Prostituting women’s solidarity

The UK government’s call to British women to help combat ‘sex trafficking’ amounts to a crackdown on immigration.

Women around Britain have been asked to unite to liberate their prostitute sisters from the shackles of modern-day slavery.

Last week, UK home secretary Jacqui Smith unveiled a proposal to protect women from exploitation by tackling the demand for prostitution – in other words, by punishing punters. Anyone who pays for sex with someone who is ‘controlled for another person’s gain’ could be fined and receive a criminal record. Under the proposal, ignorance of the circumstances would be no defence (1).

On Tuesday, Harriet Harman, the minister for women, followed up on Smith’s proposal by sending out a rallying call to members of the Women’s Institute (WI), the UK’s largest voluntary women’s organisation. She asked the ladies to help tackle the sex trade by complaining to editors of local papers that run ‘sleazy adverts’ for sexual services.

Harman believes this will help stamp out sex trafficking, which she has described as a ‘modern-day slave trade’. One WI member told the BBC that the ‘sleazy ads’ may be for services that the girls involved are not giving willingly. They may have been tricked and forced into prostitution, she said. Spokeswoman Ira Arundell said the WI’s aim is ‘to raise awareness and spread the message about what is happening with these girls’ (2). Just how complaining to editors about newspaper ads will counteract exploitation of women or reveal what happens behind the doors of massage parlours, brothels and erotic DVD shops is not entirely clear.

The images broadcast this week of middle-aged and elderly British WI members, gathered around tables to scour local papers – scissors and marker pens at hand – and tut-tutting at ads for erotic services, were reminiscent of those old gatherings of women knitting sweaters and collecting toys for starving, black babies. In effect, Harman and the WI view the foreigners who they are so intent on rescuing as childlike, helpless victims; as easily cajoled and loose women in need of the watchful guard of respectable, morally superior British ladies.

This war against international prostitution may be well-intentioned, but it looks like a puritanical ‘white woman’s burden’ mission. Far from engaging in an act of solidarity, the WI members who heed Harman’s call will only help to reinforce the image of migrants as a danger to themselves and to British society.

The numerous charities, non-governmental organisations, official bodies and police that work to root out human trafficking form what some have termed a ‘rescue industry’, whose collective efforts reinforce a dehumanising view of migrants. As writer Laura María Agustín points out it in Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, migrants become reduced to ‘passive receptacles and mute sufferers who must be saved and helpers become saviours’. This, Agustín says, is ‘a colonialist operation’ (3).

Besides, who says migrant workers employed in the sex industry (which includes everything from charging for sex to pole-dancing, providing attentive dinner company and selling erotic lingerie, literature or DVDs) want to be ‘rescued’ in the first place? The debates and policies around trafficking and people smuggling rarely acknowledge that migrants can exercise free choice, that the decision to leave one’s home country in order to seek a better life expresses a desire to control one’s destiny. Instead, more often than not, migration is seen as a tragic solution which brings misery, exploitation and chaos into people’s lives.

Migrants who sell sex are viewed as particularly oppressed and desperate, and it is unthinkable to many that they should not feel victimised. But sex workers are not necessarily enslaved – many will have chosen to enter the sex industry over other options available to them. Of course, it is wrong to force women into sex and it would be silly to romanticise prostitution as an empowering profession. There are undoubtedly cases in Britain and elsewhere of women being forced into the sex industry and ending up abused and exploited. Yet others refuse to be labelled as victims in need of ‘rescuing’, which is effectively a trendy new word for repatriation.

A poster recently produced at a workshop at the Empower Foundation, a collective of sex workers, in Chiang Mai, Thailand, is instructive. It lists reasons why the women there do not want to be rescued by police or charity workers, including that it leads to them to getting locked up, interrogated and deported without any compensation for them or their dependants. The final reason listed on the poster is ‘we must find a way back to Thailand to start again’ (4).

