What We Talk About When We Talk About Trafficking: part three.

“‘We must be aware of the dangers that lie with our most generous wishes’, Lionel Trilling once wrote. ‘Some paradox of our nature leads us, when we have once made our fellow men the objects of our enlightened interest, to go on to make them the objects of our pity, then of our wisdom, ultimately of our coercion.'” – from Joan Didion’s essay, On Morality.

This third post follows on from one (numbers, definitions), and two (the form and function of ‘trafficking’ in debates about sex work, the impact on migrants) – isn’t it nice that I help you with your counting? – and deals with the impact on my second key group, namely migrant sex workers. This post carries strong trigger warnings for discussion of (shitty) attitudes towards rape, and first person accounts of abuse by law enforcement.

ii. Migrant sex workers.

Let’s start with some voices of sex workers. Here’s a woman in the developing world, the kind of woman who, as we saw in Nepal (see: second post!), who is vulnerable to the paternalistic “help” of anti-trafficking NGOs. Kthi Win is a sex worker rights activist in Burma. “We live in daily fear of being ‘rescued. The violence happens when feminist rescue organisations work with the police who break into our work places and beat us, rape us and kidnap our children in order to ‘save’ us… What we need is for the mainstream women’s movement [ …]  to speak up and speak out against the extremists who have turned the important movement against real trafficking into a violent war against sex workers.” The strap-line of the Asia-Pacific Network of Sex Workers, ‘Don’t talk to me about sewing machines. Talk to me about workers’ rights’ suggests the extent to which sex workers in the developing world have to guard against the violence of being ‘saved’.

Okay, here’s another, this time from the US. “These raids are ugly and horrible. They … bang on the door, they break the door, they come in with the guns out! In the beginning, it’s frightening and upsetting. [Law enforcement] could do anything, you don’t know what they are going to do … It’s really horrible, sometimes if they are very angry, they don’t let you get dressed. They take you in your work clothes … One never lets go of the fear. Being afraid never goes away. They provoke that.” (p.7) —Celia, arrested seven times. Celia’s experiences in that report fall under the sub-category of ‘Trafficked Persons’, i.e she is precisely the person these raids are supposed to help.

Yes, okay: I doubt assorted Swedish ministers, Julie Bindel, and Rhoda Grant would support this heavy-handed and traumatising use of force. However, by figuring trafficking as always about sexual slavery, by invoking tragedy porn at every opportunity, and by refusing to distinguish between voluntary and and involuntary sex work (let alone recognising the wide variety of experiences inbetween), prohibitionist anti-trafficking campaigners license the state to respond in crisis-mode to this obvious crisis.

Let’s focus in on how crisis-speech and refusing to recognise the wide spectrum of coercions harms migrant sex workers in the UK – including migrant sex workers subject to varying degrees of coercion. Here’s an analogy: in the last thirty years, a lot of good work has been done by feminists from across the political spectrum in changing the way the public thinks about rape. (Obviously there’s a huge, huge way still to go, but I don’t think anyone would dispute that we’ve made progress.) We’ve moved from a culture that conceives of rape as something that involves a teenage virgin and an ethnic minority stranger in a dark alley to … a slightly, slightly more subtle understanding that rape can – does – occur within marriages, within relationships, between people who’ve met up for casual sex – that while violation of consent isn’t complicated, people’s relationships are.

So if my friend Anja (I don’t have a friend of this name) walks into a police station tomorrow to report that her boyfriend raped her – and, actually, this isn’t the first time this has happened, but no, she’s not reported it before – she can expect (depending on the police station) to be treated seriously, even though she’s sexually active, even though she’s stayed in this relationship after experiencing rape, even though she didn’t report it immediately. We’ve – somewhat – moved on from conceiving of rape as exclusively this one category of Terrible Thing (i.e stranger rape) which renders invisible the assault that happens in other contexts (e.g marital rape, that wasn’t recognised as a thing in UK law until about fifteen years ago). Progress, to an extent.

To bring the analogy to its point, we understand that is not useful to talk only in crisis terms about the most clear-cut, easy to understand (if not comprehend) examples of rape, because that means the public, the police, and juries aren’t familiar with the idea that women (and men, and genderqueer people) can experience rape in contexts whereby they don’t behave as the perfect, stereotypical victim. If you frame rape as only really rape in instances of stranger rape, you’ll get ‘friends’ saying things like, “yes, but, you did agree to go back to his house, so …” and jurors asking things like, “if he really raped her, why did she take a week to report it? Why did she stay in the relationship?” In exactly the same way, if you frame irregular migration into sex work as always and only clear-cut trafficking into sexual slavery, you screw over those women who have experienced some coercion or abuse, but who aren’t “perfect victims”, for whatever reason.

