Tag Archives: campaigns

Research is not activism: And whose interests are at stake, anyway?

animeteamRecently Amnesty International voted to pursue a policy advocating the decriminalisation of sex work (sort of). If you were judging the issues by what Big Media told you, the debate was a clear pro-rights position versus an anti-prostitution position. The clash sometimes looked like Who gets to speak for women who sell sex? ignoring the men and transpeople and ignoring the considerable variation in experience amongst those who work in the sex industry. And, by the way, amongst those who used to work and now don’t.

Understanding the symbolic importance of the moment I kept quiet about aspects of Amnesty International’s proposal that are not good, and I know others who did the same. But behind the scenes, amongst rights activists, there was criticism of Amnesty’s draft. There were differences of opinion, some harsh words and some misunderstandings. As far as I know, there is never total agreement about what specific words should appear in any document attempting to define good law and policy that will support people who sell sex. If the outside world could see those differences of opinion perhaps fewer would believe anti-prostitutionist sloganeering about happy hookers and the pimp lobby.

But the differences always exist within a basic framework that understands selling sex can be experienced as work (nothing to do with personal happiness or what labels folks give themselves). The reductionist line about survivors versus a sexworker elite is daft. But on an occasion like the Amnesty vote, when 140-character tweets reign, most everyone unites in solidarity and sticks to a clear argument, in this case that decriminalisation makes sex workers safer.

One flurry of disagreement on an activist email list arose from an item published by a few academic researchers in Canada in support of Amnesty’s proposal. Some activists found the item to be victimising and disempowering for sex workers. Others did not. One statement got my attention, so I asked the author, Will Pritchard, if I could publish it here.

Research is not Activism

Will Pritchard August 2015

anime2Some researchers have gained the media spotlight claiming they have evidence showing that in places where sex work is a crime, sex workers are powerless victims, forced to work in isolation with no ability to negotiate safe sex, access medical services or organize collectively.

In response, some sex work activists are voicing dismay, arguing that sex workers organize themselves, promote safe sex and join the struggle for their freedom precisely in those places where they face criminal sanctions because sex work is illegal. 

The harm-reduction framework was built under the rubric of human rights. Having watched it develop in Canada in the late 1980s in response to criminalization of drug use and then spreading to other issues including sex work, I have decided that it actually erodes grassroots activists’ efficacy and role. This erosion is due in part to the fact that harm-reduction policies rely on ‘evidence’, and to get that we require research.

Some researchers conscript service agencies, advocates or individual workers to consult in the creation of research projects but often solely to provide legitimacy and address the ethical concerns in institutional review-board processes. Those consulted are rarely experts in research, and though I recognize the important part they play, if they are unaware of the history of the global struggle for sex worker freedoms, or lack a sex work analysis, their contributions become token. They may have limited or no capacity to provide strategic direction to the researcher.

Sadly, those sex workers who are subject to research often set their own personal interests aside and volunteer, under the mistaken belief that participation is for the greater good, or worse, that it is a form of activism. But research is not activism.

anime_heroes_promo_by_ryutokun-d4cmyy2Many grassroots activists and organizers are exasperated that they must now face the challenge of discovering the interests of those publishing research on sex workers. Who is funding the research and to what end? What is the researcher’s professional background and record for incorporating sex worker voices? This frustrating distraction hijacks activists’ bandwidth and is an example of the unintended consequences of research.

Researchers would do well to consider the reflexivity inherent in the harm-reduction framework, whereby evidence-based policy-making begets policy-based evidence-making – a meta-bias if you will. Based on the interests of the researcher, not the researched.

I believe that academics and other allies may have the best of intentions. But perhaps their interests do not actually align with the struggle for sex worker freedoms? They deserve to be questioned, challenged and criticized, since unintended consequences arising from the results of their research could well undermine sex worker freedoms in future, particularly in the domains of public health, justice and social science.

Sex worker activists speak from experience when it comes to unintended consequences. For example, the foundation sex worker activists built was never intended as a stepping-off point for academics to shift the focus of the struggle for freedoms to their own work in the form of ‘evidence’.

