punches, this is a bitterness born of thwarting: Prostitution still exists. Millett and Dworkin have been betrayed. Someone must pay.

Nowadays in conversations about women’s rights, there’s widespread agreement about the need for more education, equal salaries, and better job opportunities. But bring up women’s physical bodies, and ideologies of femininity and patriarchy flash like wildfire. Intransigent conflict pursues contraceptionabortion, surrogacy and, perhaps above all, how women can and may consent to have sex. For radical feminists like Bindel, the insertion of money into a sexual relationship signifies no women can ever consent, even when they say they do.

News about women who sell sex has changed tone since publication in 2000 of the UN Protocol on Trafficking, although legal definitions are even now not fully agreed on. Media reports routinely confuse or use all available terms. Human trafficking is not distinguished from people-smuggling, borrowing money to migrate is called debt bondage, awful working conditions and child labor become modern slavery, and selling sex is renamed either sex trafficking or sex slavery. All sociocultural contexts are eliminated in favor of universalizing definitions. No interest is shown in considering how to improve working conditions. The result is to define women as victims in need of rescue, especially when they are selling sex.

In this context it’s not surprising that abolitionism should reemerge into the mainstream. Bindel calls hers the new abolition movement, misleadingly linking to Josephine Butler’s nineteenth-century campaigns to abolish government regulation of prostitution (not prostitution itself). Bindel rejects the aforementioned proliferation of terms: “Trafficking is merely a process in which some women and children are prostituted. Prostitution itself is the problem.” Which at least confirms a long-standing activist complaint regarding anti-trafficking campaigns: that the real object is prohibition of any woman from selling sex, anywhere, anytime.

Fear of trafficking is now used to justify a variety of repressive prostitution-policy regimes, including a law that bans the purchase of sex. First called the Swedish model, then the Nordic, this law, according to Bindel, can now be called the abolitionist model. The idea of this ban is to “End Demand,” on the theory that, if men were stopped from buying sex, women could not be exploited and would never sell sex. It is a ludicrously simplified market theory of supply and demand. Abolitionists claim the law decriminalizes the sale of sex by women (appropriating the central demand of the sex workers’ rights movement), failing to address what would happen to women’s income if there were no clients.

The book’s subtitle, Abolishing the Sex Work Myth, suggests it will prove there are no sex workers. Bindel names many countries she visited. She details the personal sufferings of women who hated selling sex: these are her heroes, and they come across as individuals. Representatives of the “pro-prostitution lobby,” on the contrary, are treated as a series of puppets, quoted to demonstrate their cynicism. Those who recognize the concept of agency as one reason to accept the existence of voluntary sex work are ridiculed as “choice” or “fun” feminists. We hear nothing from women who may not like sex work but continue doing it for their own good reasons.

Mud is slung at escort-agency managers, queer academics, gay libertarians, HIV/health NGOs, migration scholars, Amnesty International, and sex worker-led groups. The greatest wrath is reserved for funders like George Soros’s Open Society Foundations for daring to try to strengthen sex workers’ rights. Because she wants to obliterate all differences and discredit every conceivable source of opposition to radical feminist ideology, variety in types of sex work, degrees of management control, perceptions of autonomy, and amounts of money are dismissed out of hand. Canned summaries of a few moments in sex-worker-rights history are thrown in, but the entire international social movement is dismissed as a pimping “lobby.”

I am capable of reading works whose worldview I don’t like for research purposes, but this book defeated me. The table of contents looks rational, but each chapter consists of many short subsections that appear almost randomly placed. The style is bumpy and awkward, suggesting multiple writers and no editor. There’s no depth, nuance, or engagement with ideas.

And I found very little that might be called new, neither facts nor ideas. If the international abolitionist movement hoped this would be a new heavy weapon against enemies or a way to convince non-experts that sex work is an illusion, they will be shaking their heads in disappointment.

The worst of the contemporary abolitionist project is its failure to confront the question of options for women. Bindel feels Josephine Butler would be on her side? I feel she’d be on mine. At mid-nineteenth century Butler saw how few alternatives women had to achieve economic independence and did not advocate they should be deprived of the possibility of selling sex to survive.