Julia O’Connell Davidson, in her very interesting paper ‘A Question Of Consent‘, puts the situation like this: “it is only those women and girls who conform to the stereotype of helpless, choiceless, non-consenting, passive victim that are deemed worthy of protection and assistance. Those who appear to exercise agency, to make choices, to consent to work in prostitution are not imagined as ‘innocent’ and ‘deserving’ victims and can therefore be summarily deported …” (p.20). She argues that this situation has arisen due to “the huge disservice done to those working in the most exploitative and risky forms of prostitution by feminist abolitionists’ abstract and rhetorical use of the term ‘slavery.’” [Emphasis mine.] (p.16) This works in two ways: firstly, the police and immigration are licensed to expect a very specific constellation of abuses – reported immediately, of course – and if all the elements adding up to sexual slavery aren’t in place, they can disregard the report. (GAATW reports women imprisoned for ‘immigration offences’ deemed to be ‘not credible’ witnesses to their own trafficking due to their consenting engagement in sex work. Plus ca change, whore stigma. (p.214))

The second way that this works is in cutting off sex workers who are in exploitative situations from support. Nick Mai’s research into service provision in Haringey demonstrates this second dynamic. “Researchers were […] confronted with a labyrinth of competing self-representations, aimed at the establishment of hierarchies of economic and emotional autonomy. In the process, some presented themselves as ‘really’ loved and respected, by underlining the emotional and economic naivety that they viewed in other women”. (p.13). To unpick that a bit: the women that Dr Mai interviews don’t dispute that there is exploitation within their communities of migrant sex workers. Because the rhetoric around exploitation is so heated, while the reality of many women’s lives is so complex, the  women Mai interviews don’t recognise possible exploitation in their own lives – because you would have to be really, really unhappy to self-identify as a sex slave, and although maybe there’s aspects of their relationships – either emotional or economic – that they aren’t delighted with, well, isn’t that the way of the world? (Isn’t it?) And indeed, who are we to tell these women they’re wrong: that their boyfriend doesn’t really love them, or has no intention of finding a job? That would be outrageous: of course these women understand their own lives better than some third party understands their lives. But because the trafficking debate has framed exploitation as extremely clear-cut and obvious, there’s no safe space for migrant sex workers to think about subtler kinds of problematic dynamics.

In my other life, I’ve done enough stuff supporting survivors of rape and domestic abuse to know that the standard good feminist practise isn’t to respond to a phone call from a woman whose opening salvo is, ” … um … I’m really not sure why I’m calling … I got this number from a friend? Um …” by shrieking ‘You’ve been RAPED and I’m THE EXPERT so I get to TELL YOU, you’ve been raped and WHEN are you going to START DEALING WITH THAT?!”. And that’s in instances where, I’d venture, the caller really has been raped – people don’t generally engage with services for survivors just for the larks. Migrant sex workers, then, are the position where feminist and anti-trafficking organisations are doing the equivalent of responding to that phone call with that shriek, while fuelling a dialogue outside of the call that will refuse to recognise what she’s experienced as abuse if she reports any complexity. It’s not good enough.

By talking about the potential abuse and exploitation of migrant sex workers, I’m conscious of being misinterpreted. I don’t think that abuse or exploitation are inevitable or intrinsic in sex work, whether practised by migrants or non-migrants. I think that definitions of what constitute abuse have to come from vulnerable communities themselves, in order to be meaningful and therefore useful: and that entails listening to sex working and migrant men and women, and giving credit to their self-representations – which is something that prohibitionist anti-trafficking discourse singularly fails to do, by positing them as ‘victims’ who need to be spoken over for, invoking their lives and bodies in a way that renders them invisible at the very same instant that they are conjured up.

Enough of this, for now. Obviously I’ve not yet tackled my third key group, (non-migrant) sex workers, but that can become a fourth post, along with some thoughts on the stigmatising of migrant men who associate with sex workers, the impact of this anti-trafficking discourse on women more generally, and a selection of genuinely anti-trafficking recommendations from sex workers and migrant sex workers that I’ve stumbled across in the course of my reading on this subject. Y’know, the sort of stuff you might actually want to implement, if you actually cared about people on the margins of legitimate migration and employment, rather than becoming a sexy humanitarian feminist superstar.

What We Talk About When We Talk About Trafficking: part two.

” … she chooses not to identify herself as a ‘victim of trafficking’ – in order not to become a victim of anti-trafficking“. – From the introduction to GAATW’s Collateral Damage.

The first part of this post is here, and deals with – as I’m sure you remember – definitions and numbers (very excitingly. No, really). Note Wendy’s useful comment, which I was too shy to reply to, because blogging about serious stuff is apparently just like being a bit awed by the cool girls at school.