Research involving sex work is a job. Sex workers should supervise. And when sex workers say, Sit down, shut up and get back to work, researchers should listen.

Research is not activism.

In solidarity,

Will Pritchard

will-cowboyWilliam Pritchard has been an activist for sex worker rights for 25 years. As a young escort, he helped build a new kind of peer outreach program in Toronto and co-founded the Sex Workers Alliance of Vancouver. Will is a partner at Walnet Institute, an online arts and activism resource. He volunteers as a director for the Triple-X Workers’ Solidarity Association of British Columbia and is a member of the Canadian Union of Public Employees. He works as a city planner in Vancouver, Canada.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Becoming aware of Awareness-Raising as anti-trafficking tactic

CCO.Knabe-Sex-Trafficking-Board.5.31.12 (1)My Google Alerts are now full of nonsensical items on behalf of a Trafficking Awareness Month in the USA. I first discovered Awareness Raising when I began to study assumptions held in the world of helping. One holds that certain social problems are ‘hidden’, and ‘hidden populations’ are great favourites amongst sociologists (who can then claim to have located and revealed them). Of course, most of us do know marginalised groups exist; we see them every day and may belong to them ourselves. But the idea that we cannot see social ills creates the need for self-identified experts to inform us about them. Hiding has become a term especially used about undocumented women and under-18-year-olds who sell sex.

busHere the theory is played out with a message placed on a city bus so that a lot of random people see it (thus having their awareness raised). The term is not a synonym for consciousness-raising, whether yogic or feminist (Wikipedia is wrong) but a strategy with concrete techniques used first by social-policy adepts and activists and then spread in mediocre news-production and social media. See the example of Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (Article 8) for more explanation.

Awareness is by definition superficial and can only become deeper if followed up by curious investigation: wondering, reading, critique, talking with those more experienced, cogitating over ambiguities. But with awareness-raising as goal, previously uninformed audiences tend to accept whatever messages claim to be the truth, so that when campaigners are unprincipled (as many anti-traffickers are), audiences are misinformed. Misinformation – or deliberate disinformation – usually comes in the form of over-simplified categories that reduce human complexities to a couple of black-and-white labels, accompanied by unfounded statistics. I often meet people now who, when they discover what my work has been, dismiss it with a smug claim that we have a ‘difference of opinion’. I object: my knowledge is based on research and analysis over many years, not an awareness campaign disseminated on facebook or an online petition, not the acceptance of heavily biased or badly researched media articles.

satmThis field is not easy to comprehend but fraught with subtleties and apparent contradictions. My work began with my own questions, because I didn’t understand 20 years ago and I knew I didn’t. Over time I came to focus on those who position themselves as called to rescue women they call victims who, in large numbers, didn’t (and still don’t) identify that way (which doesn’t mean nothing is wrong or everyone is happy). I created the term Rescue Industry after years of study to describe non-self-critical helpers who assume they Know Better than the rest of us how we all ought to live. In my book Sex at the Margins I wrote of trafficking as a new keyword (thanks to Molly Crabapple for the tweeted photo). Creating this keyword was an essential step towards the Rescue Industry’s becoming able to engage in awareness-raising: you can’t put snappy messages on buses until you have snappy concepts (for theory-mavens I am talking about an apparatus of governmentality).

Anti-trafficking and anti-prostitution campaigning have produced a generation of people who believe the facts have been established long since about who is Good and Bad, who is Victim and why and how to solve the problems. Most folks are not, of course, particularly interested in the details or nuances to the general narrative. At the same time some opposition campaigners also over-simplify in an attempt to reach uncritical audiences, by invoking civil liberties or freedom of choice and ignoring complexities.

billboardarlingtonHere’s awareness-raising on a highway before a Super Bowl in Texas. Note this is not only about the message but the medium, the board-in-your-driving-face. Speeches and presentations given by social workers, politicians, academics and others at meetings and conferences do not qualify. Website mission statements do not qualify. You have to go out into the world and Do Something broadly educative. I recall when I worked amongst undocumented migrants detained at the Mexico-US border how we dreamt of travelling south to hold posters up in bus and gas stations warning of certain, er, problems ahead.