As a scholar in the field, my question has never been whether selling sex is acceptable in moral or feminist terms. Instead I’ve focused on the fact that women everywhere have limited job options, and, when they are not well-educated or connected socially, those options generally reduce to low-paying, low-prestige work: street vending, home sewing, caring, cleaning, retail jobs, sweatshop labor, and selling sex. When the women are undocumented migrants the feasible options reduce to two: living in others’ families as maids or selling sex.

Given the low earnings of these occupations, it is hardly surprising that women who feel they can tolerate it do sex work instead. Less time spent working for more money means being able to support oneself, help others and still have time to take a walk or read a book. Sometimes sex workers get into relationships that don’t look good to outsiders. But what do abolitionists imagine women with few options will do if they are forced to stop sex work?

The old Magdalene Laundries and lock hospitals envisioned nothing better than domestic servitude for ”fallen women.” Is the proposition still that being a servant for pennies and a scant private life is better because it is more dignified? Or is it superior simply because it is notsex work? Either way, to focus always on the moral aspects of sexual labor means forever sidelining projects to improve working conditions and legal protections.

Bindel’s need to manifest indignation at the slightest deviance from a simplified ideology means readers get no distinctions between dastardly procurers, human rights groups, independent escorts, academic researchers, workers in massage parlors, and Hugh Hefner. We’re all the same thing. It’s the textbook definition of fundamentalism.

***

I’ve written previously about feminist fundamentalism in:
The Bad Vibrations of Anatomical Fundamentalism: World Gender War
Sex workers at AWID reject feminist fundamentalism
and Gunilla Ekberg, Sex War and Extremist Feminism.

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

If you thought Trafficking was a bad term, try Modern Slavery

As if Human Trafficking weren’t an already over-used, ambiguous, confusing term for a raft of phenomena, some influential characters want to replace the term with Modern Slavery. I marvel consistently here and on facebook and twitter about the predominance of misleading terminology not only from voracious Online Editors but also from moral entrepreneurs, politicians and now, ever oftener, the police.

The following objection about Modern Slavery is from Mike Dottridge, whom I met long ago when I still didn’t know that everything I was interested in was destined to be called Trafficking, and nor did he. Notes on the photos at the end.

The UN Trafficking Protocol of 2000 describes various forms of exploitation: slavery, forced labour and types of servitude such as debt bondage. Now individual philanthropists and politicians are pushing to substitute the term Modern Slavery for Human Trafficking. What happens then? Bear in mind that a slave is defined as a person who is the legal property of another or can be treated as such: they can be bought, sold, traded or inherited. A slave is a personal possession – a chattel.

*Westerners are happy to use Modern Slavery for a wide range of common practices in developing countries, such as the use of bonded labourers in South Asia or of indigenous children as domestic workers in Paraguay. But human-rights defenders say using the term won’t help them combat specific forms of exploitation they oppose, because slavery simply means something else in their countries.

*Using the term Modern Slavery precipitates us into name-and-shame mode, pointing the finger at governments and businesses which tolerate it. It implies that countries with large numbers of slaves are allowing something awful to occur. So, instead of the Development/cooperation paradigm that was dominant in the second half of the 20th century, with richer countries supporting efforts to bring about social and economic change in poorer ones, we revert back to the 19th-century idea that some uncivilised countries require pressure from civilised ones to abandon unacceptable practices. There are plenty of problems in the way Development policies are applied, but shaming governments into recognising that slavery is occurring in their countries is an example of the wrong way to achieve international cooperation.

*In the minds of people in Western Europe and the Americas, the word slavery refers to the transatlantic slave trade. Using the term for levels of exploitation which do not meet the legal definition trivialises historical chattel slavery and reduces any sense of responsibility in countries that benefited from it. This fits neatly into the agenda of white supremacists who dismiss contemporary racism and discrimination against the descendants of slaves. We should avoid terminology which sounds imperialist and potentially racist.