People who advocate for sex workers’ rights are often called to have “an opinion” on trafficking. This seems to me to be a classic derail that anyone who has ever talked about feminism with an unsympathetic (in both senses) opponent will be familiar with: “why are you talking to me about abortion rights when female genital mutilation exists?! Why are you talking about rape when FALSE RAPE ACCUSATIONS?!” Feminists en masse are generally opposed to both FGM and false rape accusations, but by introducing RANDOM OTHER BAD THING and demanding that you condemn it (entirely on your opponent’s terms: no room for the nuance of taking colonialism into account with regards to ending FGM, or the extreme rarity of false rape accusations – no no, the rest of the conversation must consist entirely of you thanking your non-feminist opponent for showing you the light, ‘the light’ in this context meaning ‘some other bad things that have happened somewhere in the world, please tell me, authoritative man’), the person you’re arguing with is attempting to make you shut up about feminism.

This derail makes you grapple with the unfair and fallacious libel that you can only possibly care about one thing at a time: it’s either abortion rights or FGM, and since FGM is self-evidently terrible, you are a bad person for even worrying about abortion rights. The trafficking/sex work derail works in exactly the same way, but is even more insidiously and provocatively unfair: it runs on the fallacy (psst, I’ve found a perpetual energy resource!) that human rights are a zero sum game, and if you’re advocating human rights for one marginalised demographic, you must explain why you want to take them away from another. As with my analogy above, your sex worker rights perspective must be immediately abandoned in favour of wholehearted condemnation of the somewhat-unconnected Bad Thing (trafficking) which your opponent has just introduced, and your condemnation must be entirely in their terms: no room for post-colonial nuance or statistics. (Ooh. That analogy worked out rather more neatly than I intended … )

In the course of this series of posts (at the moment I’m envisioning, um, four), I want to demonstrate the serious harms that anti-trafficking discourse and policy inflicts on three key populations: migrants (including trafficked persons), migrant sex workers, and sex workers, in both the UK and in a global context. Sex worker rights as a necessity is integral to this analysis of harms, as in many instances sex worker-lead organisations and insights can play an important role in mitigating the damage done by these policies (if only people would listen to us). The most important thing is obviously that the human rights of migrants and non-migrants alike are protected, and that’s not currently the case. As an adjunct to that primary issue, though, I’d quite like you to get a sense of how outrageous this derail truly is: the only people who need to explain at length their opinions on trafficking are – no, not sex workers! – those “anti-trafficking” campaigners who use the issue to shut up sex workers, and whose rhetoric then fuels policies that harm migrants, sex workers, and migrant sex workers.

Veronica Magar notes in her article ‘Rescue and Rehabilitation‘ that “the anti-sex work feminist position has become institutionalised as the dominant anti-trafficking paradigm adopted by governments worldwide” (p.3), and that seems to be borne out in a UK context: for instance, there’s the anti-trafficking name-check in Rhoda’s ‘feminist’ Bill. Or – at the level of service provision – key anti-trafficking NGOs like the Poppy Project or Eaves, which both have a prohibitionist-feminist analysis. So unless I state otherwise, when I talk about anti-trafficking campaigns and policies, I’m talking about the stuff that is orthodox, dominant and institutionalised: anti-trafficking analysis that is situated in (feminist!) prohibitionism with regards to sex work.

This stuff is difficult to talk about, though, because I mean – it’s not as if I think all these prohibitionist feminists are rubbing their hands with glee as another migrant is sent back to Bangladesh or Nigeria; I don’t think they’re all literally plotting together – possibly on the moon, with Elvis – how to do the most damage to the greatest number of people. (Although, they do all sometimes get together to talk rubbish to each other. This “anti-trafficking” conference certainly seems to feature a large number of people who want to punish sex workers end prostitution. Trafficking, eh? You’d almost think they had some other agenda. Scot-Pep, incidentally, was prevented from attending.) So it’s not some Big Conspiracy – though, I genuinely don’t understand what it is that motivates hardcore prohibitionists, so what do I really know (it surely isn’t a desire to end violence against women. Gunilla Ekberg, key speaker at that anti-trafficking conference I linked to above, was publicly disgraced in Sweden after threatening a female journalist). But politics – even the delicate, slightly nebulous politics of discourse, where there’s not a straight line of culpability – has consequences, and if you’re contributing to the debate through the sometimes seemingly deliberate propagation of untruths, then I think its at least time to start questioning your self-image as the good guy. Or womyn.

So, okay, let’s try to get a handle on this.

i. Migrants.

Anti-trafficking policies are used to limit freedom of movement and justify policies “[which] prevent the migration of people, …” – which, as I don’t need to tell you, violates Article 13 of the UN declaration of human rights – “… especially women”. (Action Aid Asia, 2006.) Oh. If I inexplicably thought it was great when feminist campaigning ended up seriously infringing the rights of women, I’d presumably love this outcome.