The following Google Alerts for 6 January 2015 come from around the US; town-names show how awareness-raising as a tactic has spread: Fargo, Spartanburg, Fond du Lac, Fresno, Duluth, Houston. Despite varying immigration and cultural histories, all conform to and reproduce the dominant confusing and dysfunctional message.

Google “Human Trafficking” 6 January 2015

Official Reports Progress in Awareness of Human Trafficking
Department of Defense WASHINGTON, Jan. 5, 2015 – Defense Department awareness of slavery and human trafficking issues is paying off significantly because of …

Human trafficking awareness events planned in Fargo
INFORUM FARGO – An event scheduled here Sunday in honor of National Human Trafficking Awareness Day will feature a panel discussion with local experts …

Ongoing human trafficking cases
Daily Republic Mitchell SD
Trina Nguyen and Loc Tran face federal human trafficking charges and other charges after allegedly operating a brothel in Minot, N.D., and then, after …

SC prosecutor discussing fight against human trafficking
The State Columbia SC The State Wilson’s office says he plans to talk about the need for new legislative tools for fighting human trafficking. Benton plans to talk about how some of those …

Human trafficking: How one Minnesota girl was lured into ‘the game’
Duluth News Tribune Duluth MN It was the early 1980s, and the evolving Block E of downtown Minneapolis had life, with hustlers and prostitutes interspersed with the suit-and-tie …

Human trafficking event held Saturday
Fond du Lac Reporter Fond du Lac WI A presentation about human trafficking will be held at 10 a.m. Saturday, Jan. 10 at Fond du Lac Public Library’s Eugene G. McLane Meeting Room.

Human trafficking hidden but present in Upstate
Spartanburg Herald Journal Spartanburg SC January is human trafficking awareness month, and statewide and local events are scheduled to bring attention to the issue that exploits about 21 …

Life after human trafficking
Houston Chronicle Houston TX Life after human trafficking … Today she’s a 33-year-old college junior with a 4.0 GPA — living proof that the victims of human trafficking can recover.

Fresno meeting set to discuss human trafficking, domestic violence
Fresno Bee Fresno CA Centro La Familia Advocacy Services will host “A Community Convening: Conversations Not Heard” to raise public awareness of human trafficking …

mccainThen, of course, there are ads aimed at victims themselves, which are more properly understood as outreach. The latest generation of these show clearly that objects of help may not know they are victims.

In the midst of writing this post I listened to Marvin Gaye’s early rendition of I heard it through the grapevine. Grapevines pre-date awareness-raising.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

‘Sex Work is Not Sex Trafficking’: An idea whose time has not come

Sex-Work-Is-Not-Trafficking-300x292Anti-prostitution advocates routinely use absurd over-simplications to make their crusade crystal-clear easy to understand. Campaigning works better when arguments are black and white and slogans are catchy, obviously, so I realise why some sexworkers’ rights supporters are now using a slogan that also reduces complexity to two opposed states: Sex Work is Not (Sex) Trafficking (sometimes ‘sex’ is omitted). The purpose is to clarify the volition of sex workers who demand labour rights, but for those who struggle against the framing of undocumented migration and people-smuggling as ‘organised crime’, with the only two roles possible perpetrator and victim, the concept is morally bankrupt.

sanjoseCRSex Work is Not Sex Trafficking arose (first) from the common refusal by abolitionists to recognise that anyone sells sex voluntarily and (second) because they early on began fiddling any distinction between prostitution and trafficking. Claims like No woman would ever choose to prostitute herself and the cries of unhappy ex-victims that their experiences are true for everyone led naturally to an opposing insistence that many do opt to sell sex – some loving their jobs and others just preferring it to their other options.

thaiBut to say Sex Work is not Sex Trafficking is to reify the current trafficking narrative, accepting that it refers to something real and bad that must be fought against. The slogan tries to make a sexworker identity clear by distinguishing it from a trafficking-victim identity – the Free versus the Unfree. Saying Some of us are willing to sell sex draws attention to those who are not willing – a distancing mechanism characteristic of identity politics. To maintain I don’t need your help or pity means you accept that other people do need it – those who are really trafficked.

