I wrote this as the UK’s Home Secretary launched her legislative proposal to criminalise the purchase of sex from those ‘controlled for another person’s gain’. An earlier attempt to criminalise all purchases of sex, always, was shouted down. This version of the abolitionist urge is totally unworkable, as well as silly and patronising towards men and women in general. Not only foreign, brown Others would be targeted – ordinary white Brits seen as insufficiently independent could be accused of being ‘controlled’ by others. Only in this line of work are people required to work alone and possibly lonely – no workplaces, no managers, no colleagues allowed!
The Guardian – Comment is Free
The government’s latest proposals for sex workers do little to tackle the problem of human trafficking
19 November 2008
Today the government proposes that paying for sex with those “controlled for another person’s gain” be a criminal offence. High on the list are victims of trafficking, and punters’ defence that they didn’t know women were trafficked is declared inadmissible. But clients may still have an out. How, they will ask, can the police prove that sex workers were trafficked?
The police will have to identify the real trafficked victims in order to identify customers at fault – a notoriously difficult enterprise. In a few high-profile cases, self-identified victims name and help find their exploiters, and sometimes these traffickers are successfully prosecuted. But these cases are few and far between. More often it is difficult to point to migrants who knew nothing about their future jobs, who agreed to nothing about their illicit travels and who are willing to denounce perpetrators who may be family or former friends and lovers.
More than a decade ago, while working in a Caribbean Aids-prevention organisation, I visited a small town famous as a market for informal migration. In one cafe, a waiter offered me anything I asked for in return for helping him reach anywhere in Europe. Later, I met a woman determined to travel to Paris to work. Highly informed about prices, she steered clear of brokers promising to “take care of everything”.
I visited a village where most families spoke proudly of daughters who maintained them by selling sex abroad. And I met many people who arranged papers and transport for travellers, some charging fees and others as a family obligation. Scholars understand these as social networks and community strategies used to get migrations underway. Where few jobs are available at home, local institutions rarely try to prevent such trips. To those involved, this travel may feel irregular but not criminal, given the market for migrant labour abroad.
The rub is that most jobs available are not recognised by national immigration regimes that only value highly educated professionals and formal-sector employment. Work permits are not granted for low-prestige jobs in kitchens, sweatshops, night clubs or agriculture. The strict regulation of labour markets can fairly be said to promote an increase in unauthorised workers.
The UN convention against transnational organised crime tries to distinguish between the trafficking and smuggling of human beings, but there is still confusion about which means what. The trafficking protocol mentions women, coercion and prostitution but not the will to migrate, whereas the smuggling protocol discusses men as migrants. Meetings to arrive at definitions were prolonged and conflicted, and disagreement is still rife as to what key words like coercion, force and deceit mean in concrete situations.
No one can have the right statistics where journeys involve false papers or overstayed visas and where jobs are in the informal economy. The US federal government’s annual trafficking report relies on CIA, police and embassy guesstimates of situations that are not understood the same way across all cultures and social classes. Some figures for trafficked victims refer to all migrants who sell sex, while others require proof that the victims knew nothing about what was happening. To prove a case, investigators must focus intensively and at length; knowledge of multiple cultures, political contexts and languages are required. Even then, stories tend to be ambiguous and victims implicated in wrong-doing.
Successful migration requires some sophistication and access to social networks providing knowledge, contacts and expertise. Migrants find them amongst friends, families and small-time entrepreneurs, most of whom would not qualify as organised crime, with its demonic overtones, or even as gangsters. This helps account for the failure of the police to locate large numbers of traffickers: migrants are not eager to denounce people who helped them, even when they didn’t get the deal they hoped for. Successful migrants need to be adventurous, flexible risk-takers; they are often proud of the trials and tribulations they have survived.
Some imagine migration involving the sale of sex as fundamentally different, because they view sex as intrinsic to the self and ruined by money. Others view sex as yet another human activity engaged in for all kinds of reasons. What is not realistic is to insist that all migrants who sell sex be either completely forced or completely free. Many of these migrants object to being pigeonholed as passive victims – a poster brothel-workers made in Chiang Mai, Thailand, lists how rescue operations do harm. This is not to say that the situation is fair or that no one suffers, but rather that rescuers often don’t understand.
If, as many Guardian commentators declare, you believe a British woman may prefer selling sex to her other options, then you must allow that possibility to people of other nationalities, whether they are living outside their birth countries or not. Anything else is colonialism. It’s similarly patronising to declare that they were always forced to migrate, as though they had no will, preference or ability to plan a new life.
The problem for the government proposal to criminalise the buying of sex from those “controlled for gain” (whether migrants or UK citizens) is how to define control – another word with slippery meanings that don’t jibe with relationships that may involve feelings of affection and obligation as well as coercion and deception. Clients of sex workers may demand that prosecutors prove the unprovable: that migrants were unambiguously exploited against their will and wish instantly to be deported – or, as the government will put it, returned to their families and homes.
The underground nature of so much migration promotes all kinds of exploitation. But these networks have always existed. It’s only with the current hyper-anxiety about the sex industry that the entrepreneurial side of crossing borders is attacked en masse, as though a new evil race were trying to take over the civilised world.
It shouldn’t be so difficult to maintain two ideas at the same time: some people prefer selling sex to their other options, no matter where they were born, while some other people find it unbearable. Some migrants get a raw deal from intermediaries or do not want to migrate at all, while other migrants get more or less what they want by paying people to help them. The greater issue is the near-impossibility of getting legal permits and visas based on informal-sector work. If that problem were ameliorated, those who don’t want to sell sex could move into other jobs, and those who do would not be worried about police persecution – or, indeed, being rescued when they don’t want to be.