Action Aid Asia aren’t alone in this view. The Global Alliance Against Traffic in Women (GAATW) also identifies young women and adolescent girls as “prime target[s]” for policies that restrict their freedom of movement, and details how, “after almost a decade of such measures in Nepal, an evaluator called in to review the anti-trafficking programmes financed by a US NGO concluded that the measures taken to stop young women crossing Nepal’s border into India were generally abusive” [emphasis mine]. (Collateral Damage, p.13.) Note that those are the policies of an American NGO: no one elected these people; they’re not, y’know, from Nepal – this would have troubling implications in terms of neo-colonialism and paternalism even if the measures they were enacting hadn’t been described as “abusive”. Interesting how it took “almost a decade” before anyone thought to ask the young Nepalese women what they thought about this service that was supposed to be protecting their best interests – but I guess forgetting to listen to the experiences of your client group will be the kind of mistake you make, if you figure your client group as passive victims in need of rescue by heroic Americans.

Both GAATW and a report titled, ‘The Use Of Raids to Fight Trafficking in Persons‘ from the   Sex Work Project (SWP) found that the focus on sex trafficking was counter-productive in terms of identifying and supporting trafficked persons. From the SWP: “US law enforcement agencies have been criticized for continuing to focus on trafficking into sex work to the exclusion of other widespread forms of trafficking. Indeed, the word ‘trafficking’ primarily evokes images of women and children forced into sexual servitude in the popular imagination [ …] In reality, trafficking occurs in a far broader range of sectors and types of work, including domestic work, agricultural labor, manufacturing and the service industries, and affects men as well as women and children”. (p.6. This stuff isn’t exactly hard to find, you guys. If you’re “anti-trafficking” and you’ve not reached page six of this very readable report, I can only assume you’re happy being ignorant. It undeniably offers you a certain rhetorical advantage, as sex worker rights advocates have to deal with your ignorance as well as their own arguments.)

That bit about “… the word ‘trafficking’ primarily evokes images of women and children forced into sexual servitude in the popular imagination” – that bit? Any thoughts how we might have reached this point, hmm? Every time you shut up a sex worker by shouting “but TRAFFICKING!”, you’re contributing to a climate whereby a substantial number of trafficked persons – the people you’re out to help, remember? – are missed or mis-identified.

This belief that trafficking and sexual servitude are synonymous allows governments breathing space to screw over other migrant workers, making them more vulnerable to trafficking (which we can all then ignore, because it’s not sexy). For example, the UK government in 2006 removed the right of migrant workers to change employer, leaving exploited employees with the choice of remaining in exploitative conditions, or … being deported. (Collateral Damage, p.217) GAATW also argues that by situating exploitation of migrant labour in the trafficking paradigm, the State renders the issues ones of criminality and immigration, rather than labour rights violations – which cuts migrant workers off from potential support and advocacy that they might find within trade unions, thus limiting the access that exploited migrant workers have to justice.

Last point about migrants. ” … the [UK] current policy and practice [ … ] serves only to encourage the division of migrants who have experienced human rights violations into two groups: an extremely small number of deserving ‘victims’ (of traffickers) who are entitled to various (limited) forms of protection and assistance, and a vastly bigger group of people who are considered to be ‘undeserving’ and who are not provided with any protection or assistance … “. Convenient, huh? Additionally to handily dividing people in (minority) deserving and (majority) undeserving, this discourse enables everyone to be summarily deported: if you’ve been trafficked, then of course you don’t even want to be in this country, and if you haven’t – why then, you’re a criminal! Sympathy’s cheap when it’s just the next plane ticket home.

Part three looks at migrant sex workers.


Just a quick note today, really. I’ve been seeing this article posted around in prohibitionist spaces for the last couple of days, and I have to say – I’m genuinely surprised. The headline is, “Is Porn Darling Kink.com Ripping Off Its Webcam Girls?”, and the article details how, “Maxine Holloway, a local artist, activist, and adult performer, is alleging that she was fired from KinkLive last month when she tried to organize her fellow performers in opposition to changes in the payment policy that would eliminate minimum payments for each shift in favor of a commission-only plan. The new plan, according to Holloway and her supporters, would amount to a drastic reduction in wages for most of KinkLive’s performers.”

Takings are down, and Kink.com is looking at reducing costs (presumably while safeguarding profit) by cutting worker’s wages. So far, so familiar.  But, I mean – so familiar. Don’t we call this ‘capitalism’? Don’t get me wrong: what Kink.com are up to looks disgraceful. But I’m genuinely surprised that prohibitionists think that this somehow supports their argument, given that the performers interviewed in the piece are clearly not tragic, agency-free victims: the whole point of the article is that they are fighting back against unfair working conditions.

Yes, unfair working conditions exist, but do these feminists think that the existence of workfare in Tesco means that both the sale and purchase of groceries is intrinsically exploitative and should be outlawed? What I’m getting from this article is that Kink.com is a capitalist employer like any other – with employees who are assertive, unafraid, and even somewhat committed to the success of the company. (‘At the same time, [activist and employee] Aorta is not unsympathetic to the financial woes of KinkLive. “It’s my goal to see a compromise between the models and Kink.com in which everyone’s making money, KinkLive is able to continue operating, and they treat us with respect. I would love to keep working with them …”‘)

As I say, I am genuinely surprised. How does an article (legitimately) critical of fractious industrial relations at Kink.com somehow fit into an analysis whereby all sex work is always already “commercial sexual exploitation”? You’d think they’d see the inconsistency. It’s as if the prohibitionist world-view has room for only two categories, “good (yay)” and “bad (boo)”, and because this article is critical, it must mean “bad (boo)”. Well, the world needs a more finely textured analysis than that – which is, yes, I know, a frankly amazing statement to have to make to anyone who has graduated from middle school. Ideology can do funny things to people, apparently.