*This brings me to one of my deepest worries, that the governments that have decided to use Modern Slavery (Australia, the UK and the USA) are also those keen to abandon conventional approaches to Development. Earlier this year Australia and the UK used bullying tactics to persuade others to follow their usage at a UN Security Council debate about trafficking, slavery and forced labour in the context of armed conflict. I fear that moving from the term Trafficking to Modern Slavery opens a Pandora’s Box, with UN organisations like the ILO and UNODC vying for influence, and Australia, the UK and the USA pushing for the term Modern Slavery while the Russian Federation and its allies disagree. This then becomes part of today’s Cold War between East and West and provides an excuse for neither side to take significant action.

*Rich philanthropists interested in financing anti-slavery organisations are not trying to persuade governments to respect the human rights of people who have already been exploited or to reform employment and immigration systems to reduce future exploitation. Philanthropists put emphasis on the responsibility of consumers and businesses but only ask governments to enforce laws. This undermines respect for human rights in general and in particular for the human rights of migrants and others who are abused and exploited.

*The types of exploitation implied by Modern Slavery encourage many government officials to stop paying attention to conventional techniques for protecting workers such as regulation, workplace inspections and trade unions. By creating the impression that they are helpless slaves who need rescuing from the hands of criminals, they propagate a myth that all informal work that helps migrants to survive is illicit and should be prohibited, thereby denying migrants the lifeline on which they often depend.

I’ve been an ardent critic of the way a poor legal definition of Human Trafficking has required years of debate to clarify, still without total success, so I’m loath to see yet more time and money wasted on disputes about definitions and concepts. Instead I want to see investment in action to stop unacceptable exploitation and assist the victims.

Notes from Mike on the photos: At the top are Manjok and Awut and their son Mohammed, who had been abducted and held separately and only married and had their son after release. I met them in Ad-Dha’ein, a small town in South Darfur near what is now the border of North and South Sudan in October 2000 after they had been released from captivity. Of course, they look like ordinary people, rather than ‘slaves’. Above is Bol, who was about six when he was abducted and spent about a dozen years in captivity. I met him in Khartoum.

Mike Dottridge was director of Anti-Slavery International from 1996 to 2002. For more detail see Eight reasons why we shouldn’t use the term ‘modern slavery’

Just yesterday the Guardian published this info-box on Modern Slavery. I’d say the substitution is well under way and expect loads of new confusion on the part of all and sundry.

In the first novel in my crime series, The Three-Headed Dog, migrants in Spain use slavery-words in the informal way we are all accustomed to. Here is young Eddy, who is happy to have a low-paying job in a bar where he sleeps on a pallet in the basement:

He did wonder sometimes when a customer joked about lazing around the beach. One guy said ‘What’s it like to work for the first time in your life, instead of sitting around drinking from coconuts?’ Eddy went on picking up glasses and putting them on his tray. He had never liked coconut, and the boss had said not to get into conversations.

In the kitchen a boy with Indian-type features said, ‘Fucking Spanish racists. First they go and commit genocide in our countries and take everything we’ve got. Then they leave us to die in poverty. Now when we come back here willing to work for starvation-wages they treat us like dirt.’

Eddy objected. ‘But all that was ages ago. Santo Domingo is the first place they went to, I know all about that. But nowadays is different.’ Hell, it was like those endless demonstrations at home, long-haired political types going on and on about the conquistadores and US imperialism. He found politics boring.

‘You wait,’ said the other boy, squirting detergent into the pan. ‘Some of them hide what they think because racism is out of style, but in the end they’re all alike. I’d rather die than live here and be a slave like this, but my mother needs an operation. If I could get money any other way I would.’ He banged a glass, and it broke, which would be deducted from his wage. The Three-Headed Dog p 148

I don’t want to stop folks using slave as a metaphor in everyday life, but in official and quasi-legal language I sure don’t want the already dysfunctional term trafficking replaced by slavery, whether modern or antique. And as for the yellow-press term sex slaves…

-Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Sexwork and migration fiction, part 1: Melodrama and archetypes

landscape-1482233776-rexfeatures-5608654aI wrote a novel, The Three-Headed Dogfor more than one reason. Here is the first of a series in which I tell why, not in any greatly structured way – more thinking aloud. Part 1 highlights how two sides of activism (sex worker rights versus anti-prostitutionism) generally argue their positions, with an eye on the ‘fictional’ methods of abolitionists.

