What we talk about when we talk about trafficking; or, technically, I’ve been trafficked, you know. Part one.

“My proposal will make the purchase of sex illegal in Scotland, with the aim of reducing the demand for prostitution. […]  Scotland should become an unattractive market for prostitution and therefore other associated serious criminal activities, such as people trafficking for sexual exploitation, would be disrupted.” From the statement of reasons attached to Rhoda Grant’s draft Bill [emphasis mine].

Trafficking is a huge topic, with a lot to unpick. The only possible place to start is by stating that, where it exists, it is a profound crime and violation, and should be eradicated. That much is not up for debate.

However, the orthodox discourse around trafficking serves to cynically (or simple-mindedly) mis-direct the public’s understandable horror and sympathy: ‘tackling trafficking’ becomes a trojan horse for policies that create and exacerbate real, serious harms – to migrant sex workers, to migrants, and to sex workers.

I’m going to start with some numbers and definitions, and discussion of those (I missed my fucking vocation in social sciences, I tell you!), and then I’m going to structure my evidence for the above assertion (the one about creating and exacerbating harms, not the one about my supposed missed vocation) in terms of impacts upon the three groups I’ve set out – migrant sex workers, sex workers, and migrants. Both the groups and the harms overlap, so I have a feeling I might end this post like Topaz in I Capture The Castle, where she tries to paint her response to War and Peace as an abstract canvas of overlapping circles, “and then can’t remember who Natasha is”. Look forward to the data-overload-induced interpretative dance and the missing-off of something dead obvious, then.

Numbers! Definitions! I’m a riot at parties, you know. The UK has ratified the Palermo Protocols (i.e, I’m about to cite the UN definition of trafficking), which sensibly state, “trafficking in persons shall mean the recruitment, transportation, transfer, harbouring or receipt of persons, by means of the threat or use of force or other forms of coercion, of abduction, of fraud, of deception, of the abuse of power or of a position of vulnerability or of the giving or receiving of payments or benefits to achieve the consent of a person having control over another person, for the purposes of exploitation. Exploitation shall include, at a minimum, the exploitation of the prostitution of others or other forms of sexual exploitation, forced labour or services, slavery or practises similar to slavery, servitude or the removal of organs”. I’m not completely at home in the clause-rich legal style of international protocols, but it seems to me that that trifecta – essentially, movement/coercion/exploitation – is reasonable.

When law-makers came to turn this UN definition into UK law, they … fucked up. (Or rather, they presumably did exactly what they intended to do: which was, screw over assorted marginalised demographics. I’d say that’s fucking up, but I don’t want to imply it was a mistake.) Thus, we have a definition of trafficking that requires no coercion or, um, exploitation: UK law-makers are essentially really concerned with sex workers who move around. The Sexual Offences Act (2003) states, “A person commits an offence if he intentionally arranges or facilitates the arrival in [or the entry into, or movement within] the United Kingdom of another person (B) and either — (a) he intends to do anything to or in respect of B, after B’s arrival but in any part of the world, which if done will involve the commission of a relevant offence, or (b) he believes that another person is likely to do something to or in respect of B, after B’s arrival but in any part of the world, which if done will involve the commission of a relevant offence”. The “commission of a relevant offence” can and frequently does pertain to ‘brothel-keeping’, or, as those of us who speak harm reduction like to call it, “more than one person working together, coz that’s loads safer”.

Under the terms of this to-say-the-least rather broad definition, I’ve been trafficked. Which is to say, my movement to another city within the UK was intentionally facilitated or arranged by someone else (a foreign! man!, a it happens. Everybody freak out) in order to commission a relevant offence (brothel-keeping) – though you’ll all be relieved to know that as this person is my friend, this trafficking story involves ‘safer working practises’, and ‘several terrible hangovers’, and that’s about it. It is difficult to avoid being a little facetious when the law is so self-evidently an ass. (Donkey or posterior.)