… I probably shouldn’t even bother to point this stuff out, but y’know. Sometimes the attraction of shooting fish in a barrel becomes overwhelming. Now to go for a run.

Justice served (for now). Updated!

As you’ve probably already heard, Rhoda Grant’s Bill to Criminalise the Purchase of Sex went before the Justice Committee in the Scottish Parliament yesterday, to establish whether it could proceed towards the legislature or would require further consultation. The Justice Committee had up to a month to decide, and took under three hours to unanimously declare that further consultation will be necessary.

There were loads of problems with the first consultation, starting with the fact that although Rhoda was using it to claim her Bill had been fully-consulted-upon, it was in fact a consultation for a different Bill entirely. (Trish Godman’s attempt to criminalise the purchase of sex was much more wide-ranging, taking in advertising and a wider range of sexual services.) Additionally to that, the consultation asked questions like, “do you think both participants of a commercial sex act should be criminalised, or only one? Which side do you think should be criminalised?” which, sharp-eyed-readers will have noted, is not a exhaustive cartography of all the possible options in the world: there is also the unspoken shadow-option that no participant should be criminalised for a consensual sex act between adults. Finally, sex workers and sex worker projects felt that their contributions had been minimised, downplayed, or excluded – because not listening to whores is such a feminist option, duh. (All of this is extremely shady, but this last point shockingly so. From the SCOT-PEP submission to the Committee: “Grant claims that views have not changed since the time of the initial consultation period; this is based on a meeting that was held on the 17th of January 2011, immediately after Trish Godman’s consultation deadline. This meeting was held behind closed doors with a select group of stakeholders and interested organisations; no sex worker-led organisations were invited. SCOT-PEP was neither notified of nor invited to this meeting, no minutes or notes of record were taken, and Rhoda Grant has refused to provide details of the attendees. Rhoda Grant claims to have an on-going engagement with ‘a number of bodies, the public and others with an interest in this proposal’, yet has never sought the views of the genuine stakeholders, the sex workers themselves” [emphasis mine]. Boom. The whole submission is very, very worth reading.)

I thought of Rhoda’s attempt to fast-track her Bill on the back of a shoddy consultation for a different piece of legislation when I read about Irish legislator’s attempts to frame the legality of selling sex as a “loophole” which we can therefore snap closed without too much icky discussion. You can see a similar thing going on in this not very impressive Scotsman piece, that starts: “A new law to finally make prostitution illegal in Scotland is to be put before the Scottish parliament this week in a bid to clamp down on the blah blah argle blarge …”. Yeah, to finally make prostitution illegal. Finally. I must have missed the memo where we all, as a nation, decided on this and closed the case. I can see the piece in The Scotsman is not a think-piece, but must it be where thinking goes to die?

The tired tone of that ‘finally’ reminds me something Rhoda said in the Justice Committee (which I sat in on, making baleful eyes at the back of Rhoda’s head, like some kind of Ghost of Christmas Future in a pencil skirt), actually – she was being sarcastic about the prolific nature of the debate around the topic, and said something like, “I look forward to this Bill progressing to stage one, because then the honourable member will also have the pleasure of reading all the material”. My jaw kind of dropped at her sarcasm, because, like, Rhoda – if you’re not interested in the issues, don’t fucking legislate on them. It is really not that hard. I mean, I’m not an academic or a law-maker, and I’ve read most of the key academic papers on both sides of the issue, because I’m interested and want to be reasonably well informed. If you’re not interested, why (why, oh god, why) are you pushing forward with the Bill? My mind. It was blown.

What kind of makes me laugh about the Irish parallel, though, is that what Wendy unpicks at Feminist Ire is actually a rather neat rhetorical trick, whereas in contrast, Rhoda’s attempt to claim that we’ve all discussed this before and thus can nip straight past the boring ‘listening’ and ‘debating’ and ‘evidence’ bits of law-making is rather clumsy. As the speedy knock-back of the Justice Committee demonstrated. If you’re going to be disingenuous, at least show us the respect of trying to do it convincingly. Good grief.

Dear Stella,

As I said in my comment, thanks for drawing my attention to your post, ‘Pimps posing as ‘sex worker activists’‘. It raises a whole bunch of interesting issues, lots of which are quite sensitive, so I’ve tried to go very slowly (for my own sake). I start off by having a general-ish chat about who gets prosecuted for what, and why, and some problems with that, and then by way of comparison I look at some of the less-than charming figures who agitate for prohibition (juicy!). And then, I was going to write about how many of the violations we might associate with pimping or trafficking occur in contexts where sex work is criminalised, making sex workers more vulnerable to the depredations both of criminals, and the non-benign State. However, that rendered this post beyond long, so I’ve cut that – I’ll inevitably talk about those issues in other posts.