This is a far-away example, from a very different context than Britain, yet it shows that where women and others are determined to take any means necessary to improve their own and their families’ lives, migration control and rescue missions can never be strong enough deterrents. In fact, the actions of rescue workers seem to pose a bigger threat to these sex workers than anything they face on the job.

The women associated with Empower turn the usual image of foreign sex workers as exploited, vulnerable and fooled victims on its head. This is how they describe themselves: ‘We are sex workers. We are workers who use our brains and our skills to earn an income. We are proud to support ourselves and our extended families. We look after each other at work; we fight for fair and safe standards in our industry and equal rights within society. We are a major part of the Thai economy, bringing in lots of tourist dollars. We are active citizens on every issue… politics, economics, environment, laws, rights etc. We try and find the space in society to stand up and be heard. Some see us as problem makers but actually we are part of the solution…’ (5)

Perhaps British WI members relishing the opportunity to rescue fallen, foreign women should visit the Empower Foundation’s website.

Smith’s proposal has been described as a ‘backdoor ban on prostitution’ (6). It is a symbolic, not a realistic proposal – a way for the government to send a moral message about prostitution and an attempt to score easy political points. After all, who is for exploitation, kidnapping and forced labour? But does Smith expect a woman who really is exploited to open up to a punter she’s never met before? Does she expect the punter and the prostitute to engage in an existential conversation about the nature of exploitation, coercion and free will before they have sex?

Smith’s and Harman’s proposals have been greeted with much scorn and criticism. It has been argued that they will only help exacerbate the exploitative conditions that the government is trying to stamp out. If they can’t advertise openly, establishments that offer sexual services will only be driven underground and the women working there will be even more vulnerable to exploitation. This will not stamp out trafficking, critics have said, but it will turn it into an even more covert, uncontrollable activity.

But what really needs to be questioned here is the validity of the term ‘trafficking’, which is notoriously difficult to define, measure or tackle. Even those who campaign against trafficking often refer to it as a ‘hidden’ activity and they acknowledge the difficulty of gathering accurate statistics on undocumented migrants or those who work in ‘the shadow economy’.

While forced kidnapping should be clamped down on, trafficking typically refers to the recruitment, transportation, harbouring or receipt of people for the purposes of ‘labour exploitation’. What counts as exploitation, however, will differ depending on who you ask. Migrants are for example often willing to take menial jobs for relatively low wages as this is still preferable to the poor opportunities in their home countries.

Many migrants pay strangers large sums of money to be transported across the world and they will not always have been certain, at every step of the way, where they would end up and how they would fare. What is rarely acknowledged is that ‘trafficked’ individuals in fact take a conscious decision to migrate and, because of the lack of legal options, they are willing to pay strangers to take them to their desired destination and then to do crappy jobs once they get there. If they enjoyed freedom of movement, foreigners could simply buy a plane ticket - a cheaper, safer and more practical option.

Those who have been defined as ‘trafficked’ or ‘enslaved’ have worked in everything from agriculture and housekeeping to elderly care and, indeed, in the sex industry. Britain does not grant work permits for unskilled non-EU migrant workers and so they are led to take illegal routes here and then to take up illegal employment. In effect, stamping out trafficking amounts to stamping out the movement of people.

Harman and the WI’s mission may look like a benevolent rescue operation for ‘enslaved foreign women’, but ultimately it amounts to a clampdown on immigration itself, which will only make it more difficult for women to improve their lot.

So much for women’s solidarity.

Nathalie Rothschild is comissioning editor of spiked.

(1) Prostitute users face clampdown, BBC News, 19 November 2008

(2) WI asked to help tackle sex trade, BBC News 25 November 2008

(3) Sex at the Margins: Migration, Labour Markets and the Rescue Industry, Laura Maria Agustin, Zed Books, 2007

(4) You can view the poster on Laura Maria Agustin’s blog, Border Thinking on Migration and Trafficking: Culture, Economy and Sex.

(5) See the Empower Foundation’s website.

(6) Slithery Jacqui Smith wants a backdoor ban on prostitution, The Times (London), 23 November 2008

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