This wee diversion into that-time-I-was-trafficked hints at some of the problems that might arise in terms of numbers, but I’m just going to stick with definitions a short while longer. The always-excellent Feminist Whore has noticed something that seems familiar about the US Federal Code. There’s “Severe Sex Trafficking”, whereby “a commercial sex act is induced by force, fraud, or coercion, or in which the person induced to perform such act has not attained 18 years of age”, and then there’s just (plain old) “Sex Trafficking”, in which sex workers have the temerity to move around – possibly with friends! – and as a result, the world ends. The key definition: “Sex Trafficking: The recruitment, harboring, transportation, provision, or obtaining of a person for the purpose of a commercial sex act.” Just something to consider when people campaign against sex trafficking – do they know the difference? Or are they perfectly happy to campaign against freedom of movement and association for sex workers? (And mis-direct funds and sympathy away from genuine victims, and onto the important cause of stopping sex workers from visiting friends in other cities. The great horror of our age.)

Over at Feminist Ire, they’ve done some close reading of data from the Netherlands. The whole post is absolutely fascinating (in a lies, damed lies, and statistics sort of way), but I’ll summarise: the oft-cited up-tick in trafficking cases in the Netherlands since the legalisation of (some forms of) sex work in 2000 is overwhelming due to the widening of the definition of ‘trafficking’ in 2005. In what way was the definition widened? Oh yes: “in 2005 the Dutch law on trafficking was amended, to cover non-sexual labour and the trade in organs as well (previously it had only applied to sex trafficking). So, a certain amount of that increase has nothing to do with the sex industry”. If you click through on the link (do, do! In fact, stop reading this blog and just read Feminist Ire instead) you’ll see that Wendy, the author of the post, has re-plotted the up-ticky graph to show what proportion of detected trafficking cases pertain to the sex industry – the result is strikingly less striking.  (One of the most interesting aspects of the whole post, I think, is what it tells us about confirmation bias. The first, un-re-plotted graph does indeed appear to show a steep upwards line on the X axis, and that has evidently been enough for prohibitionist campaigners to gleefully leap aboard – disregarding the fact that, as Wendy says, practically no sex worker rights activist supports the Dutch model (I’ve never met a supporter) – whereas, if the prohibitionists had even paused a tiny bit before adding this graph to their arsenal of “shut up, sex workers”, they might have noticed what Wendy did – that [detected] trafficking cases went down in the first few years after legalisation, and up sharply only in 2005. Noticing that might have lead them to wonder if something a bit more complex was going on … at which point, they’d presumably cease being prohibitionists, because complexity is rather an anathema to the “all sex work is rape” crowd. Anyway.)

In short, definitions are important. Sloppy definitions are a function of power: you situate the debate in a realm where everything is fuzzy and unclear and hard to pin down, and then no one can question whether your actions – and their effects – are as good as your nice words. Duh.

Hopefully all this chat about definitions means a bunch of what I’m going to say about numbers will be dead straightforward. As things stand, there is functionally no distinction – in the media, in mainstream feminist lobby groups, in parliaments, and in legal terms – between trafficking that fulfils what you’d think would be the key definitional categories (movement/coercion/exploitation) – and trafficking that just refers to sex workers moving around. In a UK context, that means we get statements like, “every single foreign woman in the ‘walk-up’ flats in Soho had been smuggled into the country and forced to work as a prostitute”. That’s from the Poppy Project’s 2004 report, ‘Sex in the City’ (though the link to is the ECP’s briefing).

The report found that 80% of women working in “brothels, saunas, and massage parlours” in London were “non-British nationals” and thus made the assumption that “a large proportion of them were likely to have been trafficked into the country” (also from the ECP briefing linked above). Well, yes! Given that our definition of trafficking covers sex workers who move around, then they kind of would have been “trafficked”, wouldn’t they? Except, with a definition that broad, that tells us precisely nothing about some quite important things – consent, coercion, exploitation – even their immigration status. (Incidentally, that piece of research has been described as having “serious methodological limitations”. I would be interested to know if ‘the jaw-droppingly cynical use of language’ is included in those serious methodological limitations. The authors at the Poppy Project must be aware that the legal definition of trafficking is rather different from the mental image conjured-up.)

The implications for assuming that all non-British people who work in the sex industry have been trafficked-in-the-bad-sense are similar to the implications of figuring all British sex workers as brainwashed rape victims (or “prostituted women”, which prohibitionists seem to think slightly obscures how offensive their assumption is) – except, with more racism. And more shit effects, because additionally to the vulnerabilities associated with being a sex worker, migrant sex workers have the vulnerabilities associated with being a migrant – whether that’s uncertain immigration status, fear of deportation, fear of the police, or limited access to services. I’m going to have a look at this stuff in more detail later (in a different post, coz this is monster long), because its dead important, but because we’re still on ‘numbers’ (remember?), I’m going to quickly move on to numbers in the global context.