In your letter to your younger self, you specify that your pimps were white. (“It’s not OK for your (white) pimps to smack you and tell you they’ll kill you.”) You’re obviously aware, then, that language has different implications context-to-context, and that the word ‘pimp’ frequently has racist connotations – so you’re being responsible by attempting to disrupt or avoid that possibility in your post. I don’t think it’s terribly controversial to state that – both in the US and UK – the issue of who gets prosecuted, for what, is hugely shaped by race, class, and gender, among other things. You’ve carefully avoided the racist connotations of the word pimp, but you don’t put any analysis into the way that those connotations might play out in the courts and in society, and I think that’s a weakness in your argument.

Particularly when it pertains to sex work, the law encounters a whole load of marginalised people – hookers, migrants, sexually non-normative women, people who are working class, transgender, queer, or ethnic minority – none of whom have, in general, been able to rely on a fair hearing in court. For instance, “a large number of people whose mug shots have been posted by the Chicago Police Department as individuals arrested for soliciting for prostitution (i.e. buying sex) appear to be transgender women of colour“, i.e laws that are supposed to tackle “demand” are being used against ethnic minority, transgender sex workers, and these women are branded “johns” (and male). Would sex worker rights activist movements be tainted, in your eyes, by contact with these johns? (I know you were dealing with ‘pimps’ not ‘johns’, but I think you’ll see that I’m making a wider point.)

To focus on the specifics of what you said, I’m saying that convictions for (say) ‘pimping’ aren’t necessarily a disinterested reflection of Utter Truth. Margo St James, who you name as an activist convicted of pimping, has always argued that her conviction stems from misogyny – that the judge was punishing her for the crime of being a sexually assertive woman, in 1962. (“My crime? I knew too much to be a nice girl!”) Do the courts treat sexually active women fairly? Fuck no; look at the rape conviction stats. You’re a survivor: you know that women shouldn’t trust the State.

In my post on trafficking, I talk about how I’ve technically been trafficked, as an example of why the law isn’t very good. When the law is that broad, the State inevitably ignores most people who fall under its purview, but has carte blanche to pursue whoever it wants, for whatever reason. As I’ve just pointed out, that’s not very good because the State is hardly a neutral or benign entity, but it’s additionally a bad thing because bad laws make it impossible to distinguish genuine exploitation from collaborative, consensual working arrangements, and that distinction is desperately important for tackling real abuse.

If I want to work out of a friend’s flat – because it’s safer, and we enjoy the company – then, because her name’s on the lease, that makes her technically a brothel-keeper. Is that the same as genuine exploitation? No, of course not. The sex industry has plenty of bad bosses in it, but the law as it stands has no mechanism for distinguishing them from friends who work together, or even functional-but-not-friendly-employer/employee relationships. Those three things are hugely different.

The prohibitionist analysis, whereby all sex work is abuse, of course means that all bosses are therefore exploitative. This leads prohibitionists to argue in favour of laws that make no distinction between sex work and violence, between collaboration and exploitation. But of course there’s a difference – I live that difference. Those laws can then be misused by the State to harass whoever it wants – whether that’s sexual minorities, ethnic minorities, or bad-girl women. I agree that exploitation is a terrible abuse, but if your argument endorses laws that make no distinction between the trafficking that you experienced, and the ‘trafficking’ that I did, then you’re enabling the State to continue to harass whoever it wants: do you trust the police and the courts with that power? When the law (and the language we use) is changed to reflect the reality that some people work together for safety and fun, and some people work in coercive situations that they should be urgently supported to leave, then I can be much surer that the State isn’t merely using the language of exploitation to screw over the people it has screwed over immemorially.

But, fine. I accept that some people who are involved in the sex worker rights movement are nasty people. Proceeding from the assumption that all the allegations you make are both true and unproblematic, does that discredit the whole movement? I’m not sure it does, partly because any movement is inevitably larger than some big names – for instance, I’m (obviously) in Scotland, and I’ve met loads of ace people who care about sex worker’s rights, none of whom are Margo St James or Robyn Few.

Furthermore, though, the prohibitionist side of the argument features some pretty nasty people as well. For instance, the Bush administration. “The HIV/AIDS Act of 2003 […] prohibited funding ‘any group or organization that does not have a policy explicitly opposing prostitution’“. If I was making an argument rooted in concern for women’s safety (oh wait), I’d be a little embarrassed to be on the same team as the Bush administration, but more important than my hypothetical embarrassment would be my concern that, actually, the US government in the first eight years of the 21st century enacted policies that were disastrous for women (and men) on a global scale. The HIV/AIDS Act of 2003 may as well have come prefixed with the words, “the Promotion of.” This isn’t controversial. Even if every single one of the sex worker rights activists who you accuse of pimping or trafficking was as guilty of those crimes as it is possible to be – and it is possible to be profoundly guilty of those extremely serious crimes – then their contribution to human suffering would still pale in comparison to the industrial quantities of bleakness that Bush et al unleashed on women in America and across the world. I’ll reiterate: these guys are on your side of the argument. They fund it.

