Tag Archives: psychology

Sisters of the Night: why prostitution research is the way it is

From where we stand now, it seems obvious: people begin selling sex for a variety of reasons, none of them being they were born destined to do it. As I mentioned the other day discussing research on clients, social scientists and the Rescue Industry alike now disbelieve the notion that a prostitute type exists amongst women.

The book Sisters of the Night: The confidential story of Big-City Prostitution, published in 1956, goes some way toward explaining a question I’ve had, to wit: why has there been such a large quantity of research attempting to find out why women sell sex? When I first started reading this material in 1997, as a complete outsider to academic research, I could not understand why book after book and article after article asked the same questions: why did you start selling sex? when? were you abused as a child? and so on.

Sisters of the Night is based on an investigation by Jess Stearn, a New York journalist and author of many books. He was assigned to research not the what of prostitution but the why – in his words.

‘The more I explore,’ I told Chief Magistrate John Murtagh, head of New York’s famed Women’s Court, ‘the more I realize how little I understand these women.’

The Chief Magistrate smiled sympathetically. ‘They call it the Oldest Profession,’ he said drily, ‘and yet nobody really knows what makes these girls tick. The prostitute has never been understand by our courts. Indeed, she is still an enigma to science itself. Because of this lack of scientific knowledge, the degree of moral responsibility is essentially a matter that must be left to the Lord himself.

There were other official indications of the complexities of prostitution. Dorris Clarke, chief probation officer of the Magistrates Courts, who has interviewed more than ten thousand prostitutes, observed with a shrug:  ”’Psychiatry has been a help, but six different psychiatrists, handling the same case, may still come up with six different answers.’

From our present perspective, two things stand out: 1) the assumption that selling sex means having a terrible life for all women who do it and 2) a confidence that psychology can explain what’s going on – ie, why women start to do it. Stearn continues:

. . . prostitution is one of the damning paradoxes of our time. It is a social problem which cannot be understood apart from other social problems – a postwar deterioration of morality, the alarming increase of dope addiction among teenagers, political corruption and the double standard which makes it a crime for a women to prostitute herself, where her partner in prostitution goes scot-free.

Which seems more or less contemporary: it can’t be extracted from socioeconomic issues. And note in 1956 he already mentions the asymmetrical nature of punishment. Jumping a few lines, though, Stearn says:

The move to control prostitution legally has been losing ground. . . Long experience has shown that legalization is no remedy. The International Venereal Disease Congress, which voted overwhelmingly thirty years ago for legalized prostitution, recently voted just as overwhelmingly against it. It was no safeguard, the group found, against VD, for the simple reason that five minutes after she was examined a girl might be infected again. And the licensing of brothels, the American Social Hygiene Association discovered, makes it easier for girls to begin their careers and forms a convenient center of operations for racketeers and dope pushers. No, legalization was not the answer, and neither were jails, which became practically schools for prostitutes, where young offenders learned about perversion and dope and became further indoctrinated in the tricks of the trade.

Which leaves Stearn where? Somehow he manages to ignore his socioeconomic links a page later when he says:

It became obvious to me . . .that only a real understanding of these women, of their relationships from childhood, and of their outlook on society and on life in general could lead us to a solution. Other scourges of Biblical times have been extirpated by modern science – why not prostitution? But first must come understanding of the girl and her problem.

Back to psychology, then – in the 50s considered more scientific than it is today. Find out which experiences cause which perverse behaviours and you know who becomes a prostitute. Stearn now lists some of the apparent conundrums:

  • What makes a teenage girl say sullenly to a probattion officer who is trying to help her: ‘It’s my body. Why can’t I do with it what I want?’
  • Or why does another observe slyly: ‘If it weren’t for us, no woman would be safe on the streets. We’re the great outlet.’
  • Why does a girl, able to shift for herself, become attached to a procurer, who mistreats her and takes her money?
  • And why does still another pin on the wall of her cell a portrait of a muscled brute in loincloth, a whip in one hand, and kneeling behind him in chains a nude girl, arms raised in adoration?
  • And why does a girl, while bitterly justifying her own prostitution, say with a gleam of hate in her eyes: ‘I’d kill the man who’d make a prostitute of my sister.’
  • Or why does a pretty teenager, given  separate suite by doting parents, convert her flat into a brothel and the, impenitently, view it all as an ironic joke on her parents?
  • Why did Anna Swift, one of the most notorious of madams, boast of her virginity and savagely declare she was seeking revenge?
  • And why does a former prostitute, comfortable married for years, revert to her old trade at the first crisis in her marriage?

Wouldn’t you think he’d realise himself that there isn’t going to be a single determining cause for such a wealth of situations and behaviours? Well, maybe he did realise it perfectly well, but asking the question was his assignment: the why of prostitution. I now turn back to the preface by Peter Terranova, a police inspector in charge of the Narcotics Squad at the time:

Secrecy has a queer way of adding glamor and mystery to a subject. Rip away the Hypocrites’ Curtain surrounding prostitution and the whole community will finally recognize that it’s just another social evil which may be tackled with intelligence and perhaps cut down, if not completely eliminated.

In the 50s possibly only a vice cop would have used the term social evil unselfconsciously. What can be seen here clearly is the justification for the kind of research that has predominated on the subject of commercial sex for all these decades: the focus on why women sell. The idea is find the reason(s) and eradicate them, despite everyone’s realisation that the reasons are going to turn out to be widely diverging, if not downright contradictory. Still, the idea of the bad girl is very much still alive here, with the badness (or evil) seen to be a matter of character, something that psychology can elucidate. For the psychologists amongst my readers, I am not saying that psychological theories are useless, or that Stockholm Syndrome never exists, or brainwashing, or denial, to explain individual cases. As in the past, my critique goes to the wholesale explaining of hundreds of thousands of people as suffering from these syndromes, by default.

So far no interest has been shown in men who sell sex, despite equally well-known scenes like Los Angeles’s cruising as described by John Rechy. I will advise on this and other matters as I advance in the book.

Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Teen prostitutes don’t want to be saved so they must be brainwashed, right?

Psy theories brought to people exchanging sex for money (again) – child prostitution, so-called. We have already seen ludicrous psychologising in reports on Lithuania, and police confusion when migrant sex workers refuse rescue in India and China. Here it’s New York, and a new anti-sex-trafficking division, heaven help us. Law & Order will start a new series for this, mark my words (subcategory of Special Victims). My comments in green.

Teen prostitutes hard to save, cop tells City Council

Alison Bowen, Metro, 19 October 2011

New York City police say they are trying to rescue teens forced into prostitution, only to find that the girls often don’t want their help. A state law enacted last year considers prostitutes under the age of 18 victims, not criminals, and police are encouraged not to charge them with a crime.

But according to Inspector James Capaldo, head of the NYPD’s new anti-sex trafficking division, their efforts to help girls forced into prostitution are often spurned, he told the City Council at a hearing on sex trafficking yesterday.

So far so good, we know this happens all the time. But where do they go with this? To the cheap psychology department.

The teens are often terrified of being punished by their pimp, or they’re brainwashed into thinking he is a boyfriend, said Capaldo. They also often lie and say they are 19. “Sometimes they refuse to talk,” he said. “If it takes a man six weeks to put this woman in a situation, how do we undo that in 46 hours?”

Lots of people refuse to talk to the police all the time, but here we see how Rescuers use that fact to explain their failures. Brainwashing was the explanation heard at the BBC debate in Luxor, and terror-by-pimp is the idea proposed by social workers on an NPR show on child sex trafficking in Nevada. Not to say it never happens but you need to be suspicious when Rescuers need to justify their own jobs. See, this is a new unit on sex trafficking. They even imply that slowness is not their faults because they are undoing brainwashing. And in an age of cuts and Occupy Wall Street – shameful.