The BBC documentary that Jezebel thought they’d use to fulfil their quota of ‘serious/sadface’ reporting for the day comes with some nice shiny facts. Yay, facts! Oh, wait. We’re given the figure of 800,000 people trafficked across borders every year, of which 79% are women and girls. Let’s here some more about those numbers from the gripping and hilarious blogger over at Paper Bird (as with Feminist Ire, I can really only advise that you immediately go over there and read the whole three posts on sex and human rights. This human’s a proper expert. And like, funny and stuff. I love them).

Ms/Mr P. Bird states, “The US government’s figures for trafficking victims globally (including trafficking within national borders) oscillated wildly, between “2 to 4 million” in 2006 and more than 12 million four years later”. On the subject of that 800,000 figure, Ms/Mr P. Bird cites some (ahem) embarrassing problems noted by the US government’s own internal watchdog (hardly a nest of sex worker rights anarchists … one presumes), saying “such estimates of global human trafficking are questionable. The accuracy of the estimates is in doubt because of methodological weaknesses, gaps in data, and numerical discrepancies. For example, the U.S. government’s estimate was developed by one person who did not document all his work, so the estimate may not be replicable, casting doubt on its reliability. Moreover, country data are not available, reliable, or comparable. There is also a considerable discrepancy between the numbers of observed and estimated victims of human trafficking”. [Emphasis mine, for head-desking purposes.] So we basically have no idea how many people are being trafficked (or at least, we may have some idea, but this figure bears no particular relation to any kind of methodologically sound idea. As I said, I am a riot at parties) … but 79% of those unknown numbers are women and girls, for sure! Right? Right?

Paper Bird then goes on to unpick that last clause, “there is also a considerable discrepancy between the numbers of observed and estimated victims of human trafficking”. Zie tells us, “Get out your calculator. That means only four-tenths of one percent of the people supposedly trafficked, from that heady 12m number, were actually identified as such.  By State’s alarmist reckoning, this shows a failure of services. But what if it’s a failure of the math? What kind of insane statistician observes x number of victims, then “estimates” the total by multiplying this by 250? Surely many trafficked people are invisible to law enforcement.  But 99.6% of them?” As with Feminist Ire, I think this says interesting things about confirmation bias. Even in a very local context, I’ve noticed a tendency for Glasgow women’s organisations to note the very small number of “trafficking victims” found, and interpret this to mean that the industry is even more underground than they had previously thought. Sure, its an underground industry. But the younger generation of feminist activists that I’ve encountered have a tendency to question statements like “just because you can’t remember it, doesn’t mean it didn’t happen” with regards to child sex abuse – there comes a point where finding no victims (or remembering no sexual assault) might indicate a lack of those things, rather than very successful repression.

I think I’ve talked enough about numbers and definitions. You get the idea. As I said, in another post I’m going to look at the implications of these sloppy definitions and bad numbers in terms of impact upon the effected groups (migrant sex workers, migrants, and sex workers). I’ll also have a look at who benefits from this poor standard of public debate and education, and try to actually lay that out in some detail rather than just shouting “SHUT UP, TERRIBLE MAINSTREAM FEMINISTS” and weeping.

The second part is here. The third part is here.

2 thoughts on “What we talk about when we talk about trafficking; or, technically, I’ve been trafficked, you know. Part one.

  1. Thanks for the plug, GSW. Another point I had made about the Dutch definition which I think is important to highlight is that it doesn’t even have the “movement” requirement: exploitation alone is enough to qualify someone as a trafficker. It’s sort of a reverse image of the British law (movement without exploitation versus exploitation without movement). I suspect this is why Dutch nationals are the single biggest group of reported victims in the Netherlands: your ordinary pimp is a trafficker even if all his women are locals. And of course, this also skews the Dutch number higher, because most jurisdictions wouldn’t use trafficking law for those situations, even though they undoubtedly exist everywhere.

    The brothel raids in Ireland this week threw up some interesting findings, which I’ll be discussing in another FI post over the weekend.

    PS: I think I missed my calling too 🙂

  2. Pingback: The Media — Sensuous Amanda

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