Then there’s Melissa Farley. Listen, I’m not in America. The activists you name check are largely American, and they don’t have that much impact on my day to day sex worker activism stuff. Farley, however, is firmly within the mainstream of UK prohibitionist thought – for instance, in the best-selling book The Equality Illusion, 10% of all the references made in the chapter on sex work are to studies by Farley. (Another good handful are by Sheila Jeffreys, recently kicked out of Conway Hall for violating equalities legislation. Yay, feminism! I hope Kat Banyard had the grace to blush when that whole Jeffreys debacle exploded all over British feminism … though, if Kat had blushing capabilities, she might have hesitated to cite Jeffreys at all, so maybe not.) In the 1990s, Farley authored a hilarious text called, ‘Why I Made The Choice To Become A Prostitute‘, which features such sweet-natured gems as, “I figured that laying on my back and getting fucked by hundreds of men, and getting on my knees and sucking thousands of dicks, was the most profound empowerment a woman could have”. And, “I saw a Demi Moore movie and I thought, Wow, what an easy and fun way to make a million dollars”. Are you getting a ‘stupid, filthy whores’ vibe? I sort of am.

Remember, though: Melissa Farley just wants to rescue us prostituted women! That text totally sounds like it was written from a place of deep empathy with survivors, right? Um. I think it is kind of interesting that such a key figure in the prohibitionist movement has such hatred and disdain for the women she is supposedly trying to help. I certainly wouldn’t feel safe having her poking around in my life – for my own good, natch. (Note also this quote from a former member of the Bush administration and current CEO of an anti-trafficking NGO: prostitutes lead “nasty, immoral” lives, for which [we] cannot be found “culpable” only because [we] have no choice. I’m so glad this man is fighting for the rights of women who sell sex. His NGO, the Polaris Project, turns up all over the place, fightin’ for those rights. Hurrah.)

Even in quite a small scale, US anti-trafficking charities have been caught out producing fraudulent research in order to procure illegitimate funds from donors and the government. This diverts funds away from genuine victims of sex trafficking – to you of all people, I don’t need to explain why that is beyond reprehensible. To quote Thomas Wolfe, ‘life is strange and the world is bad’ – and that goes for people at all possible places on the spectrum of the debate. (Interestingly, the terrible tumblr ‘Checkmate, Pro-Choicers!’ posted a weird argument, “Planned Parenthood helps pimps. Checkmate, pro-choicers!” Let’s agree that using the word ‘pimp’ to attempt to shut down debate and deny women bodily autonomy is both irresponsible and naive, and the author of that tumblr should be ashamed. In her defence, she seems pretty young.)

Actually, though, I’m less concerned with the fact that Farley evidently hates the women she has built her career around supposedly ‘helping’, and more that her methodology and data interpretation are so obviously rubbish. This goes doubly, given that evidently neither side of this debate is populated exclusively by angels, so instead of looking for rightness based on personal histories, we might actually need some of those stats.

So, okay. I’ve said that convictions for pimping (etc) aren’t necessarily reflections of Utter Truth, (i) because the law is shit (in ways that prohibitionists support!), and (ii) because our society is shit. I’ve pointed out some instances of where – if we’re disregarding arguments because undisputedly nasty people make them – we should also disregard prohibitionist arguments. The final thing I want to say, before going the fuck to bed, is that the GMB sex work branch has broken off from the IUSW over disagreement – among other things – about the role of bosses in the movement. Sex workers: we can also have these conversations! Like, overselves! Thanks, though, to all those prohibitionists – not Stella – who aren’t and have never been sex workers, who shared Stella’s article. We sex workers could totally never think of a critique of capitalism that might encompass politely rejecting the ‘help’ of bosses without your valuable insight. Oh, wait.

Stella, I hope this helps clarify my thoughts on your article. All the best,

GSW. ox

Educating Rhoda.

Yesterday, I found myself hanging out in the Scottish Parliament, having a chat with MSP Rhoda Grant about her forthcoming Bill – the one that seeks to criminalise the purchase of sex.

Unfortunately for you, I’m not going to discuss the evidence that my two colleagues presented, partly because I don’t want to travesty their exceptional knowledge and experience by slapdashing it in this context, and partly because some of the evidence was extremely personal. All I’m going to chat about is my feelings about the small amount of stuff she said to me, because I think our exchange was quite revealing, and I’d like to unpick why.