The teen prostitutes often advertise their illegal services on Backpage.com, according to the Brooklyn district attorney’s office. Earlier this year, in Brooklyn, a tip led police to “Jennifer,” 18, who refused to testify against her pimp. Instead, prosecutors found him through a prostitution website. He was charged with sex trafficking.

Is the assumption that a female under 18 is not capable of placing an online ad? Pure infantilisation of women, inexcusable. Check out recent comments from a lot of men assuming that women would be incapable of flying budget airlines to Amsterdam to sell sex and go home again. Excuse me?

Anyway ‘Jennifer’ was 18, so what is this detail doing here? Did Backpage.com force her to place the ad? Gah!

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Women who sell sex do not fall into two neat categories, the Strong and the Weak

Photo Jonathan Lorange

Ottawa sex venue Club Madellyn Jae is presented here as an agreeable feminist spot where ‘clients are friendly and respectful, and everybody goes home satisfied.’ I am the first to welcome such a place, where it seems customers spend their time enjoying intimacy that can end in a hand job. What I object to is the way the proprietor divides sex workers into two easily distinguishable types: the strong and enlightened versus the weak and neurotic. She characterises the latter category as ‘self-destructive’, mirroring the Rescue Industry’s obsession with the psychology of poorer people and the claim that only ‘elite’ women ever really choose to sell sex (see brainwashing and Stockholm Syndrome recently).

It is understandable that sex workers who are struggling to normalise the profession should wish to make this distinction, and, as usual, it holds if one focusses only on the two extremes on a continuum of choosing and unchoosing. But most people who sell sex lie somewhere between those two end-points, and if they are not perfectly conscious and unconfused neither do they deserve to be called ‘self-destructive.’ And although it’s more difficult to defend the rights of people who have mixed feelings about sex work, it’s important to try: understanding precarious employment can help.

Thanks and come again

Tony Martins, Guerrilla, Ottawa

“I believe there are two types of people in this business,” says proprietor Kennedy. “Sound, level-headed, strong women who are focused individuals. They are using their sexuality to get ahead in life.”

“The second type, unfortunately, is in the industry for the wrong reasons and is self-destructive,” Kennedy continues. “They are sometimes addicted to drugs, in abusive relationships, spend the money as quickly as they make it. Often, it’s all about the money and they always want more and more—they chase the dollar and end up starting as a dancer or masseuse and end up as an escort.”

“That to me is very sad about these women,” Kennedy adds. “If they make it past my training, they usually don’t last long at CMJ because I don’t want to be a part of their self-destruction.”
“At the time I started I was mature and experienced enough to make the choice for myself and it felt very empowering,” offers Simone. “I was not a girl, but a woman. I knew my boundaries from day one. I wasn’t comfortable stripping or doing full-service. Hostessing at CMJ was a
perfect fit for me.”

Psy theories come to trafficking: first brainwashing, now Stockholm Syndrome

Psychobabble as a means of social control. At the BBC World thing in Luxor I got publicly annoyed when other panellists wanted to talk about brainwashing of victims. Now Stockholm Syndrome is given as reason those rescued from trafficking situations may not react as rescuers want them to – as, for instance, in a case in India and another in Congo. It really does not get more sinister than this. This theory, utterly free from any cultural context and presented as a method for identifying victims of trafficking, is taken from The Model of Assistance for Women Victims of Human Trafficking in Lithuania, published by Klaipeda Social and Psychological Services Center, Women’s Issues Information Center and Ministry of Social Security and Labour of Lithuania. No ideas of individual agency or resistance are allowed here. No possibility that migrants or sex workers have any understandable or meaningful loyalty to people that assisted them to travel or get work. There is no allowance here for survivors’ having colluded in situations that ended up going bad.