Anti-prostitution campaigners favour melodrama for public hearings on law and policy, bringing women to testify to their victimhood and – this is important – survival. The harrowing tales of forced sex aim to provoke feelings of compassion for suffering that makes listeners worry how many others might tell the same story. Politicians, policy-makers and judges on the podium, as well as spectators, activists and others in the audience are presented with a melodramatic spectacle that churns their feelings, narrowing the distance between themselves and women they otherwise do not resemble.

If you’ve sat amongst the spectators at such events you’ve seen the nodding and other reactions that bubble around you to signal that This is the real story, the only one you need to know. At a recent hearing into Backpage’s possible trafficking-guilt, three parents talked about their lost daughters in a manner that did not prove anything but how upset they felt. Crusaders may also present less emotive testimony, but they never stay long on the fully rational plane. This is a campaign strategy. We are meant to feel lucky that a victim has survived to tell the tale and shiver at the probabiity that most victims do not.

Melodrama relies on the use of archetypes, basic character types that (maybe) ring the same bell in all human beings. The testifying survivor reflects two: the Fallen WomanArt_Shay_Fallen_woman_2044_67 and the Woman Rescued and Reformed. Empathy with the survivor testimony requires a vivid imagining of what she went through before escaping, when she was forced to sell sex, manipulated by bad men and brought so low in the social hierarchy that she’s shown wallowing in the gutter. I’ve written about the Fallen Woman archetype more than once.

awakeningconsciousThe Woman Rescued and Reformed is harder to portray. William Holman Hunt depicted her as The Awakening Conscience (1853), arising from her seducer’s lap upon seeing the light of virtue. It is currently not fashionable to imply that an ex-prostitute was ever at fault, collaborated in her degradation or enjoyed her woeful life. Nowadays anti-prostitution crusaders insist she was a pure victim from the moment she was first seduced. But the archetypes remain in our minds.

At the same public hearings, the appeals to instinctive archetypes and emotions are opposed by Reason: speakers who proceed logically, debunk sensational claims and forgo theatricality. The pro-sexwork-as-work side backs values like fairness and diversity, avoids making extreme claims and calls for policy backed by the evidence of academic research. This is by and large done in a non-emotional mode, appealing to scientific thinking and intelligence. No frisson of excitement ripples through the audience.

These two modes of argument have been in operation for a long time in this field, and neither side has budged from its convictions. On top of realising that that would never change, I became alienated by the paucity of questions addressed: Did the woman know she was going to sell sex? Would she sell sex if she had better options? And so on. I was bored by the impossibility of ever talking about the thousands of other details, ambiguities, jokes, practicalities and philosophies that have no place in conversations framed as ‘debate’ or hearings on law. Pieces written for academic journals are read by a tiny few insiders. And if the only evidence allowed is that turned up in highly constrained research projects then what I want to talk about doesn’t fit there either.

AN00164637_001_lI have every confidence that novels are a wonderful way to reveal unfamiliar worlds. There are, of course, truckloads of melodramatic anti-trafficking novels out now, as there are films. My own way would never be melodrama, but I understand that particular images resound with wide audiences. I am a lifelong appreciator of some kinds of crime novels, and this genre seemed right for me. Particularly right is noir, where it is usual to turn assumptions about criminality and victimhood on their heads. Images of the World Upside-Down hung beside me during the years I was writing Sex at the Margins. Disruption of stereotypes. The end of essentialisms. Strange bedfellows. Irony upon irony.

In The Three-Headed DogI begin to tell some of what has been stored for long in my head in order to say: This is what it looked like at the beginning of the 21st century. These are some stories that rarely got heard. They are stories one can read and still ‘disapprove’ of migration and sex work, but perhaps now capable of seeing the people involved as sentient beings colouring the landscape, moving through the bush, laughing in restaurant kitchens and buying fruit at the market.

Screen Shot 2017-01-16 at 09.54.56More soon.
Remember to
sign up for
email alerts
for new posts.