I offered my perspective, which is that her Bill will make me more vulnerable to rape and other forms of assault, and that in countries that have criminalised the purchase of sex, the incidence of HIV has increased among sex workers – so her Bill endangers my safety both physically and in terms of my health. I’ll talk in detail about why I think those things in another post – what I want to focus on here is Rhoda’s reply to me, and its various implications. She listened to what I had to say, and then said, “yes, but you’re not a representative …”.

I don’t recall what word she used – I’m not a representative what? Prostitute? I opened my evidence by saying that I actually am a prostitute, right now, in Glasgow, and that had quite an interesting effect because up until that point it had been prostitute-this and prostitute-that, and after I identified myself as one, right now, we heard quite a lot less of the p-word. Which suggests that on some level she knows its not … polite. I mean, there are more important things than politeness, but you’d think if you were proposing a Bill to rescue a certain section of the population, you’d know how to be polite to them, first.

Anyway, I’m not a representative something. Not a representative stooge-of-the-patriarchy, maybe (my form of false-consciousness is undeniably very meta). Beyond pointing that fact out, Rhoda didn’t really engage with what I was saying, and inevitably, I have a couple of thoughts on this.

Most obviously, to be so blithely dismissed, so easily, I felt indicated a lack of willingness to listen to sex workers, which should the foundation of any legislation pertaining to us, especially if it pretends to have our best interests at heart. (Well, presumably legislation titled, ‘throw those filthy whores in jail before they rot the morals of our society even more’ would not be founded on listening to sex workers, but y’know.) I did not feel very listened-to. Say it with me: nothing about us, without us.

(Even Andrea Dworkin was at least a good listener, or at least so she claims: “if one has to pick one kind of pedagogy over all the others, I pick listening.” Uh, thanks Andrea! Incidentally, the above point is so obvious that I am vaguely embarrassed for everyone involved.)

Secondly, what I was saying was that this legislation increases my chance of being subject to sexual violence. I wasn’t saying, “I am a representative sex worker, therefore X Y Z, and you must believe me because I am all the sex workers”. Duh, I am distinctly not all the sex workers – you got me! I admit it! Now, when are you going to engage with what I was actually saying, which was that your legislation makes me more likely to be subject to violence? Oh, that’s right. Never. I’m not sure that it is good enough, to respond to a woman who is telling you that your actions will make her more vulnerable, by saying, “yes, but IRRELEVANT THING!”. That is not the substance of my statement or concern, and if shouting, “yes, but IRRELEVANT THING!” constitutes the substance of your engagement with me, then you might need to rethink your argument.

One last point about representativeness. The minor stir in the room when I outed myself as a prostitute – and the question about representativeness – both suggest that Rhoda hasn’t met many sex workers. (I’m actually not that unusual, in demographic terms, amongst the escort crowd. The escort crowd is only a segment of the the sex industry, yes, but it is a perfectly thronging segment nonetheless, and if the prohibitionists were less in thrall to their lurid imaginations they would possibly find the continued existence of people like me less disconcerting.) Anyway, my point is: it is not my role in the conversation – or in life – to fulfil the statistical miracle of embodying perfect representativeness. It is the job of legislators to listen carefully to the views of a wide range of sex workers, and legislate, or not, accordingly.

Yes, I am not necessarily representative. No one really is. That is why you need to (again) listen, carefully, to lots and lots of sex workers. If you shut them up with the words, “yes, but you’re not representative”, then you’re not listening. If my voice was one among many, then my experiences would be as equally valid as anybody else’s, and contribute to an evidence-base that was much more than the sum of its parts. It says a huge amount about Rhoda, and nothing at all about me, that my voice is apparently one of the few she’s heard from women currently working in the industry, and thus distorted into unrepresentativeness as a result.

Would you ever demand to speak to a “representative” straight man, or a “representative” dog-owner? Probably not, because you implicitly recognise that there are lots of ways of being a straight man or owning a dog. Demanding that the only current sex worker in the room (in the midst of a discussion about sex work!) be ‘representative’ before you’ll listen to her is just a longer way of telling her to shut up. Which is fine, but drop the pretence that this is about doing good for sex workers.

Personal interlude.

I wanted to tell my brother what I do, and I haven’t. I thought that would feel like failure, because of all the good reasons why I should being smothered by fear, but actually, having hung out with him for a night and a morning, I’m relatively at peace with this choice.

With friends, I do feel like ‘coming out’ structures my relationships to some degree – y’know, there’s two categories of friends – which I hate, but I hear a rumour that a girl’s gotta keep safe – but I also feel like there’s kinds of love that transcend do-they-don’t-they know-ness, and actually, yeah, I will tell my brother at some point, but I don’t need to hate myself for not doing so now, or even conceptualise of time spent together as time in which I didn’t (read: failed to) share this thing, coz y’know. Hanging out with my brother feels like coming home, except without all the ambivalences and guilt that frequently lurk in the corners of my actual home. So that’s okay.

[/personal shit]