They define Stockholm Syndrome as a ‘psychological mechanism of self-protection when a victim attempts to protect herself from more traumatic psychological experiences’ (Carver, 2001-2007). Excerpts:

. . . The characteristics of Stockholm syndrome confirm the common indicators of female sexual exploitation and female victims of trafficking. Stockholm syndrome is a psychological response, in which the victim shows signs of loyalty, sympathy to the exploiter, regardless of the danger (or at least risk) in which the victim has been placed (Carver, 2001-2007).

• Emotional bonding with the captor/abuser
• Seeking approval from the captor/abuser
• Depending on the captor/abuser for security and purpose of existence
• Befriending and caring for the captor/abuser
• Resenting police and authorities for their rescue attempts
• Losing one’s own identity in order to identify with the captor/abuser
• Seeing things from the perspective of the captor/abuser
• Valuing every small gesture of kindness, such as letting them live
• Refusing freedom even when given the opportunity

They give sub-categories that allow them to disbelieve a victim-survivor’s refusal of help:

Learnt hopelessness attributes (Seligman, 1995)

• Disability to organise one’s own private life.
Victim can avoid being helped, refuse offers of a supporting organization, and de-evaluate provided support.

Traumatic factors (Finkelhor, 1986)

• Traumatic sexuality (disorder of sexual identity development)
• Betrayal (distrust in all people around, playing with feeling of trust)
• Stigmatization (feelings of guilt and shame, behaviour according common scheme of stigma)
• Hopelessness (incapability and avoidance of support)

This makes my blood boil.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist

Profiling of trafficking victims: Women migrants who ‘look like prostitutes’ or ‘act out’

Before you can rescue victims of trafficking you have to find them. Everyone likes to talk about the cowboy raids in which police storm a brothel and arrest/rescue everyone. But less exciting procedures are necessary, as described below in an abbreviated version of guidelines included in a 2008 UN report, Identifying Cambodian Victims of Human Trafficking Among Deportees from Thailand.

Note the use of profiling, according to which looking like a prostitute gets you an interview. Lady Gaga, Madonna and many other women are said to look like prostitutes, on and off – it is a grand sexist tradition. Therefore I am not sure how far such stereotyping will get those trying to distinguish the real victims from the ordinary, everyday migrants. The profiling also names a type called women who act out. This psychotherapeutic (or psychobabble) term means something like

expressing unconscious feelings and fantasies in behaviour; reacting to present situations as if they were the original situation that gave rise to the feelings and fantasies.

Women who are not submissive, docile and quiet, then. Many readers of this blog, and its writer, are undoubtedly women who act out – at least I hope so.

Victim Identification Procedures

. . . It is clear from the research findings that . . . many victims of human trafficking and exploitation have been treated and identified as irregular migrants and deported.

. . . An interview at the Immigration Detention Center (IDC) in Suan Plu, Bangkok revealed that approximately 200-500 individuals arrive per day for deportation, from countries including Cambodia and Myanmar. After processing, which includes fingerprinting, photos, and general background information, approximately 10-20 of them are selected to be screened for human trafficking victim identification. Whether or not a person is selected to be screened is determined by certain profiling cues such as: women whose dress suggests that they were prostitutes, men with lashes on their back, women who act out, or children who do not look like their mothers or fathers, such as with different skin tone.

The IDC police officer on duty at the time of the survey reported that no one had ever self-identified as a trafficking victim. The IDC officer also believed that many deportees do not expose the full truth of their experiences or exploitation during these initial screenings. It was alleged that deportees fear that being identified as a trafficking victim would delay their trip home. This view has been echoed by the Cambodian NGOs who work with deportees.

The police who do the screening try to help bring out the truth by showing the deportees a video about human trafficking that was developed by IOM, with complete screenings including a second form used by NGOs and IDC officers. Changes in the trafficking law have resulted in both men and women being screened; detainees who are identified as victims are sent to a shelter, while those detainees who are not identified are deported within a two-day turnaround.

–Laura Agustín, the Naked Anthropologist