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.

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