This is to accept the repressive policing, infantilisation of women, colonialism, anti-immigration policy and a range of Rescue Industry offerings: just not for real sex workers. It says You win to anti-trafficking campaigners, even if you don’t mean it to. It throws under the bus all migrants, documented or not, who don’t much like selling sex and don’t call themselves sex workers but don’t want to be saved or deported. It Others the many who have limited control over their lives, feel pressure to earn money however they can or want to get the hell out and go somewhere else and will do whatever it takes to get there. This includes teenagers who leave homes they hate and end up on the street or avoiding the street by trading sex for a place to live.

nocturnoThe entire range of complexity and diversity nowadays thrown into the term trafficked is denied. Years of attempts to bring justice and nuance to a bad criminal framework are ignored. The myriad different ways to feel forced, obliged or coerced into leaving home or having sex for money or giving some of your money to someone else are disappeared. And yes, I understand that Rescue-Industry victimisation makes folks feel anxious to provide something graspable to wider audiences. But the catch-phrase Sex Work is Not Sex Trafficking only contributes to the reductionism pushed by anti-prostitution and anti-trafficking campaigners.

It’s deplorable. Avoid it.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

France anti-prostitution crusade succeeding, rights activists disqualified from debate

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

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

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

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

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

Dear all,

I think what we fear is going to happen.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I don’t know what to do now.

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

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

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

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

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

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

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

My Erotic Award as Campaigner: win for a reasonable point of view

In the evening’s opening act a woman emerges from a plastic Chinese bag – those big plaid ones, but still, not easy to fold oneself into. With her head only showing she expels a ping-pong ball from her mouth, a sex-tourism joke that gets a huge laugh. Fully emerged, she holds up a series of signs indicating she is Lilly from Thailand, looking for a husband, wanting a British passport. The audience love it.

What a pleasure, that these jokes could be the cheery opening to the night’s events, unaccompanied by politically correct disclaimers like Remember there is a lot of misery and oppression in this horrible patriarchal world of capitalism. Just hijinks from Lilly, who keeps grinning and bowing. Instead, the audience is assumed capable of appreciating ironies. The event was the Erotic Awards taking place at the Night of the Senses, the 26th year of a kinky charity ball held to benefit Outsiders, which raises awareness about sex and disability.

I have never once thought of myself as a campaigner: mostly I just talk and write about ideas that are considered shocking by a lot of people who are campaigning for something: tighter migration controls, the abolition of prostitution, criminal penalties for people who engage in sex-money transactions. Campaigns have a clearly stated goal, like the slogans in this photo, whereas my work can be described as encouraging critical thinking about sex, money and migration and public policies affecting them. I require people to think for themselves rather than swallow a neatly digestible slogan. Campaigns are assumed to be energetic, focussed and goal-oriented, whereas I’m more meditative and reflexive.

Nonetheless, as I watch Lilly onstage I do feel I’ve contributed to the possibility that her act could be appreciated in this place at this time. I understand my win of the 2013 Erotic Award for Campaigner as the win of a point of view: that anti-trafficking rhetoric and policymaking have strayed too far from what most ordinary people know about their own friends, neighbours and communities, wherever they live in the world. Marriages of convenience, sex shows with ping-pong balls, exchanging sex for benefits, ‘help’ needed to get visas and passports are now widely understood to be part of ordinary and undemonic everyday life – not narratives of horror or slavery.

If you don’t know why I might have won as Campaigner, here are a few links:
My book Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry
Other publications of mine
Videos of some of my talks

Award to Laura Agustín, Photo by Charlotte Cooper

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist