Setting the Record straight on trafficking

Here's a video in which a group of women talk eloquently about the problem they have with feminist anti-sex-work campaigns, and why they refuse to accept the victim status often accorded automatically to anyone (but especially women) working in the sex industry. It's rather good. (h/t Obo, who found it here; I'm told it's been doing the rounds for some time).

Towards the end, one of the featured women addresses feminist campaigners with these words:

"If the idea of sex for money seems morally repugnant to you, then you may need to come to terms with the fact that this is just your own personal bias, and in no way constitutes grounds for prohibiting consensual acts."

This perennially controversial topic is in the news again thanks to the recent release of a major new ACPO report (pdf) into the extent and nature of sex trafficking and sex-slavery in Britain. The report estimated (based on extrapolations from interviews with fewer than 250 sex workers) that there might be 2,600 "trafficked" women in Britain, a figure criticised by some campaigners for being too low and by others for including as victims of trafficking people who were fully aware that they were going to work in prostitution. In addition, the report creates a new category of those considered "vulnerable" to trafficking - migrant sex workers who, while not meeting all the criteria for being trafficked could nevertheless be accounted potential victims. This category was estimated to comprehend more than 9,000 sex workers (out of an estimated total of 17,000 migrants) , which enabled newspapers to speak of 12,000 trafficking victims, a much more satisfyingly alarmist figure.

The furtive, quasi-illegal nature of prostitution (which the report's authors consider to be exploitative by definition), the lack of a social safety-net and the dubious immigration status of many of these women are all treated as factors supporting a categorisation of "vulnerable". For most of the women concerned, there was no evidence that they were sex-slaves, abused by pimps or tricked into working unwillingly as prostitutes. Merely hailing from a country outside the EU was usually sufficient to attract the label. A much fuller assessment of the report can be read here. It is on a pro-sex work blog, it should be said, but the analysis is extremely thorough and the piece strikes me as well-balanced.

The ACPO report ("Setting the Record") certainly has its problems. It estimates, for example, that on off-street (that is, brothel-based) prostitutes in London, more than 96% are non-British. The representative sample happened to consist almost exclusively of foreign women, and I'm not personally aware of the national mix to be found in London brothels, but that figure is so out of step with the rest of the country, and with common sense, that it's worring that the report's authors were willing to accept it with very little question. Other unexpected findings were more convincingly established. The most significant was the preponderance of Chinese and other Far-Eastern (but especially Chinese) women among likely victims of sex-trafficking. The stereotype of Albanian or former Soviet sex-trafficking gangs, on the other hand, seems to have little empirical support. The problem may exist, but it is of relatively small scale - most East European sex workers are not trafficked into Britain, something that it is as well to remember in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics with its inevitable sex-trafficking scare stories.

Ultimately, a report like this has two quite separate audiences and impacts: the professionals for whom it is written, and the wider public debate. Professionals will (one hopes) read it carefully, note the caveats, and use it along with other evidence (such as the results of the Pentameter swoops, which led to surprisingly few trafficking victims being identified) to inform their actions. The public and media debate, by contrast, will take little note of the methodological bases and detailed conclusions of Setting the Record, focussing instead on the easily absorbable (if highly problematic) figure of 12,000 "trafficked" and "vulnerable" women. Despite its objective intentions, then, the report will doubtless fuel the alarmism that has always surrounded the subject. As an example, pre-publicity for a new Channel 4 documentary on the subject asserts that 4,000 women per year are being trafficked into Britain, a figure that would seem to be based on no research (though prior to ACPO's report, the figure of 4,000 trafficking victims in total has frequently been banded about).

In this heated atmosphere, it's worth noting that the report's authors are well aware of the nuances - how, for example, the same set of facts might be interpreted differently by an outside observer and by someone actually involved in the sex industry, or by two different observers, or even by the same person at different times. They write:

All individuals and organisations involved in the prostitution sector view it from their own perspective: women involved in prostitution, customers, law enforcement officials, charity and NGO staff, women previously involved in prostitution, legislators, judges, jurors and academics all have their own particular set of experiences, biases, expectations, cultural influences and worldviews. Everyone experiences the world through their own unique cultural filter, and because the sale of sex itself is an emotive and politicised subject, when discussing human trafficking it is critical to recognise the effects of these cultural filters. Legitimate arguments on how best to minimise harm from prostitution range from toleration to legalisation to unconditional abolition. It could legitimately be argued that anyone who sells sex is by definition unacceptably exploited; conversely it could also be argued that in certain circumstances prostitution is an entirely legitimate form of employment. There exist a variety of opinions on all sides of the debate, and there seems little chance of achieving a widespread consensus.

I'm not sure that it can be legitimately argued that sex-workers are by definition exploited, though of course it often is. The final point is sadly true, however - yet also unnecessary. To the extent that it exists (which is a matter of debate and considerable uncertainty, even after the report) sex trafficking - the coercive recruitment, movement and "employment" of unwilling sex-workers - is a real evil. That should go without saying. It does not have to be large-scale, or constitute a significant proportion of prostitution, to be worth prosecuting with the full might of the law. A single woman, or man, rescued from sexual slavery should be a cause of celebration. It seems, however, to be at the heart of many campaigners' assumptions that such abuses are inherent within prostitution and other parts of the sex industry as such.

It is this ideological bias, not the necessity of suppressing the sexual abuse of adults and children, that leads many self-declared feminists to inflate and exaggerate the number of victims - a strategy that might secure dramatic headlines, but which undermines the autonomy and denies the experiences (good, bad and most often indifferent) of many real women (and men), alienates the respectful and non-exploitative sex-worker clients (who are thus discouraged from reporting suspected trafficking victims to the police) and ultimately undermines the credibility of their whole cause. They should watch the video.


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