-Laura Agustín,
the Naked
Anthropologist

Trafficking: The globalisation of weak thinking and dumb language

hopeforjusticeukWhat isn’t on this list of signs of human trafficking? Has there ever been a vaguer term than abuse of vulnerability? It could describe being a parent or teacher easily. If informants are supposed to make a telephone call based on any of these signs – which is what this says – then heaven help the switchboards. No wonder Rescue-Industry groups have to ask for so much funding.

Lists of the so-called signs of being a victim of trafficking are now common, even placed in airports in hopes that victims may experience revelation and realise they need rescue. Such techniques demonstrate how the Rescue Industry institutionalises, submitting to funding guidelines written by government bureaucrats. The particular group that produced the list you see here have expanded from the US to the UK. It’s a sort of globalisation of weak thinking.

There are young people now who have grown up surrounded by campaigning against trafficking, unaware there is conflict about how to define the term. Some want to dedicate energy to combating what is figured as a modern social evil. Some compare themselves with 19th-century anti-slavery advocates and feel outraged that anyone would question what they are doing.

The field gets critiqued regularly, and I don’t always contribute when asked for comment. I regularly send a link to Dear Students of Sex Work and Trafficking (students can be taken as a general term for those who wish to inform themselves). I don’t want to repeat the same ideas over and over when it’s all easily findable on a website, and I don’t like reducing complexity to bullet points. I also think everything has been said, and claims that insights are new are untrue. Online Editors routinely splash every banal keyword into headlines, sometimes without reference to what the item actually contains. Exaggeration has taken over.

Recent inquiries roused me to sketch out a few basic ideas that take in the history.

mobilityThe Convention on Transnational Organised Crime was published in Palermo in 2000 by the UN Office on Drugs and Crime. Two protocols on human mobility were appended, one on trafficking, the other on smuggling. The process of defining these was long and conflictual and has been documented publicly. It was all supposed to pertain to undocumented migrants, a topic nearly always omitted from current commentary. I’ve written about these protocols more than once, particularly their genderedness and how sex is pointed to when the mobile people are women but not when they are men. The cover to my book Sex at the Margins used the image of mobility and human agency seen here.

After the Convention was published, the idea of trafficking began its ascent, and soon we who were interested in migration, sex work and labour policy realised it was useless for gaining equity or rights. The framework of the Convention is Crime – there is no fixing that. The assumption is this human mobility to work is fomented by criminals who use force and coercion against their victims – notions impossible to pin down because they vary infinitely amongst individuals according to momentary conditions. If you look at the footnotes opposing sides published on the language of the protocols you see how they argued about these keywords. Later some wag used the term sex trafficking, moving towards reductionism that is typical to the campaigning of moral entrepreneurs.

Behind this over-simplification and over-focus on sex lie real social inequalities and oppressions: migration policies that favour middle- and upper-class jobs, out-of-date notions of the formal economy and productive labour, young people who want to get away from home, job-seekers willing to take risks to make more money, laws that make commercial sex illegal, laws that make sweatshops illegal and there is more. To lump all this under a single term simply disappears the array of different situations, encourages reductionism and feeds into a moralistic agenda of Good and Evil. The term trafficking is an invention incapable of describing so many realities, and it does not help to reduce them all to two possibilities – the Free vs the Enslaved, the Autonomous vs the Coerced. In the case of those who sell sex it does not help to reduce them to Sex Workers vs Victims of Trafficking.

I am asked what better language would be, but the issue is not language, as though everything might be fixed by changing the words. The framework setting out the problems is good for nothing but policing. I suggest addressing specific injustices on their own terms. For example

-If the subject is runaway teenagers who don’t want to live with their parents or go to school and don’t have money or job-skills, then talk about that.

-If the subject is people who took a job that didn’t turn out the way they expected but they need the money so don’t leave it, then talk about that.

-If the subject is migrants who crossed borders with false papers so they are not legal to work at any job, then talk about that.

And so on. Get down to specifics, deal with real situations, stop arguing about ridiculous abstractions. Social policies do not have to be so dumb.

alice_cram

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist